Friday, October 27, 2006

Frederick Douglass

I followed a link from some other story, and it brought me to a complete standstill. I hope you don't mind, but I was so moved I really wanted to share it here. It's from Frederick Douglass' book "My Bondage, My Freedom", the story of his journey from slave to freeman in 1800's America. In this part, he is on his way to the local "slave breaker", a man renowned for his ability to take even the most willful slaves and turn them into docile, broken workers. All emphasis is mine.

"I am," thought I, "but the sport of a power which makes no account, either of my welfare or of my happiness. By a law which I can clearly comprehend, but cannot evade nor resist, I am ruthlessly snatched from the hearth of a fond grandmother, and hurried away to the home of a mysterious 'old master;' again I am removed from there, to a master in Baltimore; thence am I snatched away to the Eastern Shore, to be valued with the beasts of the field, and, with them, divided and set apart for a possessor; then I am sent back to Baltimore; and by the time I have formed new attachments, and have begun to hope that no more rude shocks shall touch me, a difference arises between brothers, and I am again broken up, and sent to St. Michael's; and now, from the latter place, I am footing my way to the home of a new master, where, I am given to understand, that, like a wild young working animal, I am to be broken to the yoke of a bitter and life-long bondage."

What must it be like, to have the lyrical and soaring soul of a poet like Douglass, and to know that your entire existence is nothing in the eyes of the law, that other men regard you literally as property, worthy of as little regard as a table or an oxen?

I hate that our country bore the stain of slavery for so much longer than the rest of the Western world. I hate that we had to fight a war to convince one bunch of men that they could not own another batch of men. But I am proud that the concept of liberty is enshrined in our Constitution, and that our history -- however slowly it may have crept at times -- has been one of relentless expansion of liberty to more and more people. The idea of women or non-Whites being allowed to vote, that they were covered under the rubric of "all men are created equal", may have been anathema to many of the Founding Fathers, but once the seeds of freedom are planted they grow wild, eventually strangling the narrow prejudices and greedy hands that try to hack them down.


Anonymous said...

When I think of the millions of voices that were silenced and will never be heard, it is agonizing. We will never know how many Leonardo da Vinci's, Langston Hughes', Sylvia Plaths and other great thinkers were silenced before they ever got a chance to step to the plate. I am very disappointed by some of our young people today who have no clue to the names of the people who made it possible for them to have what they have. I asked a group of 20-somethings in my multicultural class to name three -- JUST THREE -- female leaders of the last 50 years. They thought. Silence. Then one popped up -- "Betsy Ross." I rattled off a list of feminist leaders and just plain women leaders, and they had barely heard of them. I blame my generation for having it easy and not making sure these leaders' names are never forgotten so that people of color and women are no longer sent to the back of the line again. But unless we educate this younger generation, we are doomed to make the same mistakes twice.

At the rate of being too long, I'll note a quick story here. There was a man, Walter Burton, who was born a slave in Tennessee, sold to a plantation owner here in Fort Bend County and was taught to read by his owner. When the Civil War ended, Burton paid his own way through college and became quite wealthy here in the county because of his innate intelligence and ability to get along with both whites and blacks. He is the only African-American sheriff ever to serve in Fort Bend County, he was elected to the Texas Senate and introduced the bill to establish Prairieview A&M University. Burton and his son are the only people of color buried in a historic cemetery here, where Jane Long and Mirabeau Lamar are buried. I sent in a synopsis of this wonderful man's life to Texas Highways as part of their "Around the State" section -- one where I've seen all kinds of white people featured. They turned it down. The reason -- "Too controversial." Who says prejudice is over, and this from a state-wide magazine. -- Denise

Anonymous said...

Oh -- I forgot. His owner died during the war. Walter Burton sent his former slave owner's widow money every single month until she died. Too controversial? From what side of the prejudicial fence are we leaning on, Texas Highways? -- Denise

Jeff Hebert said...

Great story Denise, thank you for sharing it. I hope you do get it published somewhere, it's something the state should know about.