Friday, October 12, 2018
from the latest New Yorker, excerpted from an essay on Frederick Douglass by Adam Gopnik.
The story, simply told, is that Douglass was largely spared the worst of slavery by inhabiting its more familial edges, at a time when who owned you and where you were owned shaped the course of your life as someone else’s property. After he had been passed from his brutal first master to the man’s kinder son-in-law, Thomas Auld, the transforming event of Douglass’s life was his arrival in Baltimore, at the age of eight, to live with members of Auld’s family. City slaves were better treated than country slaves. “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on a plantation,” Douglass wrote. “He is a desperate slaveholder who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave.” As a child, he had, unusually, been treated more or less as an equal playmate of his first master’s son, and soon Sophia Auld, the wife of Thomas’s brother, began to teach him to read and write.
Absolute power, even when well meant, always becomes arbitrary. Sophia first took immense pleasure at Frederick’s celerity as a pupil, and then, under the pressure of her husband’s disapproval (“If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him”), turned violently against the boy’s education. Frederick persisted, trading bits of bread with street urchins for secret reading lessons. Here, as elsewhere in his life, he defeated the expected racism of his fellows by the sheer magnetism of his manner.
He was also able to take advantage of the oppressor’s hypocrisy: slavery being a Christian institution, it was important to expose the slaves to the Gospels. This meant that the innocent business of studying the Bible could be turned to the subversive aim of acquiring literacy. Having learned to read by literally buying words, Douglass had an intense sense of the power of language, of the double meanings of individual words; irony was ingrained in him. He heard the word “abolition,” for instance, as a mysterious, forbidden incantation; he didn’t know precisely what “abolition” meant, but he could tell from the murmur around it that it mattered enormously.