Monday, December 14, 2009

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

On occasion, I'll go back and re-read a book that was assigned in high school. I've re-read Walden several times, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, etc. This has been greatly rewarding seeing that as I gain new experiences and perspectives, I can learn new lessons from these books.

Last year, I took my Chelsea and Lauren to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio ( Chelsea was baffled as to why someone could be so cruel as to hold someone as a slave. It was confusing for her. Lauren on the other had was bored and wished it had more kid things to do (she was only 5). On the way out we stopped by the gift shop to get something to remember our visit. On a shelf, I saw a copy of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. I was tempted to buy it, but got a refrigerator magnet instead.

A couple of months ago, while hanging out at the local Barnes & Noble, I saw the book again. I remember reading it in high school, but I didn't remember much else besides the fact that Frederick Douglass knew Abraham Lincoln. This time I bought it. It took me two days to read the book (the narrative itself is less than one hundred pages). I am so glad I read this book. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is easily one of the greatest pieces of historical American literature!

Here is a very quick synopsis: Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818. In 1826 he is sent to live with a family in Baltimore, Maryland. There, his master's wife begins to teach him to read. This new ability fills him with the insatiable desire to break free of the devilish hands that bind him. This he eventually successfully does and goes on to become one of the greatest abolitionist orators and advocates of the 19th century. This is all I will let on, because everyone needs to read this book. I look forward to the day that my daughters read this book and we can discuss it.

At this point though, I wanted to mention some of the things I learned. First, piety does not translate into compassion. A minority of people contend that this book is anti-Christianity, because Douglass observed that the cruelest of his masters were those that feigned deep religious piety. Mr. Douglass was not anti-Christianity. In fact he had a far greater understanding of the teaching and application of the Gospel of Jesus Christ than any of his masters. It baffled him that these individuals would want to convert the "brute" to Christianity yet forbid the slaves to read the Bible that they were preaching from. Here is a quote from Mr. Douglass on this:

"They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen. They love the heathen on the other side of the globe. They can pray for him, pay money to have the Bible put into his hand, and missionaries to instruct him; while despise and totally neglect the heathen at their own door."

The next thing I learned is how slow and insidious corruption is. The wife of one of his master's, Sophia Auld, is a good example of this. When she first received Frederick, she had never owned a slave and assumed him to be a human being as she was. She didn't think it any issue to teach Frederick to read. Unfortunately she was reprimanded by her husband when he found out and she quickly fell in line. Her kindness slowly turned to indifference and apathy which in turn turned to cruelty. This instance caused me to reflect upon my own prejudices. How have I slowly corrupted myself? Where do I turn a blind eye? Who do mistreat without giving it second thought? This book gave me much to evaluate in my own life.

The content of this book out measures the actual size of it. A person can only become better for having read it. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is one of the most important pieces of American literature ever written. Only a callous individual would think less.

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