Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Constant Struggle

As I’ve been researching the life of Frederick Douglass, I have become more and more aware of who he was; his emotions, actions, and inner struggles.  Particularly I have come to the realization that all of his life, Douglass grappled with the white man in efforts to free himself from their grasp.  From his days of enslavement, overcoming the debilitating abuse of Edward Covey, to breaking away from the constraints of William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass constantly found himself fighting this battle, one way or another.  Similarly, Barack Obama has been placed in such circumstances throughout his term as President.  During President Obama’s healthcare address to congress in 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson interrupted the President, shouting “You Lie!”  More recently, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer shook her finger in the presidents face during a disagreement.  Both of these instances remind us that even today, the feeling that whites are more powerful that African Americans still exist today.  

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54th Massachusetts Regiment

Lewis Douglass

In 1863, Douglass began work recruiting soldiers for the all black 54th Massachusetts Regiment.  He traveled throughout the North, searching for young men to join the cause.  Among his first recruits were both of his sons, Charles and Lewis Douglass.  In “Men of Color, to Arms!  A Call by Frederick Douglass,” Douglass voices how strongly he felt of the importance of African American participation in the civil war.  He writes how “Liberty won by white men would lack half its lustre.  Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.”  However, finding men willing to fight for the cause became increasingly difficult.  Douglass became weary, knowing that these men would be subject to lower pay and less provisions than the white soldiers.  In August of the same year, he resigned from the job.

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Context

During the late 1820’s, Blackface Minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment.  White performers, always male, would paint their faces black with burnt cork to imitate African Americans by using overt stereotypes.  The performances would include certain Blackface characters, such as Ol’ Zip Coon, Jim Crow, Wench, and Octaroon.  Included in the performances were tunes played by an ensemble of banjo, bones, fiddle, and tambourine.  Every character somehow exploited the white’s perception of African American inferiority.  Ol Zip Coon, for example, was a a Northern Dandy, aspiring to be part of a high class society.  This was seen to be incredibly humorous to audiences, in that the thought of an African American wishing to be successful was completely unachievable.  Around the 1830’s, Frederick Douglass would have been about 12, 13 years old and working as a slave for Thomas Auld.  A few years later he would be sent to work for Edward Covey, the slave breaker.  To imagine how society viewed African Americans, like Douglass, in this way; weak, controllable, uneducated, low class, unskilled, worthless.  And to know how Douglass defied all societal norms, breaking away from the fate that awaited him as a slave, and becoming an influential abolitionist, writer, and activist, is amazing.  Ol Zip Coon indeed.

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My Bondage and My Freedom-

   

"My Bondage and My Freedom" title page

This is an image I came across in an article that appeared in Callaloo, a journal dedicated to creative works by African American writers.  In this article, John Sekora brings to light how Frederick Douglas, over the course of 10 years, was able to liberate himself from the limitations of his writing, as well as the expectations and assumptions made by white abolitionists.  Sekora points out how even in something as simple as the title page, it is evident how different Douglas is at this point (1855) as a writer and as a man of great stature.  Douglas’s first autobiographical work was simply titled, Narrative, and was given an introduction by William Lloyd Garrison, who basically painted Douglas as a product of his own charity and guidance.  As this image shows, the introduction of My Bondage and My Freedom was written by James M’Cune Smith, an African American activist.  Smith champions Douglas’s writing, and celebrates his success as a man that has “passed through every stage of AMerican civilization in a single lifetime.”

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The Liberator

 

Page 1 of the Liberator Newspaper

The Liberator was created by William Lloyd Garrison and was devoted to the anti-slavery movement.  Frederick Douglas was published in this newspaper, and interestingly enough, it was through this newspaper that Garrison and Douglas’s friendship began to collapse.  Garrison and Douglas were at odds concerning the U.S. Constitution.  Garrison held the belief that it was a pro-slavery document, while Douglas believed it could be used against slavery.  Garrison wrote about his frustration with Douglas in the Liberator, and the friendship was never reconciled.

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Letter to William Lloyd Garrison

http://www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1091.htm

 

I find the relationship between Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison to be a very interesting one.  On one hand, they shared much in common in terms of values and interests, but on the other, they still remained distant in some ways, their relationship marred by the shroud of racism and slavery that enveloped the country during the time period.  This letter from Douglas sheds some light on the intimacy and closeness of their relationship.

 

 

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