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My Bondage and My Freedom Paperback – January 1, 2011
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And just as we don’t know the high points of our history, many do not know the low points. How many today know about the life of Frederick Douglass, a man whom today we might today call the “conscience of the nation” at perhaps its most turbulent time? How many know that this leader was born in slavery, escaped to build a new life and become a spokesman for freedom, for justice, a man who met with President Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War?
Just as George Washington was the “indispensable man,” this narrative is an indispensable autobiography, a life-story, which exposes the evil of slavery and what it did not just to those who suffered under the lash, but also to those who wielded the lash. Every American should read this book. Every American should study the life of Frederick Douglass, and learn how he came to love a country, which, in his early days, deprived him of so much, not just the freedom that our founding charters promise, but also the very human bonds which should nourish and sustain all human beings.
As a boy he barely saw his own mother:
<<Her visits to me … were few in number, brief in duration, and mostly made in the night. The pain she took, and the toil she endured, to see me, tells me that a true mother’s heart was hers, and that slavery had difficulty in paralyzing it with unmotherly indifference.>>
Neither had control over his own life. Their owner put him to work in one place, hiring his mother out to a neighbor who lived twelve miles from him. To see her son, “she always had to walk one way or the other.” Twelve miles just to hold her little boy—and then after she had worked all for someone else without receiving compensation for her labors.
And if she showed up late to work the next day, she could not make the excuse that she went to see her child. The slave system did not acknowledge these most human of bonds, even for a boy still in single digits. “The heartless and ghastly form of slavery rises between mother and child, even at the bed of death.” She died before he was ten. He did not attend her funeral—or even know where she was buried.
Slavery destroyed family relations:
<<There is not, beneath the sky, an enemy to filial affection so destructive as slavery. It had made my brothers and sisters strangers to me; it converted the mother that bore me, into a myth; it shrouded my father in mystery, and left me without an intelligible beginning in the world.>>
And as a young boy, Douglass witnessed the volatility of slaveholders, shooting a man who stood in stream for refusing an order or whipping a woman for the “crime” of
<<impudence… the commonest and most indefinite in the whole catalogue of offenses usually laid to the charge of slaves…. This may mean almost anything , or nothing at all, just according to the caprice of the master or overseer, at the moment.>>
And it wasn’t just the maternal bond that was severed. His “old master took it upon him to break up the growing intimacy between Esther and Edward,” two young slaves. The master told her to avoid the company of this man whose company she most sought. But, a “woman’s love is not to be annihilated by the peremptory command of any one.” Esther would meet with Edward, and when her meetings were discovered, her owner would flog her.
Think about that for a moment, “her owner;” one man owned another human being. The law allowed him to prevent her from seeing the man she loved. She was merely a piece of property to him and marriage which might imposed an obligation, imposed none on her: it had “no existence” for the slave, except in such hearts as are purer and higher than the standard morality around them.”
But, Douglass was able to find a life better than that endured by most of his fellows. He was sent to Baltimore where his new mistress, Sophia Auld treated him, like any other boy, even teaching him to read. But, her husband found out and forbade her from continuing. “If you learn him now to read,” Hugh Auld told his wife, “he’ll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished he’ll be running away with himself.”
This “discourse,” Douglass writes, “was the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture to which it has been my lot to listen.” In many states in our country in the Nineteenth Century, “the white man’s power to perpetuate the enslavement of the black man” depended on keeping the black man—and woman—in ignorance.
Auld’s lecture helped Douglass understand the very nature of slavery, and it made him see what it did to the slave owner. It could “change a saint into a sinner, and an angel into a demon.” Give one man such power over another and there is almost no limit what he will do.
And he suffered—and observed—much cruelty. He was beaten, forced to work when he could barely stand on his feet, deprived of food, comfortable clothing, saw children separated from their parents, wives from their husbands, witnessed his grandmother when, no longer useful to her owners, exiled to a cottage in the woods.
Through it all, he kept the hope that he would one day be free. He finally managed his escape, and with the help of the Underground Railroad, moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he found work and built a family until abolitionists heard him speak—and made him one of their spokesmen.
He traveled to Europe, speaking out against slavery, and returned to his native land to continue his lectures and speak out for abolition. And through it all, he developed a philosophy of slavery and of freedom—and of what it means to be human.
And that is why I highly recommend that you read this book. When you hear this man’s story, you better understand the system of slavery which oppressed millions Americans of African origin for well over two hundred years of our history. This narrative of a life (fortunately for Douglass only a portion of his life) allows us to see the truly inhuman nature of this institution. These are experiences, not statistics.
We fell compassion because he is a man like we are. We wonder how anyone could have treated their fellows as his owners treated him—and the other human beings who were no more than property to them. And then we think how many other Frederick Douglasses there were, how many Esthers, how many Edwards, how many mothers forced to walk twelve miles just to see their little boys.
They lacked the ability to tell their story. But, Douglass told us his. We should read it, not just to know what he suffered, but to know what other men and women suffered as well. And because of the role slavery played in our history, this book becomes indispensable to understanding the worst evil that history.
And it gives us hope that since we overcame that evil, we can overcome others.
This is a very important story and you'll be surprised how relevant his words still are.