I was inspired by Lecrae to, in the month of February read My Bondage and My Freedom by Fredrick Douglas and to write a four page reflection on what was read. I took the challenge and was blown away by what I read. I decided to share my reflections here.
I am a white, inner city boy age 29 who pastors in an inner city; multi-ethnic church in the city of Pittsburgh that seeks to make and has made diversity a key component of who we are. Social justice is in high regard within my heart to the point that I received a master’s degree in Intercultural leadership, so that I could learn to lead a diverse group towards unity and battle such atrocities. I say all of that to confess that even with all of this experience, and education, my heart has never been more stirred to the issues of slavery and the full gambit of racism in our country as it has been reading this book. Many of the accounts of Fredrick as a freeman did not overly surprise me, some I will admit did but it was the pure inhuman reality of the negro slave that opened my eyes to the totality of the brokenness that the slave system created. For this report I will hone in on these issues, those of slavery because that is where I felt most compelled to share my learning.
In reading his story, I was struck early on by this statement: “The practice of separating children from their mother, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute” (Location 35 on my kindle version). Here in this statement I was stunned by how little I actually knew about real slavery that happened in America. I was not ignorant to brutal beatings, nor was I foolish enough to believe it was a kind type of slavery where they fed their slaves and treated them fairly. However, to systematically cripple a race with this measure of calculation was something that sadly never even entered my mind. Fredrick was wise enough to see it and call it out for what it was. A deliberate act to make men animals; this is a theme Fredrick comes back to time and time again in this book and he masterfully explains each situation time after time, where black men were nothing but dogs to white slave owners, not just mere property as I originally thought, but on par with cattle, swine or a barn full of hens; dispensable, illegitimate and worthless, as a person outside of what they could gain for their owner. Later, Fredrick would say of his own experience, after being ripped from his grandmother as a pig now ready for cooking this statement: “I heard the words brother and sisters, and knew they must mean something; but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning” (Kindle Locations 465-466). He was so robbed as a slave of the idea of family that these words had no real meaning for him. As I read those words, my heart was broken, for I am a brother and have a brother and sisters. My family is a symbol of happiness in my life, but for him and other slaves in history this meant nothing and was purposefully made to mean nothing. Douglass would then state later that this as due to the masters desiring to strip humanity from them, so they felt that they, because they were black were somehow less human than the whites.
Douglas says of this again in the same page: “My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had many children, but NO FAMILY!”(Kindle Locations 469-470). Here we can see that it was the slave-women who suffered the most and many of those women were used as baby-makers who could then make a slave-owner wealthier due to the larger number of “property” she could create. Much later on in Douglas’s story he even shares an instance that he was privy to where the owner outright called one woman a breeder and purposefully locked her and another male slave in a room in order to cause reproduction. This was one of the most eye-opening realities for me- seeing the true depth of inhumane practices put in place by slavery and slaveholders and realizing that such horrid practices were upheld by the law of this country; both shocking and appalling.
Next was the sordid reality of master to slave rape, slaveholding men raping their slaves and no one blinking an eye at this horrific atrocity. Fredrick Douglas brings this to light: “Indeed, he may be, and often is, master and father to the same child. He can be father without being a husband, and may sell his child without incurring reproach, if the child be by a woman in whose veins courses one thirty-second part of African blood. My father was a white man, or nearly white. It was sometimes whispered that my master was my father” (Kindle Locations 497-499). I’ve seen many movies and read several books where this reality has been brought up, but for some reason, reading it from a first hand account makes this so much more of an actual occurrence for me then ever before. Knowing that a white slave owner could rape and impregnate his slave, then sell his own offspring is shocking to me. Even now, after having read it and trying to reconcile this I cannot even fathom this! The system must’ve so blinded the slave master that he could be so detached from the raw and real nature of what he was doing; selling his own child into further enslavement. Again, I’ve read widely and deeply on racism in our country but never have I been so affected by this reality as I was reading the words from a former slave himself. Seeing too that he didn’t know his parentage and that the whispers swirled around him about the possibility his master was also his father would be too much for me to bear if I were in his shoes. One of the only things that could make sense to me here was when Douglas stated: “A man who will enslave his own blood, may not be safely relied on for magnanimity. Men do not love those who remind them of their sins unless they have a mind to repent— and the mulatto child’s face is a standing accusation against him who is master and father to the child” (Kindle Locations 574-576). The slave-child’s face being such a reminder makes the most sense to me as it pertains to why one would sell his own blood. The system was so broken, I wonder if he would have been legally able to claim such a child as a legitimate child anyways, being that the black person was so disregarded as even human. As I read this book, it was clear to me that I had much to learn about slavery and the realities that befell black men and women at this time in our history, Fredrick Douglas finishes this line of thinking (that of slavery and its effect on salve families) in the book with a lament: “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” (Kindle Locations 589-591).
Next, as I continued to follow Douglas’s story in the chronological order in which he wrote it he comes to the point of religion and it’s place in the life of a slave. On this point he states: “The poor have the gospel preached to them, in this neighborhood, only when they are able to pay for it. The slaves, having no money, get no gospel. The politician keeps away, because the people have no votes, and the preacher keeps away, because the people have no money. The rich planter can afford to learn politics in the parlor, and to dispense with religion altogether”
(Kindle Locations 631-634). This reality in which Douglas here states was so foreign to my original line of thinking that I felt ashamed at my ignorance. I believed that here, at the point of religion the slaves were at least able to hear the gospel and be saved. They were at least given the dignity to make a choice for God or not. Yet Douglas states this was not always the case, money was what drove many preachers back in the day and I’m sure in the south clout with the wealthy was important. Getting got “going rogue” and preaching the gospel to what the slave holders considered their dogs may have lost the preacher much wealth and happiness. As a pastor myself this is a hard pill to swallow but I know it in my heart to be true. Many pastors are moved by the almighty dollar instead of the Almighty and if the system allowed them to do these things unchecked it is no wonder that the black man was shut out from hearing God’s good news. Here and now I pray that those men who neglected to preach the message to these men solely on the basis of their skin color were severely judged for their stupidity.
Douglas would go on in his story how he himself did hear and accept the Gospel of Christ. He shares his joy of reading and his pleasure in reading the Holy Scriptures of the Bible while in Baltimore. He would share how God brought a godly man into his life that mentored him in life and faith. Yet he would also admit this was rare, especially for the southern field hands in his day. God would use Fredrick to do amazing things. He would help lead the abolitionist movement, give key insight to those fighting slavery what was really going on, as he has exposed for us in the pages of this great and amazing book. When he discussed his 7 years in Baltimore, I was cheering, excited that he would see such liberation so soon, then I continued to read and see that it was not yet over for Fredrick, he had much more to endure and then to share with the world at large.
The next portion of Fredrick’s life that struck a chord with me and caused me to again question much of what I thought I knew about slavery was his journey and experience into the “Negro Breaker’s” way of life. The brutal beatings, the near starvation and the breaking of his own spirit were extremely hard to read but supremely informative. Apparently, Douglas’s current master (Master Thomas) at this place of the story didn’t feel he could properly break him, so he sent him to the famous Edward Covey to be broken. I know I must sound ignorant of much of what happened in the slavery days but that there would be such a man did in fact shock me. I was under the impression that the masters themselves could do the breaking but here I was brought into another system of the slave- being broken by another. The stories that came out of this time in Douglas’s life were as I mentioned difficult to read and harder still to fathom. I am glad that we have come to a place where this is difficult to imagine for the majority of people, but stories like this need to be heard so we can truly understand the damage done to the human race by this horrific way of life.
It is here, that what I mentioned about being no better than cattle or swine comes to light. After being forced to try and use unbroken oxen to haul a load on a cart and failing miserably and getting severely punished for his failure states: “I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I. Covey was to break me, I was to break them; break and be broken— such is life” (Kindle Locations 2199-2200). Seeing this brutal reality play out over the course of Fredrick’s stay at Covey’s was such a hard slap in the face to the full depth of how far slavery would go to literally break a man’s spirit so he would be a vessel of nothing but labor. Breaking him of hopes, dreams, thoughts of even having a future, and simply making him a machine which needed to be fed just enough to ensure it continued on is despicable, yet was totally accepted and normative in the days it was experienced.
Earlier I mentioned a man forcing his slave woman to breed so he could gain more stock happened here, in Edward Covey’s house, a man who claimed to be Christian. Fredrick’s faith allowed him to see the hypocrisy within many slave holders. Here of this instance he states: “But I will pursue this revolting subject no further. No better illustration of the unchaste and demoralizing character of slavery can be found, than is furnished in the fact that this professedly Christian slaveholder, amidst all his prayers and hymns, was shamelessly and boastfully encouraging, and actually compelling, in his own house, undisguised and unmitigated fornication, as a means of increasing his human stock. I may remark here, that, while this fact will be read with disgust and shame at the north, it will be laughed at, as smart and praiseworthy in Mr. Covey, at the south; for a man is no more condemned there for buying a woman and devoting her to this life of dishonor, than for buying a cow, and raising stock from her” (Kindle Locations 2266-2271). This final reality, that men could call themselves followers of Jesus and do these things to another human without so much as an indication of it’s wrongdoing is wholly unfathomable to me. Abusing the Word of God in order to push one’s agenda is not unheard of, but in this case shocking to the core that it took so long to abolish such wretchedness.
Reading this book was completely worth it, in order to have my eyes opened to the real and raw truth of the full ugliness of slavery is a gift that will spur me onward. One such issue that has been raised in current culture is that of people calling homosexuality the “new black”. I knew before this rubbed me the wrong way but after reading this, it is completely egregious to demean the realities of the black men and women who were bound up in slavery. It is shocking and ignorant that anyone could even utter those words. Is there unjust treatment? Yes, but to equate it to this level is absolutely out of line and simply a push of an agenda not a look at reality. I’ve been changed by this book and I am greatly pleased to have been challenged to read it! Thank you Lecrae for putting out such a call. I hope to broaden my reading and further my understanding of the realities of the past to better prepare me to handle the future.