The other side of the story ...
OK, so if you're following along, you'll realize that this is the second Dover Thrift Edtions book in a row … aside from the benefits detailed in my previous review
, these also tend to be short, and in months when I've either not been able to get a lot of reading (towards my annual target of 72 books) done, or have been stuck in a thick volume, jumping into these helps keep those numbers up! Frankly, I suspect that this is the first year since I've set that target that I'm not going to make it, unless I win the lottery or something and can clear my job-search schedule for some intense reading.
Anyway, this is another of those “how come I've never read that?” titles, that, while familiar, never got assigned in school, nor found its way into my reading pile (until it became a handy way to get free shipping on an on-line order). Of course, Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
is a sociological/historical classic, a first-person retelling of the author's life as a slave and his eventual life as a free man.
Douglass was fortunate to have been, as a lad, passed along to a family in Baltimore, where he was able to get a basis in reading … largely teaching himself with the discarded work books of the family's children, and then passing along these skills to the poor white
children in his area, with whom he shared many attributes.
One of the more surprising things in his experiences was how much he was passed around, as my view of slavery has been greatly flavored by films of the Civil War era, where it seemed that slaves were born, lived, and died on vast plantations, owned by the same families through generations. Douglass was in numerous situations before his escape.
The other feature here that amazed me was how openly hostile to religion he was. I don't know if the abolitionist organizations which he rose to fame with in New England were closely aligned with “free thinker” groups, but it is refreshing hearing passages along the lines of:
“... Another advantage I gained in my new master was, he made no pretentions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in my opinion, was truly a great advantage. I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes – a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, - a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, - and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”
The book even closes with an Appendix directly addressing the links between Christianity and slavery, in which he continues:
“... We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for the glory of God and the good of souls! The slave auctioneer's bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other – devils dressed in angels' robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”
“... Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. They attend with Pharisaical strictures 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 to 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 they despise and totally neglect the heathen at their own doors.”
Needless to say, much of the sentiment here is clearly
applicable in our own times, where the forces of religion push towards a theocratic dystopia. It's also hard to square Douglass' experience with the affiliations of American Blacks with both Christian and Muslim (the one who ran
the slave trade) denominations.Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
should be a must-read for anybody unclear on the concept of slavery's history in the U.S., and is certainly an eye-opener for the connection of slavery and religious fundamentalism. While the Dover Thrift Edition may not be in your local brick-and-mortar, both of the on-line big boys have it, and with a $1.50 cover price (B&N has it at 10% off of that
), its an ideal add-on for your next on-line order!