Frederick Douglass’s dark night of slavery, dark night of the soul

“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it”—an obscure beginning for Frederick Douglass, one of the most distinguished abolitionists of the nineteenth century (41).* So he chose tomorrow, February 14, to celebrate his birth. Now February is set apart in the United States and Canada as Black History Month. Born in Maryland in 1818, Douglass ultimately toiled twenty years in slavery, nine more as a slave fugitive, and spent an entire lifetime fighting for abolition. He protested slavery twenty years before the Civil War and lived to see black emancipation, though the fight continued long after his 1895 passing, his exact age unknown, but not his name. Douglass’s ultimate weapon in this battle was the power of his own personal witness. His pen proved mightier than the whip. His book An American Slave is “the most artistically crafted and widely read of all the American slave narratives” (vii).

Frederick Douglass’s book has been dissected by historians, feminists, and literary critics. This epic account of slavery and freedom was deeply informed by his familiarity with the Bible and his recognition of the power of religious symbols in fighting oppression. It appealed to many of his contemporary Americans by drawing on the literary approaches of escape-from-captivity narratives, tales of self-made men, and spiritual autobiographies (11). But Douglass didn’t preach an easy faith to comfort the pious; he issued a stinging Jeremiah-like rebuke of religious and political establishments which countenanced oppression (11). His powerful voice is perhaps best remembered today for his utterly remarkable 1852 speech (one of the greatest American sermons of all time) “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” but his autobiography (actually one of three he wrote) is so eloquent and stirring that many of his contemporary whites couldn’t fathom that a black man could possibly have written it. The book relates his earliest memories of slavery and the circumstances of his flight to freedom. Can I deny God’s hand in this man’s work? Latter-day scripture admonishes: “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). I have no doubt that Douglass’s book is one of the best we are so enjoined to read and ponder.

As a youth in Baltimore, Douglass became difficult to manage and his master sent him to a Mr. Covey in Talbot County, Maryland, in order to be broken as a field hand (79-80). “If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey,” Douglass recounts (83). Covey’s farm was ironically situated within view of Chesapeake Bay, allowing Douglass to catch glimpses of the great sails of ships freely coming and going on the water. The following excerpt from An American Slave is his spiritually thrilling and emotionally jarring lament (retrospectively framed) regarding his time on Covey’s farm. Perhaps drawing on the lament of the Book of Job (Job 7:11; 10:1), it is a cry from his own dark night of the soul, as he called it, his “dark night of slavery.” His anguished cries blend anger toward with hope in God:

We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.

Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships:—

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom…Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I am but a boy, and all boys are bound to some one. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming.”

Thus I used to think, and thus I used to speak to myself; goaded almost to madness at one moment, and at the next reconciling myself to my wretched lot….You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man (84-85).

The rest of the book recounts Frederick Douglass’s escape and his battle against the institution of slavery. Pass this excerpt along in Frederick Douglass’s honor, and to celebrate Black History Month. Grab the free Kindle edition of An American Slave here, or check out other free online options here.

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*Cited page numbers are from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, with Related Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002 [second edition]), an excellent critical edition with introductory material, textual annotation, selected reviews, documents, speeches, and several appendices.

Comments

  1. Very powerful, thanks for letting me know it is available for free on Kindle.

  2. No prob, Stephen. It’s an incredible narrative, and it’s also fascinating to read while considering the powers and the limitations of such personal narratives.

  3. I have started to believe that the story of African Americans is the story of Joseph. We, their brothers, sold them into slavery, and they have struggled through setback after setback, being in prison financially almost the entire way.

    Yet I am starting to believe that some day very soon they may turn out to be our saviors. For example, did anyone note how with cultural impunity LL Cool J prayed at the start of the Grammy awards last night? Or another example, do we really think that it was the Mormon vote, and not the coinciding Obama motivated black vote in California, that put Prop 8 over the top? (Setting aside the issue of what you think of prop 8.)

    African Americans are in so many ways the heart and soul of America. They’ve got real cultural problems with their family structures – I don’t want to less this issue – and their family problems present them personally with huge challenges most white middle-class folks would melt under. But they look out for each other and take care of each other – perhaps even more than may Mormon families do.

    I know a Bishop that pulled together resources in the ward to get an African American member a car only to see her getting a ride a few weeks or months later. He asked about the car and she told him that her relative needed it for his job so she gave it to him. The Bishop related to me that at first he was a little ticked, but later realized that she was more fully living Christ’s teaching to care for the poor then were most upper-middle class white members of his ward.

  4. Thanks for this, BHodges. I’d forgotten totally that he chose to celebrate his birthday on Feb. 14th. What a fitting tribute to a great man.

  5. Thanks for this excellent post and for pointing me toward this book, which I’ve never read. I just downloaded it to my Kindle.

  6. Sweet. If you read it soon make sure to come back and post some reflections, imo.

  7. Mommie Dearest says:

    This is perfect for a Valentines Day cynic. I’m a paper and ink reader, I think I’ll hunt this down at a real live bookstore just to give Amazon some competition. I can remember being impressed with Douglass’s writing before this. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Hehe, LL Cool J prayed with the same cultural impunity that also allow him to use the F-bomb is his music. The is something that I can get behind.

    I am not sure who put Prop. 8 over the top, but it was not blacks that put it on the ballot or organized the campaign.

  9. Douglass is one of my heroes of American political thought. He points out the hypocrisy of the American experiment in a way that few else have with the utmost moral authority. I may post about some of my favorites of his speeches.

  10. “Hehe, LL Cool J prayed with the same cultural impunity that also allows him to use the F-bomb in his music. The is something that I can get behind.”

  11. Quayle, let’s leave prop 8 out of this discussion, thanks!

  12. Loved this.

  13. Thank you. This is extremely important.

  14. Very good stuff. I wish that everyone could get the books, I Am Not A Slave and Who’s Who, The A to Z encyclopedia on people of color who did it first. That is some great stuff as well.

  15. Thank you for this. I took the time to read the life of Frederick Douglas today. I was struck by how he was motivated to learn to read m
    By his master attempting to stop him…and how ingenious he was to challenge boys to write letters for him, so he could learn. I was so amazed that he fought back in such an oppressive situation. I’m amazed he lived through it.

    I was also struck by how owning slaves affected people. The woman who started out having never owned a slave…not knowing what to do with one trying to teach him to read…and then choosing to accept her husband’s advice and slowly turning. What a frightening thing to consider. I’ve frequently wondered how confusing it would’ve for a child to see their parent act in such a way towards another human…devastating.

  16. Lessonnumberone, awesome, I’m glad you had the chance to read it and leave a few reflections. There are so many striking things in Douglass’s narrative, it’s astounding.

  17. Thanks for the heads up on the free download.

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