I recently read Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. I have previously wondered whether the Civil War was worth the human cost to stop American slavery a generation before it would have stopped anyway. I’m sure I’ll wonder that again after the emotional impact of the book has worn off.
But in the meantime, I say that no cost was too high to wipe the hypocritical grins off of slaveholders’ faces. Hypocritical because they often used religion to back up their rights to hold slaves, while punishing any slaves who dared to learn to read the Bible. Hypocritical because they preached love and forgiveness on Sunday, and terror and blood during the week.
Douglass asks how a person can call himself a Christian, then routinely whip women and children until their backs run with blood. The same question can be asked today about a variety of activities, but none offer quite as arresting an image as that one. It’s interesting how reading Douglass’s story can change my opinion, even though nothing in the book was new on an intellectual level. I think it was the urgency in his voice that did it.
I’ve read first-hand accounts before, but, as opposed to Douglass, they were all written after slavery had ended. They were stories of grotesque events, but of the past. Douglass is filled with rage and outrage, and more than that, he’s begging, exhorting, demanding that it must stop, and people must make it stop. Every page cries out “do something!”
And, of course, he’s brilliant, so when he puts his mind to changing yours, he does a pretty good job.