Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why Is There a Question Mark Next to Frederick Douglass's Birth Date?

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, one of the great minds of the 19th century, was never sure of the date on which he was born. Nor was he sure of the year. His birth year of 1818 is followed by a question mark in the World Book Encyclopedia, as well as in the American Civil War Reference Library and other reference sources.

What was it like to go through life without knowing the most basic facts about yourself? Incomprehensible to us today, this was common amongst slaves, who were denied education--state laws made it illegal to educate slaves--and forbidden to read and write. As The American Civil War Reference Library says, in its entry on Frederick Douglass: "Most slave owners tried to prevent their slaves from learning much about themselves or the world around them. They believed that educated slaves would be more likely to become dissatisfied with their lives. For this reason, Douglass received no information about his birth. 'By far the larger part of slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs,' [Douglass] explained, 'and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.'"

In spite of living in an unjust society marked by brutal and inhumane oppression, Douglass learned to read, which marked the beginning of his march toward freedom. He went on to become a great leader in the fight to end slavery, aided immensely by his eloquence as a writer and public speaker.

Given Douglass's accomplishments, it makes sense that Negro History Week, which began in 1925, was celebrated in February to include the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Its aim was to highlight the contributions of African-Americans' to our lives.

It has since evolved into African-American History Month, this year's theme of which is African-Americans and the Civil War, to honor "the efforts of people of African descent to destroy slavery and inaugurate universal freedom in the United States" (Library of Congress).

A wonderful and moving film on this subject is Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick. Based on the heroism of the first black regiment of the Civil War, the Glory DVD also includes a documentary about the regiment narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Also worth checking out: The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves by historian and former NPR commentator Andrew Ward. Praised by Publishers Weekly as "a groundbreaking history, the Civil War is recounted from the previously silent victims that it most directly affected: the slaves themselves. Through hundreds of interviews, diaries, letters and memoirs, Ward offers an entirely new perspective of the war."

If you want to learn more about the remarkable Frederick Douglass, a good starting place is Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, part of the Library of Black America series. Also worth checking out is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. This is the first of Douglass's three autobiographies, and it is available on CD as well as in book format.

We have many other titles on African-Americans and the Civil War, as well as masterworks of fiction by authors including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ernest Gaines and ZZ Packer. Take one of them home to celebrate African-American History Month, take comfort in the knowledge that all of us are free to educate ourselves at the library, and take inspiration from this Frederick Douglass quotation, no less relevant today than in the 19th century: "Without struggle there can be no progress."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I walk by African-American History Month, and history in general, like I walk by a blue mailbox on the corner. I generally don't pay attention. It's good to be reminded.

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