Education: Frederick Douglass’ Catalyst

Frederick Douglass

Fredrick Douglass

I think is it interesting that Frederick Douglass was very bold in his writings. Unlike others, like Jupiter , who have used religion as a hope, Frederick Douglass claims that the oppressing American society uses religion as aHammon mask; Frederick Douglas clearly states that “By a principle essential to Christianity, a person is eternally differenced from a THING” (Douglass, 1).  Frederick Douglass clearly mentions that religion does not support slavery; moreover, the bluntness used in this writing suggests that Douglass’ was using these statements as a way of “calling out” the “white” community for being hypocritical. Frederick Douglass then goes on and implies that not only is religion a pious mask, but he also states that the fact that there are African Americans who have “illustrated and adorned our common country by their genius, learning and eloquence” (Douglass, 5). In other words, the fact that individuals, like himself, are able to overcome the daily obstacles faced as a slave and still contribute to society, further proves that African Americans are not, by any means, inferior! Frederick Douglass valued education because he understood that excellence and achievement directly contradicted slavery. Therefore, Frederick Douglass thought that depriving slaves from receiving an education was crippling to the African American community.

Fredrick Douglass attributes this enlightenment regarding education to his experiences at the plantation. Witnessing firsthand the cruelties that many slaves endured, left Frederick Douglass with mental scars that would stay with him forever. One example was when Frederick Douglass witnessed a slave mother and wife named Nelly whipped till her back was drenched in blood. From an early age Frederick Douglass was taught that “God was good, and that He knew what was best for me” . Even though Frederick Douglass was young the cruelties that he witnessed sparked doubt. This doubt was the catalyst that made him eventually realize that if slaves had the opportunity to become educated things would be different.  They would have the opportunity to think for themselves. Slaves would no longer be helpless because of their ignorance.  Instead they would be able to contribute in society and be equally sophisticated. Education would allow salves to recognize the tyranny of slavery. Fredrick Douglass realized that the main strategy used to oppress slaves, were to keep the enslaved population ignorant.  This is why many of the slave owners prohibited their slaves from learning how to read and write. In fact, most slaves would get severely beaten if caught trying to learn how to read. In many ways, this is why music was important. Music was the closest thing to writing that slaves had to express themselves. In many ways, music was a spoken literature. This allowed them to express their hardships and even communicate an idea to a bigger crowd. Often times Negro Spirituals would contain metaphors that expressed the harsh conditions many slaves endured. Religious hymns expressed hope, even if it was a higher spiritual hope. Music gave slaves an outlet to express themselves without catching the direct attention of their slave masters. In other words, music was discreet enough for it to become a medium for expression!

True Blooded Prince

Many may be unaware of who Venture Smith was. He is not talked about in most History classes but he was an extraordinary historical figure. He was one of the few African-American slaves to buy his freedom as well as his family’s freedom. This alone makes him an extraordinary figure! This was a big milestone because it shows how Smith took a different approach towards slavery. History suggests that the only way an African-American slave is freed is through revolution. While this was definitely a part of slavery abolition, Smith’s story really sheds light on the fact that freedom through legal means was possible. In many ways, Smith’s story shows how freedom is something everyone should fight for because it is worth it. Some may say that Smith was obsessive about money and resources. However, Smith was more concerned with power. That is to say, Smith understood that if he was going to be successful in gaining freedom, he would have to abide by the judiciary system and use the system to his advantage as best he could.

Perhaps this understanding was aided by the memories of Smith’s father. I think it is interesting that Smith’s father was a prince. This is significant because Smith was influenced by a person who needed to understand the importance of a governing system and the importance of resources. Smith’s father understood that freedom was something that the governing leaders had to protect and fight for. This was evident when Smith writes about how his father negotiated with the enemy for time and peace. As a leader, Smith’s father had to be a person who created new paths and led people. This is very important to take into consideration because Smith’s father’s position is something that defines the type of life Smith had as a child. Even though Smith may not have had an extensive relationship with his father because his father died at an early age, those around him that took care of him treated Smith accordingly. One example would be when Smith’s mother dropped him off at a farm to work for a year. This was important because this pushed him to grow up and showed him that as the son of the prince he needed to step up to the plate. Perhaps if he was just another boy in the village he would have starved and died, but as the son of a prince his mother took off and left him. A year later, his father goes and sends someone for him. It almost seemed like this was him fulfilling his duty as part of the royal family.

These types of experiences shaped who Smith became.  Even as a young boy, Smith was taught that wealth was a source of power and that people had to fight and protect what was rightfully conquered. We can see how later in Smith’s life these taught notions were practiced. Perhaps it was this understanding that Smith talked about money so much. He understood that money would give him legal power. He understood that his freedom and his family’s freedom would cost him. While, it seems like Smith may have been distant with his father, Smith’s actions show how much of his father’s character is really reflected in his own. As a whole, it also shows how Venture Smith did not sit around waiting for a revolution to help set him and his family free; instead, he fought for his own freedom and conquered his obstacles as a prince would.

Boldness Disguised in Poetic Beauty

In my earlier post about Jupiter Hammons writings I talked about how Jupiter Hammon used religion as a platform where the impoverished classes of society, including slaves, would now stand equally next to the wealthy classes of society. In these next set of readings which include, “To The University of Cambridge in England”, “To The King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” & On The Death of The Rev. George Whitfield”, these ideology is still supported. However Phillis Wheatley’s tone shows a complete shift and contrast to Jupiter Hammon’s tone. Jupiter Hammon consistently uses a sophisticated poetic form and structure but the images and language that Wheatley used were much more provocative! In previous works, Jupiter Hammon uses very common religious examples to softly jab society about the social conditions and cruelties seen during that time period. However, in “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty”, Phillis Wheatley uses bold and more direct language. While both authors have great techne in their writings, Hammon softly jabs society with subtle religious depictions, while Wheatley becomes bolder with her images. One example is when she writes:

Great God, direct, and guard him from on high,

And from his head let ev’ry evil fly!

And may each clime with equal gladness fee

A monarch’s smile can set his subjects free!

 

Here in this poem we can clearly see how Phillis Wheatley felt strongly about anti-slavery. Later in the poem, “On begin brought from AFRICA to AMERICA”, she even compares the African-American community to Cain. It is interesting that she uses this reference because according to the bible who ever hurt Cain, which was casted out for murdering his brother, would be avenged by God. This metaphor is bold; moreover it serves as a threat to the social oppressor, The Anglo-American community. Phillis Wheatley recognizes that she as an individual may not be able to avenge the oppression experienced by the African-American community, but is still bold enough to say that the oppression will be avenged even if it is at a religious spiritual level by a higher being.

 

Phillis Wheatley also brings equality between both the African-American community and the Anglo-American community in “ON the Death of the Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD 1770”. In the poem we see how   Phillis Wheatley talks about an impartial savior. In this section   Phillis Wheatley writes: “Take him my dear Americans… take him, ye Africans, he longs for you, Impartial Saviour is his title due”. Again, she solidifies this idea that on a religious spiritual level, African-Americans and Anglo-Americans are on an even plain field.

 

During my initial readings of   Phillis Wheatley, I knew these works were significant because of the eloquent writing. The religious metaphors were complex and carried depth. I could tell that   Phillis Wheatley valued her work, moreover her craft. As I kept reading I soon realized that she used her craft to “edit” or disguise her boldness. She was a bold writer. While Wheatley’s writings may not come across as bold to the 21st century reader, we have to consider that for the time period, this was a bold move from her part and a risky one. She was bold and knew how to disguise her bold opinions with eloquent writing and beautiful imagery.

Phillis Wheatley