“I went, one day, on the wharf of Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen unloading a large scow of stone, or ballast I went on board, unasked, and helped them. When we had finished the work, one of the men came to me, aside, and asked me a number of questions, and among them, if I were a slave.
I told him “I was a slave, and a slave for life.”
The good Irishman gave his shoulders a shrug, and seemed deeply affected by the statement. He said, “it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a slave for life.”
They both had much to say about the matter, and expressed the deepest sympathy with me, and the most decided hatred of slavery. They went so far as to tell me that I ought to run away, and go to the north; that I should find friends there, and that I would be as free as anybody.
I, however, pretended not to be interested in what they said, for I feared they might be treacherous. White men have been known to encourage slaves to escape, and then—to get the reward—they have kidnapped them, and returned them to their masters. And while I mainly inclined to the notion that these men were honest and meant me no ill, I feared it might be otherwise.
I nevertheless remembered their words and their advice, and looked forward to an escape to the north, as a possible means of gaining the liberty for which my heart panted. It was not my enslavement, at the then present time, that most affected me; the being a slave for life, was the saddest thought.
I was too young to think of running away immediately; besides, I wished to learn how to write, before going, as I might have occasion to write my own pass.
I now not only had the hope of freedom, but a foreshadowing of the means by which I might, some day, gain that inestimable boon. Meanwhile, I resolved to add to my educational attainments the art of writing.”
Excerpted from My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass
There is not a single paragraph in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography that doesn’t have you leaning forward pulled into the intensity of his life as a slave and his quest for freedom.
This passage in particular I felt I needed to share with you. It shows how others can fan the flame of a dream, yes, but most remarkable to me in this short passage is how this young teenage boy immediately set himself the task of learning to read and write to prepare for his undertaking.
Even gaining literacy is fraught with peril in a society bent on keeping slaves in chains. It was a monumental endeavor, one he pulled off in secrecy.
If you’ve not read one of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies yet — he wrote five — do yourself the favor of a lifetime. Go and grab one and set yourself down in a quiet corner for a transformative ride.
To read from the lips of an escaped slave of his bondage and pains and triumphs will forever put your own obstacles in perspective.
You will feel awed by his experience — and audacity — while also realizing how puny in actuality are the constraints you perceive in your own life.