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Stressing the shackles that slavery could latch to a man's mind, Douglass was given insight into the inherent transgression behind the bondage. And his ability to adopt such a perspective, while easy to underestimate from the distance of over a century, is quite remarkable given the overwhelming social constructions designed to deter that sort of thinking amongst his demographic. One of the more effective messages that he conveyed both through explication and allegorical demonstration is the inevitability that a man, endowed with the ability to think and propose and aspire, is bound only to torment when the physical conditions of his life are inhospitable to these ends.
And slave owners, Douglass indicated, seemed to know this fact very well, choosing more often than not to wield it as the best defense in keeping slavery afloat as a viable way of life. Particularly, he recalled one memory in which a white slave owner admonished another that there was nothing more dangerous than teaching a slave to read, expressing his certainty that, upon receiving an education, a man will cease to be a slave. It seems clear that Douglass regales his readers with such a moment to illustrate the transparency of a system so flawed at its seams that its highest perpetrators could note its precariousness. And even as he insists upon his gratefulness to God for making him a free man in the end, experiences of such logically inclined revelation would constantly remind Douglass that he was not meant to be a slave forever. Indeed, the overheard fear of this slaveowner would be prophetic of the bright future ahead of Douglass, whose literacy would open the portal to his rejection of shackles both intellectual and physical.
For all of the hostility and indignation that bubbled under his first sensations of injustice, it was not until he was allowed the freedom to educate himself that he came to a greater understanding of the horrid miscarriage of civility that had been dealt he and his brethren. "The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers" (Douglass, 61). There is a hard rawness and humanity to his new understanding of things. But this type of well-warranted cynicism is also given rectification by Douglass' evenhanded approach to the affairs of his own oppression. It is here that he begins to explore the manipulative inconsistencies of the slave system which had previously been obscured to him, most notably by the willful obstruction of educational development which afflicted America's black population.
Here, Douglass points with particular insight to the alleged benefits of Christianity which were afforded the slave, such as the encouraged celebration of holidays like Christmas. Slaves were not only expected not to toil on this holiday, which lasted from Christmas Eve to New Years Day, but were expected to become intoxicated in drink and celebration, much as was the case for the slave-master himself. But this fleeting and feigned equality, the author observes, is a fundamental insult to a people otherwise not afforded the luxuries of Christianity. He explains that "the holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave." (Douglas, 76) Providing the man with an incorrect sense of contentedness and even gratitude, this custom would create an undue correlation between Christianity and the comforts found in captivity. Certainly, this is a subversion of the religion's true profession toward brotherly love.
A profound insidiousness, we find, is at the base of the Christianity that so closely applied itself to the practice of slave-holding. The so-called 'benevolence' connected with a faith-based holiday would arise more from a wariness on the part of slave-holders to the independently industrious slave than from reverence of the holy time of year. In the week of rest afforded the slave, Douglass indicates, the slaveholder most desired to see those in his possession partaking of whiskey and repose, with those choosing to occupy themselves with personal labor or self-cultivation representing the greatest threat for insurrection. The likelihood of such, the author contends, was seriously diminished by the outpouring of generosity which enabled such entitled relaxation and inebriation. But the temporal and intended nature of this 'freedom' fails any test of true and just Christianity.
It is this condition that also inclines Douglass during his lifetime to have reflected considerably on the exclusion which blacks experienced from the celebratory occasions in American culture. Speaking on the 4th of July in 1854, he would contend strikingly that "I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine." (Douglass2, 1) The proximity, of course, between patriotic and religious holidays is markedly close in this discussion.
Though Garrison and Douglass would eventually grow apart, this particular speech demonstrates the influence which the former had on the latter, identifying with similar rhetoric as early as 1829 the inherent hypocrisy in the celebratory nature of the 4th of July. In a speech to the Colonization Society, he said of slavery, "it is a gangrene preying upon our vitals -- an earthquake rumbling under our feet -- a mine accumulating materials for a national catastrophe. It should make this a day of fasting and prayer, not of boisterous merriment and idle pageantry -- a day of great lamentation, not of congratulatory joy. It should spike every cannon, and haul down every banner. Our garb should be sackcloth -- our heads bowed in the dust;our supplications, for the pardon and assistance of Heaven." (Garrison2, 1)
In this respect again, there is a clear consonance between Douglass and Garrison, the latter of whom succinctly denotes the shortcoming of slaveholding to understanding the proper implications of Christian goodness and the notion of each man being produced in God's image. He remarks "how accursed is that system, which entombs the godlike mind of man, defaces the divine image, reduces those who by creation were crowned with glory and honor to a level with four-footed beasts, and exalts the dealer in human flesh above all that is called God!" (Douglass, xvi) In denying the slave of the most crucial qualities of humanity, namely freedom, free will and the right to the inventions of his psyche, the slavemaster is here guilty of subverting the very formula of individuality endowed to each individual, blind of race. There is expressed here quite clearly a standard model for designing the properly indoctrinated slave which undermines his own sense of having been created in god's image. This becomes an increasingly relevant point upon exploration of the double-standard which imbued both blacks and whites of the antebellum era south with a reverence for Christian values. For Douglass, a graduating intellectual awareness would begin to illuminate the core hypocrisy at play.
Indeed, we find a literally articulated critique of this incongruity that would significantly benefit the public discourse over slavery in general. The utilization of Christianity as a means to enforcing in slaves subscribing thereto a conception of the justice in their captivity is revealed as being ambiguous at best and farcical at worst. Douglass' autobiographical treatise argues that the dispensation of faith amongst slaves could be implemented as a devastating tool against the interest in freedom. As a counterpoint to this forced understanding though, would be the self-directed adaptation of such faith to the provision of hope and comfort for those who had no earthly means of finding such. In his forward to Douglass' work, abolitionist Wendell Phillips refers to a notion proposed by the freed slave-turned-author that speaks to both the hypocrisy of Christianity's employ and to the unintended consequence of its invocation to the pursuit of freedom. According to Phillips, Douglass had come to recognize that "a slave-holder's profession of Christianity is a palpable imposture. He is a felon of the highest grade. He is a man-stealer. It is of no importance what you put in the other scale." (Douglas, xviii) In speaking of the 'other scale,' Douglass argues that no degree of white humbleness in the face of Christian good can erase the essential wrong which is slavery. The hegemonic machinations which had become affixed to the slaveholder's version of Christianity were tantamount to an outright abandonment of the values held between man and god. The egregious misdeed of slavery could in no way be espoused by the Christian…[continue]
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