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Frederick Douglass And The Power To Read And Write

02/28/2014 06:44 am ET | Updated Apr 30, 2014

One-hundred-sixty-six years ago, the great orator, abolitionist, and former slave, Frederick Douglass penned a beautifully crafted haunting letter to his former slave master, Thomas Auld, in which he questioned him as to the whereabouts of his grandmother, sisters and one brother. He had escaped from Baltimore, Maryland, in 1838, becoming a fugitive slave until he reached sanctuary in New York. He made his way to my hometown of Havre de Grace, Maryland, where he boarded a train with identification papers from a free black seaman and disguised as a sailor.

Douglass' master's wife must have had an intuitive awareness that one day he would be a credit to his race and become a great American. Unbeknownst to her husband and in defiance of the law prohibiting the education of slaves, she taught young Frederick how to read and write. Both risked their lives, but if caught, they would have been punished. However, Douglass would have been the one to suffer more grievously.

Fifteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Douglass' powerful and profound letter appeared in the Liberator, September 22, 1848. In it, he made an impassioned plea that may cause a lachrymose moment, even to those who are considered tough as nails. He appealed to his former master and later demanded that he send his 82-year-old grandmother up north so he could give her a few comforts of freedom before she died. He wanted her to die a free woman.

This emotionally charged writing actually shows that the intellect of slaves could be no different than that of those who enslaved them? In truth, the mere fact that Douglass was able to read and write challenged conventional beliefs of the time. Slaves such as Douglass were viewed simply as no more than property, devoid of emotion. It was believed that their masters rationalized that their brains were different and distorted; missing the integral parts of the limbic system that control one's emotions and memory. That could be one explanation why slave owners felt justified that their brutality and breaking up of families had no effect on them, as they were considered subhuman and unfeeling.

In fact, sociologist and late Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, concluded in the 1965 Moynihan report on Negroes, "that the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary -- a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have." He goes on to say that "American democracy has not always been successful in maintaining a balance between two ideals, and notably where the Negro American is concerned."Lincoln freed the slaves," but they were given liberty, not equality..."

Douglass used his liberty as power as reflected in his writings and speeches. Here is a snippet, his entire letter can be read on line or in Dark Symphony; Negro Literature in America edited by James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross.

Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are. Have you sold them? Or are they still in your possession? What has become them? Are they living or dead?

And my dear old grand-mother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods --is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them. If my grandmother be still alive, she is of no service to you, for by this time she must be nearly eighty years old -- too old to be cared for by one to whom she has ceased to be of service, send her to me at Rochester, or bring her to Philadelphia, and it shall be the crowning happiness of my life to take care of her in her old age. Oh! she was to me a mother, and a father, so far as hard toil for my comfort could make her such. Send me my grandmother!

I would write them, and learn all I want to know of them, without disturbing you in any way, but that, through your unrighteous conduct, they have been entirely deprived of the power to read and write. You have kept them in utter ignorance, and have therefore robbed them of the sweet enjoyments of writing or receiving letters from absent friends and relatives...

I can only imagine Master Thomas Auld's profound shock when he received Douglass' letter realizing that perhaps Douglass was a better writer than he, and envisioned him for the first time as a human being with emotions.

The leaven of slavery is not a myth. Many people prefer not to talk about slavery. Others deny it, or have no interest in its impact on history. I get it. It is painful. However, continuing to educate ourselves is the best tribute to our ancestors.

I am an American and in honor of Black History Month, I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors... giants like Frederick Douglass. I remain grateful and humbled...

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Which African-Americans Past And Present Inspire You?