Sunday, November 19, 2017

Starvation in the life of a slave

"Want of food was my chief trouble ... . I have often been so pinched with hunger as to dispute with old 'Nep,' the dog, for the crumbs which fell from the kitchen table. Many times have I followed, with eager step, the waiting-girl when she shook the table-cloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out for the dogs and cats. It was a great thing to have the privilege of dipping a piece of bread into the water in which meat had been boiled, and the skin taken from the rusty bacon was a positive luxury." (p. 13) 
So wrote Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) about his first experience as a slave child of around 8 years old. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass was the last of three autobiographical works by this remarkable thinker and leader in the times leading up to the Civil War.

Douglass was separated from his mother as an infant, and recalls
that the last time she came to see him she tried to see that he
would receive a better portion of food.
As I read, Douglass's description of his life as a child and young man in slavery in Maryland in the early part of the 19th century seemed somewhat as familiar material. I think this is because anyone who has subsequently about slavery must have this amazing account in mind. He offers not only a description of the horrifying treatment he received at the hands of his owners (and in particular at the hands of a man whose specialty was breaking the will of young slaves by being their temporary master).  He also offers an account of his own mental process of grappling with exactly what it meant to him, even as a small child, to be owned

The determination to read (which was illegal) and Douglass's use of reading to gain insight about his position are very fascinating. Later, when he was an effective orator in the cause of abolition, his first-hand descriptions of his experience in slavery and all its evils were an important influence on public opinion of slavery, which wasn't always as negative as we might now expect. He also documented the terrible racism that was prevalent in both South and North, and how it affected him.

Descriptions of how he chose to take the extreme risk of fleeing to the North, and to freedom, are enlightening, no matter how much one has already read about slavery. In 1838, his efforts were successful; his feelings are thus described:
"During ten or fifteen years I had, as it were, been dragging a heavy chain which no strength of mine could break. I was not only a slave, but a slave for life. I might become a husband, a father, an aged man, but through all, from the cradle to the grave, I had felt myself doomed. All efforts I had previously made to secure my freedom, had not only failed, but had seemed only to rivet my fetters the more firmly and to render my escape more difficult. Baffled, entangled and discouraged, I had at times asked myself the question, May not my condition after all be God's work and ordered for a wise purpose, and if so, was not submission my duty? A contest had in fact been going on in my mind for a long time, between the clear consciousness of right and the plausible make-shifts of theology and superstition. The one held me an abject slave--a prisoner for life, punished for some transgression in which I had no lot or part; the other counseled me to manly endeavor to secure my freedom. This contest was now ended; my chains were broken, and the victory brought me unspeakable joy." (p. 162). 
The use of hunger as one of the many ways of humiliating and subjugating human beings was something I had not contemplated, though I guess there's not much that could actually shock me about slavery. Douglass is insistent on the way that slavery corrupted both masters and slaves: "Everybody in the South seemed to want the privilege of whipping somebody else." (p. 21).

There's too much in the book for me to write a full review, and though it's new to me, it's obviously not at all a new book. So I'm going to offer one long passage that illustrates how Douglass worked on his audience: in contrast to the near-starvation he experienced, he gives this view of the life of the master:
"THE close-fisted stinginess that fed the poor slave on coarse corn-meal and tainted meat, that clothed him in crashy tow-linen and hurried him on to toil through the field in all weathers, with wind and rain beating through his tattered garments, and that scarcely gave even the young slave-mother time to nurse her infant in the fence-corner, wholly vanished on approaching the sacred precincts of the "Great House" itself. ... The table of this house groaned under the blood-bought luxuries gathered with pains-taking care at home and abroad. Fields, forests, rivers, and seas were made tributary. Immense wealth and its lavish expenditures filled the Great House with all that could please the eye or tempt the taste. Fish, flesh, and fowl were here in profusion. Chickens of all breeds; ducks of all kinds, wild and tame, the common and the huge Muscovite; Guinea fowls, turkeys, geese and pea-fowls; all were fat and fattening for the destined vortex. Here the graceful swan, the mongrel, the black-necked wild goose, partridges, quails, pheasants, pigeons and choice waterfowl, with all their strange varieties, were caught in this huge net. Beef, veal, mutton, and venison, of the most select kinds and quality, rolled in bounteous profusion to this grand consumer. The teeming riches of the Chesapeake Bay, its rock perch, drums, crocus, trout, oysters, crabs, and terrapin were drawn hither to adorn the glittering table. The dairy, too, the finest then on the eastern shore of Maryland, supplied by cattle of the best English stock, imported for the express purpose, poured its rich donations of fragrant cheese, golden butter, and delicious cream to heighten the attractions of the gorgeous, unending round of feasting. Nor were the fruits of the earth overlooked. The fertile garden, many acres in size, constituting a separate establishment distinct from the common farm, with its scientific gardener direct from Scotland, a Mr. McDermott, and four men under his direction, was not behind, either in the abundance or in the delicacy of its contributions. The tender asparagus, the crispy celery, and the delicate cauliflower, egg plants, beets, lettuce, parsnips, peas, and French beans, early and late; radishes, cantelopes, melons of all kinds; and the fruits of all climes and of every description, from the hardy apples of the north to the lemon and orange of the south, culminated at this point. Here were gathered figs, raisins, almonds, and grapes from Spain, wines and brandies from France, teas of various flavor from China, and rich, aromatic coffee from Java, all conspiring to swell the tide of high life, where pride and indolence lounged in magnificence and satiety." (pp. 34-35). 

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass is one of the books on the list by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the article: "Five Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War" (in the Atlantic dated November 1, 2017). Of the passage above, Coates says: "The chapter depicting the bounty of food on which the enslavers feasted while the enslaved nearly starved is just devastating."

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