The Mind of Frederick Douglass

By Waldo E. Martin Jr. | Go to book overview

I. The Formative Years and Beyond

Frederick Douglass's racial identity, especially its roots and development, was central to his life and thought. His family, extended family, religious beliefs, and "education" as a slave and free man helped to shape his aspirations as well as his search for identity. As a Negro and a mulatto, in a white racist society, his responses to the omnipresent issue of race were complex and revealing. These responses revealed deep-seated attitudes that reflected not only how he felt about blacks and whites, but also, most important, how he felt about himself. Indeed, it is impossible to understand Douglass without understanding his intricate racial world view. An undercurrent of racial ambivalence, symbolized by his mulatto identity, complicated this racial teleology. Douglass's expanding racial awareness demonstrated an increasingly sophisticated perception of self-identity, collective identity, and their mutual dependence. Clearly, the essential aim of his life was to resolve the problem of race.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in February 1818 on an unknown day. The process of racial self-discovery began early. As an inquisitive and intelligent young slave in a society where blacks were primarily slaves and whites were free, he soon sensed the oppressive reality of racial proscription. Quite early, for instance, he perceived that most slaves, unlike whites, did not know their birthdays. This haunted him personally throughout his life. He wrote in 1845 that it "was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege." He concluded that "it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant." Similarly, as his master deemed the question of a slave's birthday, like most inquiries by slaves, "improper . . . impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit," young Frederick certainly could not discover his birthday by asking his master. 1

Frederick's subsequent discovery that Aaron Anthony, his master, was probably his father complicated his developing sense of identity. Harriet Bailey, his mother, was, like Frederick and the rest of his family, a slave in Tuckahoe, Maryland. They belonged to Aaron Anthony, who served as general plantation superintendent for Colonel Edward Lloyd, the largest slaveholder and landowner as well as the wealthiest man in the area. Frederick's relationship with his father-master was virtually nil, yet psychologically significant. "Slavery," he would later observe, "does away with fathers, as it does

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The Mind of Frederick Douglass
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Part One - The Shape of a Life 1
  • 1 - The Formative Years and Beyond 3
  • 2 - Abolitionism: the Travail of a "Great Life's Work" 18
  • 3 - The Politics of a Race Leader 55
  • 4 - Humanism, Race, and Leadership 92
  • Part Two - Social Reform 107
  • 5 - The Ideology of White Supremacy 109
  • 6 - Feminism, Race, and Social Reform 136
  • 7 - The Philosophy and Pursuit of Social Reform 165
  • Part Three - National Identity, Culture, and Science 195
  • 8 - A Composite American Nationality 197
  • 9 - Ethnology and Equality 225
  • Part Four - The Autobiographical Douglass 251
  • 10 - Self-Made Man, Self-Conscious Hero 253
  • Epilogue 281
  • Notes 285
  • Bibliography 309
  • Index 317
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