I am grateful for Frederick Douglass. I was only just slightly aware of his courage and how he changed the world, but after a writing exercise with the amazingly wonderful Lisa Moore, Frederick and I are now friends. He isn’t aware of our friendship, and as he died in 1895 I can confirm that it is a one-sided sort of friendship. To express my gratitude I recently wrote Mr. Douglass a letter and I thought I might share it here.
Dear Mr. Douglass:
It was Maryland. Not Maryland now, but Maryland in 1824, though more often than not it feels the same, the lessons of two hundred years easily forgotten. You had blood that blended well, of Native American they call it in Maryland, and African, neither white, never white enough. You were handed over like some implement, like a garden hoe to Lucretia Auld, as if one person could ever, should ever, would ever hold title to another. But you were not quite suitable so you were re-gifted, like a salad bowl, to Hugh Auld in Baltimore, specifically to Sophia his wife who taught your six-year-old self the letters of the alphabet.
I imagine you sat at the pine harvest table, Sophia writing the shapes of the twenty-six letters on bits of paper and letting you follow her example.
“Not so hard,” she whispered, tapping your hand to ease your grip on the stylus, and you began to imagine the letters like seeds planted on the page, blooming into words and phrases, as if by magic.
“It’s against the law for them to learn to read and write,” Sophia’s husband Hugh warned from the doorway, leaning into his raised arm for support, not wanting to get caught up in this senseless undertaking, referring to “them” as something outside himself, some species without name.
“That is just to keep Frederick illiterate,” Sophia said, pushing the damp hair off her forehead. “Education will stop this madness,” and she couldn’t stifle the hiss she directed at her husband. He knew better than to argue with her.
Was it Sophia who taught you the value that women bestowed on humanity or did you know that innately, from your mother, from your loss of her, from being swept from her as easily as the wind sweeps away dandelion fluff, as if human rights shouldn’t be guaranteed by life itself.
“Shh,” you whispered to fellow slaves, holding an open Bible in front of them and teaching them the words on the page, teaching them to imagine a life that fed their free will. Your voice wasn’t quiet enough though and news of your efforts fell on the wrong ears.
“You think you can break the law,” Thomas Auld growled at you, reclaiming ownership as though you were a stray dog. “We’ll see where your reading gets you now,” sending you to endure the brutality of farmer Edward Covey, whose whip came down regularly on your sixteen-year-old back, tearing your skin and leaving inhumanity’s evidence. Your attempts to escape were finally fruitful and you found your way to safe lodging in the New York home of abolitionist David Ruggles, part of the covert workings of the Underground Railroad.
Your pursuit of equality led you to produce your paper North Star, whose message was “Right is of no Sex, Truth is of no Colour, God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren,” calling for non-violence and education as the map to freedom.
Now here you are on this page, all these years later, your candle’s light sending a message out to the world. Keep on, your courage says. Keep on.
Thank you, Mr. Douglass.