The Impact of Language Upon the Life of Frederick Douglass Ellis I.

Lee CML 222 Corbett November 28, 1995

The Impact of Language Upon the Life of Frederick Douglass Of the countless individuals that have scurried across the face of the earth, many have doubtlessly asked, “What is the meaning of life?” To acknowledge this question in the affirmative that life has a meaning of some sort or another is to imply that life has a purpose; and the relentless pursuit or fulfillment of this purpose will give rise to meaning which makes living a sufferable experience. And of the billions of people who have posed this question, perhaps only a handful of rare and remarkable characters have been able to strive for a purpose which not only imparts to them a profound sense of personal meaning but which is also able to raise the conscience and the standard by which humanity holds itself. To this end, such was the life of Frederick Douglass. Born in 1818 in Maryland as a slave named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, his entire sense of understanding was subdued by the treacherous nature of his enslavement. Nevertheless, by a continual process of expanding and increasing his understanding of and desire for freedom, the slave Frederick Bailey became the freeman Frederick Douglass who struggled tirelessly as an abolitionist and as a civil rights activist. Thus, from the perspective of Douglass’s process of being transformed from a “brute” as he had described himself to the persuasively eloquent antithesis of slavery’s patrons, the observation of Wilbur H. Urban becomes a poignant focus point from which to examine Douglass’s life: “In a very real sense the limits of my vocabulary are the limits of my world.” Although Urban makes a succinct statement with his observation, it might be of greater pragmatic benefit if the term vocabulary were to be replaced by the term understanding. This substitution is necessitated by the fact that although similar vocabulary had been used by both the slave population and the white population, words would often have different connotative

meanings depending on which population used them. For example, Douglass begins his narrative by describing his relationship to his mother, but the manner in which Douglass uses the word mother seems only to suggest someone who has given birth to another without any regard to there being a nurturing, loving relationship between the mother and child. Sadly, when Douglass learned of his mother’s death, he reflected: “I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” (p. 728). This weakening of family and interpersonal loyalties was, of course, one of the dehumanizing aspects of slavery. Indeed, it was perhaps for this reason that Douglass was able to impassively describe the senselessly brutal and malicious manner in which Master Andrew had beaten Douglass’s younger brother (p. 749). To further illustrate this point of the limited utility of the term vocabulary in Urban’s observation, Douglass commented on how fellow slaves would sing while walking through the woods. Although singing was a common word for both the slaves and the whites, the songs which the slaves sung in the woods were understood differently by some non-slaves. As Douglass commented: I have often been utterly astonished, since I came here to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears . . . The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion. (p. 733-734) Such discrepancies do not reside in the particular definition of the vocabulary but rather in how the vocabulary is understood or interpreted by an individual; and by severely limiting the understanding slaves had for themselves and for the world in which they lived, proponents of

slavery were able to effectively control the population of slaves. Douglass described several manners in which whites were able to limit the understanding slave had for themselves and for the world in which they lived. One such manner of keeping the population of slaves in a continual state of ignorance involved denying the slaves knowledge of rather rudimentary facts. In Douglass’s case, the facts denied to him included his age and knowledge of who his father was, and this caused him a great deal of consternation even at an early age. As Douglass explained: A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their age. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit. (p. 727) Furthermore, slaves were often times prohibited from accurately describing the conditions and environment in which they lived; this, simply stated, meant that slaves could not express what they believed to be the truth. When a slave, not knowing he was addressing his master Colonel Lloyd, spoke unfavorably of how he was treated by being one of the Colonel’s slave, the slave was sold to a Georgia slave trader a few weeks thereafter. As Douglass reflected, “this is the penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain question” (p. 735). This fear of speaking the truth, which resulted in a maxim for the slaves that “a still tongue makes a wise head” (p. 736), was further exacerbated by the manner in which the slave-holders attempted to limit the experiences of their slaves. By limiting the experiences of the slaves, the slaves would have no knowledge of anything else but slavery and would thus have no basis from experience to become discontent with their enslavement. Douglass thus explained the manner in which he judged the quality of his treatment as a slave: “I always measured the kindness of my

master by the standard of kindness set up among slave-holders around us” (p. 736). In order for Douglass to break the bondage slavery had imposed upon him, he had to surmount these impediments that the slave culture had erected around him. Thus, for Douglass, the path of achieving mental and physical emancipation from the plight of slavery was unambiguous: He had to gain a greater comprehension and understanding of words and their complex connotations by learning how to read; and by this action, he could surpass the limited boundaries of slavery which had been the only world he had known to gain a new affinity and appreciation of the heretofore unknown world of freedom. He arrived at this conclusion by a rather serendipitous occurrence: Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” (p. 742) From this admonishment of Mrs. Auld, Douglass learned the answer to a question which he had struggled with since youth: “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty —to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man” (p. 743). Thus, from that moment, Douglass endeavored to learn how to read proficiently. However, as noted before, it was not enough that Douglass only learned of a word’s definition. Indeed, the real significance of learning to read arose from the understanding of the word’s denotation and connotation so that it

may be fully utilized to expand one’s concept of understanding. For example, Douglass became curious of the term abolition since it was often used in conjunction with slavery. As Douglass explained: ...I set about learning what it meant. The dictionary afforded me little or no help. I found it was “the act of abolishing;” but then I did not know what was to be abolished. Here I was perplexed. I did not dare to ask any one about its meaning, for I was satisfied that it was something they wanted me to know very little about. After a patient waiting, I got one of our city papers, containing an account of the number of petitions from the north, praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and of the slave trade between the States. (p. 747) And by understanding the connotative values of words, Douglass was able to generate thoughts and ideas which were previously unknown to him, and this gave him the opportunity to expand his understanding of himself, the world, and freedom. The perception which Douglass had cultivated from understanding was able to influence his thoughts and behavior. For when Douglass was at an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, William Coffin asked him to speak before an assembly of white people. Douglass acknowledged his reluctance at this prospect: “It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease” (p. 784). Douglass’s life was perhaps most profoundly influenced by his desire to read and learn. By being able to manipulate the subtle meanings found in language, Douglass was able to construct for himself a better understanding of the inequities he found in his life as a slave as well as a means of being able to expand his understanding to go beyond the limiting boundaries of slavery to contemplate a world in which he could be free and equal to other men. By learning to read, Douglass also undertook a definitive step in being able to reason and think beyond the

scope of his current environment. And by broadening his capacity to think and reason, Douglass was able to escape the mental and physical imprisonment of slavery. To this end, Urban’s observation that “the limits of my vocabulary are the limits of my world” would be an accurate account of the manner in which Douglass’s transformation from a “brute” to an influential human being occurred.

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