Frederick Douglass’ life and us

When a Daily Tar Heel reporter asked me what I considered the most important contribution of Frederick Douglass, I hesitated. I didn’t know enough about the life of the abolitionist and former slave, born in Hillsborough, to rank-order his accomplishments.

Fortunately, Orange County, the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and the NAACP have joined forces to host a number of events in February and March to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. Douglass, who wrote The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, did not know the actual day of his birth, because slave owners did not record the births of children born to their slaves, anymore than they marked the birthday of new livestock. But in 1835, he overheard his master (who may or may not have been his father) say that Douglass was 17, and he did the math.

The wife of another of his masters began to teach him to read, but her husband put a stop to that, saying literacy would make Douglass “unmanageable” and “unfit to be a slave.” Douglass immediately gleaned that education was the key to his freedom, and cleverly found ways to get others to unwittingly teach him to read.

He eventually escaped to the north and ultimately was able to buy his freedom. He became an eloquent and fearless abolitionist.

Douglass’ plainspoken, unvarnished narrative of the cruelties he witnessed and lived while enslaved underscore the worst aspects of human nature. The speakers at the Feb. 5 event put context around his life and experiences and drew a connection with Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson’s contention that slavery did not end — it evolved.

Author James Baldwin wrote that “we carry [our history] within us, are unconsciously controlled by it … and history is present in all that we do.” In Chapel Hill, we pride ourselves on being “inclusive.” But we can’t be genuinely inclusive unless we understand who we claim to be welcoming and how our respective histories intersect.

Douglass’ raw text is a good place to start. The book, about a hundred pages, including commentary, can be read in an afternoon, but will take much longer to digest.

And attend some of the performances, lectures and discussions sponsored by local government and the NAACP. Find out more at:
— Nancy Oates

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