Of all the horrors of slavery, a particularly cruel one was the separation of children from their mothers. Infants were raised by older women called “aunties” so that young mothers could quickly return to fieldwork. This further broke familial bonds that might interfere with obedience to the master. So it’s not surprising that Frederick Douglass barely knew his mother. The last time he saw his mother was when she walked 12 miles to take him upon her knee briefly, which he said made him feel like a king upon a throne.
His grandmother kept him blissfully unaware of his inevitable separation from his mother. When he was moved to Baltimore, he briefly nurtured a relationship with his master’s wife, Mrs. Sofia, who began teaching him to read. As he cared for her son Tommy, Douglass felt like Tommy’s half-brother. After her husband chastised her for coddling the boy, Sofia withdrew and grew cold toward him. Despite having been severed from the early matriarchal influences in his life, Douglass deeply valued the leadership of women activists. He expressed deep gratitude to Harriet Beecher Stowe for the “services which you have already rendered my afflicted and persecuted people” by writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He lauded Harriet Tubman for her “superior labors and devotion to the cause.”
Understanding that liberty should be extended to all, Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention promoting women’s rights. He worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, despite some racist beliefs, helped him to move, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “from a narrow abolitionism toward a broader humanism.” Douglass became known as “a women’s-rights-man.” [A future blog will draw attention to the split between Douglass and Stanton over whether to forgo demanding the vote for women in order to first secure the vote for freed Blacks.]
Nearer the end of his life, Douglass proclaimed, “When the true history of the anti-slavery cause shall be written, woman will occupy a large space in its pages; for the cause of the slave has been particularly woman’s cause. Her heart and her conscience have supplied in large degree its motive and mainspring. Her skill, industry, patience, and perseverance have been wonderfully manifest in every trial hour.” (274)
The trial hours continue into today, and we are still fighting for inclusion. Much of the racial justice movement is still cis-gender, heterosexual male dominated. Emergent modern movements, however, carry the legacy of woman and queer-led struggles for justice. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by three women – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Movements like Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) are led by black queer activists and organizers like Charlene Carruthers. In their honor, and in Douglass’, let’s remember to fight for an all-encompassing liberty that emancipates people regardless of gender expression, orientation, and identity.
- Lesson #21: Appreciate the traumatic generational effects of slavery’s attack on the integrity of black families.
- Lesson #22: Our immigration and criminal justice policies and institutions continue to separate families as a tool of oppression.
- Lesson #23: Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped awaken northern sympathies for slaves and was a major contributing factor to the start of the Civil War.
- Lesson #24: The influence of women is often overlooked in social justice causes.
- Lesson #25: Black Lives Matter is about more than black lives.
Further recommended sources:
Khan-Cullors, Patrisse, and asha bandele. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.
This powerful memoir by “a mother and a wife, a community organizer and Queer, an artist and a dreamer” reveals the resilience one of the founders of #blacklivesmatter who persevered in post-Reagan safety-net-less America. It reminds us that in this country, one that often pursued Frederick Douglass to arrest him, the line between being treated as a hero and terrorist is a thin one.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Frederick Douglass: ‘A Women’s Rights Man’” in The Atlantic (September 30, 2011), as found at: https://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2011/09/frederick-douglass-a-womens-rights-man/245977/
Next blog: Douglass, Property, and Reparations
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About this project:
This particular year-long commitment – which I am calling “400 Years” – is aimed mainly at people like me: people who identify as white, accept that racism gives them privileges, and want to confront systemic racism more consistently and constructively. Of course anyone can support the project, but my main hope is to encourage self-identifying whites who want to increase their efforts to confront racism and deconstruct white supremacy. I don’t intend on spending time trying to convince people who resist anti-racism activism. I want to help those who want to practice anti-racism to do it more often and more effectively.
This project will focus mainly on how racism in the United States has hurt Africans and their descendants. While non-whites from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East are often brutal victims of racism, I have been taught most by victims who happen to be black.
So when white people wanting to be more active in anti-racism ask me, “Where do I start?”, I often say, “Start with the history. People of color have already shared their wisdom in countless writings from slave narratives to peer reviewed articles to award winning historical works.” The weight of 400 years of race-based oppression fuels my commitment. Perhaps it will help you with your own efforts to deconstruct white supremacy.