Frederick Douglass in and on Baltimore

It occurred to me Friday morning that Frederick Douglass spent quite a bit of time in Baltimore as a slave. So I re-read his Narrative and wrote a column for Salon:

Across the street from Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall, where violent protests erupted last Monday afternoon, stands Frederick Douglass High School. It was from that school that students emerged at 3 p.m., only to find themselves in the crosshairs of the police. The school is named after the famed abolitionist who spent 10 years a slave in Baltimore. Anyone familiar with Douglass’ most famous work—”Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself“—cannot but feel a bitter irony in that juxtaposition of Douglass High and the riots of the past week. For once upon a time, Baltimore offered Douglass a glimpse of freedom, which “laid the foundation and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”

There was, in short, something about the city itself, with its forcible confrontation of difference, that made a difference. Especially in the life of this black slave: “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation.”

Historical comparison, across the divide of two centuries, is a risky business. But it’s hard not to reread Douglass’ “Narrative” against the grain of this week’s events in Baltimore and the decades of urban poverty and police brutality that preceded them. Though urban life has experienced a revival across the U.S. in recent years, that revival is premised not on a mixing of racial and economic categories, a meeting of different peoples and nations of the sort described by Douglass, but instead on a grim machine of racial absolutism and economic separation.

Even more jarring is Douglass’ contrast between the coercion of the countryside and the relative (I stress that word) freedom of the city. So tyrannical was the regime of the plantation and its satellites that Douglass resorted to the most political of metaphors to describe it. The plantation is “the seat of government for the whole twenty farms” surrounding it.

Today’s city—if you’re working class or of color—is also policed heavily. But where the plantation’s police—the overseer, the slave patrols—did their damnedest to wrest every last ounce of labor from the slave, today’s police keep watch over the unemployed or semi-employed. In the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray—whose death while in police custody sparked the riots—grew up, one in four juveniles is arrested and the unemployment rate is 58 percent. The plantation’s police extracted labor; the city’s police preside over its disposal.

Read more.


  1. xenon2 May 3, 2015 at 1:47 pm | #

    I don’t read David Brooks, but I like to criticize him when I come upon such stuff.Here, he is blaming the poor people of Baltimore
    I worked for War on Poverty, and I agree with the conclusion of the article.

    Brooks appeared on TV, just to make sure those poor people would be even poorer Brooks is pro-TPP.
    Very short bit about the TPP, TV-audience.

    Fast Track on TPP, is in congress now.

  2. Mushin May 3, 2015 at 5:58 pm | #

    “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! Had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.” Frederick Douglass

  3. Glenn May 4, 2015 at 12:25 pm | #

    I remember Frederick Douglass working in a Baltimore shipyard and then going back with his shipyard pay to his owner, who had to allow him some pittance for subsistence.

    After graduating from college I, along with many others I graduated with, was unable to get that first job. So I went to a temp agency who was happy to farm me out to a corporation that was happy to have me work without any commitment to me, such as health care, vacation days, living wage, etc.

    I was able to find out that the $9.00 per hour I was paid by the temp agency left the agency with the remainder of the $27.00 per hour the agency was paid by the corporation.

    My boss felt so bad about how I was being screwed by the company he worked for and the agency I worked for, he told the agency to charge the company $28.00 per hour so they could pay me $10.00 per hour without hurting their bottom line.

    I was really able to identify with Douglass. I wasn’t a slave, but the cash flow dynamic hit me in the same way as it did him, even if not as extreme.

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