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A Baltimore Education

A new edition of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography reminds us of the importance of Baltimore in his life, and his importance in the life of the city

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as close as it came to killing him, Baltimore, Douglass wrote, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Frederick Douglass

Penguin Classics

Down at the end of Thames Street you can visit Frederick Douglass’ head, as I find myself doing from time to time, usually late at night and in an hour of personal tribulation following some beers. It’s a mascot-sized head, a magnificent piece of bronze that reminds me of some of the statuary I’ve seen in former communist countries. (A Czech tourist, glimpsing the ample beard from a distance, might be forgiven for thinking it was actually Karl Marx on the Chesapeake.) The sense of being dwarfed by Douglass’ brain and bearing can be reproduced by picking up the new Penguin Classics edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, his first autobiography, which was originally published in 1845, after the great abolitionist and orator had escaped north but before he was legally a free man. It’s short enough to read over a sandwich at Broadway Market, and by the time you’ve finished the harrowing, poignant account of his 20 years a slave—many of them spent just blocks from where you swivel on your stool—you won’t remember another sandwich tasting better.

Frederick Douglass is called Frederick Bailey and is either seven or eight when he arrives in Baltimore from Talbot County on the Eastern Shore (Colonel Lloyd’s plantation didn’t exactly have a medical records department) to begin work at his new master’s home “in Alliciana Street, near Mr. Gardner’s shipyard, on Fell’s Point.” It’s here that the lady of the house, Sophia Auld, begins teaching young Fred the alphabet until her furious husband informs her that, for a slave, Baltimore is not The City That Reads but rather The City That Never Reads, Ever, Or Else; a literate slave, Mr. Auld mansplains patiently, “would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” That game-giving insight proves to be all the convincing Douglass needs to continue his studies by any means necessary. “In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress,” he writes. “I acknowledge the benefit of both.” Historians can only speculate just how uncomfortable dinners at the Auld family home became in the week this book hit shelves.

Enrolling himself literally in the school of the streets, Douglass sneaks reading lessons with his white friends, “hungry little urchins” who accept his gifts of bread in exchange for “that more valuable bread of knowledge.” For a notebook he uses “the board fence, brick wall, and pavement,” while “my pen and ink was a lump of chalk.” It reads like a passage out of Dickens, but it’s all out of Douglass. (There’s a Dickensian touch, also, in the names of Douglass’ bloodthirsty Eastern Shore overseers, arch-rednecks called Mr. Severe and Mr. Gore.) His lifelong project to overwrite the story determined for him by his oppressors begins with graffiti in the alleys of Fell’s Point.

There are dark years spent back across the bay as a teenager, shuffled between various Dixie gulags near St. Michaels (including a particularly bad stint in the care of a “slave-breaker” that ends in a physical confrontation—which Douglass wins). When he finally returns to Baltimore as a young man, he is as set on getting the hell out as he was on teaching himself to read. It’s only the thought of having to leave “friends that I loved almost as I did my life” that gives him pause. Douglass does not reveal the details of his self-kidnapping in this book (imagine the ringleader of a recent bank heist announcing how and with whom he did it), and while he does expose his owners, overseers, and masters, he stops short of naming the names of some helpful people whose safety or mere reputations might be endangered by their association with him. It’s for these anonymous people that Douglass reserves his warmest feelings, “those little Baltimore boys” chief among them. As he writes it after the fact, his peculiar feeling for the city seems like an inmate’s for the least-shitstreaked of all his cellblocks.

It’s not such a small thing that by the end of this year, 171 years after this book was first published, the so-called Free State could be looking at its first African-American governor. The Narrative is one Baltimore story that we all should know, here again to remind us of a time when the same water that floats paddle boats in our happy harbor was used for trafficking people. For as close as it came to killing him, Baltimore, Douglass wrote, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”

It wasn’t until over a year after this book was published that Douglass’ freedom was bought with money raised by abolitionists in Britain. Seven hundred eleven dollars and sixty-six cents is how much Frederick Douglass cost; Penguin’s list price is thirteen. The man who wrote the city deserves to be read by it.

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