What Frederick Douglass Failed to Realize About His Mother

When Frederick Douglass was in his late twenties he published “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” He writes about his mother, Harriet Bailey, on the book’s first page.  Here’s an excerpt from his book that is now in public domain:

“My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant — before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.”

In the very next paragraph Frederick Douglass writes:

” I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission…. I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old…. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”

I wish Frederick Douglass had realized that his mother’s love for him had not been blunted by their separation.  She traveled 12 miles on five different nights to be at his side after slaving in a field for 12 hours.  She wore shabby clothes as she snuck through wooded areas in pitch black darkness frightened from second to second that she would be discovered and severely beat.  Despite her fears and the potential brutal consequences, Harriet pressed on to see her son. What type of weather did she endure?  How often did Harriet hear people talking in the distance or dogs barking? How did she find her way?  How many steps did Harriet travel to be reunited with her baby boy and to gaze at him and stroke his face? Was she given a cup of water or something to eat when she arrived? Did someone place a comforting hand on Harriet’s shoulder and say something or nothing or just smile at her in appreciation of her unstoppable, fearless mother-love?  How terrified and weary was Harriet on her return trip?  How exhausted was she the next day when she put in another 12 hours in the field?   I wish her son had considered these things once he had reached adulthood.  I wish Frederick had read his own book that clearly states how deeply his mother cared for him.  I  wish he had recognized that his mother was a brave lioness who refused to let slavery stand in the way of loving him.  Oh, how I wish Frederick had recognized the breadth of her profound love. Oh, how I wish.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kathy hunter on January 4, 2013 at 1:38 am

    Such a sad story. I wish he could have known his mom.


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