From Bondage to Freedom: An Imagined Dialogue On American Slavery Between Frederick Douglass and His 21st Century Counterpart

by Debra Brown Steinberg and Rebecca Segall

Frederick Douglass, a self-emancipated 19th century American slave, who dedicated his life to “attack[ing] slavery in all its forms and aspects,”1 discusses American slavery with his 21st century counterpart—a modern-day survivor of human trafficking in America.

A Girl Anyplace in America Today: I was 12 when my stepfather began calling me his “pretty thing” and told me I belonged to him. When my mother tried to stop him from hurting me, he beat her near to death in front of me. After that, she couldn’t look at me anymore; she would leave the room and shut the door so she wouldn’t see or hear what he did to me. I ran away.

Alone, scared, living on the streets with no place to go, I met a man with a nice smile, who offered me a hot meal and a safe place to sleep. He took me in, then he broke me down. He raped me. He beat me. He threatened to kill me. But, always after hurting me, he would tell me he loved me, buy me something nice, and promise: “If you behave, I’ll take care of you.”

But, he made me his property, branded his name on my neck to mark me like property. He sold me to men for their pleasure and his profit. Then he sold me to another pimp, who moved me—his “product”—to a different city, where he posted my picture on websites, lied about my age, and sold me to 10, maybe more, johns a night.

Frederick Douglass: “I was A SLAVE—born a slave.”2 The “breaking process”3 began for me when “[m]y mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother.”4 When I was not more than eight years old, “I was doomed to be a witness”5 to my master’s heartless whipping of a defenseless slave-woman. “Here she stood, on a bench, her arms tightly drawn over her breast. Behind her stood my old master, with cowskin in hand… . The screams of his victim were most piercing. He was cruelly deliberate, and protracted the torture… . I was hushed, terrified, stunned, and could do nothing… .”6 “I expected it would be my turn next.”7

“This was the first of a long series of such outrages… . It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass.”8 Under “the merciless lash” of my master,9 I was “humbled, degraded, broken down, enslaved, and brutalized,”10 “broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed; the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”11

The Girl: You were born a slave. But I was born free. I wasn’t held in chains. The door was open, but I didn’t have the courage to run away.

Frederick Douglass: “[I]t was a long time before I knew myself to be a slave.”12 A slave is “a piece of property … to be bought or sold at the will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; he is spoken of, thought of, and treated as property. His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and wishes of the master are the law of the slave. He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property. If he is clothed, it is with a view to the increase of his value as property… . He is carefully deprived of everything that tends in the slightest degree to detract from his value as property… . This is American slavery… .”13

Like you, “I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.”14 I was told “I could go nowhere but that he could get me; and that, in the event of my running away, he should spare no pains in his efforts to catch me. He exhorted me to content myself, and be obedient. He told me, if I would be happy, I must lay out no plans for the future. He said, if I behaved myself properly, he would take care of me. Indeed, he advised me to complete thoughtlessness of the future, and taught me to depend solely upon him for happiness. He seemed to see fully the pressing necessity of setting aside my intellectual nature, in order to find contentment in slavery. But in spite of him, and even in spite of myself, I continued to think, and to think about the injustice of my enslavement, and the means of escape.”15

The Girl: Other girls I know tried to get away, to escape “the life.” But it’s hard to get out, and they came back.

Frederick Douglass: “Some apology can easily be made for the few slaves who have, after making good their escape, turned back to slavery, preferring the actual rule of their masters, to the life of loneliness, apprehension, hunger, and anxiety, which meets them on their first arrival in a free state. It is difficult for a freeman to enter into the feelings of such fugitives. He cannot see things in the same light with the slave, because he does not, and cannot, look from the same point from which the slave does… . It takes stout nerves to stand up, in such circumstances.”16

“No man can tell the intense agony which is felt by the slave, when wavering on the point of making his escape. All that he has is at stake; and even that which he has not, is at stake, also. The life which he has, may be lost, and the liberty which he seeks, may not be gained.”17 But, for me, “[t]he thought of only being a creature of the present and past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future—a future with hope in it… . The intense desires … to be free, … brought me to the determination to act, as well as to think and speak.”18

The Girl: What does it feel like, after you escape, to know you’re free?

Frederick Douglass: “[I]n a moment like that, sensations are too intense and too rapid for words.”19 “I was now living in a new world… .”20 “… I became my own master, and assumed for myself, as I had a right to do, the responsibility of my own existence and the exercise of my own powers.”21

To be sure, “[f]or a time, every door seemed closed against me… . I was without home, without friends, without work, without money, and without any definite knowledge of which way to go, or where to look for succor.”22 “[A]t last [I] was forced to go in search of an honest man—a man sufficiently human not to betray me into the hands of slave-catchers. I was not a bad reader of the human face, nor long in selecting the right man… .”23 “I told him I was running for my freedom—knew not where to go—money almost gone—was hungry—thought it was unsafe to go to the shipyards for work, and needed a friend. [He] promptly put me in the way of getting out of my trouble. He took me to his house, and went in search of the late David Ruggles,” an abolitionist and officer on the underground railroad, who arranged my safe passage to New Bedford, where I found work in my trade and was able “to enter[] upon the exercise of the rights, responsibilities, and duties of a freeman.”24

“The thoughts—‘I can work! I can work for a living; I am not afraid of work; I have no [slave master] to rob me of my earnings’—placed me in a state of independence, beyond seeking friendship or support of any man. That day’s work I considered the real starting point of something like a new existence.”25

The Girl: I’ve suffered scars even you can’t see. The thought of escape fills me with fear. How will I survive? Who will help me when I have nowhere to go, no money, nothing to eat, no job, no friend on the outside?

Frederick Douglass: You “have suffered in slavery; I can say, I too have suffered. [You will take] risks and encounter[] hardships in the flight from bondage; I can say, I too have endured and risked… . [With courage and resolve, you will] live[] to enjoy the fruits of victory, [as] I can say, I too live[d] and rejoice[d].”26 Remember always: “It is not even within the power of slavery to write indelible sorrow, at a single dash, over the heart of a child.”27



  1. Masthead of The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper established by Frederick Douglass, on December 3, 1847, in Rochester, New York (“The object of the North Star will be to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate universal emancipation; exalt the standard of public morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and hasten the day of freedom to the three millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen.”). 

  2. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855), at p. 35, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm

  3. Id., at p. 172. 

  4. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston, 1845), at p. 2, available at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html

  5. Id., at p. 6. 

  6. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855), at pp. 67-68, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm

  7. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston, 1845), at p. 8, available at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html 

  8. Id., at p. 6. 

  9. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855), at p. 73, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm

  10. Id., at p. 173. 

  11. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston, 1845), at p. 63, available at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html; Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855), at p. 170, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm

  12. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855), at p. 29, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm

  13. Id., at p. 318. 

  14. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston, 1845), at p. 14, available at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html; Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855), at pp. 76-77, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm

  15. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston, 1845), at p. 103, available at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html

  16. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855), at p. 264, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm

  17. Id., at p. 219. 

  18. Id., at p. 211. 

  19. Id., at p. 262. 

  20. Id., at p. 272. 

  21. Id., at p. 207. 

  22. Id., at pp. 263-264. 

  23. Id., at p. 265. 

  24. Id., at pp. 265-266. 

  25. Id., at p. 271. 

  26. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass Written by Himself (Boston, 1892), at p. 582, available at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/dougl92/dougl92.html

  27. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855), at p. 30, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm