By Christopher B. Daly
BY TRADITION, today is the day that marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, a towering figure in American history known for his journalism, his public speaking, his opposition to slavery, his support of women’s rights, and much more. But in fact, no one can be sure of the date of Douglass’s actual birthday, for a simple reason: He was born into slavery, and most slaves were never told the exact date of their birth.
As Douglass wrote in the powerful opening to his Narrative:
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. . .
I have always found that line comparing the status of a slave to that of a horse to be stunning. It epitomizes the evil of chattel slavery.