Today, Frederick Douglass seems a formidable and imposing figure, his speech eloquent, inspiring, provocative and fiery. He was certainly all of this and more. But he also made people laugh. During the antebellum years, lecturing alongside an uncompromising firebrand like Henry Highland Garnet could mean broken bones (and Douglass himself could attest to this), lecturing with Douglass usually meant getting out unscathed, outwitting the enemy, and perhaps even changing some minds — even if his humor bothered some critics.
But as Billy Kersands, a renowned African American blackface performer, once said without a trace of a smile, “Son, if they hate me, I’m still whipping them, because I’m making them laugh.” While Douglass wrote caustically about white blackface performers and earlier African American blackface performers such as Gavitt’s Serenaders, I think that he shared Kersands’ assessment of the power of humor.
Douglass’s humor ranged from the self deprecating to the bitingly caustic. He wielded humor to defuse tense situations, but, perhaps more importantly, he used it as an activist strategy to forward the abolitionist cause and as a powerful tool in the fight for equal rights. Often these moments of humor were simply that — moments inserted to defuse tension or to skewer a point with precision. Other times, Douglass used extended routines to drive home his points and pull his audience right along with him.
One of his most powerful extended uses of humor is when he takes on the persona of a white preacher addressing a slave congregation (the actual audience being made up of largely white attendees and hecklers at abolitionist meetings). This text is from a meeting in Scotland in 1846, but he used versions of this speech for years across America, too. The speech presented below is excerpted from a newspaper account, and it includes parenthetical asides relating the audience’s responses. The reporter sets up the speech, saying that Douglass was going to
give them a sketch of a sermon which he had often heard preached. The text was ‘Servants obey your masters.” He would divide it into separate heads, and here he was going to imitate the preacher, for he wanted to show them how rantingly, how piously he might appear when in the service of the wicked one himself. Mr. Douglass then in tones of mimic solemnity gave the following epitome of the discourse:
—”Servants obey your masters.”
–You should obey your masters, in the first place, because your happiness depends on your obedience. (Cheers and laughter.) Now, servants, such is the relation constituted by the Almighty between cause and effect, that there can be no happiness neither in this world nor the world to come save by obedience; and it is a fact, that whenever you see misery, wretchedness, and poverty, want and distress, all is the result of disobedience. (Laughter.) Peculiarly is this the case with yourselves. Under the providence of God, you sustain a very peculiar relation to your masters. The term “servant” in the text means slave, and you will of consequence perceive that this is a message to you by the mouth of the Apostle; so as a preacher of the Gospel I beg you to listen to the words of wisdom. (Great laughter.)
–I said it was peculiarly the case that your happiness depends upon your obedience. It is verily true, and suffer me to illustrate this position by the statement of a fact. A neighbour of mine sent his servant Sam into the fields to perform a certain amount of labour which ought to have taken him two hours and a half. Now, by the way, his master was a pious soul, and after having waited till the expiration of the time which he had allotted to Sam for the performance of the work, he went out into the field, as he was accustomed to do, for the purpose of ascertaining why Sam was detained. (Laughter.) When he went, lo and behold, there lay Sam, his hoe in one place, and Sam fast asleep in the corner of the fence. (Great laughter and cheers.) Think of the feelings of that pious master. Oh! it was a trying situation for a servant of the Lord to be placed in. (Laughter.) He went “to the law and to the testimony” to know his duty, and he there found it written, that “the servant who knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Accordingly, he took up Sam, and lashed him till he was not able to bear it. Now this is the point I want to come to. To what was Sam’s whipping traceable? (Cheers and laughter.) Solely to disobedience. (Much laughter.) If you would be happy, therefore, and not be whipped, you will avoid sleeping when you should be working, for if you would enjoy and live under the sunshine of your master’s good pleasure, let me implore you, as one who loves your souls, ”be obedient to your masters.” (Cheers and laughter.)
–You should obey your masters, in the second place, because of a sense of gratitude for your present situation compared with what it might have been. You should be inspired by a knowledge of the fact, that the Lord, in his mercy, brought you from Africa to this Christian country. (Shouts of laughter.) Oh! this is an important consideration, and one to which I will call your attention for a few moments. Your fathers—and I dread to enter upon the picture—were taken from Africa—degraded, lost, and ruined Africa—darkness may be said to cover that earth, and gross darkness that people—to be brought into the sunshine of this land of freedom. (Laughter.) Continue reading →
An excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” An example of a use of humor (specifically his call to mockery at approximately 3:00) of a great power.