The price of truth telling

Daily Reading for February 20 • Frederick Douglass, Prophetic Witness, 1895

The real feelings and opinions of the slaves were not much known or respected by their masters. The distance between the two was too great to admit of such knowledge; and in this respect Col. Lloyd was no exception to the rule. His slaves were so numerous he did not know them when he saw them. Nor, indeed, did all his slaves know him. It is reported of him, that riding along the road one day, he met a colored man, and addressed him in what was the usual way of speaking to colored people on the public highways of the South: “Well, boy, who do you belong to?” “To Col. Lloyd,” replied the slave. “Well, does the Colonel treat you well?” “No, sir,” was the ready reply. “What, does he work you hard?” “Yes, sir.” “Well, don’t he give you enough to eat?” “Yes, sir, he gives me enough to eat, such as it is.” The Colonel rode on; the slave also went on about his business, not dreaming that he had been conversing with his master.

He thought and said nothing of the matter, until two or three weeks afterwards, he was informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered from his family and friends by a hand as unrelenting as that of death. This was the penalty of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions.

It was partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, would almost invariably say that they were contented and their masters kind. Slaveholders are known to have sent spies among their slaves to ascertain, if possible, their views and feelings in regard to their condition; hence the maxim established among them, that “a still tongue makes a wise head.” They would suppress the truth rather than take the consequences for telling it, and in so doing they prove themselves a part of the human family. I was frequently asked if I had a kind master, and I do not remember ever to have given a negative reply. I did not consider myself as uttering that which was strictly untrue, for I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up by the slaveholders around us.

From The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History, Written by Himself (Cleveland: Hamilton, Rewell, & Co., 1883).

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