frederick douglass on love & motherhood / "i do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. she was with me in the night"


"My mother was named Harriet Bailey. She was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey, both colored, and quite dark. My mother was of a darker complexion than either my grandmother or grandfather ... My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant -- before I knew her as my mother. It is a common [slave owner] 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 ... 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 from his or her master to the contrary—a permission which they seldom get, and one that gives to him that gives it the proud name of being a kind master. 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, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. 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."
-Frederick Douglass (1845, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave")

I remember reading this narrative and referring back to it more than once. However, only recently did I remember this part. It popped into my head during a conversation with sister-friends of mine. We spoke on life, love, humanity, freedom and nation-building with our brothers. And I remembered Mama Harriet Bailey, mother to Frederick Douglass, and I thought of her walking in the night to see her son while he slept. It brought me to tears actually. I cannot imagine the resilience and will-power it would take to work from before sun up to after the sun is down and then to walk however many miles to see your child, if only in his sleep.

That is love. And it is also freedom. And it is one of the many definitions of motherhood. It is absolutely everything. And despite the brief encounters he had with her, he remembered those moments. I don't know what more we will ever learn about her, but this fact alone speaks to her character. And, we have evidence to prove how often things like this happened, how many times our Ancestors elevated in spirit to accomplish great acts of selflessness, love, righteousness, peace and harmony in the face of the exact opposite. This inspires me to no end and it forces me to understand what this life is all about.

The determination to accomplish the goal of balance by whatever means necessary. Mama Harriet understood that she needed to be with her son (and that he needed to see her face, if even through the darkness of the night) and she made the decision to do so in spite of all of the "logical" reasons not to. I can only imagine the journey through the night, in the rain or the cold, or what may have happened if ever she were late to return. But she did it still, and that made the difference because he was able to remember even that. How powerful and extraordinary.

God Bless her soul. She lives in her example and in the great contributions of her son to the world during and after his lifetime. His name still continues and her long walks were not in vain. Every investment is powerful, every part that each of us plays to ensure liberation and a return to the balance that true freedom possesses. It is necessary and we must continue to be vigilant in our deeds.

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