Born into slavery, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey became one of the most influential social reformers of the 19th Century. Better known as Frederick Douglass, this remarkable storyteller bespeaks a childhood with “no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse linen shirt, reaching only to my knees,” a time when his feet were so “cracked with the frost that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.” He and the other children on the farm, he says, were fed coarse boiled corn served in a trough set upon the floor. This runaway slave, whose exploits eventually led him to become an adviser to Abraham Lincoln, tells us of a society where slaveholders more readily remembered the names of their horses than the names of their slaves. He lived at a time when it was not unusual for farmers to father their own slaves, and when local preachers spoke of the divinely designed nature of slavery. The South, as we know, took every pain to take everything away from its slaves: parents and children, their sense of family, their ability to read and add. In the case of Douglass, what the South could not take away was his “capacity for indignation,” to borrow the phrase from Alberto Flores Galindo, a Peruvian Marxist historian interested in colonialism and the nature of the colonized mind. And it was this capacity, which allowed Douglass to squeeze “drop by drop the slave of himself and [to wake up] one fine morning feeling that real human blood, not a slave’s, is flowing in his veins,” as Chekhov put it.
Natural as it seems, this capacity for indignation should not be taken for granted. Additionally, we cannot assume that when we feel it, this moral sentiment will be necessarily proportional to the magnitude of the offense that confronts us. Consider, for example, the story of the slaves who voluntarily joined the Confederate Army. The St. Petersburg Times recounts the story of “a young slave from a Tennessee plantation named Louis Napoleon Nelson, who went to war as . . .
Read more: Two Slaves and the Capacity for Indignation