Frederick Douglass was an emancipated slave who passed from one master to another until he finally found the satisfaction of being his own; he went through almost as many names as masters. His mother's family name, traceable at least as far back as 1701 was Bailey, the name he bore until his flight to freedom in 1838. His father may or may not have been a white man named Anthony, but Douglass never firmly validated or rejected this possibility. During transit to New York (where he became a freedman) his name became
Stanley, and upon arrival he changed it again to Johnson. In New Bedford, where there were too many Johnson's, he found it necessary to change it once more, and his final choice was Douglass, taken, as suggested to him by a white friend and benefactor, from a story by Sir Walter Scott (although the character in that story bore only a single 's' in his name).
All throughout, he clung to Frederick, to 'preserve a sense of my identity' (Norton, 1988).
This succession of names is illustrative of the transformation undergone by one returning from the world of the dead, which in a sense is what the move from oppression to liberty is. Frederick Douglass not only underwent a transformation but, being intelligent and endowed with the gift of Voice, he brought back with him a sharp perspective on the blights of racism and slavery. Dropped into America during the heat of reform as he was, his
appearance on the scene of debate, upon his own self-emancipation, was a valuable blessing for the abolitionists. In their struggles so far, there had been many skilled arguers but few who could so convincingly portray the evils of slavery, an act which seemed to demand little short of firsthand experience, but...