Why Age Matters—Frederick Douglass and Childhood Birthday Parties

American Literature, Editors

Rebecca Reese

“Age is nothing but a number.” “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” “Age is matter of feeling, not years.” “Age doesn’t matter, unless you’re cheese.”

These are all quotes about age that I’m sure you have heard at some point in your life. Everyone seems to think that your age does not matter very much. People use this excuse to support romantic relationships between two people who have a significant difference in age. People say that age and experience should matter when it comes to getting a job. People say that your age should not define who you are.

But what if you did not know your age? Wouldn’t you feel like something was missing? As much as people try not to make a big deal out age, it is a big deal.

Frederick Douglass had no idea of his real age. The best idea he had of even his birth year came when he overheard one of his masters mention that Douglass was around seventeen years old. Since the year was 1835, Douglass began adding to seventeen from then on to keep up with his general age. Douglass also knew of an older man, Barney, who did not know his own age; in Douglass’s narrative he states that Barney was estimated anywhere between fifty and sixty.

In today’s day and age it is impossible to go anywhere without someone asking your age. You get asked by distant family members at holidays, who then act shocked at “how much you have grown” as if a year must be a different amount of time to them than it is to you. You get asked by the cashier at Walmart when you are sick as a dog with a cold and just want to buy some NyQuil, but since you are so sick and do not have any makeup on, the cashier assumes that you are far from being eighteen years old. You get asked by the bartender when you order that fruity cocktail or frothy beer (of course, this would not refer to any SWU students #eamSWU). You get asked by the DMV worker, and even have to prove your age, when you go to get your permit, license, or license renewal. You get asked about million times by the doctor whether you are there for a check-up or a sore throat.

I am currently sitting in the hospital room with my Poppy, waiting to get answers from a doctor for the third day in a row with no hope of receiving any news until tomorrow. Every time a doctor or nurse comes in to help him with something or take him downstairs for another test, the same question comes out of their mouth, “What is your name and birth date?” Of course they are not asking in order to know his age, they need to make sure they are taking the right person to the right place, but it is just another example of how important knowing when you were brought into this world is.

Am I the only one who would always flip to my birthday when I got a new calendar? It was almost as if I was afraid they forget that day. I had to make sure that they did not forget Becca Day. Some of my favorite memories are from my childhood birthday parties: being petrified by Chuck-E-Cheese, sucking at skating at Frye’s Roller Rink, and going to the opening night of “The Hobbit: Part 2” at the local Gem Theater because it came out on Becca Day.

Douglass, Barney, and many other slaves did not get the pleasure of having their own day. It seems like such a small thing, but it really defines so many things that we do. Age is not “just a number:” it is a part of who we are.


  • I can’t imagine not knowing my age. On my birthday this year, the same sound clip from Mamma Mia went through my head about a hundred times. Sophie, asked how old she was, yelled “I’M TWENTY!” I heard it over and over again. I was finally 20. If I didn’t have an idea how old I was, I would be so lost. Even looking at my sister, if I didn’t know how old we were, I would think she was older than me. I’m glad we get to know how old we are. If I were in Douglass’ position there would probably be a lot of existential crises related to age coming out of me.

  • Wow your post is well written and makes such a good point. We don’t really pay attention to how big of a cultural practice it is to celebrate birthdays. We take for granted the fact that we know our age. That was one more way that slaves were made less than human. They were not even given the courtesy of knowing their age. They also had so much more to be concerned about than being able to take time to celebrate their birth. Often, we see writings from slaves where they wish they hadn’t been born at all. Your post was a good reminder that there are so many little things that we take for granted.

  • I am so glad that you chose this topic for your post! It’s an interesting topic that most people in today’s society can relate to. I find it rather ironic that we claim age is “just a number” when we often place a lot of emphasis on certain ages such as 16, 18, 21, and so on. Our age is important, it’s a part of who we are as a person.

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