The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was written by Frederick Douglass himself. He was born into slavery in Tuckahoe, Maryland, in approximately 1817.
He has, “…no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it” (47). He became known as an eloquent speaker for the cause of the abolitionists. Having himself been kept as a slave until he escaped from Maryland in 1838, he was able to deliver very passionate speeches about the role of the slave holders and the slaves.
Many Northerners tried to discredit his tales, but no one was ever able to disprove his statements.
Frederick Douglass does offer a biased review of slavery, as he was born into it, yet even in his bias he is able to detect and detail the differences in the slave holders cruelty and that to which he was subjected. From being whipped and humiliated daily, “a very severe whipping… for being awkward” (101), to being able to find his own work and save some money, “I was able to command the highest wages given to the most experienced calkers” (134), he is able to give the reader a more true picture of slavery.
His moving speeches raised the anger of many Northerners, yet many still felt the slaves deserved their position in life. Douglass, for his own safety, was urged to travel to England where he stayed and spoke until 1847 when he returned to the U.
S. to buy his freedom. At that point, he began to write and distribute an anti-slavery newspaper called “The North Star”. Not only did he present news to the slaves, but it was also highly regarded as a good source of information for those opposed to slavery.
During the Civil war, Douglass organized two regiments of black soldiers in Massachusetts to fight for the North. Before, during and after the war he continued his quest to free all the slaves. He became known as a fair and righteous man and was appointed as the U.S.
Minister of Haiti after holding several government offices. Frederick Douglass has woven many themes into his narrative, all being tied with a common thread of man’s inhumanity towards man. Children were uprooted from the arms of their mothers, “before the child has reached it’s twelfth month, it’s mother is taken from it” (48) and sold to other slave holders. Brutal whippings occurred for even the smallest imagined offense, “a mere look, word, or motion” (118), women were treated as no better than common concubines and the slaves were forced into living quarters, “on one common bed… cold, damp floor” (55) worse than some of the farm animals.
The slaves were not allowed even the most meager portion of food, “eight pounds of pork and one bushel of corn meal” (54) to last a month. Clothes were scarce and illness was never tolerated. It was unthinkable for the slaves to practice any type of religion, hold any gatherings, become literate to any degree, “unlawful… unsafe, to teach a slave to read” (78) or even make the simple decision of when to eat and sleep. One of the themes that the book dealt with is society and it’s handling of slavery under the guise of Christianity.
Those who professed to being the most Christian i.e., the minister who lived next door, was actually the most cruel. Douglass stated adamantly that religion was, “a mere covering for the most horrid of crimes, – justifier of… barbarity- sanctifier of… hateful fraud, …protection for the slave holder” (117).
“Religious slave holders are the worst” (117) because they thought it was their duty to “whip his slaves” (118). While being in the community of religious leaders, Douglass was subjected to the “meanest… most cruel” (117) acts of one human being towards another. The slaves were kept down, belittled and whipped into submission all under the tenets of Christianity. The Rev.
Weeden, Rev. Hopkins and Mr. Freeland felt it was not only their right to own slaves, but also their God-given right to take these ‘human beings’ and turn them into hard workers. Not only are we allowed a chronological view of Frederick Douglass’ life, we are also privy to the growth of his emotional maturity as he explores the value of becoming a free man, “looked forward… safe to escape… too young to go immediately… consoled myself with hope” (86).
It is the gradual realization that the more Douglass is treated fairly, “deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me in its foul embrace” (75), the more he wants to be free and the more inhumanly he is treated, “raised his musket… aim at his standing victim… Demby [a slave shot unjustly] was no more… horror flashed through every soul upon the plantation” (67) the more he accepts his plight as a slave that opens up his major theme. He comes to realize that the slaves lose their personality and identity the more submissive and down trodden they become. Unable to think of only protecting their survival, they begin to believe they are unworthy of being saved. As they are awarded more freedoms, the slaves begin to realize that what has been taken from them is actually their right to have, “a city slave is almost a freeman” (79).
Freedom looks more and more precious the closer they are to achieving it until it becomes an obsession and they will fight to the death to become freemen. The literary work the Narrative expresses two main views of women, neither of which are to be taken as positive values even in the 1800’s. In a very unfavorable light, Douglass tells the reader that slave women were expected to work alongside the men doing the same hard, dirty labor or they were used to watch the children when they become, “too old for field labor” (48). In Narrative, Mr.
Covey, “buys one slave… for a breeder” (105). The men in Narrative believe women are only good for sex and they do not hesitate to use them as such. Another example is that Frederick’s father was, “whispered… my master was my father [Captain Anthony]” (49). The slave holder was not above satisfying his sexual urges by the usage of black slaves.
The book was easily digested and powerful yet Douglass softened the tone by not becoming graphic when he had every right to do so. This was the first publication of the book and it would be interesting to see how much “gentler” he was by the third rewrite. Published by the Anti Slavery Committee, it was definitely biased against the slave holder but Douglass seemed to write fairly of his experiences especially since he was able to relate both good and bad experiences with his slave owners. Douglass’ words sum it up the best, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man
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