In the autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the author details portions of slavery history in this compelling first-person account.
Slavery history is filled with books about the “peculiar institution” but slave narratives like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass provide a unique primary historical document for students and professors, giving a strong look at events from the perspective of those enslaved.
Frederick Douglass and Slavery History
Douglass’s mother was a slave, and his father a white man, likely his master. He describes being separated from his mother at a young age, and her death when he was approximately seven years old. These facts are laid out succinctly, as if needing to be gotten out of the way in Chapter 1, while Chapter 2 focuses on daily life and the operations of the farm on which he lived.
This narrative, a slim 11 chapters with an appendix, totalling 76 pages, has a goal: to set the record straight on the experiences of slaves. Chapter 3 uses descriptions of a local plantation owner, Colonel Lloyd, to show how demeaning work could be. Chapter 4 describes the killing of slaves by white people. Douglass focuses on the lack of consequences for white murderers of black people, but also on the terror such examples created in slaves, another level of dehumanization.
In Chapter 5 Douglass describes his move to Baltimore, and Chapter 6 is pivotal, for Mrs. Auld, his new mistress, is kind and teaches him to read. Douglass notes that “”From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” and he decided that every bit of education he could receive would be critical. Chapter 7 continues his description of life as a city slave.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Escape
Once Frederick Douglass acquires basic literacy he begins to read more widely, when possible, and becomes despondent when contemplating the plight of the slave. “I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity,” he laments in Chapter 7, and decides to escape.
In Chapter 8 Douglass describes nearly being sent away, and then in Chapter 9 is sent to live with Mr. Auld’s brother, Thomas, who deprived slaves of enough food. “Not to give a slave enough to eat, is regarded as the most aggravated development of meanness even among slaveholders,” he notes.
Thomas Auld had undergone a religious conversion to Methodism shortly before Douglass came under his control, and in this chapter the author discusses this issue as it pertains to Auld: “Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.”
Religion as justification for slavery clearly angers Douglass. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and future writings he zeroes in on this specific use of the Bible and religion and decries it. This section in Chapter 9 is his first printed discussion of the issue, a small seed that grows throughout his body of published works.
Chapter 10 is a turning point in Frederick Douglass’ life as he is sold to a new master, Mr. Covey, and becomes a field hand for the first time. Whipped repeatedly by his new master, Douglass reaches a point of no return with Covey after six months and gets into a physical fight with his master, gaining confidence when Covey backs off. Sent to live with Mr. Freeland, an educated southern gentleman, Douglass is able to create his own school, housed by a freed black, and teach more than 40 fellow slaves how to read.
The chapter ends with a description of a thwarted escape attempt and Douglass being sent out as a skilled apprentice back in Baltimore, where he is more determined than ever to live as a free man. As he notes, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one….He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”
Chapter 11 details the author’s escape; he leaves out the details of his successful escape to New York in 1838, afraid to implicate those who helped. Omitting these details was understandable in 1845, when the book was published, as slavery was still legal and aiding slaves to escape was a crime in many states. Douglass does provide more details in future writings, but this section of the book feels anticlimatic, leaving the reader wanting more.
The Appendix is a diatribe against religion, full of self-righteous indignation about the use of religion to justify slavery. It detracts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and does not blend well with the original manuscript. In the end the book would be better without the final section, standing well as a primary source document from the 1840s and as an articulate, strong slave narrative.
To Buy the Book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Dover Publications, 1995. ISBN: 0-486-28499-9