Slavery in America was a far different thing than slavery as it had traditionally been known in the past. Unlike the slavery of ancient Greece or other places, for instance, slavery in America was never-ending and gave ultimate rights of life and death to the master. Slaves were forbidden to learn how to read or write, were separated from their families at even very young ages and were regularly beaten as a means of keeping them in line. All of this had the effect of reducing them to the survival instincts of animals, reinforcing concepts that this was all they were capable of. All of this also happened to a man who is known to history as Frederick Douglass, the first black man to appear on a presidential ticket. In his early narrative Frederick Douglass: Life of an American Slave, the author details his early life and education in such a way that he illustrates both the dehumanizing effects of slavery as well as those factors that operated to inspire him to ‘become a man’ rather than remaining in the role of a slave.
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Although his exact birthdate is uncertain, it is believed Frederick Douglass was born sometime in February of 1818 and known that he died on February 20, 1895. His birth name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and he was born in Maryland. “He spent his early years with his grandparents and with an aunt, seeing his mother only four or five times before her death when he was seven” (People and Events, 2008). Although the common perception is that slavery, at least the brutal form of it, was confined mostly in the south and Maryland is typically considered a part of the north, Douglass witnessed many beatings during his first seven years and often was required to endure cold and hunger in his northern home. By eight years old, he was sent to Baltimore where he worked for a ship’s carpenter and learned to read and write. This is where he first became aware that not everyone bought into the idea of slavery (People and Events, 2008). However, by the time he was 15, his probable white father Douglass Aaron Anthony died and Douglass was sent to the farms again where he was cruelly beaten every day by Edward Covey, a known slave breaker (People and Events, 2008). After beating up Covey and attempting to escape, Douglass was sent back to Baltimore still as a slave. However, back in Baltimore, Douglass was able to gain the identification papers of a sailor friend of his and make a second, and this time successful, escape attempt on September 3, 1838 (McElrath, 2008).
He settled as a free man quickly in New Bedford, Massachusetts with his new wife, a free black woman from Baltimore named Anna Murray and the couple had five children together. Beginning in 1841, Douglass began speaking before abolitionist groups about his story and what he’d learned about slavery. He began writing in 1845, producing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and touring the world on speaking engagements encouraged by William Lloyd Garrison (McElrath, 2008). Finally returning to the United States in 1847, Douglass moved his family to New York where he became the publisher for a weekly paper called North Star (McElrath, 2008). Throughout the Civil War, he spent his energies in recruiting black soldiers to fight for the Union Army and began speaking for women’s rights as well as black freedom. He was also the first black man to hold official position and title within the U.S. Government. “From 1877 to 1881, he was the U.S. Marshall of the District of Columbia, from 1881 to 1886 he served as the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and from 1889 to 1891 he was the minister to Haiti” (McElrath, 2008). In 1872 he was nominated to be vice-president of the United States on the Equal Rights Party Ticket, making him the first black man to appear in the presidential race (McElrath, 2008). Douglass died of heart failure at his home on February 20, 1895 having left behind him an amazing career of activism and a rare and valuable collection of impressions and understandings of slavery as seen through the eyes of a man who had experienced it directly in all its horrors and degradations.
Douglass’s narrative begins with his earliest knowledge about himself, which is far less than most people’s self-knowledge and highlights the degree to which black people were considered beasts of the field. Douglass sadly informs the reader that he is uncertain of his age or the day he was born and, although his mother died when he was seven years old, he was relatively unaffected by the news as he had been separated from her since infancy. “Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of [my mother’s] death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” (Ch. 1). In highlighting this unnatural separation of mother and child, Douglass also points out that he never knew who his father was although there had been some rumors that he was a white man. However, the important element of these early chapters is the way in which the slave is created from birth, separated from his family to destroy any natural human feelings of attachment and support and cruelly treated to keep him always in fear. By the time he was seven, he had learned of the death of his mother, watched his aunt brutally whipped and had taken his own place at work in the fields. He describes the life of the slave, illustrating its bestial level of survival existence and the types of behaviors they were expected to exhibit when they were in the presence of their masters.
A turning point in the book seems to come as Douglass begins to describe the singing of the slaves in the fields. Although he took part in the singing, Douglass illustrates how very few people, slave or white person, truly understood the deep significance of these ‘work’ songs. “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear” (Ch. 2). While many white people from the north felt the songs were expressions of happiness at being able to work out in the fields all day and white southerners paid almost no attention to the songs either way, Douglass indicates that many of the slaves caught within the mind-trap of the institution also did not understand the deep significance of the songs they sung. While they understood that the words they were singing were an expression of sadness, Douglass says it required him to become educated and pass outside of the boundaries of slavery, physically and mentally, before he really began to grasp the analytical meaning of the songs as he was informed by education and experience.
By chapter four, Douglass is recounting his experiences as a slave in Baltimore, working for the brother of his master. This is a significant move for him because it is here that he first begins to learn how to read. His master’s wife, Mrs. Auld, begins the process by teaching him the alphabet and how to put together small words, but is reprimanded by her husband who insists that giving a slave this sort of knowledge will cause rebellion. “Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master” (Ch. 6). This was his first turning point as he finally realizes the importance of education as a means of escaping the mindless yoke of slavery and the means by which the white people oppressed black. The realization spurred him to continue learning how to read and to pass this knowledge along to as many of his former slaves as are interested.
The remaining chapters of the book detail Douglass’s return to the brutal forms of slavery of the south under first one, then another master who were particularly cruel. Although his ‘education’ in Baltimore had awakened his humanity and intellect, the brutal treatment experienced under Covey works on his body, mind and spirit to reduce him back to the level of animal. “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (Ch. 10). Throughout this chapter, Douglass continues to focus on the effects of this brutality on the mind and spirit rather than the body as the source of the slaves’ enslavement. Only when he is finally pushed beyond the limits of endurance is he able to overcome the shackles of slavery in his mind and determine to be free.
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At the time, Douglass’s writings served as a mental encouragement to other slaves to overcome the internal bonds that have been placed upon them through the institution and practice of slavery, as long as someone among them could read. He eloquently illustrates his intimate understanding of the various issues that must be overcome for a slave to become a ‘free man’, many of which have the propensity to continue even when there is no master standing over them and illustrates this difficulty for future readers who would otherwise have little conception of these issues. In expressing these ideas, he captures the danger of a mindset in limiting a person’s potentials, regardless of race or gender. These are timeless concepts that continue to keep the minimum wage earner trapped within their own ignorance and misery and the female trapped within old time bonds of women’s place as homemaker and child-bearer. These may be only mental states, rather than physical as Douglass suggests freed slaves often experience, but they are very real. In telling his own story, readers of today catch themselves comparing their own relentless oppression and torment by the ‘system’ to the infinitely more intense relentless oppression and torment by Douglass’ slave owners and realizing that what Douglass overcame, they can too. It is reassuring to know that someone else has understood, someone else has experienced it and someone else, at much greater odds, much greater peril and much greater suffering is yet able to become something else.
Douglass also highlights the importance of education and action as the keys to escaping these bonds. It was only through education that he was able to break free of the mental chains that bound him and would have continued to bind him even after his escape. Education did not make him smart, but it opened his mind to the thoughts that were there. He began to understand the world, even the slave songs of his youth, with a new comprehension that made other things possible. Without this understanding, he might not have attempted to escape his slavery, as he hadn’t before, or he might not have known what to do with himself once he set himself free. His energy and his activism were monumental efforts and not without considerable risk to himself and his family, yet he never wavered or refused to stop speaking for those who had been oppressed, including women in his appeals. Without education, he suggests, one would not have the imagination or the understanding to effect change but without action, education can be rendered meaningless.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Yale University Press, 2001.
McElrath, Jessica. “The Life of Frederick Douglass.” African-American History. About.com. Web.
“People and Events: Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895.” Africans in America. New York: Public Broadcasting Station (PBS), 2008. Web.