The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

To the general public slavery is known as a wicked and pitiless practice that has long since been abolished. However, to many other poor souls, slavery has had a much deeper impact on them. There are many accounts having to deal with slavery and its evils, yet The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself is by far the most powerful account in illustrating the evils of slavery through the eyes of the enslaved.


Frederick Douglass is best known for his speeches and essays devoted to the abolitionist movement. The abolitionist movement in the United States began long before the Civil War started in 1861. As an escaped slave, Douglass traveled all over the northern part of the United States to speak out against the horrors of slavery. Although human slavery is an ancient institution, the system of slavery practiced in North and South America, called “chattel slavery” because slaves were considered personal, disposable property, took on a distinct character. The two most important distinguishing factors in chattel slavery are: 1) its cruelty, made possible by the relative alienation of plantations where the slaves were subject to brutality and force to keep them from rebelling, a practice allowed by the government, and 2) the complex economic relationship between the slave system and the industrial cities of the north. American slaves experienced many kinds of brutality, including rape, castration, and other kinds of mutilation, and families were often sold away from each other. Sometimes plantation masters sold away their illegitimate children by slave mothers. Any attempt on the slave’s part to assert his or her rights, and escape brutality, was met with more brutality. A slave could not even defend himself, by law. There were very few successful slave uprisings because most slaves never left the plantations and had little idea what the surrounding country was like, and also because slave catchers would use dogs and wanted posters to bring you back to slavery. It was extremely difficult for a slave to escape to the North, and, even if you made it to the free states, the Fugitive Slave Bill meant you could be sent back to slavery if you were caught. The system of chattel slavery existed in America for well over 100 years. The slave system in the United States did not only benefit the southern states. The main export crop from the South was cotton, which was shipped to textile industries in the North who would use it to make cloth and other items for sale. Slavery was a deeply embedded part of economic life in the United States, and people north and south benefited from the blood, sweat, and tears of millions of slave mothers, fathers, and children. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, who had experienced the degradation of slavery firsthand, bravely fought to end the slave system, even though it was a cornerstone of American industry. It was against the law for a person to teach a slave how to read and write, but against all odds Douglass taught himself to read and write and became a very skilled speaker. (Andrews)
Perhaps it seems strange to see Frederick Douglass, whose character and thought were formed in the furnace of slavery, associated with the Transcendentalists, yet indeed he was. Like the transcendentalists, Douglass believed in self-development and self-reliance, and few others could show as vividly the value of this philosophy. As a writer, he understood the value of the first-person voice, and he had such a remarkable and inspiring story to tell. Like them, he had great reason to believe in self-education and was certain that he had a message the world must hear. He was the most eloquent supporter of the cause of abolition. He believed that the moral individual was responsible to articulate his view of truth until others could hear it. (Deacon)
The foremost African American abolitionist in antebellum America, Frederick Douglass was the first African American leader of national stature in United States history. He was born, as can best be determined, in February 1817 (he took the 14th as his birthday) on the eastern shore of Maryland. His mother, from whom he was separated at an early age, was a slave named Harriet Bailey. She named her son Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey; he never knew or saw his father. (Frederick adopted the name Douglass much later.) Douglass’s childhood, though he judged it in his autobiography as being no crueler than that of scores of others caught in similar conditions, appears to have been extraordinarily deprived of personal warmth. The lack of familial attachments, hard work, and sights of incredible inhumanity fill the chapters in the book of his life. In 1838 he borrowed an African American sailor’s protection papers and by impersonating him escaped to New York. He adopted the name Douglass and married a free African American woman from the South. They settled in New Bedford, Mass., where several of their children were born. Douglass quickly became involved in the antislavery movement, which was gaining impetus in the North. Fearing capture after the publication of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, Douglass fled to Britain, staying from 1845 to 1847 to speak on behalf of abolition and to earn enough money to purchase his freedom when he returned to America. He died in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895 after living one of the most fulfilling slave life imagined. (Chronology)
To the general public slavery is known as a wicked and pitiless practice that has long since been abolished. However, to many other poor souls, slavery has had a much deeper impact on them. There are many accounts having to deal with slavery and its evils, yet The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself is by far the most powerful account in illustrating the evils of slavery through the eyes of the enslaved.

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Although there were countless evil deeds particular to slaves in the past, one of the most basic, yet damaging of these was that of dehumanizing the slave. Slaves were not given their birth date, they were separated from their parents at births, and they were kept ignorant of their conditions as slaves. At the time Douglass was writing, many people believed that slavery was a natural state of being. Douglass states, Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of my mothers death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger. (22, 23) Black slaves are not subhuman to begin with but are dehumanized only by such cruel practices of slavery. (Heffernan 53)
Many slaveholders in a dim-witted way tried to make themselves look kind and compassionate by giving their slaves holidays. Many slaves took advantage of this and prepared for the year by sewing, mending, and making any other materials they thought would facilitate their upcoming year of work. Others though used this as a time to drink, play sports and have fun with reckless abandonment. Douglass demonstrates this in the following: 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. (31) This quote is meant to clarify that even though he himself was a slave he did not always understand what slaves did until he was actually around them. Many white southerners believed that by the slaves singing and playing around that they were indeed happy and content. It was not until Douglass started to make the transition into that of a field slave that he understands that the incoherent songs were actually songs that slaves easily understood within themselves. They were anything but happy songs, usually referring to the hard work they did and the cruel treatment they received. (Heffernan 54)
An additional point that Douglass makes clear is that whites hold blacks in their power through a series of strategiesmost notably that of depriving blacks of education and literacy. Douglass introduces this by stating 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 masters. (49) This bit of information is important to Douglass because it proves his fledgling sense that slavery is not a natural or justified form of society, but is rather a constructed power strategy supported by deprivation and dehumanization. He also comes to the conclusion that to be free he must become educated, which in itself is a bigger blessing than that of learning how to read itself. (Heffernan 55)
Frederick Douglass endured great mental and physical anguish as a slave, yet as a result of his will to learn and his ability to lead he was able to overcome this great wall of injustice and go down in history as one of the greatest abolitionist authors ever to live. Although there were many like him, each with a different piece to the puzzle that was slavery, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself is by far the most powerful account in illustrating the evils of slavery through the eyes of the enslaved.


Works Cited
Andrews, William L.. An Introduction To The Slave Narrative. University of North Carolina atChapel Hill Libraries. 5-20-04 ;http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/specialneh.html#historical;.
Chronology. Rochester University. 5-20-04 ;http://www.history.rochester.edu/class/douglass/part6.html;.
Deacon, F. Jay. Transcendentalist, Abolitionism, and the Unitarian Association. UUA General Assembly. 5-20-04 ;http://www.uua.org/ga/ga00/514.html;.
Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New Bedford: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1968.
Heffernan, Laura. Sparknotes. New York: Spark Publishing, 2002.


5-4-2004
10th Period English 3
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass