Frederick Douglass: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” (1845)

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revised within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afford by the triumph was the full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody army of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. (331)

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the great slave narrative of the antebellum period and it is certainly the most well-known, thanks to its clarity in exposing the myths of the Old South. It is often taught in high schools and undergraduate courses for this reason. Douglass’ main concern—besides telling some of his life story—was to show the hypocrisy of the slave-owning South. Using his own life and his experiences, he managed to dismantle pretty much every one of the major myths. We can sum this up as follows. While the defenders of slavery were saying slavery was good both masters, slaves, and Southern society, Douglass showed how it debased and made savage both slaves and masters, corrupted the legal institutions, and created irreconcilable divisions to society. The story also works as a coming of age story, beginning with Douglass’ birth in slavery, his self-education, and finally the climax consisting of his debasement in the face of Mr. Covery’s violent labor regimen, his resistance to that, and his eventual escape to freedom.

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The narrative is preceded by two introductions, the first by William Lloyd Garrison and the second by Wendell Phillips. Together they point to the historical significance of Douglass’ narrative within the growing body of anti-slavery literature. Narratives by former slaves were few at that point. They also stress that Douglass lived in a part of the country known for milder forms of slavery, so the situation described by Douglass can only be worse throughout the deep South. Finally, the suggest that his experiences are integral to the slave system. Take Phillips comments. “We know that the bitter drops, which even you have drained from the cup, are no incidental aggravations, no individual ills, but such as must mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every slave. They are essential ingredients, not occasional results, of the system.” (278)

In the opening chapter, Douglass has a fascinating look at something that may seem trivial but turned out to be central the experience of slaves: not knowing his birthday. As he shows, not knowing his birthday was merely a part of the veil of ignorance put over enslaved men and women. Much more crushing is the inability of Douglass to know his mother as mother, but this derived from the same logic that made his birthday insignificant to the working of the slave system. This chapter also looks at the phenomenon of white fathers of slaves (like Douglass’ own father) and the cruelty of overseers. He also includes the description of the torture of his Aunt Hester. Whites fathering slaves and the sadistic torture of Hester together expose one of the major myths of the old South, that it was a land of chivalrous sexual virtue.

The next few chapters follow Douglass’ childhood and the workings of farm life. He has comments on the power regiment, the use of songs by enslaved men and women to express their sorrow. Douglass points out the high turnover among overseers and even masters. Douglass himself was passed around a few times before he escaped slavery. Another myth of paternalism—that slavery exchanged loyalty for loyalty—shattered. In the first half we also learn how Douglass learned to read by interacting with local white kids, many of whom saw slavery as inevitable but learned to question it (a bit) by interacting with Douglass.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

The climax of the story is Douglass encounter as a young man with Mr. Covey who hired the slave Douglass from his master. Covey was a poor white who managed to save enough to purchase one slave (for breeding). He lacked the intellectual training in the ideology of slaveholding, which however hypocritical at least forced some more conscientious masters to mitigate their brutality. All he had was the application of power, which he used excessively on Douglass. He used lies and force to sustain his authority. When Douglass finally defeats Covey in a brutal fight, he achieves some degree of independence and forces Covey to refrain from whipping Douglass. I like to point out this example to those enamored with non-violence. While violent resistance does not always work, it certainly has its moments and when power is so devastating to body and soul, violence is often the only way to achieve freedom.

The final chapter discusses a bit about how he got his freedom, but he does not share details to protect the people who helped him and to ensure that other slaves can use that method. He condemns the openness (the lack of a security culture) among some abolitionists who openly talk about the “underground railroad.”

In an appendix, Douglass attacks the application of Christianity in the South. He confesses some admiration for Christianity on principle (but it is spit out through a clenched jaw). Largely, his experience of religion is one of hypocrisy.

“We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church member’s. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time” (363, 364) Unlike the first three slave narratives in this collection, religion is not a part of the arc of the slave. It exists only as some of the links in the chain.

Douglass points out on almost every page the workings of power. Power transforms those in authority into monsters. Those under the whip are also turned into brutes. Part of the significance of the battle between Douglass and Covey is that Douglass was transformed into a monster before he could arise as a man. The reason terror was necessary was that the power regimen was actually quite weak, as we see in Covey’s faltering in the face of Douglass’ resistance. Power that is this weak and this unjustifiable can only survive by turning those involved into monsters. It simply cannot survive with self-conscious human beings.

Well that is Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. He has two more, but I will reserve that for the volume of Douglass’ writings, somewhere else in the Library of America.

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