The Importance of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

Throughout my time as a student in the school system of the United States I have heard of Frederick Douglass here and there but was never taught about any of his works. His literature never seemed to be included in my American Literature or U.S. History classes. In school we learned of the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. But, seldom were we taught in depth about the atrocities that took place long before these historical figures came into focus. It has not been until my college years that I have been afforded the option of taking a U.S. History from the Black Perspective course which opened my 2017 eyes to an American history that I felt had, for the most part, been kept in the dark from me. For this essay, I have taken it upon myself to read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and will examine the traumatic situations in which he both witnessed and experienced first-hand as a slave in America and how it still affects our country today. I will also explain why I believe this piece of literature is important for people of all ethnic backgrounds to read and why it should be included in grade school curriculum.

Douglass begins his narrative by introducing himself as a motherless child. It was extremely common in the days of slavery for children to be separated from their mothers during infancy. While he clarifies that he does not know what the particular purpose of this was, the inevitable result was “destroying the child’s affection towards it’s mother and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child,” (Douglass 517). This cruel treatment, which was no doubt psychological abuse, was only a small fraction of the callous actions that took place during slavery. When Douglass was just a boy on a southern plantation, he witnessed his first violent whipping, which was given to his Aunt Hester. His Aunt had previously been warned by their master not to go out during the evening and not to be found in a man’s company. One night when their Master (Thomas) desired her presence, she was gone, out during the evening in the presence of a young man. Upon her return the master made her strip from her neck to waist, stood her on a stool, and proceeded to whip her fiercely with cow-skin. Douglass describes watching blood drip to the floor and being so frightened that he hid himself in a closet in fear that he himself would be next, for he had never witnessed this before (Douglass 520). Imagine the traumatic effects this can have on not only the woman, but on a young, innocent child who caused no harm. Yet, this barbaric act was not the only traumatic occurrence in Frederick Douglass’s childhood.

At the same plantation, Douglass details a monthly allowance of food and yearly allowance of clothing. Since the children were unable to work in the fields, they were not supplied the same as those older slaves. He was only given two linen shirts per year; no shoes, pants, or jackets. When these were no longer fit to wear, the children simply went naked, no matter what season of the year it was (Douglass 521). Upon reading this it can be hard to believe that this story is non-fiction, yet this is a true story that not only happened to Frederick Douglass, but to thousands of Black men, women, and children in both the North and South of the United States. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I read along. It seems as though a lot of times when society today discusses slavery, it has become so diluted that it is often downplayed as merely one race having worked for another. A lot of the details are beginning to be left out of the slave narrative as a whole and its impact is not as heavy. As I continued to read through the narrative, his situation only grew worse.

Telling of one of his many slave-masters, Douglass details an incident in which a fellow slave was killed in cold blood. The slave’s name was Demby and after a number of lashes from the master, Mr. Gore, Demby ran into the creek and stood up to his shoulders to ease the pain of the whippings. Mr. Gore told Demby that he would give him to the count of three to come out and continue to receive his lashes and if he did not get out, he would shoot Demby. Mr. Gore called three times, yet Demby remained in the water and without any notice, Mr. Gore aimed his gun at his head and fired, killing Demby. Douglass describes seeing his blood and brains scatter through the water as his body sank below (Douglass 527). Douglass notes that this was done to make an example out of slaves who did not listen; if they thought they could get away with not obeying, then they would all become unmanageable. Mr. Gore was never accused nor convicted of this crime. He committed this heinous act only in front of slaves, who were not suit to testify against any white man; “and thus the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes un-whipped of justice, and uncensured by the community in which he lives,” (Douglass 527). Now, what does this instance remind you of? If the first thing you thought of was the number of police in America who have murdered Black citizens and not been convicted, we’re on the same page. I believe it is important to make this comparison and note that it has been going on for hundreds of years.

Soon after this incident Douglass was moved to a new master in Baltimore, Maryland. Back then slavery was thought to have been less severe in the North than in the South. Douglass would find that this was both true and false. While he was met by his new master’s wife, or mistress as Douglass called her, with kindness, this would soon change. She had never before owned a slave and began teaching Frederick the alphabet and to spell. Yet, once her husband found out, he forbade her to continue to teach their new slave because, “it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read,” (Douglass 531) The master explained, “it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” When I read this, I thought to myself, what kind of reverse psychology is this? It is natural for children to want to learn. But, then I realized what he said made sense. If a slave was to learn to read and write and have an education, he would begin to want better for himself and would want out of the poor condition in which he stayed. Frederick realized this, too, and it struck a chord with him. He now realized that an education would be the key to his freedom. He declared, “the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both” (Douglass 532). So, after his revelation, Douglass began to make friends with any willing white boys he met in the street that would help him with his reading and writing.

While Frederick had hope that he would gain freedom through learning, it did not dismiss the overwhelming feeling of despair from living in slavery. He describes wishing that he was more like other slaves who were less aware of their conditions and seemed more accepting of them. His awareness of these conditions only made him feel worse. At times he thought of both killing himself or his master in order to gain freedom from slavery; he recalls regretting his own existence (Douglass 535). One cannot blame him when he recounts a time living with Master Thomas in which he was only allowed half a bushel of corn meal per week. To combat his hunger, he would have to beg and or steal from neighbors just to eat. All the while his master would have church meetings at the home in which he would put up guests and as Douglass describes, “while he starved us, he stuffed them.” While seeing Demby being shot dead in the water back on the Southern plantation was no doubt horrendous, I can’t go without noting how psychologically traumatic being starved was. It must also be firmly stated as a reminder that this young boy was only subjected to these lurid conditions because of the color of his skin. He was deemed less than human and literally chattel solely for the gross benefit of white men. And up to this point, Douglass had never been whipped. That would change when Master Thomas sends him to Covey’s farm, who was notorious for “breaking ni — -rs.”

Master Thomas felt that Frederick had been spoiled by city life and sent him to covey’s farm for a year to be “broken down.” While on Covey’s farm, this would be the first time that Frederick, now a young man, worked in the fields. It is while he is there that he first feels like a real slave. He states that Covey succeeded in breaking him, crying out, “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. 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!” (Douglass 545). He began to think of running away saying, “I had as well be killed running as die standing.” I took this to mean, either way he is dying, for living in slavery is killing him anyway because he is not truly living, but only suffering. This feeling would be temporary, as shortly after he described fighting back toward Covey. Having had enough, Douglass fought back after Covey attempted to whip him. Douglass explained this resistance as a turning-point in his time as a slave saying that it revived his spirit and that after this resistance, he was never again whipped by anyone. “My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me,” (Douglass 549).

Some years passed and in 1835 Frederick was sent back to Baltimore and was under a new master by the name of Hugh. He was hired by Master Hugh to a Mr. William Gardner to help build ships. Every wage that Douglass earned was to be given to Master Hugh. Rightfully so, Douglass describes his frustration in constantly working so hard, but having to give up the little that he earned to give to his master, not because his master earned it, but because he had the power over Douglass to make him do so. Finally having had enough, it was during this time of his life that he succeeded in running away and freeing himself from slavery. In the narrative he does not detail his escape and says the reasoning for this is because if any slave-masters were to read his writings, other slaves who may try to escape could fail. So then in 1838 he was a free man residing in New York. Although Douglass was exhilarated to be free, freedom also came with hardships. He was a fugitive slave in a city where he knew no one and where he would have to find work, food, and housing. On the third day of his arrival in New York, he found work and said, “it was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my own master,” (Douglass 569).

“Slavery meant a complete disruption from the African’s land, people, language, and customs. Attachments, one’s place in the world, continuity with the past, an expectable future — all were destroyed,” (Graff). You see, history books would tell you that slavery was abolished in 1865, thirty years after Frederick Douglass escaped. Yet after abolishment, what followed were Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation, lynchings, disenfranchisement, and just plain terrorism. In the late 19th and early 20th century two to three Blacks were lynched in the south every week. And it was not until 1954 that the Brown Vs. Education Board case deemed racial segregation in schools unlawful. Four years later in 1958, in Little Rock, Arkansas, nine Black students had to fight to attend high school with fellow white students. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1964 which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin (Civil Rights Act). I say all of this to say: when people who say, “slavery ended a long time ago,” they are omitting the fact that the suffering of African Americans at the hand of the United States didn’t end in 1865 or in 1958 or 1964. African Americans were still viewed as less than human and treated horribly. Most, as will I, will say this is still the case in 2017 through systemic racism, the prison system, police brutality and poverty.

This is why I believe that it is extremely important for any and everyone who would like to make a difference to read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. The reason I believe this is because it gives so many, especially non-African Americans, a closer look into what it has always been like for African Americans in the United States. In order for us to end the cycle of prejudice, oppression, and systemic racism we must first identify and admit that it happened. It should be analyzed and discussed more. I also feel that this literature and curriculum like it, should be implemented more into our public-school systems. It is extremely important that we teach children actual history so that they may correctly evaluate society for what it is and how it became this way. The Constitution was drawn up and written while thousands of Black men, women, and children were enslaved. If children could learn about people like Frederick Douglass early on in school, I believe that it could change their views as an adult.

Jean Alexander makes a good point when stating, “racial harmony cannot be attained without a nationwide acceptance and appreciation for cultural differences,” (Alexander). Many times, we focus so much on our similarities and make it more about everyone being human or having so much in common that we miss the opportunity to celebrate each other’s differences. Alexander suggests that, “a comprehensive reading program that includes multi-ethnic materials is imperative and could effectively provide students with insights that would lead to intergroup understanding attainable in no other way,” (Alexander). Which is why I highly suggest Frederick Douglass’ work be included in more grade-school curriculum. I also believe that it is becoming increasingly important for more white students to learn more about Black literature because it seems that the white demographic is both the least and most incorrectly informed of the cultures and unfortunately in our society, usually it is the white men or whites in general, who have the most power to implement meaningful change.

While we do get a small glance at slavery in the United States during grade school history and literature classes, it should be said that there is a great difference in learning about slavery through a history book and reading it from this narrative. The importance of the scenes and events in this outstanding piece of literature is that it gives us a first-hand account of what slavery was like for hundreds of thousands of Black men, women, and children. We are not reading it from a historian, but from an actual former slave himself. Therefore, the narrative can more than likely be read with more empathy. It is nearly impossible to read a history book and grasp the true feelings, emotions, hardships, and atrocities that slaves faced when it is only given at a glance. I truly believe that empathy is the key to changing the way things are now; so many people lack compassion and warmth. We must teach our children this through more comprehensive literature because these children will grow up to be judges, lawyers, police officers, teachers, congressmen or women, or perhaps even the next President of the United States of America.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jean A. “Black Literature for the “Culturally Deprived”: Curriculum Who are the Losers?” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 4, no. 3, 1970, pp. 96–103. JSTOR.

“Civil Rights Act.” History.com, A & E Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-act.

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Shorter 3rd ed. Vol. 2. Eds Puchner, Martin, Suzanne Akbari, Wiebke Denecke, Vinay Dharwadker, Barbara Fuchs, Caroline Levine, Pericles Lewis, and Emily Wilson. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 517–573. Print.

Graff, GIlda. “The Name of the Game is Shame: The Effects of Slavery and Its Aftermath.” Journal of Psychohistory, vol. 39, no. 2, 2011, pp. 133–144. EBSCOhost, Ebsco.

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