Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass wrote his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. The narrative would fall under the genre of escape from captivity. He rose from slavery to become one of the prominent voices of the nineteenth century campaigning for the equal treatment of black people. He was an abolitionist, social reformer, human rights activist, orator, author, journalist, and publisher. His narrative covers a time period of about 30 years from his birth in 1818 to the publication of his narrative in 1845 and spans across Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts.
He escapes from slavery to New York using papers a friend had given him, called “sailors’ protection.” He does so because of his deep-rooted hatred for slavery and long-cherished desire to be a free man. Afterwards, Douglass settles in Massachusetts becomes involved in the antislavery movement and was instrumental in realizing the Emancipation Proclamation. In his narrative, Douglass details out who he is, when and where his story took place, what duties and jobs he did, why he escaped and how he did it, and which course he took after he escaped.
To begin with, Douglass reveals in his book who he is. He was born in Talbot County, Maryland, in 1818, to a slave, Harriet Bailey, and thus became the property of the slave owner Anthony. His father was a white man, but he never knew who he was. His birth name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but he later changed his name to Frederick Douglass. He was taken away from his mother when he was a baby, as was the “common custom” at that time, “to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child.” He was raised by his grandmother. He also had a brother and two sisters, but they never lived together as a family. In his narrative, Douglass feels most slaves were given no information about their birth, because, “By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.” This ignorance coupled with no sense of affection and belonging was deliberately done to make the slaves numb of feelings and thus disunited. The poor treatment of slaves and their inability to take any recourse instilled in Douglass a deep hatred of slavery.
Next, he writes when his story took place and the customs of that time. After his mother’s death, his grandmother left him in the Lloyd Plantation. Here Frederick learnt the realities of slave life and often saw slaves being whipped and beaten. He comments “It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I had to pass.” He received a few whippings himself in these days. In 1826, when he was about eight years old, he was sent to work for Hugh Auld family in Baltimore. He considers “Going to live in Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.” During the 1830s, he was sent back to the plantation to endure its scourges and found it hard to adjust. When he rebelled he was hired out to spend a year with a man who had the reputation of “slave-breaker.” In 1836, he tried to escape from slavery but his plot was discovered and was imprisoned. After his release, he was sent back to Baltimore and worked in the shipyards. In 1838, he escapes disguised as a free sailor. Thereafter, in 1841 he gave his first speech at the anti-slavery convention in Nantucket. He then published his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, and to escape recapture goes to England.
Then, he gives an account of where he grew up and worked. The Lloyd’s home plantation where Frederick spent the first eight years of his life wore the “appearance of a country village” and was called by the slaves the “Great House Farm.” The overseers were extremely cruel to the slaves, to the extent they could murder a slave and it would not be considered a crime. The environment that enveloped Frederick was that of “hardship, hunger, whipping, and nakedness.” He found for the first time kindness in Mr. and Mrs. Auld’s home in Baltimore. He describes “I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with most kindly emotions.” Unlike the plantation he also had enough to eat and clothes to keep him warm. Frederick returned to the plantation after about eight years and was hired out to Covey to “tame” his unruliness. He was beaten frequently, until he began to feel that maybe he was “broken.” After that he was sent to work for William Freeland who was a kind master. Here his plan to escape failed and was imprisoned. Hugh Auld released him and sent him back to Baltimore to work in the shipyard. Here he set out to find a way to escape to freedom.
Thereafter, Douglass describes what jobs he did. His own experience at the Lloyd plantation was “very similar to that of the other slave children” like “drive up the cows at evening, keep the fowls out of the garden, keep the front yard clean, and run of errands.” Although he wasn’t whipped much, he was often hungry and cold. Douglass was relieved from this menial plantation labor when he was sent to Baltimore to work for the Auld family. His main duty was to take care of their little son Thomas. Here, Mrs. Auld taught him to read, until Mr. Auld forbade her swearing “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.” Thereafter, he continued his education on his own. At fifteen, Douglass was sent back to the plantation and to crush his rebellious spirit he was hired out to Covey as a field hand. The transition from city to the plantation made him awkward and thus had to endure abuse and beatings. After three years, Douglass was sent back to Baltimore to learn the trade of caulking in the city’s shipyard. The white workers constantly harassed him and finally beat him while the others cried “Kill the damned nigger.” Eventually, his owner gave Douglass the “privilege” to hire himself out for wages and live independently.
Furthermore, he writes why he escaped. Although Douglass was a slave, his mind was not enslaved. He believes the only way man can be slaved is by remaining ignorant. The white slave owners not only physically dominated the slaves but also mentally dominated them by imbedding fear and denying education. He understands the magnitude of this deprival, when he is stopped from learning to read and becomes determined that learning is “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Education sows the first seeds of freedom in his mind and he becomes infatuated with the idea of being a free man. The fight with Covey brought a resolution in his mind that he would never be whipped again. Douglass writes “This battle with Mr. Covey… rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.” He was never whipped again and this was the turning-point in his career as a slave. It strengthened his belief that it is wrong to enslave blacks and seal their fate. This sprouts the seeds of freedom in his mind seeking him to be a free man and motivates him to plan his escape from slavery.
In addition, Douglass narrates how he escaped from slavery. He realized that his ability to read was the key to freedom. Then onwards all of his efforts were focused on achieving freedom. He planned his first escape with four others in 1836. He wrote forge passes stating that they had permission to travel up the Chesapeake Bay to go to Baltimore for the Easter holiday. But one of the slaves “betrayed” and they were arrested. In two years, in 1838, `Douglass resolved to escape again after his master denied his privilege to hire himself out. He continued to work for him and please him, because his “object in working steadily was to remove any suspicion he might entertain of my intent to run away; and in this I succeeded admirably.” As the day to escape drew nearer, “the dread and apprehension of a failure exceeded what I had experienced at my first attempt.” He feared a second failure would “seal his fate as a slave forever.” On September third, he borrowed a black sailor’s protection papers and escaped to New York “without the slightest interruption of any kind.” He intentionally omits the details of his escape as other slaves still used his method of escape. After his arrival in New York, he felt like he “had escaped a den of hungry lions.”
Lastly, Douglass writes about his life after escape. After the initial excitement had worn down, he felt a sense of great insecurity and loneliness. The motto he adopted was “Trust no man” as both white man as well as colored man could not be trusted. They could be “money-loving kidnappers” who could betray his status and turn him in as a fugitive. He was relieved from it by Mr. Ruggles who brought him under his care. He also arranged the marriage ceremony for Frederick and Anna Murray, and sent them to Mr. Johnson in New Bedford, Massachusetts. With the help of Mr. Johnson, Frederick settled with his wife under his new name Douglass. He found his first employment in “stowing a sloop with a load of oil.” He became an ardent reader of “Liberator” and got a correct idea of the anti-slavery reform. In 1841 he spoke at the anti-slavery convention and from then onwards he has been engaged in “pleading the cause of his brethren.”
In conclusion, Frederick Douglass was self-educated and wrote his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to expose the atrocities of slavery. It not only accounts the events in his life that lead to his escape from slavery but also the general dehumanizing effects of slavery for both slaves and slaveholders. The narrative covers a time period of about three decades, and gives details as to who Frederick was, when and where his story took place, what he did, why he escaped and how he succeeded, and which course he took as a free man. Douglass continued to fight for abolition of slavery and for an end to racial discrimination.