Frederick Douglass Lecture Notes

older Douglass portrait

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"Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds -- faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts -- and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause, -- I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass" (2057).

 

In his "Narrative" Frederick Douglass provides his readers with a glimpse into the painful struggle to break free from the physical and mental bondage of slavery through traditional slave narrative techniques to arouse sympathy and increase understanding. 

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Catalog of Violence -- results of power of life and death over slaves
bulletDouglass's memories of his aunt's whippings are filled with violence and represent his "coming of age".  Until he witnesses these atrocities, Douglass was relatively sheltered by his grandmother; therefore, he considered these scenes his "blood-stained gate, [his] entrance to the hell of slavery" (2002).  The most vivid component in his description of these beatings is the blood that ran down her helpless body.  As the master whipped her "to make her scream, and whip[ped] her to make her hush",  Douglass recalls how the "warm, red blood . . . came dripping to the floor" (2002-2003). 

bulletMr. Thomas Lanman killed a slave with a hatchet and received no punishment. 

bulletMrs. Giles Hick killed a teenaged slave, "mangling her person in the most horrible manner, breaking her nose and breastbone with a stick" because the young woman fell asleep and let the baby she was tending cry (2010). 

bulletMr. Severe whipped a woman in front of her children, "causing the blood to run half an hour at a time" (2004). 

bulletMr. Plummer is described as a "miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster" who "always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel" and had been known to "cut and slash the women's heads so horribly" (2002). 

bulletMaster was a "cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave" (2002). 

bulletMr. Gore was "just proud enough to demand the most debasing homage of the slave . . . He was cruel enough to inflict the severest punishment, artful enough to descend to the lowest trickery, and obdurate enough to be insensible to the voice of a reproving conscience" (2009).  This is also the man who had Demby shot for disobedience simply because he could (2010). 

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Sexual abuse

Although sexual abuse was a reality of slave life, these abuses did not often touch male slaves as directly as they did female slaves; thus, Douglass's only reference to an abuse of sexual power of master over slave is vague as he speaks of his Aunt Hester as "a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions" whose beatings seemed to coincide with Master's sexual jealousy (2002).

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Dehumanizing impact of slavery
According to the laws of the time, children of slave women and their masters "follow the condition of their mothers."  Douglass suggests that "this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable"  (2001).  The ultimate effect of the blood ties between slaves and their masters was a horrific and dehumanizing bastardization of family -- slaves born of slave women and their masters were abhorrent to mistresses who saw the children as constant reminders of their husbands' faithlessness; fathers beat their black sons to avoid the suggestion of favoritism; brothers beat their black brothers.  The slaves suffered regardless of their blood relationship to those in power (2001).

The dehumanizing disregard for the family relationships of slaves was a well-established tradition.  Douglass mentions that he and his mother were separated when he was "but an infant" and he speculates that this "common custom" serves to "hinder the development of the child's affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child" (2000).   Regardless of the intent, the result is Douglass's complete lack of feeling when his mother dies years later:  "Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger"  (2001).  Although this reaction certainly doesn't "prove" that Douglass was less than human, it does explain how white observers might willfully misunderstand it as such. 

Douglass mentions the "dehumanizing character of slavery" early in his narrative, and he highlights this aspect of slavery throughout his biography.  As he speaks of the deprivation of slavery, Douglass illustrates the lack of human necessities provided for slaves by their masters -- the list of supplies given to a working slave included eight pounds of pork and one bushel of meal, two shits, two pairs of pants, etc.  However, the children's allowances most clearly indicate the lack of human correlation between the races:  "The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, or trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year.  When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day.  Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year" (2004).  Obviously, white children were not allowed to run about the plantation naked, but because slave children were considered little better than animals, their lives were governed by different expectations. 

Aware of the mistaken assumption that singing slaves are happy slaves Douglass feels obliged to dispel that belief through an analogy:  "Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.  The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears . . . The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion" (2006).

The contaminating effect of slavery is illustrated through Sophia Auld.  When Douglass first meets her, she is a ray of sunshine that creates a flash of rapture in his soul.  She was unaccustomed to the demands of a slave-run household, and thus, she "was entirely unlike any other white woman" Douglass had ever met.  He was continually astonished by her kindness and says that "Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music." Mrs. Auld also provided Douglass with his first taste of education.  However, slavery corrupted her goodness:  "The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work.  That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon" (2014).  Even the goodness of Sophia Auld could not withstand the dehumanizing powers of slavery.

The most vivid example of the dehumanizing effect of slavery is Douglass himself.  During his time with Mr. Covey, Douglass is gradually worn down until he is "broken."  Douglass describes the process as the transformation of a man into a brute:  "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 on me," and as he lost the part of himself that hoped and dreamed, Douglass found himself in "a sort of beast-like stupor" (2028).  Later Douglass elaborates on the conditions necessary to create slaves of men:  "I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.  It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.  He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man" (2045).

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Education
Douglass' desire for an education was spurred on by his master's refusal to let him learn.  Once Mr. Auld discontinued his education, fearing that "[Education] would forever unfit him to be a slave.  He would at once become unmanageable . . . It would make him discontented and unhappy," Douglass saw learning as a mysterious weapon through which he could fight against slavery.  Until then, he had struggled in vain to discover the secret to the white man's supremacy over the slaves -- now he understood that the secret was education, and "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" (2015). 

Over the next seven years, Douglass slowly taught himself to read and write, eventually establishing a Sabbath school where other slaves could become literate.  These slaves became his surrogate family because they shared a desire for knowledge.

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Success story to inspire
 

One of Douglass's most famous lines is "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (2029), and these words mark the beginning of the end of Douglass' time as a slave.  When Mr. Covey attacks Douglass for leaving, the slave feels a sudden spirited resolve to fight, and he "seized Covey hard by the throat" in a show of strength that ended with an armed truce between the two (2032).    From this point on, Douglass never doubts his manhood or that he would achieve his freedom one day. 

As life as a slave improved for Douglass, his desire for freedom increased until the only thing left to tell is the story of his actual escape.  However, Douglass makes it clear that many of the details will be left untold to protect those who helped him along the way. 

 

Before we begin talking via the Netforum, I want you to think carefully about the role of religion in Douglass's narrative.  In most slave narratives, spiritual strength is the cornerstone of the slave's being.  Not so for Douglass.  This departure from the norm is so substantial that Douglas felt obliged to comment on it in his "Appendix." 

 

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