The compelling autobiography of an extraordinary man born into slavery, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is also a powerful inquiry into the question of what it means to be human. From the opening sentences of the narrative, Douglass delineates the context from which this question emerges—the fact that slave owners typically thought of slaves as animals. Douglass does not know how old he is, and he quickly asserts that this is not unusual, since most slaves “know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs” (p. 47). It is instructive that this initial comparison of slaves to animals does not serve to express something about the minds of the slave owners; instead, it expresses something about the minds of the slaves that is the consequence of being born into an environment constructed and carefully maintained by their owners. In an environment that does not permit the idea that slaves are human, the only perspective available to them is that of their owners. Their own perspective therefore becomes an additional barrier to thinking of themselves as human.
Learning to read and write is essential to the process whereby Douglass comes to see himself as human. As he describes it, the acquisition of these skills is inseparable from the dawning of self-consciousness. Reading gives Douglass access to a new world that opens before him, but the strongest effect of his literacy is the light it casts on the world he already knows. His anguish is so great that he “would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing” (p. 84). It allows him to see his “wretched condition, without the remedy” (p. 84). Self-consciousness, the trait that most distinguishes humans from animals, produces such despair in Douglass that he confesses he often wished himself a beast.
Douglass portrays the breadth of slavery’s ability to dehumanize through his insights into the mentality of slave owners. Douglass suggests that if slaves are made rather than born, the same is sometimes true of slave owners. The mistress who began teaching him to read and write “at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting [him] up in mental darkness” (p. 81). Under the influence of her husband and, more generally, the institution of slavery, “the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness” (p. 82). The mistress not only stops teaching Douglass to read and write, but she is even more vigilant than her husband in preventing him from learning. The transformation of his mistress raises the question of how much of the behavior of slave owners toward their slaves was learned and how much was internally motivated. Douglass would have us believe that the mistress was the victim of her circumstances, yet the brutality other slave owners seemed to come by so easily makes it difficult to determine whether the behavior was learned or inherent.
Edward Covey undoubtedly counts among the slave owners who play the role as if born for it; his harsh treatment breaks Douglass “in body, soul, and spirit” (p. 105). Following his eloquent lament for the freedom he cannot have, represented by the ships sailing on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass writes, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (p. 107). The first part of this statement could refer to the methods employed by Covey, if not to all the owners at whose hands Douglass suffered. The second part refers to the story that follows, in which Douglass resists the whipping Covey intends to give him for disobeying. They fight for two hours, with Covey “getting entirely the worst end of the bargain” (p. 113). Douglass is never whipped again, and he describes this incident as “the turning-point in [his] career as a slave” and says that it “revived within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood” (p. 113). Douglass emphasizes the importance of literacy in developing his sense of himself as human. Is he suggesting, though, that his refusal to submit to Covey’s punishment was ultimately more important than his ability to read and write in shaping his sense of self?
In a letter that prefaces the narrative, Wendell Phillips, social activist and friend of Douglass’s, recalls “the old fable of ‘The Man and the Lion,’ where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented ‘when the lions wrote history'” (p. 43). As Phillips observes, Douglass’s narrative is history written from the perspective of those who previously had no voice. The very existence of the narrative makes it a testament to its author’s humanity and, therefore, a document of revisionist history. However, what gives Douglass’s narrative its universal relevance is his acute awareness of the complexities of human psychology. He observes that slaves usually spoke of themselves as content and of their masters as kind, concluding that slaves “suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family” (p. 62). Douglass is ever mindful that our humanity encompasses our failings no less than our capacity for nobility.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in rural Maryland in 1818. Sent to work in Baltimore, he was taught to read by the mistress of the house and regarded this achievement as a turning point in his life. Another such point was his violent resistance to a beating by the man to whom he had been bound as a field slave at age seventeen. Three years later, he escaped to the North, married, and worked menial jobs until his debut as an orator at an antislavery convention in 1841.
To expand his audience and to document the authenticity of his story, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845. The book was critically acclaimed and sold well both in the United States and in Europe. Douglass left for England later the same year, where he spent two years writing and lecturing. He returned to the United States after abolitionist friends purchased his legal emancipation.
From 1847 to 1863, Douglass published his own weekly paper, The North Star, leading to a break with his mentor William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass also produced a number of other periodicals, as well as two extensions of his narrative—Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and My Bondage and My Freedom. In 1848, he played a prominent role at the women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, and he was a lifelong supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. During the Civil War he was an adviser to President Lincoln and recruited blacks, including his own sons, for the Union army. He was appointed to several government positions, including recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and United States minister and consul general to Haiti. Douglass died in 1895.
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