Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself

The short book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself bears power far beyond its size. Frederick Douglass makes a compelling indictment of slavery, but more than that, he is relevant for us today because we can forget how hard others have had it. Clearly Americans cannot forget the legacy of slavery, but I find the real value in this book is inducing a heart of gratitude. None of us Americans finds himself in this position. We no longer need to make the case to end slavery in America. But we each need to be given a glimpse outside ourselves to be able to step back and appreciate the many blessings we live under today.

He begins by telling the reader that he doesn't know his exact age or who is father is. The assumption is that is father was his mother's master. As a very young infant, he is separated from his mother. While she makes valiant attempts to remain in his life, she dies shortly of an illness and he is an orphan. He is cared for by the other slaves and it didn't take long before he is exposed to the horrors of slavery. He sees his fellow slaves whipped bloody at a very early age.

While around 7 or 8, he is sent to the main house of his master, Colonel Edward Lloyd. He recounts the haunting songs sung by the slaves. Of this he comments, "I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among sales, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart..." (p. 32) Colonel Lloyd is a harsh master. His plantation provides myriad temptations to the slaves, fruit trees bursting with food while a starving slave must pass by, yet the slightest infraction is met with the whip. He terrorizes the keepers of his horses, blaming them for every complaint, real or imagined that he perceives. Once, he met one of his own slaves upon the road. Not recognizing his master, the slave proceeds to honestly answer the questions as to the harshness of his master. A severe beating soon convinced all the slave to never answer questions about their circumstances honestly.

And in case anyone was likely to think the slaves' lives were at least protected, Douglass puts that idea to rest. He details several examples of cold-blooded murder of the slaves for minor infractions. As a slave cannot be called to witness in court, these murders would never be called to account by a racist criminal justice system.

After a short time at Colonel Lloyd's home, Douglass is sent to Baltimore to the Colonel's son-in-law's brother, Mr. Hugh Auld. This is a brief time of reprieve for the battered boy. As Frederick cares for their son, Mrs. Auld only knows to treat him as a fellow human being. She even begins to teach him how to read. Mr. Auld soon disabuses her of that notion. "It would forever unfit him to be a slave." (p. 49) In discussing how dangerous it is to teach a slave to read, Douglass sees a shining gate to dignity. Knowing how much the whites fear a literate slave, Douglass knows he must learn to read. He must unfit himself for slavery. Her eventual descent into cruelty provides Douglass with an example of how slavery denigrates the masters as well.

While her lessons ended and he is strictly forbidden any reading material, Frederick Douglass works to teach himself. He would take any opportunity he could to practice his skills. He often tricked the younger boys to teach him by challenging them to a reading or spelling duel. However, he found, true to Mr. Auld's word, it made him deeply unhappy and unfit for servitude. He began to think and thinking is a dangerous pastime for a slave. He began to reason and philosophize about his condition and the immorality of it became even clearer.

Upon Colonel Lloyd's death, the slaves are divided up among the inheritors. Douglass fears for his future; he is doing well in Baltimore. Fortunately, he is allowed to stay. But not for long. Because of a falling out between Thomas Auld, Douglass' owner and his brother Hugh Auld, Douglass current residence, Frederick is taken back and forced to join Captain Thomas Auld's family. Auld is a cruel master and Frederick has learned to think for himself. This dangerous combination gets Douglass sent to Mr. Covey, a man known for his skill in breaking slaves.

Sure enough Mr. Covey's harsh discipline breaks Douglass, but not completely. He is almost killed by Covey. One day, he has had enough and he turns on him master, almost killing him. The resulting stand-off leads to a much less harsh environment for Douglass. The renown slave broker cannot turn Douglass into the law for fear of damaging his reputation, but neither can he risk another deadly confrontation.

After the proscribed year, Frederick is sent to live with Mr. Freeman, who hired him to work his farm. Mr. Freeman was a fair and descent master, but being relieved of the daily struggle to survive allowed Douglass to plot an escape. Unfortunately he and his compatriots were caught. This caused him to be sent back to Baltimore and Mr. Hugh Auld. Shortly thereafter, Douglass was hired out to a ship builder, Mr. William Gardner. There he learned a trade, but his money went to his master. He was severely beaten by the white workers. When telling his tale to Mr. Auld and the authorities, it is made clear that there will be no justice.

After recovering from his wounds by the ministering hand of Mrs. Auld, he is again hired out as a ship builder. This is a much better situation, but ironically, like his time at Mr. Freeman's, his better conditions do not lead to contentment, but a desire to escape. Douglass reflects on this truth. "When in Mr. Gardner's employment, I was kept in such a perpetual whirl of excitement, I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty. I have observed this in my experience of slavery, —that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. 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." (p. 104)

Douglass finally makes up his mind to escape for good. He cannot detail the method because of the need to protect his abettors. But he ends up in New York utterly alone, penniless, homeless, jobless, and scared to death of being discovered. The loneliness and anxiety only lasted three days before a fellow abolitionist discovers him and sets him up in safety in New Haven. Douglass is astonished at the wealth to be had by those who didn't own slaves. He had always assumed that only slave owners were wealthy. He also sees that these people are far more educated and cultured than even the most ostentatious slave owner. He marries and delights in hard work and earned happiness. After three years of freedom, he is asked to speak at an abolitionist meeting. Then he is asked to write this book.

As a postscript, Douglass fears his words damning the Christianity as practiced in the South will be take as a general denunciation of Christianity. He is a fervent Christian himself, but he makes a powerful argument that the Christianity as practiced by the majority of Americans, is a counterfeit Christianity. He likens them to the Pharisees of Jesus' day. His harsh words are a salve to me as Christianity has been condemned for aiding and abetting American slavery. Douglass makes the powerful case that those who did were NOT Christians.

I simply cannot imagine living the life Frederick Douglass describes. I do not even want to pretend I can try. His life is so far removed from mine and just about everyone else in America. I wish more students would read this book and see what it is like to be truly marginalized and victimized.

No comments:

Post a Comment