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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Essay

Frederick Douglass was born as Frederick Augustus Bailey, a slave in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, Maryland. His mother Harriet Bailey was a slave and Frederick also became a slave since law required children to follow status of their mothers. He was separated from his mother at an early age and was raised with a group of slave children. Driven by thirst for knowledge and learning, he bought his first book, “The Columbian Orator” at the age of thirteen. The book made him understand the miseries of enslaved people and to realize the necessity of universal freedom.

This knowledge sowed a seed of revolt in Douglass that ultimately made him escape the slave camp in 1938. After his arrival in New York he changed his name to Frederick Douglass and started working for abolitionist movement. After joining American Anti-Slavery Society, he came to be known as a famous orator, journalist, and slave leader of the 19th century. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845, followed by My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855 and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881 respectively.

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he has provided a deep insight into a slave’s life working on the Southern plantations. At the age of eight, he was sent to the custody of Hugh and Sophia Auld at their farm house. The slaves were by law prohibited to get education and knowledge and those guilty of violation were subject to heavy fines, whipping or imprisonment. Blacks and slave did not have access to purchase books or even Bible. The plantation owners considered educated slaves as a threat to their authority and thus barred them of the privilege.

Douglass faced same resistance from his master at his early age when his master’s wife tried to teach him Bible and was stopped by her husband. Literacy therefore, became of primary importance for Douglass since he thought it to be the only means to freedom and emancipation. In the narrative he states, “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 made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man” (99). Douglass was highly critical of the slaveholders religion as that added even more to their cruelty towards the colored labor on their plantations. He describes the conversion of his master, Captain Auld, in August, 1832 of which he thought to bring a positive change in his behavior towards slaves. Against his hopes, “It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. . . . it made him more cruel and hateful . . .

a much worse man after his conversion . . . he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty” (57). Regarding cruelty of religious Southerners, Douglass opines, “For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst” (80). At the Southern plantation, the conduct of masters towards slaves was bad beyond imagination. They were deprived of basic and fundamental rights such as education and denied freedom on least degree. The slave-owners presumed that if slaves get education they would be of no use for their masters.

The slaves were supposed to be yes-men to their masters and they did not require those who argued or questioned their authority. Any effort or attempt for freedom was crushed with an iron hand. Physical and intellectual oppression became interconnected during that period. Those who tried to seek mental freedom by acquiring knowledge were more exposed to physical penalties than others. The penalties were horrible including cutting of fingers and sometimes of hands, whipping and finally killing them.

In such circumstances, Douglass developed a strong urge for emancipation supplemented further by the fair treatment he received from William Freeland as he craved to be his own master. Douglass witnessed a wide difference in slave’s living conditions after he arrived in Baltimore. Life for slaves, he observed, in the northern cities was far easier than those at Southern plantations. He writes, “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation (38).

Like many other revolutionary slaves, Douglass planned to escape his master’s brutalities and seek freedom body and mind. He was dissatisfied with almost everything in his slave life. Above all, he was discontented with the way slaves were robbed of their monetary gains. He started planning to flee in 1835 but stayed back due to a number of reservations. Primarily he was concerned with his fellow slaves and wanted them to accompany him in the attempt for independence. He convinced each of them personally and took days to chalk out a feasible escape plan.

The multiple fears of being caught and return to slavery were horrifying and difficulties numerous. Finally, a group of six bound for the Chesapeake Bay was constituted to flee on Saturday night. Douglass even managed to prepare fake undertakings on behalf of their masters for all six. As the last moment, however, the mission failed and all of them were held due to the betrayal of one of the fellow slave. Finally when Douglass succeeded to escape towards North in 1838, he found the region totally different from what he presumed.

While living in abysmal depths of slavery at the Southern plantation, he thought of the Northern slaveholders having just a few comforts of life or rather they didn’t own any slaves. In his simplicity, he thought the slaves a source of wealth and extravagant life that was supposedly inexistent in the North. He writes, “. . . upon coming to the north, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp, and grandeur of southern slaveholders” (111).

In contrast, he found himself “surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth” (111). The blooming northern industry engaged numerous workers living in far better conditions (both physically and economically) than the pathetic southern slaves. In short, he found a new world, a world of hope where future lies. Works Cited Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Accessed August 20, 2008 http://etext. virginia. edu/toc/modeng/public/DouNarr. html


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