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Douglass narrates his entire life through this book and shows the readers how he survived as a slave. He was born in Talbot County, Maryland. Douglass stuns the readers on the first page of chapter one when he says that he has no knowledge of his age and that he has never met a slave that knew their birthday. As someone who celebrates each new year of life and looks forward to celebrating this day, I could not be able to imagine not knowing how old I was.
To give more information about his life, Frederick introduces his parents, Harriet and his father which he does not know what his name was. All interaction with his mom were cut when he was just an infant. Sometimes she would sneak around plantations to visit him occasionally at night, in hopes of not getting caught. Frederick also did not have any relationship with his father and the only thing he knew about him was that he was white.
This implied that he was actually a descendant of his slaveholder. The slaveholder’s wife especially hated Douglass because she was ashamed and embarrassed that her husband had cheated on her and that he was the result of it. When the master was Frederick’s father and his slaveholder, relations with his white family can be compromised and the master has to make the decision to follow through with the title of a slaveholder and abuse his own child, or lose profit and sell his slave to another plantation.
Douglass was left with a dead mother and an ashamed father at the age of seven. As one can see, Douglass was raised with the void of any compassion and did not have a relationship with either parent.
As the biography continues, Douglass introduces the first of his many masters. The first one was Captain Anthony. This master wasn’t the most successful or wealthy, as he had only owned thirty slaves but he did have an overseer known as Mr. Plummer, as Douglass describes as, “a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster”. (Douglass 4) Mr. Plummer was extremely violent and felt no mercy while beating women. He abused them so much so that even the Master did not approve of his belligerent tendencies. The Master also was not soft-hearted. He had spent a lifetime of slaveholding, so he did not feel any sympathy while he whipped a naked woman’s back and watched them scream in pain and misery. Douglass says that he could not communicate the horrors that he experienced on paper because they were so gruesome. Experiencing traumatic scenes frightened young Frederick and stuck with him for long periods of time. One specific event that he goes into graphic detail is when his Aunt Hester was whipped for disobeying Master’s orders and going out with Ned Roberts. This infuriated the Master, and her consequence was to be stripped naked and tied to a stool as the Master laid layers of bloody cow skin that was so fresh that the blood was still warm. Frederick’s instantaneous reaction was to hide and he learned to never disobey orders.
The plantation was one huge business pool. There was hundreds of slaves at this plantation alone, and the other master owned many other farms. Small amounts of food were offered monthly to the slaves at this plantation and they were also given their yearly supply of clothes. Slaves survived one month off of scraps of pork and cornmeal. Slaves also were given one set of clothing a year. The bundle included “two coarse linen shirts one pair of linen trousers, one jacket, one pair of trousers for the winter, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes.” (Douglass 8)If someone was unable to work, they were given two items of clothing. If these clothes wore off within the course of the year, they would have to go naked until the next allowance.
Douglass went into great detail of the quality of life of the slaves. One thing is that there were no beds for the slaves, they had one blanket if they were lucky. You were privileged if you had a blanket. Their work days were so extensive that sometimes they didn’t even get to sleep. They are always filled with so many tasks that their night time was passed by preparing for the next work day. As soon as the horn went off, they were expected to promptly awake and head off to the fields once again. According to the book, their daily life just consisted of strenuous work in the fields every day and beatings from their unreasonable masters. Masters felt no sympathy for their slaves and had no problem beating them until they could not even stand. They thought their acts were justifiable. Slaves obeyed and abided by their master’s orders not because they wanted to, but they were so scared of the punishment they would receive if they didn’t comply. This life sounds unimaginable. All privacy was stripped from them. Some slaveholders would even hire secret spies to make sure that the slaves to see how they felt about their circumstance. Lloyd once sent a slave to a Georgia slave trader for admitting that he did not like how he was being treated. Slaves had to tiptoe around to see what they could and could not say. They were seen as just property.
As Frederick’s life continues, he receives the opportunity to leave Anthony’s plantation and move to Baltimore. He would be moving in with Captain Thomas Auld. He was ecstatic to be leaving the miserable plantation. As he arrived at his new home, he was greeted with a kind gesture from a white person, something he had never experienced before. Frederick claims that this move from Lloyd’s plantation to Baltimore at a young age gave him the first sense of hope that one day he would not be a slave anymore. The new mistress was very generous to Frederick and surprised him with her actions when she let him look at her face. She started to teach him to read and write, which was a huge step for Douglass. Mr. Auld deemed teaching Frederick how to read illegal because doing so would “forever unfit him to be a slave. He would once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it would do him no good, but a great deal of harm.” (Douglass 29)This sparked an interest in education for him. This was a major turning point for Frederick Douglass. Being able to read and write gave him an advantage to other slaves, but it also made him realize that it wasn’t unlawful for a slave to not be knowledgeable, it was just easier for them to brainwash slaves to contend to orders if they were uneducated. This thought revolutionized the theory from slavery to freedom. He came to the realization that if he became educated, it would almost guarantee freedom to him. Knowledge was his power. Frederick had a strong motivation to become literate now so he could gain freedom.
With his newly founded incentive to gain freedom, the book continues on to explain Frederick’s movements as he grew older. After a few years of living with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, Douglass says that he leaves with more knowledge than he had before. His foundation of education was taught by the mistress, but once she was not allowed to teach him anymore, he was self-taught. At the age of twelve, he comes across a book called The Columbian Orator which was very vocal on the repulsion of slavery. This book gave Frederick many ideas on his campaign for anti-slavery. This book gave him a revival that reminded him to hate his masters. With this growing opposition towards his authority and no steps towards freedom being made, Douglass started to wish that he would not have been exposed to knowledge because if he would have just stayed not aware, he would not be disappointed.
Many years later, Frederick had moved around different plantations with different masters. One of his last masters before achieving freedom was Mr. Covey. Mr. Covey was among the lower class and hired Douglass to be a field hand. During his year with Covey, Douglass received many whippings for various reasons. Frederick had enough. He took the beating as a motive to get back to his passion- abolishing slavery. He fought with his master, which strengthened his resistance for his master and his hatred towards the life he had. Frederick Douglass did not want to live as a slave for any longer. He is then transferred to live with Mr. Freeland. He is under his authority for a bit and things seem to be going well with Freeland’s negotiable personality. But Frederick’s eagerness for freedom grows more and more. Douglass takes the risk and starts to educate other slaves, which gives them more power. Douglass makes a small group to escape with and they carry out their escape plan but soon get caught and get sent to jail. With one more attempt, Frederick finally succeeds and becomes free. He feels accomplished with this new lifestyle but refuses to back down until all slavery ends. He continues to advocate for abolitionism for the rest of his life.
This book is an autobiography, giving credibility to the accuracy of the events firsthand. There is some potential for bias, since it is based off of the perceptions of Douglass. However, the events he described align with the historical events of the period and are similar to other slaves who lived through this horrible time, therefore I believe and agree with the perspective depicted in this book. I selected this book because I wanted to have direct insight on what he lived through. The perseverance of Douglas is one of the most motivating stories I have ever read, despite it being heartbreaking and gut-wrenching to read of the horrific inhumane treatment.
To conclude, this personal narrative was written to explain the horrors of slavery through Frederick Douglass’s personal experience. This story gives me a much better understanding of the conditions that slaves had to suffer through. I have a much better context on how it is nearly impossible to become free when you are born into slavery.
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