"I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it."
Douglass's autobiography is both a personal coming-of-age tale as well as an indictment of the horrors of slavery. This passage exhibits both of these themes. On the one hand, this is a very personal recollection of a young boy's experience. He sees his own aunt being beaten mercilessly and wonders if he will be next. As an adult he writes that he realizes that this was one of the first times he really became aware that he was enslaved and what the horrors of that position entailed. He saw the injustice and the cruelty and was forever scarred. His world-view grew at that moment as he became aware of what outrages could be perpetrated against an innocent slave. On the other hand, this passage and the autobiography as a whole are records of the brutality of slavery. Douglass's aunt was not the only slave who was beaten, and Douglass was not the only child who grew up without a mother. The Narrative captures the universality of slavery, with its vicious slaveholders and its innocent and aggrieved slaves. It is successful as a compelling personal tale of an incredible human being as well as a historical document.
"The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them...To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds."
Slave songs gave vent to the truest expressions of the experience of slavery in antebellum America. Douglass recalls listening to them as a child and not quite understanding their depth of sorrow and meaning, but tells his readers that now he comprehends them and believes that they are able to invoke sympathy and arouse anger in their listeners. He writes that he cannot escape their mournful tones and seeks to correct the erroneous assumption of whites that slaves sang because they were happy. This could not be more incorrect, as slaves sang to express their melancholy, their impatience, their fear, their loss. Douglass identifies these songs as prayers, for they were supplicatory and often part of religious expression. Slave religion was a fusion of traditional African beliefs and Christianity, oftentimes with a focus on the latter's stories of the Children of Israel and their flight from Egypt. Like the Jews, the slaves felt like their persecution would eventually end in an afterlife where they would encounter their friends and families and finally be free of the brutality, oppression, and meaningless of their earthly lives.
"I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom."
Religion is a major component of the novel. Douglass does not shy away from declaring his own devotion to Christianity and does not fail to distinguish his faith from that of slaveholders. In this passage he explicitly notes that he felt provided for by God, and that God had a special purpose for him. To him, the fortuitous events of his early life could not be random; rather, they were ordained by a benevolent divine power. Douglass had a premonition that it was not his fate to remain shackled in the South, and indeed, the events of his life clearly support that belief. Of course, Christianity had been perverted, twisted, and altered by whites in the South (and the North) for decades. Slaveholders often hid behind interpretations of the Bible which suited and, they believed, condoned their behavior. Douglass makes a claim that authentic Christianity's can be found in the black community, not the white. He rails against the hypocrisies of slaveholders and points out their many examples of brutality, avarice, ignorance, deceit, and blasphemy. Through rhetoric Douglass is able to take the assumptions regarding religion held by his white readers and turn them upon their heads.
"Thus is slavery the enemy of both the slave and the slaveholder."
Douglass firmly believed that slavery was not only bad for slaves, but it was bad for slaveholders as well. Slaves faced estrangement from family and friends, daily beatings and humiliations, back-breaking toil and labor, extremes of cold and hot, dearths of sleep, ill-health, suppression of individuality and autonomy, crushing oppression, intense racism and insults, and many more abuses. However, slaveowners were also affected by the "peculiar institution". They fell prey to the vices of humanity and exercised them without restraint: they were violent, blaspheming, capricious, greedy, cruel, intolerant, ignorant, exacting, merciless, and unkind. Douglass uses the example of Sophia Auld, his mistress in Baltimore, to elucidate his assertion. She was previously kind and charitable and refused to treat Douglass like he was anything less than a human being. However, as time passed, the ill effects of the system of slavery began to blight her previously-virtuous personality. When her husband forbids her to teach Douglass to read - citing Douglass would become unmanageable but also unhappy with such knowledge - Sophia's newfound authority over another began to corrupt her. She became critical, harsh, fickle, and controlling. She grew into her position as a slaveholder and began to relish the absolute power she held over her young slave. Douglass includes lines such as this to indicate to his readers how utterly abhorrent slavery was to all it touched.
"If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother."
Douglass was not particularly close to many members of his family, but he did have a relationship with his grandmother. Although what he relates about her fate could very well have happened to many an elderly slave, Douglass's rage at what happened to his own maternal grandmother is very personal. He is in disbelief at how the Anthony family could have forgotten her dedicated years of care and simply turn her out into the forest, alone and incapable of supporting herself. Not only had she spent her entire life in shackles, she is now left to die alone, bereft of companionship and sustenance. Her humanity was completed ignored by her cruel masters; she was given no heed or thought as a person who was worthy of care. This example of the base meanness of slaveholders serves as one of the most melancholy moments in Douglass's Narrative.
"Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. 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 upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!"
Until this point, Douglass had retained much of his individuality in the bonds of servitude. While at Lloyd's farm he did not have many duties and was not often afflicted with beatings or oppression. In Baltimore he spent time out in the city, made friends, had enough to eat, and taught himself how to read and write. As he grew older, however, he lamented how learning only made him more miserable, especially during periods where he had some sense of freedom and leisure. At Covey's farm he had neither; here he experienced his nadir - his lowest, basest, most dehumanizing experience within a lifetime of slavery. This is the moment before the climax, of course; Douglass would eventually find the strength to resist Covey and succeed in asserting his manhood. However, while he was with Covey he typified the experience of many slaves. He did not use his intellect, his body was not his own, he was devoid of happiness and hope, and he lost sight of his personality and individuality. Covey was thus quite successful as a breaker of slaves, at least until Douglass finally fought back. This passage remains one of the darkest moments in Douglass's life.
"You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free!"
In this highly sentimental passage, Douglass offers a literary performance for his readers. Obviously this event has been embellished and inflated for the readers of his book; he would not have stood at the prow of the ship and uttered such words. His rhetoric, tone, and sentiment are supposed to rouse the emotions of his 19th-century readers. They are affected and artificial and strike the modern reader as unnecessary, but they would have resonated with contemporary readers. It was a speech that clearly pointed to the fact that the autobiography was composed in his adult years. It also evinced a very educated and highbrow rhetorical style that seemingly left the slave dialect behind. However, there is somewhat of a larger point here: Douglass was using a style of speaking and writing that white America had long denied him or thought him even intellectually capable of possessing.
"The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey's course toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man."
Douglass's refusal to allow Covey to brutally beat him anymore constitutes the climax of the autobiography. Through his physical refusal to be dominated, Douglass achieves a new definition of self and a new consciousness and resolve. Slavery consists of physical as well as mental bondage, and Douglass sloughs off the physical bondage of Covey. He demonstrates that his indomitable will and desire to be free is more powerful than slavery. He firmly believed that he was no longer truly a slave after this episode. In this passage Covey is figured as larger-than-life, as representative of slavery as a system. He embodied the worst elements of slavery. The "battle" between the two men is nearly biblical in nature, for it resembles the wrestling of Jacob and the angel. Douglass exhibits incredible control and restraint in the conflict; a careful reading reveals that he is not actually fighting back but is merely resisting Covey and not allowing himself to be whipped. Douglass is aggressive, but it is a controlled aggression. He is patient and persevering. Thus, the encounter between Douglass and Covey forms the central moment of the text where Douglass is able to symbolically break free from bondage and become a fully-realized, autonomous human being - thus enabling his later escape.
"The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed."
Douglas was profoundly sympathetic to his black brethren, those still in slavery and those free. He evinces his love and feelings of community and mutual dependence throughout the text, relating his experiences teaching his fellow slaves how to read and explaining how it was a myth that slaves did not experience deep friendship with each other. He felt passionately for those still in servitude and spent his free years vigorously campaigning for abolition. His was a commitment nearly unparalleled during his day. His love for his people was not merely rooted in principles of justice but in actual love of one's own (family, self, friends, community). He felt an abiding nationalism or pride in his people, often referring to them as his "fellow countrymen," alluding to their placement outside of the country that had enslaved them. This simple quote exemplifies his dedication to improving the minds and invigorating the hearts of his brethren-in-chains.
"The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren - with what success, and with what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide."
Douglass's Narrative was written when he was fairly young, and he added two more autobiographies to his personal pantheon. The first does not tell of his abolitionist activities, travels, eventual emancipation, and other reform work. Only this last sentence alludes to his life beyond his time in New Bedford. It makes clear to the reader that Douglass's life did not end when he got married and moved to New Bedford after his escape attempt; rather, he began to tell his story and enter the public sphere in an unprecedented way for a black man (especially a slave). Douglass's story was not fossilized in text but was orally given hundreds of times. His life story lived through Douglass's promotion of his work, and was expanded in the two succeeding texts. This passage also suggests two of Douglass's abiding characteristics: his humility and his large degree of self-confidence. He was not sure about speaking before an audience, but once he began he spoke with ease, charisma, and rhetorical elegance and skill. Douglass is oft-cited as one of the most accomplished orators in American history, and this passage reveals how it all began.
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He did not want to reveal the facts concerning his escape in order to prevent harm from coming to those who helped him, or make it more difficult for those blacks still bound by the chains of servitude who might escape via the same means.
Study Guide for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself study guide contains a biography of Frederick Douglass, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
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