Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis
Douglass was sent to live with Mr. Edward Covey in January 1833, and found himself a field hand for the first time in his life. He was not prepared for this, and he was certainly not prepared for the brutal whipping he received from his new master. He was given the task of taken an unbroken team of oxen to get a load of firewood, but the stubbornness of the creatures led to two near-death experiences for the young Douglass. Covey would listen to none of his explanations, however, and told Douglass he would show him how "to trifle away my time, and break gates." Douglass tried to refuse but to no avail, and was whipped several times for minor offenses over the next few months.
One thing that made Covey different was that he worked with his hands and was quite skilled at it. He knew what hard work meant. He tried to surprise and ambush his slaves, hiding and waiting for them so they never knew when to expect him. His whole life was devoted to duplicity, devoted to "planning and perpetrating the grossest deceptions." He also conceived of himself as religious, but of course this was very hypocritical.
Douglass's worst experiences in the bonds of servitude were his first six months with Covey. He was worked nearly to death in all weathers. He felt broken in mind, body, and spirit. Even his intellect languished and his spark of life extinguished. He considered taking his life but both hope and fear prevented him from doing so.
One day he stood on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay and wondered aloud, thinking that the ships upon the water had more freedom than him. In an impassioned speech he lamented this situation he was in. He decided that he would take to the water and finally achieve freedom.
About six months into his stay with Covey, Douglass experienced an "epoch in my humble history," and explained to his readers that "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." Douglass and the other slaves were fanning wheat on an incredibly hot day. Douglass collapsed because he was ill, and this brought the work of the others to a halt as well. Covey noticed and inquired what had happened. Covey commenced kicking and hitting Douglass until he was satisfied, then left Douglass bleeding on the floor.
Douglass decided to register a complaint and decided to head to St. Michael's. This was a long weary road for someone in his condition, and at times he had to hide from Covey who pursued him for a while. He reached his master's home and lodged his complaint. Master Thomas listened to him, but did not believe that Covey was capable of evil and would not kill Douglass. He commented that Covey was a religious man.
Douglass was melancholy at this news, and headed back to Covey's farm. There he hid in the corn for awhile and Covey could not find him. That evening Douglass stayed with a slave named Sandy Jenkins and his free wife. Jenkins advised Douglass that if he wanted to make it impossible for Covey to beat him any longer, he should carry a particular root on his right side. This seemed odd to Douglass, but Jenkins solemnly boasted he had not been touched since he had done the same. Douglass grudgingly agreed to try it and was surprised when Covey refrained from touching him when he returned to the farm. Douglass thought the root had miraculously worked.
Unfortunately, it had not. Covey attacked Douglass and, for the first time, Douglass resolved to fight back. The men were locked in vicious combat. Covey told a man named Hughes to help him, but one kick from Douglass to Hughes stopped the interloper. Bill was told to help, but replied that he was not hired to whip Douglass. After two hours of combat the battle ended. Covey had not whipped Douglass at all. For the next six months Covey never laid another hand on Douglass.
This was a major turning point for Douglass; "it rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free." He made it known that if a white man wanted to whip him, he better be prepared to kill him. He concluded that Covey never prosecuted him because he was afraid that his reputation as a slave-breaker would be diminished.
Douglass's term of service to Covey ended on Christmas Day, 1833. The time between Christmas and New Years was always given to slaves as a time for merrymaking and leisure, but the masters tried to make sure that the slaves got as debauched as possible so they would believe that freedom was a hassle and was unhealthy. These holidays were always given, however, because they were known among the slaveholders as a way to prevent insurrection. They were "conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity."
After living with Covey, Douglass went to live with Mr. William Freeland. The two slaveholders were quite different; Freeland was not as rich, but he had no pretense to religion, did not possess degrading vices, and was not cowardly or cruel. Douglass was most impressed that he had no pretensions to religion, because religious slaveholders were often the worst.
Freeland also gave the slaves enough to eat, and though he required them to work hard, he gave them good tools with which to work. He owned two slaves himself, Henry Harris and John Harris, and hired Douglass, Sandy Jenkins, and Handy Caldwell. Douglass inspired within his friends a desire to learn how to read and soon started up a school where nearly forty slaves came to learn. This was one of the dearest pleasures for Douglass; he called them "great days to my soul" and believed "the work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed." He was grateful to have the opportunity to better his race.
Freeland was the best master Douglass had until he became his own master. Douglass also loved his fellow slaves dearly; it is not true that slaves do not love and confide in one another. By 1835 Douglass had decided to try and seek freedom again. He felt that he needed to do this as he fast approached manhood. His friends wanted to participate in the attempt to escape as well, but all were aware of the immense obstacles they faced. They were often appalled when they considered the difficult road before them: starvation, drowning, scorpions, wild beasts, snakes, being captured and shot dead on the spot, etc. However, Douglass preferred death to "hopeless bondage".
Sandy gave the plan up but encouraged his friends. Those planning to flee included Douglass, Henry Harris, John Harris, Charles Roberts, and Henry Bailey (the latter two being Douglass's uncles).the plan included getting a canoe that belonged to Freeland's father-in-law and paddling directly up the Chesapeake Bay. The water route would be safer than land. Douglass wrote documents called protections for the slaves, saying that William Hamilton had given them permission to travel to Baltimore for the Easter holidays.
No man wavered in his commitment to the escape, though all were afraid. Douglass felt the weight of the success or failure of the mission on his shoulders since he had created this plan. That morning when he went out to the field to work, he suddenly had a profound feeling of despair, and turned to Sandy and said, "We are betrayed!"
After work in the field ended, Douglass headed back up to the house and saw four white men and two colored men. The colored men were tied up. The men told Douglass that they learned he had been in a "scrape" and that he was to be examined before his master and would be set free if they could not find information on him. John was tied up, and eventually Henry was too after some scuffle. Douglass tossed his forged protection into the fire when no one was looking. Before they are taken to jail, Freeland's mother gives biscuits to Henry and John, and yells at Douglass for putting thoughts of escape into their heads.
In a moment to themselves, the slaves agree not to tell anyone anything and to feign ignorance. They were more concerned with being separated from each other than anything else. Henry, John, and Douglass were placed in a jail cell together, apart from Charles and Henry Bailey. A few slave traders flocked to look at them, and Douglass commented that "a band of pirates never looked more like their father, the devil."
Eventually Henry and John were taken home but Douglass was left alone in the cell. He knew this separation was a final one. He was disconsolate that only days earlier he had been filled with hope, and now he was imprisoned. Thankfully, however, his fate was decided – he was to be sent back to Baltimore to live with Master Hugh and his wife.
Douglass was hired out to Master Gardner on Fell's Point to learn how to calk (waterproof). This was not easy because Gardner was in a rush and all men were to do what they knew best. This put about seventy-five men as Douglass's bosses, and he had a lot of tasks. He would have continued there longer if not for the fight he had with four white apprentices.
These white men began to feel that slaves were competing with them for jobs, and decided to put a stop to it. They began verbally abusing Douglass and refusing to work, sometimes even hitting him. Douglass always fought back when they were separate, but one day all four of them came upon him and beat him terribly.
Douglass came home and told Master Hugh; to his surprise, both Master Hugh and his wife were furious at the harm done to Douglass. His mistress fussed over him and helped take care of his wounds. Master Hugh tried to take care of it but realized that no white man would testify on Douglass's behalf. No one was courageous enough to do so even if they sympathized with the slave; it was not considered safe or proper to express positive feelings towards slaves or abolitionism.
Master Hugh did not want Douglass to return to Gardner, so he was sent to the shipyard of Master Price to finally learn calking. He became quite skilled and began earning high wages. The fact that he had to turn all of these over to Master Hugh upset him. In his leisure time he began to think about freedom again. This was a trend: whenever he had more time and had better conditions, he thought of freedom more and was less contented. When he was busier or faced harsher circumstances, he did not make plans to escape. It was clear that slaveholders found it "necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, annihilate the power of reason."
Chapter X is the longest chapter in the Narrative and contains several significant events. Douglass was sent to live with Edward Covey, the famed "breaker" of slaves. He found his new master a harsh and deceitful man, capable of great duplicity and cruelty. He felt the most downtrodden and oppressed he had ever been; he was broken and dispirited. Covey beat him frequently. One day Douglass finally decided to resist Covey, and, in one of the major climaxes of the work, throws off Covey's yoke and becomes a fully-formed man and human being. This act of resistance facilitated Douglass's growing sense of self.
Also in this chapter was Douglass's move to the farm of William Freeland, where he and several other slaves tried to escape but were betrayed and foiled. Douglass was then sent back to Baltimore where he worked for wages and yearned once more to try and escape. As Douglass grew into manhood he knew that slavery was not the condition in which he wished to remain. He also indulged in his love and passion to better his black brethren by conducting a Sunday school to teach them how to read and write while at Freeland's. Finally, he expressed more of his beliefs about the hypocrisy and insincerity of religious slaveholders and dabbled in traditional African folk and religious beliefs by accepting Sandy's root as a protection against molestation.
In regards to the root and to other forms of traditional African expressive forms, the scholar Valerie Babb's article on the vernacular presence in Douglass's autobiographies attempts to reveal how he, contrary to the readings of most critics who focused on Douglass's assumption of literacy, actually did validate the "cultural legitimacy of his African American antecedents." Babb first explains that most interpretations of the work focus on the process of Douglass, the black object, transforming himself into a subject by seizing literacy. American culture does link literacy to power and inclusivity, and in order to be part of the dominant culture, an African American would have to shun his own vernacular traditions and adopt the approved forms. However, Douglass, particularly in his latter two autobiographies, retains certain examples of the African vernacular.
Douglass's young life was filled with the oral traditions of the slave community, and "these traditions provided Douglass with numerous opportunities for encountering the power of the spoken word and its ability to comfort, console, sustain, unify, inspire, motivate, and help his fellow slaves to cope in their times of distress" (Babb is quoting Gregory P. Lampe). For Douglass, self-actualization was not only achieved through aping the dominant white culture. Oral traditions are also important when Douglass relates his family history. He explains how slavery sought to erase familial, cultural, and personal knowledge. It is thus apparent that he is "casting orality as an antidote to practices of slavery aimed at undercutting African American familial continuity."
The discussion of the African spirituals present in each of the three editions also illuminates the multiple meanings of vernacular expression. Each of the three works have nearly the same rendering of the scenes of slaves on the Great House plantation, suggesting Douglass was pleased with the initial one from the Narrative. Babb writes that spirituals "are often considered the songs that link African Americans to the expressive creations of their African ancestors. They have been credited with the power to preserve the enslaved's views of themselves independent of the definitions imposed by slavery." Importantly, Douglass credits the spirituals, not literacy, with his realization of how flawed slavery was. Therefore, it is the slave songs that give him the awareness, and literacy which gives him a vehicle in which to act on his understanding. Conclusively, Douglass's autobiographies do include the vernacular, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly.
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- Summary and Analysis of Preface and Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq.
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter I
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