Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis
Douglass's master had two sons, Andrew and Richard, and one daughter, Lucretia, who was married to Captain Thomas Auld. They lived on the plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd; Anthony was the clerk and superintendent for Lloyd – a veritable overseer of the overseers. This was where Douglass spent two years of his childhood. The plantation produced tobacco, corn, and wheat. There were about 300-400 slaves on the home plantation and many more on the neighboring farms, the closest ones being Wye Town and New Design. There were over twenty neighboring farms.
The home plantation was an important business seat in the county. Disputes were settled here, and slaves received their scanty yearly allowance of clothes and monthly allowance of food. Slaves did not have beds, only coarse blankets. However, there was more of want of time to sleep rather than a want of beds. The daily work left little time to take care of personal needs. Sleep was also hard to come by; any slave caught sleeping past the morning bell was beaten.
The overseer was a man named Mr. Severe, and he absolutely lived up to his name. He was merciless and savage and accompanied his cruel deeds with the most blasphemous and despicable profanity. After he died, right before Douglass arrived, a Mr. Hopkins took over as overseer. He was preferred by the slaves since he took no pleasure in beatings and was less cruel and profane.
Colonel Lloyd's home plantation looked like a country village because it was completely self-sufficient. It was very business-like and had many houses. The slaves referred to it as "Great House Farm", and it was considered a privilege to be sent on an errand there. Slaves considered the honor of being sent there equivalent to being elected to the American Congress. Those who wanted to be sent competed to please their overseer.
When a slave was sent to the Great House Farm, he traveled through the thickly-wooded forest, singing at the top of his lungs. The songs were spontaneous, passionate, and moving. The slaves would sometimes "sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone." Douglass believed the hearing of those songs would do more to impart the terrors of slavery than reading volumes of philosophy on the topic.
When he was a slave he did not truly understand the meaning of the songs; they were "beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the power and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish." The songs were what truly allowed him to glimpse how dehumanizing and miserable slavery really was.
Douglass commented that he was astonished how people claimed that slaves sang because they were happy, and thus concluded that they were a happy bunch of people. A slave's woes can only be relieved by singing. It did not make sense to him to sing for happiness, only for misery.
Edward Lloyd V was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Maryland scions. He was considered the state's most successful wheat grower and cattle raiser. He was a charter member in the Maryland Agricultural Society, a Republican delegate to the state legislature, a U.S. Congressman, the governor of Maryland, and a U.S. Senator. His illustrious political career was buffeted by his immense wealth and landholdings. Douglass did overestimate the number of slaves at the plantation; it was closer to 200. Wye House, referred to by Douglass and the other slaves as the Great House Farm, was built in 1784 and overlooked Lloyd's Cove on the Wye River. Anthony and his family resided in the "Captain's House." Douglass was enslaved there from August 1824 to March 1826.
Even though William Lloyd Garrison correctly identified Maryland as one of the states where slavery was the least brutal, it was still profoundly miserable for the men, women, and children who were in the bonds of servitude. Douglass provides more documentation of the difficulties of slavery in this chapter. He wrote of the coarse and limited clothing the slaves received once a year, and noted that children often went without. Douglass himself wore only an old linen shirt in both summer and winter. Slaves did not have warm blankets or anything else comfortable to sleep on, but this was not the most salient problem: there was barely enough time to sleep, for the rigors of the day did not end when labor on the farm ceased. Slaves had to fit in their personal chores after they stopped work for the day, and this often cut into their sleeping time. Of course, if they slept in later than even a minute, the overseer would whip them. These daily degradations paint the emotional toll that often accompanied the physical punishment of slavery.
Douglass wrote of the haunting melodies of the slaves as they traversed the forests and worked the fields. He negated a persistent rumor amongst slaveholders and southerners by explaining that slaves did not sing because they were happy and content; rather, they sang to give mournful utterance to the deepest anguish of their souls. Each "tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains" (20). Douglass did not fully understand the depth of meaning when he heard these songs as a child, but as he grew older he began to detect within them "the tale of woe" and the "dehumanizing character of slavery" (20).
The Princeton University Professor Albert J. Raboteau's influential book Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South offers important insights to slave songs and spirituals. Spirituals were unable to be divorced from their context, which was often religious in nature. They were a communal experience as well as intensely personal. Some historians believe that the spirituals were coded protest songs, but even though Douglass clearly alludes to their ability to articulate the woes of slavery, they were more complex than that; many of the spirituals' meanings changed in different contexts and were quite ambiguous in theme and format. Many of the spirituals invoked religion, and "to some slaves they undoubtedly meant freedom from physical as well as spiritual bondage." As the identification with the Children of Israel was a salient component of slave religion, invocations of the flight into Egypt crept into the spirituals; this was more pronounced after the war when slavery was abolished.
Spirituals also, as Raboteau wrote, "presented the slave's reflection on the human condition, which masters had to endure as well as slaves." They found meaning in their religion and their songs, which can be observed the often jarring contrasts of suffering and joy in the verses. Some spirituals wistfully evinced the desire for peace and rest in the afterlife, where friends and families could meet again after their suffering was over. Raboteau concluded that "the moods of the spirituals were many – sad, triumphant, resigned, expectant, serious, and light." Even though Douglass focuses on the depressing melodies and words of the slave songs, "it is sometimes forgotten that the slaves' religion embraced a lighter side. Indeed, spirituals and shouts were performed for social occasions – on holidays, at weddings and celebrations..."
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- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Preface and Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq.
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter I
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter II
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter III
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter IV
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapter VI
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter VII
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter VIII
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter IX
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter X
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter XI and Appendix
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