Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Chapter 1: Institution of slavery

Chapter 1 not only introduces us to the author, but also the institution of slavery. What do we learn about that institution? What are we to make of slave life and slave holders ?

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Douglass's opening narrative is fairly pragmatic. Growing up in slavery a child, like Douglass, knew little else. He describes how the natural connection between mother and child is often broken by slaveholders.

Douglass's relationship with his mother was brief and characterized by a lack of emotion on his part owing to their infrequent visits. He saw her about four to five times and always at night; she would travel to where he was enslaved and lie with him at night. They rarely spoke and when she died when he was seven, he did not feel much more than he would have as if a stranger died.

Slave children always followed the condition of their mother, a fact Douglass noted was no doubt due to slaveowners' pernicious lustful designs upon slave women. Children born from slave mothers and white fathers – mulattos – experienced far more difficulties than did other children. They must always fear the wrath of the slaveowner's wife; their presence was a constant reminder of her husband's infidelity.