Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

An American Slave, Written by Himself

Signet Classic; First Signet Printing 1968; first published in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Anti-Slavery Office, No. 25 Cornhill; 1845; 124 pages.

English: Image of Paula Deen taken as part of ...
English: Image of Paula Deen taken as part of a public relations campaign for the nonprofit group Civitan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I get into the content of this book, which I believe should be required reading for every American high school student before graduation—forget The Great Gatsby, read this— I want to bring up the news story about the bawdy Southern chef and television personality Paula Deen. Approximately 30 years ago, when Paula was a bank teller, she was held at gunpoint by an African American bank robber. Recently it’s been reported that during this incident she called him the N word.

As a result of this news story and her seemingly insincere apology, Paula has been dropped by sponsors left and right. She has become persona non grata. Even the diabetes drug that was endorsing her fled. The talk shows and court of public opinion have served her up and eaten her for dinner.

The N word is so powerful and so hurtful that I dare not spell it out here, but must rely on my readers to know what it is. I dare not print it. [Is this the Soviet Union? Uh no. This is America. But we, in the year 2013, have words we dare not say, ever, under any circumstance.]

This story raises all kinds of questions for me. The first question is how stupid could Paula have been to say a word likely to infuriate a man holding a gun on her? How did that conversation go?

The next question is why is the utterance of such a foul word so long ago important for this woman now? I wonder if she has said the word since. Is this word part of her vocabulary and has it been over the last 30 years? Is her use of this word indicative of her innermost feelings? Or, did the stress of being held at gunpoint trigger sudden onset Turrets?

Many people who have worked with Paula over the years have come forward and said that they do not believe that Paula is a racist. Even the bank robber, who is now in his 60s regrets the incident, now regrets he ever robbed her.

Which brings me to my next question. Here is a case of very poor judgment by a woman who grew up in the South, where doubtless she has heard this word repeatedly. I grew up in Texas, and I have heard the word spoken often, but thankfully was taught how wrong the word is. How wrong this horrible history of ours is.

But what really strikes me is that even though I was taught never to say the word, I was never taught the details of what slavery was all about in the United States. Only recently have I begun to unearth the reasons why this N word is so horrible. I began my education with the book Black Boy by Richard Wright. Then I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And now I have read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative.

Why wasn’t I required to read these books in school? Why wasn’t I required to read these books while in college? Why is there something so degrading as “Black History Month”? The history of African Americans is part of American history. Period. It should not be confined to the month of February. In my opinion, this is a huge part of what’s wrong. White people in our country are still largely ignorant of what happened. We have chosen to simply forget, to keep ourselves ignorant, to shut out what is too horrible to hear or know.

It is my belief that until we examine our past and read the literature available to us and integrate this part of history into the rest of our historical narrative, instead of segregating it to a single month—until we know the details of what this history is, the N word will continue to have extraordinary power over us. Much more power than any word should ever have.

The last question, before I get into the content of the book, is can we protect ourselves from our media and the feeding frenzies it periodically unleashes? Does the utterance of a word, or even of an opinion—regardless of how horrible that opinion might be—really merit the vitriolic rage that has followed? What does this mean for our society where more and more the entire histories of our thoughts and emotions are recorded for posterity?

Paula wasn’t holding a gun. Paula was spewing a word, a sentiment, a historical atrocity. Maybe she was hysterical. Maybe she knew exactly what she was saying. We don’t know. Does it matter what one silly woman said or for that matter what she thought—this much? To my mind, we as a society have not changed. We still want an excuse to attack someone. Under the mantle of our own self righteousness, we feel justified in lashing out. And we’ll take what we can get.

My ideas are echoed, but more eloquently in the introduction to this work written by slave abolishionist Wendell Phillips: “The further we are removed from the circumstances of legal slavery and legal and social racial segregation, and the the more eager we are to move beyond that inheritance and on to other issues, the more persistent that awful legacy becomes….Thus our cultural amnesia is encouraged rather than confronted by the fascination with a past which we prefer to examine in sanitized tranquility, lest we be disturbed by facts and images too dangerous and frightening to contemplate.”

Retouched portrait of Frederick Douglass taken...
Retouched portrait of Frederick Douglass taken in the 1840s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Douglass is a young man as he writes the account of his life, at 27 or 28. He was never given the knowledge of exactly when he was born. He was a slave in Maryland, a state considered to treat slaves better than most (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana being considered the worst). His slave mistress taught him the alphabet and some basics on how to read. He did not know who his father was, although he guessed his father was probably his master. He and his mother were separated while he was still an infant (similar to what they do today in the prison camps of North Korea). He said that he saw her only at night. She was a field hand on a farm about 12 miles away, having been sent away after he was born. She made the journey to see him, on foot, about five times in his life, after working all day. The penalty for not arriving back at work on time was a whipping. So he only saw her at night. This was before electricity, so he only saw her in darkness.

Twenty six miles is a marathon, right? Douglass’s mother worked all day in the field, then basically ran a marathon to see her son, and then worked another full day in the fields. She died when he was around seven.

The possibility that his master was his father made no difference as the law held that the children of slave women would also be slaves…”and this is done too obviously to administer to their [the masters’] own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.”

These are William Lloyd Garrison’s (the famous American abolishionist) impressions of Frederick Douglass after first hearing him speak in public: “Capable of high attainments as an intellectual and moral being—needing nothing but a comparatively small amount of cultivation to make him an ornament to society and a blessing to his race—by the law of the land, by the voice of the people, by the terms of the slave code, he was only a piece of property, a beast of burden, a chattel personal, nevertheless!…Patrick Henry, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty…”

After hearing Douglass speak, Garrison was convinced that further lectures would have an enormous impact on ending slavery. Douglass was hesitant at first, feeling that he was “not adequate to the performance of so great a task” and fearing that he might do more harm than good.

Thankfully, he was convinced.

To question one’s past was considered impertinent and a sign of a restless spirit, just another extension of the yoke, this time into the person’s mind.

As a slave, Douglass was subjected to men, masters and overseers, who seemed indeed to be savage monsters.

I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heartrending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome with fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.”

Both abolishionists in their introductions make the point that the horrible state of slavery was not only due to the physical atrocities committed, but went further to torture the mind. This seemed most evident to me in the deprivation of an education and then labeling those who didn’t have the basic skills to express themselves as lesser.

The whipping described above seems to be an extension of a barbaric jealousy.

Aunt Hester had not only disobeyed his orders in going out, but had been found in company with Lloyd’s Ned; which circumstance, I found, from what he said while whipping her, was the chief offence. Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt; but those who knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue. Before he commenced to whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. Then he told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d—-d b—-h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose.”

English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a y...
English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a younger man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This was the first time Frederick Douglass witnessed a beating.

Douglass’s first master, Colonel Lloyd, had around 400 slaves on his home plantation, where they raised tobacco, corn, and wheat. Lloyd also owned about 20 neighboring farms. The home plantation was run by managers. The farms were run by overseers.

Slaves were given a monthly allowance of food (about 8 pounds of pork and one bushel of corn meal).

They were given a yearly allowance of clothing. The children were given two coarse linen shirts per year. No shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers. Often they ran naked for lack of clothing. This reminds me of another unfair term that I often heard as a child. I marvel at the ignorance of my mother.

No beds were given to slaves.

They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day’s work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed by preparing for the field the coming day.”

On slave songs:

They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and compliant of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. 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. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul…”

I liked what Douglass had to say about being honest:

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.”

When Douglass was about eight years old, his master sent him to live in Baltimore. This was a great turning point in his life. He believed that had he not be picked to leave the plantation, he probably would not have set along the course that secured his freedom. His new mistress was Sophia Auld and at first was the picture of sweetness.

But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.”

But Sophia Auld did teach Douglass to read, but this didn’t last long when Mr. Auld found out, saying it was unlawful and unsafe to teach a slave tor read. Knowledge would make the slave discontented and unhappy. This conversation between master and mistress is recalled. The N word is bandied about in reference to Douglass.

From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom….Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever the cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and stove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible to the truths he was uttering.”

City life was better for slaves. Most masters fed their slaves better in the city because they didn’t want to be looked down upon by their neighbors. This was not always so:

Henrietta was about twenty-two year of age, Mary was about fourteen; and of all the mangled and emaciated creatures I have ever looked upon, these two were the most so. His heart must be harder than stone, that could look upon these unmoved. The head, neck, and shoulders of Mary were literally cut to pieces. I have frequently felt her head, and found it nearly covered with festering sores, caused by the lash of her cruel mistress….They seldom knew what it was to eat a full meal. I have seen Mary contending with the pigs for the offal thrown into the street.”

With his mistress now adamantly against his learning to read, Frederick Douglass had to find other teachers. He made friends of all the little white boys he met in the street and with as many as he could converted them into teachers. Since his masters did not deprive him of bread, Douglass would take extra bread with him when running errands and and give it to the poor white children in return for his lessons.

Douglass describes the role of religion in slavery:

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sancitfier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being a slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me.”

An impressive man, Douglass even found a way to teach his fellow slaves to read. And the risks taken in this endeavor remind me of the girl from Pakistan recently in the news who was attacked for attending school, Malala Yousufzai. Here is yet another example how those in control understand the power of withholding education.

Douglass also explains how the testimony of black men counted for nothing with the law. A thousand black men could testify that they saw him murdered and nothing would happen. The law required the testimony of a white person. White people, even decent ones, were at risk for speaking up against fellow white men because they would be called abolishionists and face ostracism among other risks. For for a black man in America, the rule of law did not seem worth much.

In the end Douglass escaped, married, and was recognized for his talent as an orator, which he put to use to help others gain their freedom. In the last chapter, he makes a point of distinction between Christianity and the mangeled hypocritical form of Christianity practiced at that time in the United States. A poem ends his memoir which aptly illustrates the blind hypocrisy of the times.

So the N word. Not a good word. I propose that Paula should read a bit and get back to the public. Maybe there is good for her to do yet. Do I believe she is a racist? Not a clue. But what upsets me most about this story is seeing my sweet friends turn so vitriolic, so eager to jump onto this bandwagon of hate.

Hate is hate.

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7 thoughts on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  1. It really is a shame that these works are not required reading more. Thankfully, I had a high school teachers and college professors who introduced works like the Narrative of Frederick Douglas and Black Boy into the classroom, however, discussion was rather stunted as nearly every student was afraid to acknowledge that our history has so much human blood on its hands on our own soil, especially living in the South. However, discussions on such atrocities like the Holocaust, the Congo, or the Bosnian genocide never elicited such silence. Cultural amnesia at its finest.

    I’m curious as to what you thought of Black Boy. I am currently reading it in its entirety as we only read the first few chapters for class. Also, you might be interested in reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a truly captivating yet horrifying look into gender roles and slavery.

    On a side note, I haven’t forgotten about Anna Karenina. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t finished it and am working slowly through it. I’ll let you know once I finish!

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    1. I thought Richard Wright was an excellent writer. Black Boy fascinated me; I learned a lot from it. I thought it was so sad that his first memories were of burning down the house. I also felt so bad for him when he found out what the magazines he was selling were all about. It showed great character that he refused to sell them even though he needed the money so badly. I would like to read more of Richard Wright.

      I grew up in central Texas. I don’t know if that explains why my education was so poor.

      Don’t feel bad about Anna Karenina. I think there some books are best saved for later. Funny, I was just thinking about how I need to read War and Peace. 🙂

      Thanks for the tip on the Life of a Slave Girl. I’ll put it on my list.

      Happy reading!

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  2. First, I have to commend you on your post. It was thoughtful and well written. I have to laugh though, my poor high school history teacher and I would go round and round over slavery and the making of America. How could the founding fathers as for “equality” for all and yet own other human beings! This book would have been fuel for my fire.
    As for Deen, if it had just been that she used the word 30 years ago, I doubt she would have been fired. If you read further testimony and interviews it is almost a given she still uses the words but to her “not in a mean way”. She goes on to say “they..I mean blacks”…Paula seems to separate herself from her dark skinned employees. At one point she answered “I don’t know what offends people” when asked about racially charged jokes. The woman dug herself a hole & the Food Network and other corporations are refusing to pull her out. That corporations won’t stand up for her shows just how far we have come.

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