An autobiography recounts the life of an individual who has played an important role in the world. The individual or, character must be a relevant and influential figure in society to have a successful autobiography. Frederick Douglass was an extremely intelligent and influential man which is apparent as he tells his story in the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. The narrative is a popular autobiography in which Douglass tells about his life as a slave and the struggles he endured to become free of slavery. Douglass originally wrote the narrative during the abolitionist movement. Through Douglass’s story of development the autobiography was used to help in the fight against slavery.
Douglass wrote the narrative in a manner that made readers start to think about slavery. Through vivid descriptions the reader was able to see what slavery was really like and feel some of the fear felt by the slaves. The way in which this autobiography was written also made the readers feel sympathy for the slaves. Douglass felt that the autobiography was descriptive; however, no reader could actually feel exactly what a slave felt, and sympathize completely with a slave. “… I say, let him be placed in this most trying situation, -the situation in which I was placed, -then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave.” (Douglas,70) Douglass felt that no one would ever know what slavery was like unless he or she had been a part of it.
As a slave, Douglass was not given many opportunities; although, through intellectual and physical struggles, Douglass developed into a very strong man. Douglass overcame many obstacles throughout his life, including some particular events that had a great influence on him. Autobiography can be thought of as a story that recounts how the subject considered as a “character” comes to be the subject that speaks the narrator. The major things that occurred in Douglass’s life that helped to bring him to the point of narrator in this autobiography were the denial of an identity, the first scene of brutality with Ant Hester, the urge to become literate, living with Covey, and returning to live with Thomas Auld. Although many other events occurred during Frederick Douglass’s life, these particular ones made Douglass go from being a character to a narrator.
Douglass was denied an identity for much of his life. He lived outside of the plantation on which his mother worked for the first couple of years, he did not see his mother very often, and he had no idea who his father was. Part of a child’s development and identity formation is through relationships with one or more parents. If a child is denied these parental relationships he or she is denied help in forming an identity. Douglass was not given the opportunity to have any parental bond and, therefore, was denied the help needed to develop an identity. Furthermore, Douglass did not even know his own birthday. In today’s society, people base much about one’s identity on when the individual is born. People feel “lost” if their birthday is unknown. A part of Douglass was missing without this knowledge of his birth and, therefore, a part of his identity was also missing.
Throughout Douglass’s life, he was denied an identity because he could not make any decisions for himself; he was controlled by a master. Even after Douglass escaped from slavery he was still, in a sense, controlled by his master because he feared he would be recaptured. In order to reduce this fear, Frederick changed his name from Bailey to Douglass. Douglass could not even keep his own name, which is a significant denial of identity. Douglass faced many obstacles with regards to identity formation; however, he still managed to overcome those obstacles and he developed into a great man.
Douglass’s first impression of slavery occurred when he witnessed the beating of Ant Hester. Until this point, Douglass lived outside of the plantation and had never seen any brutality. It was Douglass’s first Master-Anthony, who severely whipped Ant Hester. Douglass described Anthony as an uncaring man who took pleasure in whipping slaves: “The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest.”(Douglas,15) People are influenced and affected greatly during childhood. Many children who witness violence regularly end up violent adults. It is amazing that Douglass did not become a violent person because, as a child, Douglass witnessed Ant Hester and many other slaves getting whipped. Douglass watched these acts of violence daily and still turned into a good person.
The beating of Hester had an impact on Douglass, although it was not a negative one. After watching this severe attack on his aunt, Douglass referred to the gates of the plantation as “…the entrance to the hell of slavery…” (Douglas,15) From then on Douglass knew the realities of slavery. Although there is a large amount of violence depicted in this part of the novel, without the vivid description, the narrative would not have had such a profound effect on the readers. In order to write a successful autobiography, one must first have an interesting story to tell. Douglass witnessing this brutality was a big part of his story and contributed to the man he became.
One of the biggest influences in Douglass’s life was his knowledge and literacy. Without literacy Douglass would not have written his narrative and he would not have been such a great influence in the abolitionist movement. Also, if he was illiterate, Douglass may not have escaped slavery. At an early age Douglass realized that education was the key to freedom, and later in life Douglass used language to break the bonds of slavery. Throughout the narrative Douglass emphasizes the importance of language.
When Douglass was sent to Baltimore to live with Master and Mrs. Auld, Mrs. Auld began to teach him how to read. This instruction continued for a short time until Master Auld found out what was going on and he scolded Mrs. Auld. The master said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing except to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.”(Douglas,29) From Master Auld’s comment, Douglass learned that literature equaled intellect, which resulted in power. Therefore, Douglass became determined to learn to read because he believed that reading was the only route to freedom.
After Mrs. Auld stopped teaching Douglass to read, he began to seek the assistance of the white children in the neighborhood. Douglass would give the boys bread in exchange for reading lessons. Douglass went on to work in a ship yard and began to write the letters that were used to distinguish different types of timber. He continued learning how to write with the help of the boys in the city and by copying his Master’s son’s homework. When Mrs. Auld began to teach Douglass to read, he “awakened” and became aware of the lies and injustice associated with slavery. At first, reading caused Douglass some unhappiness and Douglass felt at times “… that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing.”(Douglas,33)
It took Douglass many years to become literate; however, it benefited him greatly in the quest for freedom. At twelve years old, Frederick Douglass read a copy of The Columbian Orator. There was a conversation between a slave and a master, and a copy of a speech given by Sheridan. It was at this time that Douglass discovered the meaning of human rights and what abolition meant. Douglass used this knowledge to escape from slavery because from that time on “… the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon [his] my heart.”(Douglas,32) At that point, Douglass’s true strength began to show and his true development began.
Douglass used the strength gained from literacy to hold a Sabbath school that taught other slaves how to read. Douglass also used literacy in an escape attempt. When Douglass tried to escape for the first time his writing skills were used to make fake “protections”. These were pieces of paper which stated that the named slave was allowed to be away from his plantation. Eventually, Douglass did escape to freedom and he wrote articles for newspapers and headed the abolitionist movement. Without literacy, Douglass would probably never have escaped and would have been “… a slave for life…” (Douglas,32) If Douglass did manage to escape, however, without literacy he would never have been able to write his narrative and all of the other articles. Additionally, he would most likely not have been such an important figure in the abolitionist movement
A crucial part of Douglass’s life was living with Edward Covey. Douglass’s stay with Covey was an important part in his life because, afterwards, Douglass felt that his mind was no longer enslaved and he developed a sense of manhood. Douglass was not very well disciplined and he was sent to live with Covey. For the first six months of the stay, Douglass endured many beatings and he began to wonder if life was even worth living if it meant he had to be a slave. During these six months Douglass’s happy personality and his desire to be literate subsided. Douglass said that “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!” (/Douglas,45) Douglass referred to Covey’s taming as “… how a man was made a slave…” (Douglas,47)
The next six months of Douglass’s stay with Covey turned out to be much better than the first six. The betterment of Douglass’s situation was due to a fight that occurred between Douglass and Covey. Douglass described the fight as “… how a slave is made a man.” (Douglas,47) One day while Douglass was working in the fields he became ill and had to stop working. Covey was enraged by this and started to beat Douglass. Douglass felt that this beating was not fair so he set out on foot to see his old master, Hugh Auld. Douglass begged Auld to take him back; however, Auld refused and ordered Douglass to return to Covey. When Douglass returned to the plantation, Covey began to beat Douglass and Douglass decided to fight back. The fight lasted for nearly two hours and eventually Covey gave up. From that day on Douglass was never whipped again and he felt that the “… battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in [his] my career as a slave.” (Douglas,50) At this point in his life Douglass no longer felt that he was a slave. He freed himself in his head and developed a sense of manhood.
The next major episode that influenced Douglass’s life was when he returned to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld. During this time Douglass was hired out to a local shipbuilder to learn the trade of a caulker. Auld felt that Douglass could earn his keep by working at the shipyard. Many of the white people felt threatened by the blacks working with them because felt it was wrong. One day, some of the white men beat Douglass quite badly because of the fear that Douglass may take their jobs. Auld became angry when he heard about the beating and wanted the white men to be punished for what they had done; however, no one would testify on Douglass’s behalf so nothing happened with the matter. After this incident, Douglass began working at the shipyard where Auld worked and became very good in his trade. Douglass eventually worked out a deal with Auld in that he could live on his own and pay Auld a certain amount of money each week. This arrangement allowed Douglass to become more independent and save some money. Douglass and Auld were happy with this agreement until one night Douglass was late paying Auld and an argument erupted. Auld decided that the arrangement would no longer work and ordered Douglass to return and work for him. It was at this point that Douglass made the decision that he was going to escape. Douglass set the date of September 3, 1838 as his first day of his life as a free man. The argument with Auld was a very important event in Douglass’s life because it encouraged him to escape the bonds of slavery. From this point on Douglass was not going to “…be a slave for life…” (Douglas,32)
When first printed, Douglass’s narrative sold over thirty thousand copies. Presently, the narrative is still popular and is used in schools to teach about the history of slavery. Douglass was, and still is a very influential man. The descriptions used in the narrative had a profound effect on the readers. If Douglass did not endure all of the hardships during his life, readers would not have this narrative to learn from.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself is a piece of work which depicts dignity and courage. Although Douglass’s life was not an easy one, it is the type of life that develops a great story: an autobiography. What makes Douglass’s autobiography different from an everyday person is that Douglass has a story to tell. He was a very intellectual man and the narrative symbolizes this fact. Douglass not only used intelligence to escape slavery, but his knowledge also helped when he was a leader in the abolitionist movement. Douglass suffered and endured things in his lifetime that readers today cannot even imagine; however, these physical and intellectual struggles developed Douglass into the man society reads about in the narrative. Without these struggles readers would never have had access to such a great piece of work.
Douglas, Frederick. A Narrative on the Life of Frederick Douglas an American Slave, Contributors: Frederick Douglass – author. Publisher: Dover Publications. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1995.
Douglas, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Contributors: Frederick Douglass – author. Publisher: Dover Publications. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1995.
Lampe, Gregory, Frederick Douglas Freedom’s Voice 1818-1845. Contributors: Gregory P. Lampe – author. Publisher: Michigan State University Press. Place of Publication: East Lansing, MI. Publication Year: 1998.
Martin, Waldo. “ The Mind of Frederick Douglas – The University of North Carolina Press. Place of Publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Publication Year: 1984
1. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. Contributors: Frederick Douglass – author. Publisher: Dover Publications. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1995.