Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, A Slave, by Frederick Douglass
In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass describes the horrors of his life of slavery in powerful and poetic terms, contributing one of the most well-known and well-crafted accounts of the South’s “peculiar institution” to the body of abolitionist literature. He most effectively damns slavery through his argument that the practice not only against the will of God, but that it actually perverts Christianity and unmakes the slave owner’s Christian soul. Douglass’ descriptions of the sexual fetishization of the female slave’s body, the slave-owner’s corruption of Sundays, and the way Thomas Auld’s “piety” belies the inherent complicity of the Southern church in the slave trade make the most effective case to be presented to Northerners.
Douglass’ narrative contains many themes present in the genre of slave narratives. He is unsure of his correct birth date and he does not know his father, though he knows that his father is most likely his master, Captain Anthony. As a child in the main household of his owner, Captain Lloyd, Douglass witnesses and relates the brutality and hardship around him, including the violent and sexually charged whipping of his Aunt Hester. He is given to the captain’s son-in-law’s brother, Thomas Auld, in Baltimore, where he lives in some measure of happiness for a time. Sophia Auld has never owned slaves, and so she does not hesitate to educate young Frederick until her husband orders her not to, saying that education is dangerous for slaves. Mrs. Auld educates Douglass, but he learns practical lessons about the nature of slavery and the contradiction of pro-slave arguments that he will use later in his life as a renowned writer and orator.
After his original master dies, Douglass is subject to Auld’s cruelty, which seems to be commensurate with an increase in his (false) piety. Auld spitefully rents Douglass to the resident “slave-breaker” Edward Covey, against whom Douglass rises to come into his own sense of self as a worthy human being. After Covey, Douglass is rented to William Freeland, where he encourages his fellow slaves to learn to read, write and be conscientious people. During this time, Douglass attempts to escape to the North with three other slaves but fails after the plot is exposed. He is returned to the Aulds in Baltimore, where he learns the ship caulking business, and sets about saving money for his eventual freedom. Douglass eventually escapes to the North, but keeps the details vague to protect those who helped him and the path other slaves may attempt to take. He marries and begins to establish himself as a luminary in the Northern abolitionist movement. Douglass’ Narrative is a carefully constructed reflection of a learned man on his violent past, replete with sophisticated turns of phrase and scintillating logic, both of which empower the anti-slavery position.
Narrative of Frederick Douglass is an effective and cleverly constructed testimony on the condition and effect of slavery. White men and women are, according to Douglass, poisoned and morally destroyed by the institution. His description of the beating of Aunt Hester engenders the conflation of inappropriate sexual desire and violence that not only tears down the black woman, but also the white man. “Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture.
She was a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions,” writes Douglass (2000, p. 12). He avoids graphically stating exactly what sexual demands the master exacted, and instead details the sexualized physical violence: “Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked…She now stood fair for his infernal purpose…he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor” (Douglass, 2000, p. 12). This “bloody transaction” as Douglass calls it, allows the white reader to become a voyeur to the perverted violence that results in shared personal destruction.
Douglass not only describes the effect of slavery on the Africans under the lash, but also on the white slave owners, who Douglass strategically evaluates in terms of their Christianity. In this manner, Douglass posits a clever argument that is both situated within the Christian framework of the abolition movement (in that slavery is not a Christian act) but also suggests that white people are personally and intimately corrupted by slavery, and that the entire Christian religion as it existed in America was perverted. In the Appendix, Douglass writes:
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. (p. 107)
By differentiating between the two “Christianities” and by locating slavery’s evil effect not on the African (with whom many white, free people—even in the North—may have little sympathy), he demonstrates that slavery corrupts the white owners’ souls and capacity to receive the blessings of Providence. This type of indictment would have carried particular gravity; Douglass’ rhetorically tight argument exposes complex truths about slavery as it existed literally and as it existed philosophically.
Douglass’ account of his remarkable life is a critical primary text in the canon of American literature due to Douglass’ rhetorical skill, his use of language, his descriptive and passionate accounts of a slave’s life, and above all, the wisdom he demonstrates in presenting a cogent argument that obviously considers the white reading audience. In examining the ills of slavery from all angles, Douglass offers both the portrait of a brilliant orator who overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds and a slave who understand the condition of the South in ways his Southern masters could or did not.
Douglass, Frederick. (2000). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass : An Americans slave and incidents in the life of a slave girl. New York: Modern Library.