Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland in 1818, supposedly in February of that year, though his exact date of birth is unknown. Douglass was separated from his mother within the first year of his birth, and understandably had very little connection or relationship to her, despite the few times that the two were allowed to see each other in person before her death. Until the age of eight years old Douglass lived on a plantation with his grandmother, at which point his owner sent him to Baltimore to work as a servant in the house of the Auld family.
Hugh and Sophia Auld, unused to having slaves as well as living in an urban area, treated Douglass better than most slaves can expect to be treated. Slaves in urban settings cared more about opinions of them as slave owners, and were not afforded the luxury of isolation that other more rural slave owners benefited from. Sophia Auld’s inexperience with slaves and her initial kindness towards Douglass made her a greatly influential figure in Douglass’ development as a writer and a human rights leader. Though it was against the law in many southern states at the time, Mrs. Auld began to teach Douglass the foundations of reading and writing, though was forced to stop once her husband discovered that she had been teaching Douglass. This was an important transition for Douglass, who began to question the authority of the whites and other slave owners, but more importantly he began to understand their seat of power and that it was built upon knowledge. Douglass continued learning what he could from schoolboys in the streets, convinced that knowledge was the key to evading the life and status of a slave.
At the age of 16, Douglass returned to work as a field hand on the plantation of Thomas Auld, after the death of his then master. Douglass worked for a short time as a ship caulker in Maryland, and in 1833 tried to escape along with three other slaves, before finally fleeing to New York City, and subsequently to Massachusetts. After moving to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he lived for three years, he changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass in an effort to evade slave hunters (Britannica).
In 1841 Douglass was invited to speak at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, and due to the response from others attending, Douglass became an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass later started his own antislavery newspaper titled North Star,which was published in Rochester NY between the years 1847 and 1860. During the Civil War Douglass was a consultant to President Lincoln and strongly advocated for full civil rights for all throughout the Reconstruction period.
2. Modern Scholarly Reception
The majority of scholars that choose to examine Narrative by Frederick Douglass begin with the concept of literacy and Douglass’ developing sense of from the time that he was a slave through to the end of his respectable life as an abolitionist. In an article by Lisa Sisco, Douglass’ concept of literacy is evaluated at different stages in his life, beginning with the exchange between Sophia and Hugh Auld in which Mr. Auld speaks freely in front of Douglass about literacy and education as things that do not belong to slaves. For many, it is this pivotal moment where Douglass begins to conceptualize education and see it as the key to breaking free from the hierarchy of slavery.
Another important focus for critics of Narrative is the transition that Douglass undergoes to provide him with the perspective necessary to author such a seamless and convincing piece of work. This transition is illustrated by the tone of the writing that Douglass uses, which is determined and authoritative rather than pleading or damaged. Douglass emerges from his life as a slave prepared to be the voice not only for slaves, but also for women and other underrepresented groups of the time.
Along with women, Douglass was supportive of Irish Americans who were considered of similar class to Black Americans at this time. “…the Address from the People of Ireland to Their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America, the brainchild of Dublin Quaker Richard Webb, called on Irish people in America to recognize their common cause with American slaves and unite behind the abolitionist movement. Circulated in 1841 throughout most of Ireland by the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society, the document generated sixty thousand signatures in support by the end of the year” (O’Neill).
Douglass’ support of other groups, including Irish Catholics, invites us to question our concept of identity, since Douglass seems to come to identify as something more than simply a black American, an abolitionist, or a former slave, but rather sees a commonality between the efforts of these groups, and derives his identity from this overlap in mission rather than anything else.
In the article “Southern Violence and Northern Testimony in Narrative,” DeLombard draws attention to “the tension inherent in the abolitionist tendency to simultaneously represent and exploit the slave’s pained black body” (249). DeLombard continues to construct a metaphor in which former slaves and fugitives are giving testimony, painting slavery as the crime, slave owners as perpetrators, and allowing all readers of these testimonies and narratives to serve as the jury. Though it is important that these accounts were well circulated and widely read, the authors and the narratives themselves could be easily abused in attempts to serve the purpose of abolitionists, rather than focusing on the individual’s experience when appropriate or necessary.
In the The Psychoanalysis of Race, the author crafts a comparison between Narrative and Freud’s Oedipus complex. “Freud’s reading of Oedipus places ontogenesis in a culturally specific (Western, nuclear) drama: the boy’s sexual demand for his mother and sexual rivalry with his father. This triangle is but one configuration of kinship structures and symbolic systems that engender subjective desire. Can we extrapolate from Freud’s culturally specific narrative other family systems?” (Lane 245).
Another author, Paul Giles, believes it relevant to discuss Douglass’ view on power and how it shifts over time to become seen as a commodity or something exchangeable. Douglass’ views on power were likely influenced by the Civil War and his involvement in abolition, as well as his relationship with President Lincoln. Gile’s perspective suggests that Douglass’ origin as a slave instilled the idea that power is something tangible that exists in an almost cyclic structure.
“Douglass put the scenes of his life dealing with his attainment of literacy into a variety of sacramental contexts, from baptism to conversion to confirmation to ordination. Simultaneously, he made his narrative an exploration of ever-expanding dimensions of the term “letters.” We move from letters as symbols in the alphabet, to letters as components gathered into names, to letters as written communications, to letters as literary culture, the world of learning” (MacKethan 58). In this book the author creates a parallel between the religion and letters or literacy. Through this parallel the author begins to examine the interpersonal aspects of religion and the freedom gained through literacy. Ultimately both religion and letters (as a means of communication) can be viewed on a global scale.
3. Relevant Media
Clip of David W. Blight discussing an interaction between President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. David Blight is a professor of American History at Yale University and the Director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.
4. Works Cited
DeLombard, Jeannine. “Eye-Witness to the Cruelty: Southern Violence and Northern Testimony in Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative.” American Literature. Duke University Press, June 2001.
“Frederick Douglass.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopoedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/170246/Frederick-Douglass
Giles, Paul. “Narrative Reversals and Power Exchanges: Frederick Douglass and British Culture.” American Literature, Dec. 2001. Web.
Lane, Christopher, ed. The Psychoanalysis of Race. N.p.: Columbia UP, 1998. Print.
MacKethan, Lucinda. “From Fugitive Slave to Man of Letters: The Conversion of Frederick Douglass.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 16 (1986): n. pag. Print.
O’Neill, Peter D. “Citizenship, Nationality, and the Transatlantic Irish in 1840’s America.” Rev. of American Slavery, Irish Freedom: Abolition, Immigrant Citizenship, and the Transatlantic Movement for Irish Repeal, Angela Murphy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.
Sisco, Lisa. “Writing in the Spaces Left: Literacy as a Process of Becoming in the Narrative of Frederick Douglass.” American Transcendental Quarterly 141 (1995): n. pag. Gale Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, 2004. Web.
5. Sparking Questions
From the very beginning of Narrative, Douglass’ identity is something that he struggles with and lacks crucial information to conceptualize. He was removed from his mother at a very young age and does not know his birthday, but Douglass still has a very clearly defined sense of self and personal perspective. For slaves, identity is a privilege that they are not allowed, but can we accept Douglass as proof that identity can form independently of outside factors? Or are those outside factors necessary to ground who we are?
“Both Nature and Narrative of Frederick Douglass associate authorship with the visual, but Emerson’s “poetry of . . . insight” arises from transcendent poetic vision, whereas Douglass’s authorial identity emerges from his status as an “eye-witness to the cruelty” of slavery…I suggest, Douglass, in a series of witnessing scenes, gradually shifts the metonym of authorship from the vulnerable, corporeal eyeball to the unassailable, immaterial voice, a shift that corresponds with the text’s overall progression from slavery to freedom and from South to North: Frederick Bailey, the brutalized Southern slave, is all eyes; Frederick Douglass, the liberated Northern abolitionist, is pure voice.” (DeLombard 246).
Is it possible to accept the voice of Frederick Douglass without bearing in mind the context and his perspective? Is it possible to separate the authorship of the visual and of the voice in Narrative?
It is claimed that words limit the human mind. Frederick Douglass was illiterate for the first several years of his life, during which he endured traumatic and shaping events. Though these events occurred before he was literate, Douglass was capable of writing extensively about these events years later. Can we evaluate Douglass as an example that his comprehension and understanding were completely uninhibited by his lack of literacy and his limited vocabulary?
Douglass claims that education was his path to freedom, and writes that his master’s claim that educated slaves are unfit for slavery is was what ignited the passion to pursue an education by almost any means necessary. Was Douglass’ defiance and determination to attain something supposedly unattainable necessary for his success? Or was it rather the opportunity provided to him?