I didn’t mean to read this when I did, because Gulliver’s Travels was next on the list, but I picked it up and I just couldn’t put it down. I like a good first-person narrative, and this one really knocked me out. The book follows the life of Frederick Douglass from his birth as a slave in the American South to the point where he had successfully escaped to the North to begin his life as a free man. The story is heartbreaking and inspirational and truly extraordinary.
Douglass begins by telling us he doesn’t know the day, month, or year of his birth, having been robbed of this identifying information most of us take for granted. He only knew his mother slightly, and believed he was the son of a white master. But all of this is murky for him, not because it occurred when he was young, but because slaves are not afforded the human dignity of family. It is the first of many dignities of which Douglass is robbed.
The book follows him to his various masters. He begins life on a plantation, which sounds as cruel and awful as can be. He spends his young years free from most cares, running and playing around the plantation, but once he is old enough to work his life becomes one of constant toil and misery, and he experiences exhaustion, hunger, pain, and injustice on a daily basis. The slaves on a plantation are run by the drivers, cruel men who manage with a fierce discipline that comes at the end of a whip, where the belief in setting an example leads in many cases to capricious punishment and no sense of order or justice for the slaves except pain.
Following his years on the plantation, Douglass is sent to Baltimore to live with the plantation owner’s relative. Here, he enters a very different world, with regular meals, proper clothes, and at least a pretense of dignity. It is here that he is given an opportunity by his new master’s wife to learn the rudiments of written language, as she teaches him his alphabet and some three- and four-letter words. This instruction ceases abruptly when the master catches wind of this and scolds his wife for attempting to educate a slave. He says that once you teach a slave how to think, he ceases to be a slave. And for Frederick Douglass, this could not have been more true.
From that point on, he dedicates his life to educating himself and to finding a means of escape. He learns to read by cajoling local white boys to teach him bit by bit, hiding the odd newspaper away to peruse in spare moments, and he learns to write using a stick in the dirt. In this way, he eventually becomes quite proficient in both. Of everything in the book, this feat struck me as the most amazing, that a man in such a position took it upon himself to learn to read and write. Many struggle with patient instruction, but here was a man who taught himself, despite the danger of doing so.
However, this life in Baltimore comes to an abrupt end, when he is sent back to another plantation and made to work in the fields once more. However, his years in the city have made him clumsy at his work, and his education has made him impudent. His master sends him to live for a year with a farmer who is renowned for breaking slaves, so that Douglass can get a proper slave’s education on how to behave.
This begins the worst six months of his life, under the mastery of a cruel despot of a man, who seems to take pleasure not merely in whipping the slaves bloody, but in keeping them so off-kilter that they never felt secure at any moment, day or night. He delighted in sneaking up on the slaves unaware, to catch them at idleness, and he would whip for one infraction one day and its opposite the next. There was no pleasing him, and that was the point. After a year with this man, any slave would return to his master docile and relieved.
For Douglass, however, he finds the resolve here to defy this master. He decides that he will live or die as a man, but will no longer be whipped as an animal. He may take blows, but he will return them blow for blow, no matter the outcome. It doesn’t take long for him to get his chance, and soon enough he and his master are at grips in a struggle that lasts for hours. In the end, the master gives up and decides to leave well enough alone because he is afraid of ruining his reputation as a slave-breaker. So Douglass is able to break the master rather than the other way around.
From there, the narrative focuses on his attempts to escape. He creates a detailed plan to escape with several of his fellow slaves, but the word gets out and he’s stopped before he can even start. Luckily, he is then not sent to Georgia, where escape would be all but impossible, but back to Baltimore. He resumes a life of relative ease, but he is unable to accept slavery in any form, and ultimately he makes his escape north, to a life of freedom.
The book is an incredible testament to the determination of a man to be a man, to refuse his fate as chattel and instead to build a life of dignity one way or another. His determination to read and his resolve to stand up to his master strike me as two incredible acts of courage, which most men couldn’t dream of doing. The entire book shows the incredible power of the human will. Douglass was an extraordinary man, and his story here is an eloquent proof of the life of courage he led.
Excerpt from A Narrative of the Life, by Frederick Douglass
My term of actual service to Mr. Edward Covey ended on Christmas day, 1833. The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased. Those of us who had families at a distance, were generally allowed to spend the whole six days in their society. This time, however, was spent in various ways. The staid, sober, thinking and industrious ones of our number would employ themselves in making corn-brooms, mats, horse-collars, and baskets; and another class of us would spend the time in hunting opossums, hares, and coons. But by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whisky; and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feelings of our masters. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered by our masters as scarcely deserving them. He was regarded as one who rejected the favor of his master. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas; and he was regarded as lazy indeed, who had not provided himself with the necessary means, during the year, to get whisky enough to last him through Christmas.
From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. Were the slaveholders at once to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity. But for these, the slave would be forced up to the wildest desperation; and woe betide the slaveholder, the day he ventures to remove or hinder the operation of those conductors! I warn him that, in such an event, a spirit will go forth in their midst, more to be dreaded than the most appalling earthquake.
The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed; many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field,—feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.
I have said that this mode of treatment is a part of the whole system of fraud and inhumanity of slavery. It is so. The mode here adopted to disgust the slave with freedom, by allowing him to see only the abuse of it, is carried out in other things. For instance, a slave loves molasses; he steals some. His master, in many cases, goes off to town, and buys a large quantity; he returns, takes his whip, and commands the slave to eat the molasses, until the poor fellow is made sick at the very mention of it. The same mode is sometimes adopted to make the slaves refrain from asking for more food than their regular allowance. A slave runs through his allowance, and applies for more. His master is enraged at him; but, not willing to send him off without food, gives him more than is necessary, and compels him to eat it within a given time. Then, if he complains that he cannot eat it, he is said to be satisfied neither full nor fasting, and is whipped for being hard to please! I have an abundance of such illustrations of the same principle, drawn from my own observation, but think the cases I have cited sufficient. The practice is a very common one.