For to be free is not merely to cast off oner’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others (Nelson Mandela).
Born in 1818, Frederick Douglass was a biracial slave in the 19th century. His life and the details of it are seen to many as a representation of what it meant to be a slave in America. To many his narrative was influential and inspiring as it was not a commonality for slaves to become free in the way that Douglass did, most were born and died a slave. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass serves as a reminder of Americar’s dark past, even though it was written with the intent to convince Northerners to act against slavery. Throughout his narrative, Douglass is telling the story of his life while simultaneously criticizing slavery in America through anecdotes and personal insight. Douglass use of sincere language regarding themes such as family, education, and religion exerted his desired effects of convincing northern whites to act against slavery by offering criticism to the hypocrisy and inhumanity of white slaveholders; in doing so, Douglass gives an honest testament to his readers as to what life was like for an enslaved person. After reading the narrative, it can be believed that regarding American political developments the ideas about America and what was truly happening were two very separate realities.
Ideas about family are also explored often throughout Douglass narrative as a way of criticizing the harsh realities of slave ownership in America. Towards the beginning of the narrative, we learn that Douglass father is unknown to him and there is the possibility that his father could be his white master, or another white man who took advantage on an enslaved black woman. Not only does Douglass never know who his father is but he also saw his mother only a few times in his life and wasnt allowed to attend her funeral after her passing. The simplicity behind Douglass relationship with his parents can be used to represent the basic human rights that were taken away from those who were slaves. In never getting to truly develop a relationship with his mother Douglass Never enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, [he] received the tidings of her death with the much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger (1.4). The first relationships humans build in their lives are with their parents, by taking this right away from slaves, who were typically raised by women too old to work in the field, slaveholders also took away a sense of home and comfort. Slavery prevented Douglass and most other slaves from getting the chance to ever fully develop a relationship with their families.
Throughout their lives, slaves were deprived of family relationships and given a false idea of what family meant. Masters wanted their slaves to believe they were treated like family, even though family could never inflict the pain and suffering upon each other than white men inflicted onto African American slaves. Upon leaving to go to a new home and master, Douglass found no severe trial in [his] departure. [His] home was charmless; it was not home to [him [His] mother was dead, [his] grandmother lived far off, so that [he] seldom saw her. [He] had two sisters and one brother, that lived in the same house with [him]; but the early separation of [them] from [their] mother had well-nigh blotted the fact of [their] relationship from [their] memories (5.6). His use of language in this quote is sincere in a way that readers can tell he wrote with truth. Douglass not only admitted the faults of his masters in his narratives but would also admit his own faults to allow for a fair argument in his writing. This reveals to us that enslaved people were deprived of lifer’s great gift of the unconditional love amongst family members. Its possible this family deprivation may explain why Douglass still felt a sense of loneliness even after he became a free man, he still had a large part of his life missing that he could never make up for.
Education was another theme in the lives of slaves and in the life of Frederick Douglass that played a great role in his narrative and thus also played a role in convincing northerners to act against slavery. Douglass discussed the importance of education and the role it played in his escape to freedom all throughout his text. At this stage in America, it was economically beneficial to own slaves and if you did not own them, to hire them from people who did for months or years at a time. Masters attempted to hold power over their slaves by keeping them ignorant- not allowing them to think for themselves or even to access the educational tools to help them better develop their own thoughts and opinions about all topics, including slavery.
As far as a master was concerned, the less slaves knew (aside from in the aspect of how to do labor), the better. This is likely because as (FIND NAME) once said after his wife began teaching Douglass to read, “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, ?if you teach that nigger (speaking of Douglass) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy. It was with these words, spoken with the intent to hinder Douglass he learned his path to freedom would not come through obedience to the white man, the first step was to learn to read and write.
Thus, unlocking a whole new world of intellect and understanding of America, slavery, and freedom. In chapter 6, Douglass states Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master (6.3). To not allow a person to think for themselves is inhumane, and this is something slaves were deprived of for years. When Douglass created the Sabbath school he made it known that just for the offense of attempting to read and write, slaves were subject to getting whipped upwards of thirty times. Slave owners feared the loss of the salves for without them their wealth could not be possible. This is when we begin to see the idea of hypocrisy in the form of needing slaves but not providing them with the sort of life that would encourage them to stay.
The final theme of importance that Douglass touches on which plays a role in criticizing hypocrisy and giving an honest account of slavery is religion. Just like today, religion has always been a large part of American life. Most slaveholders Douglass had identified as Methodists. However, to Douglass, their ideas of religion were backward. He did not believe religion was about attending church and praying louder than the man next to you, he believed religion was about self-improvement and humanity towards others, including American Americans. An important quote to analyze is the following
You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly around the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing (10.8).
Here, Douglass is going through an internal crisis in which he questions how God could let men treat other men the way he and his fellow slaves were treated. However, this quote also contradicts the belief of many that Douglass had criticisms of religion. His criticisms were not of religion itself but of the ways slaveholders could use religion to justify their immoral and heinous actions. Douglass calls upon God in the above quote to help him to his freedom, never denying that there is a God but putting his faith in the fact that a just God would lead him to a life worth living. Another important point to note is that Douglass saw the religion of the south [as] a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,-a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,-a sanctifier 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 (10.19). In his appendix, Douglass finds it necessary to defend himself in that his discussion of religion was not to criticize religion itself but criticize the hypocrisy of white slave owners to use something as peaceful as religion to justify horrid and crude actions.
Throughout his narrative, Douglass not only recounts his life as a slave but also does so in a way through his language that makes the reader feel while also letting the reader know his stories are true and unfortunately, far from exaggerated. The tales of watching family members and friends, as well as himself, experiencing the pain of a cowhide to the back brings his mid-nineteenth century readership to stop and think about how inhumane these actions were. He makes it a point to not exaggerate his tales or make them only the fault of his slaveholder when necessary he too admits to his own faults yet none of them are ever enough to justify the treatment from his masters. This text fully exposes the disheartening truths of what it meant to be a slave. In the eyes of slaveowners, slaves were not human, even in the eyes of the government, an African American was only considered to be three fifths a person.
There is irony in the fact that slaves did not ask to be Americans, they were stolen from their homeland and brought to this country unwillingly; from the origins of slavery, it was flawed. Whites wanted slaves in their country but didnt want them taking away any of what they believed to be rightfully theirs. Furthermore, one of the biggest takeaways from the narrative is that the whole basis of American slavery was hypocritical when compared to the values upon which this country was founded. Douglass compares the fight for freedom amongst slaves to the fight for freedom the founding fathers made to gain American independence, he believed In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death (). With this, his mid-nineteenth century readership is left with the question of: Are slaves truly just as American as the rest of us?
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