Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

By: Frederick Douglass

Now these differ from Harriet Beecher Stowe that these are accounts written by an actual former slave. Harriet Beecher Stowe had never even been south. These were people that lived with and escaped from. Douglass became a powerful abolitionist.

We have the impression often times that freedom was something that was given to black people by good-hearted white people. In fact, black people were always involved in getting their own freedom. This is proved in the civil rights movement. LBJ did not sign all those laws simply because he was such a nice fellow. There was a great deal of pressure put on him. When you would turn on the evening news, and see those redneck sheriffs letting their dogs attack black protesters; turning water cannons on them sometimes shooting them, that puts pressure on the government to do something. We can't have this in America.

The government responded, but it wasn't that the government took the lead in this. It was following the lead of the people. So Douglass was pushing Lincoln, and pushing the other Lincolns in the direction of freeing the slaves.

Lincoln was rather reluctant to formally free the slaves and to have the Emancipation Proclamation. His first goal was to reunite the Union. He says that if I can do it and keep slavery then we'll keep slavery. If I have to abolish slavery to keep the Union, I'll abolish it. His first priority was the Union. Douglass' first priority was freedom, and it was people like this that push the government into action.

Do you remember the first day or so whenever we read Bradstreet? She said that people would say that somebody else wrote it. Well, Frederick Douglass faced exactly that charge. People saying that he gives the speeches, but someone else writes them for him. In this powerful autobiography, somebody, some white person must have written it because it's too good. Well, he did write it. He was that good.

"My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage."

So again, the tangled geneology of the institution of slavery. His focus is more on what happens to him which is the other form of abuse that we talked about the violence against the slave.

He talks about the law of the times:

"That the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers."

In other words, if you are born to a slave then you are a slave. That's true if you're half white. If your father is white and your mother is black, you're still a slave. If your grandfather is white and your father is white that makes you what, three-quarters? But, you're still a slave, and so on and so on. Because you always follow the condition of the mother.

So Frederick Douglass is saying that the reason for this law is done obviously to administer to their own lust, and to make the gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable. In other words, you'll make money off of your affair as well as having the sex itself. Whereas, if you follow the condition of the father, then the child would be born free, but the law of the south was to follow the condition of the mother.

What happens to the slave woman who does give into the master and has an affair with him? She says that she becomes an offense to their mistress. She is ever to find fault with them. if she does make the husband happy then the wife is unhappy. Why? Because this woman is having sex with my husband. We cannot speak too happy about this person.

Now he talks about the way that slavery degrades the slave owner and about how a young slave owner was beating the woman to try to force her to have sex with him.

In chapter 6, they talk about the danger of education. That if a black person became educated he or she might want to get more freedom. So, he tried to educate himself. How did he do this? How does he learn his letters? He'd tell the young boys that I bet that I know what that letter is, I bet that's an "f". The kid would say no, that's a "p." He would repeat the letter over to himself. He learned to read that way.

"I understood that the pathway from slavery to freedom would be to learn. A city slave is almost a free man compared with the slave on the plantation much better fed and clothed. Now that you're in the city, you have opportunity for education, the opportunity for freedom of movement, and you're relatively better off."

He gives an interesting sociological and analysis of what slavery does to the slave owner, as well as the slave. The master married a sweet young thing. A nice young woman who had never owned slaves, and she came in, how did she treat the slaves? Like people. Pretty soon though, what sort of change had taken place? Now that she had power, she started to use it.

"Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman."

"Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities."

"The tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practice her husband's precepts."

"Not satisfied with simple doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing made her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension."

What happens to her? She comes in nice, weak, gentle, and pretty soon she's screaming, yelling, and turning red in the face. What does slavery do to the slave owners? He says that it's as injurious to her as to me.

There's an old saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolute. When you own slaves, then you have pretty much close to absolute power over them. They have no recourse. If I'm your boss, and I start putting pressure on you to have sex with me, what can you do about it? Do you have any recourse now in 1998-99? A harassment lawsuit. Pretty soon I am sitting in a courtroom. I may have lost my job, and the company has lost a gob of money on lawyers whether we win or not. So, do I have an incentive then to rein in my passions? Yes! I want to keep my job. I'm going to leave you alone if you want to be left alone unless I'm really crazy.

In this situation, there is nobody to appeal to. There's no legal system that will take into account what you have to say. The Supreme Court declares that a slave was not a citizen, therefore, did not have legal standings to bring a lawsuit. So, you were just stuck. This tended to degrade the behavior of the master.

Why did they send him to Mr. Covey? His master sent him to Mr. Covey for a reason. He sent him to break him in the way that you'd break a horse. You try to get him to where he won't be so rebellious. Frederick Douglass is a rebellious young man. He's taught himself to read. He wants to get away, and he wants to be free. He's not a good slave anymore, and we want Mr. Covey to make him a good slave.

Who breaks whom? Douglass breaks Covey. They get into a fight. They fight for quite a while. He says that this is how a slave was made a man.

"I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected, that Covey seemed taken all aback."

They sort of beat each other to a standstill. Normally, what would you do with a slave that acted that way? You could kill him or have the law come after him, but Covey doesn't do any of this. Why? It would ruin his reputation. Everybody knows that he is tough. It is similar to me as a teacher. If I have to run down to the office every day, and say that I can't handle Mr. Smith. He's too tough for me. What will they think about me at the office? They will think that I'm a whimp. So, I have to beat you up myself. That's the way that it is with Covey. He can't lose face in the community by allowing people to see that somebody has beaten him. He then leaves Douglass alone.

He works in Baltimore. When working in a regular job as a slave, who are you making money for? The slave owner, so you're not making the money for yourself. Let's say that the white people that you're working with make fifty cents an hour, and as a slave they pay your master forty cents an hour. What are your white co-workers going to thing about it? Is their opinion going to be that they love having lots of these fellows around? No because you're taking jobs from me. It's the same sort of thing that we see in our country today. All these immigrants are coming in and taking jobs for low wages or the jobs are going across the ocean. In fact, until very recently, these same sort of resentments were held by working class whites against working class black people because the black people were making less money, and taking jobs that the white people could have had if the black people had not been there. There was a lot of resentment especially if it was a semi-decent job. That was one reason for these Jim Crowe laws that were passed that would keep black people from working the better jobs. You couldn't be the truck driver on the garbage truck, but you'd be the one to pick the garbage cans up and dump them into the truck. This sort of attitude went way back even in to the time of slavery.