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The work of Frederick Douglas



A close reading of Frederick Douglas’s iconic book, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, offers a reader a very unique reading experience in that it is a window into the life of an average black American slave. Originally published in 1845, less than seven years after Douglass escaped from slavery, this memoir is generally held to be the most famous of a number of narratives written by former slaves during the same period. This book could be seen as a faithful diary of one black man, Frederick Douglas, a slave in the US’ South who fought his way out of slavery. By the time of the American civil war 1861 to 1865, the idea of freedom had been heightened and some slaves like Fredrick Douglas had already escaped to the North and joined some humanist white thinkers in a movement called abolitionism.
Regardless of their plight, the slaves resorted to songs that expressed joy and sadness. Sometimes these were rude protest songs that expressed hidden desires for freedom. It is written in this story that slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represented the sorrows of his heart and he is relieved by them only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears
Even before this war, abolitionist literature had come into being. These tended to be autobiographical stories by escaped slaves or by sympathizer whites, chronicling individual experiences of slavery. Key amongst these were the narratives by the likes of Fredrick Douglas, William Brown and Harriet Jacobs. Abolitionism was a well-established tradition of literary projects that sought to end slavery and it played a role in the negotiation of various political agendas within the movement itself. It sought to expose and record the evils of slavery, but some of the most compelling antislavery writing appeared in nonliterary genres, as well. The narratives were encouraged, edited and published by the Northern abolitionists. These narratives became a major literary form in the US. Even some white abolitionists wrote creative works that were antislavery for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 1852, in which Douglas made a contribution on information about slavery. Slave narratives contributed to national debates on slavery and influenced the inclusion of slavery as part of the civil war that saw the subsequent emancipation of slavery. However, despite being a tool of abolitionism, the narrative of Douglas has remained an internal record of slavery. It is a useful catalogue of how man was turned into a slave. It is a daily account into the life of a slave, the circumstances of his birth, parentage and upbringing are typical. Frederick Douglas was born Frederick Bailey on Aaron Antony’s estate in Maryland, on an unspecified date. Typical of slaves, Douglas was not certain who his father was although there were reliable suggestions that his master, Aaron Antony was his father. Therefore, Douglas was of mixed blood. However, in the US slave system and in the current system, anyone with a drop of black blood is considered black. Slave masters did not mind having affairs or even rape their female slaves at will. Even the products of such a communion were considered slaves. So capitalist was the system that a man could see his own children wallow in slavery. The slave had no sense of family. There was no visible family tree. One never grew up under the tutelage of one’s parents. Either one was sold away or remained with the master of their parents. Douglas was nursed by an old woman called Betsey Bailey on one of the plantations. The old woman’s duty was to look after the babies of the plantation slaves as the mothers quickly returned to work or back to producing other babies for slavery. Douglas’s mother, Harriet Bailey, was immediately hired by Mr Stewart who lived 12 miles away therefore she would only come to see her child at night, but leaving very early in the morning in order to be in the fields at sunrise. Finally, she dies of an illness and her child neither saw her in illness nor attended her funeral. As this book shows, slaves received low rations of food like eight pounds of pork or fish and corn meal. There were two coarse linen shirts, one pair of trousers, one pair of stockings and one pair of shoes for the whole year. The children usually had no clothing other than two shorts per year or they went naked and this was common in slave societies. There were no beds but one coarse blanket and usually men, women, brothers and sisters slept in one place. The slaves worked under a white foreman called the overseer who was often called a slave driver. Examples from this story are Mr Plummer at Mr Antony’s estate. He is referred to as “a profane swearer and a savage monster” who kept a cow skin. There was Mr Severe who flogged mothers in front of their children. His death “was regarded by slaves as a result of merciful providence.” There was also Mr Hopkins who whipped slaves but seemed to take no pleasure from it. There was Mr Gore who was “artful, cruel and obdurate.’’ He shot to death one uncooperative slave in cold blood. There was Mr Lanman who killed two slaves, one of them by knocking out his brains with a hatchet. Regardless of their plight, the slaves resorted to songs that expressed joy and sadness. Sometimes these were rude protest songs that expressed hidden desires for freedom. It is written in this story that “slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represented the sorrows of his heart and he is relieved by them only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” This was the birth of what later became musical forms of the Negro such as blues, jazz and reggae. Up to this day, the rhythms of such musical forms are soulful and carry sweet pain. Music connected the slave and his work, his soul and the long lost African traditions. The scenario at the Aulds’ home brings insights into the issue of education and literacy amongst the slaves in the US. We read that as soon as Hugh Aulds learns that his wife is teaching Douglas the alphabet, he becomes furious. Education and slavery were incompatible. It was, in fact, unlawful to teach a slave to read. If a slave knew how to read and write, he would no longer obey his master without question or thought, or even worse, could forge papers that said that he was free and thus escape to a northern state where slavery was outlawed. Hugh Aulds instructed Sophia to stop the lessons at once! Immediately Douglas started to associate literacy with freedom. He gained command of the alphabet on his own and used some white children as his teachers. He read parts of newspapers and books whenever he could, but always did this away from the eyes of his master and lady. Later, Douglas bought a copy of a book entitled The Columbian Orator, a collection of speeches and essays dealing with liberty, democracy and courage. This book inspired Douglas and he began to learn about abolitionism. With the death of Aaron Antony, his property went to his two sons and daughter. Douglas had to be sent back to the Antony estate from the Aulds in order to be divided alongside the other property of his dead master. The division of the Douglas family and the slave community that Frederick Douglas used to know, deepened his understanding and hatred of slavery. He writes: “Men and women, old and young, married and single were ranked together with horses, sheep and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being.” Douglas’s grandmother, old, sickly and useless was banished to the woods so that she could live in loneliness until she died! Due to death and quarrels in the family of his master, Douglas moved from one master to the other and ended up with Thomas Auld who starved his slaves. Douglas became a field slave for the first time in his life. Douglas was considered a difficult slave to control and was at one time, to work under Edward Covey, a poor farmer who had gained the reputation of being an expert “slave breaker.” This was the saddest period and the turning point in the life of Douglas. There was very constant whipping and surveillance. There was a lot of food but scarcely any rest. One day Douglas fell down due to fatigue but Covey almost murdered him. At some point, Douglas resorted to fighting back. Douglas and Covey fought for almost two hours until Covey gave up. From that day on, Douglas made a philosophic observation: “Men are whipped oftenest who are whipped easiest.” Douglas was lucky to get away with it because a slave could be killed for resisting his master. But Covey had a reputation to protect and did not want it known that he could not control a 16-year-old boy. Douglas’s desire for freedom even got higher when he was sent to work for William Freeland. He started an illegal school in the area. The slaves met secretly at night and on Sundays in this school. Douglas decided to flee north with some of the slaves but they are discovered and imprisoned for it. After the short imprisonment, Douglas is hired out to work with a caulker. A caulker is a person whose profession is to force sealing matter into the seams in a boat’s hull to make it tighter. Here, Douglas developed a sense of profession and higher being. The idea that Douglas is harassed and attacked by white workers in the shipyard demonstrates the white man’s deep-seated grudge to bar blacks from the dignity of a profession. Although Hugh Aulds tried to press charges against the whites who attacked his slaves, it all failed since even the free blacks who witnessed the assault had little hope of obtaining justice in the Southern courts which refused to accept a black person’s testimony against a white person. The breaking point in Douglas’s life is his realisation that as a caulker, he was being paid the highest wages possible for a tradesman at his level, but gave all his earnings to his master. He eventually got involved with free slaves and by 1838, he had escaped to New York, where he got married to Anna Murray, a free black woman, whom he had met back in the South at the Baltimore Mental Improvement Society. The North became a symbol of freedom and a commitment to human dignity and liberty comparable to America’s founding fathers. This book shows that the slave system turned the slave into an item. The slave had no rights and could not express a personal wish. The body of the slave belonged to its master. The slave could be branded like an ox. The slave could be resold. The slave could be separated from its children as seen elsewhere in Alex Haley’s Roots. The fight with Covey is symbolic of the fact that since it is violence that brought black man into slavery, equally, it is violence, plotting and high resolve that could take him out of slavery. These narratives by fugitive slaves give firsthand experience of slavery. After the civil war and slavery, the former slave narratives affirmed the dedication of the ex-slaves to social and economic progress.

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