Frederick Douglass was born in Tuckahoe, Maryland, near Hillsborough. He doesn’t know for sure of his age, he has seen no proof and his master will not inform him. Most masters prefer for their slaves to stay ignorant. He believes that he was around twenty-seven and twenty-eight when he began writing his narrative – he overheard his master say he was about seventeen years of age during 1835. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was separated from him when he was an infant and she died when he was seven years old. Frederick’s father was a white man who could have been his master but he never found out.
Education was of utmost importance in his life. He received his first lesson while living with Mr. and Mrs. Auld. Sophia Auld, Frederick’s “mistress”, was very humane to him and spent time teaching him the A, B, C’s. After he mastered this, she assisted him in spelling three and four letter words. At this point in his lesson Mr. Auld encountered what his wife was doing for Frederick and forbid her to continue. He believed that “if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell” and continuing with “learning would spoil the best nigger in the world”.
The masters felt that an ignorant slave formed a choice slave and any eneficial learning would damage the slave and therefore be futile to his master. His next step on the road to success was during his seven years living with Master Hugh’s family. Frederick would make friends with as many white boys as he possibly could on the street. His new friends would be transformed into teachers. When he could, Frederick carried bread on him as a means of trade to the famished kids for knowledge. He would also carry a book anytime he had an errand to run.
The errand would be completed quickly, allowing extra study time. When Frederick was working in Durgin and Bailey’s ship-yard he would notice imber marked with various letters. He soon discovered how the letters matched the type of wood and the names of these letters. Any boy he met that could write he would challenge them to a writing contest. Frederick would use the letters he recently learned and told the child to challenge that. He then copied the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book until he knew them well. All this hard work and years of practice gave Frederick the knowledge to write.
After his relocation to Mr. Freeland, who was the owner of two slaves, Frederick devoted his Sundays teaching these two and other slaves how to read. Frederick heard the word abolitionists a few times but it wasn’t for a while until he found out what it meant. If a slave succeeded in escaping from his Master or performing a radical action such as burning a barn or killing his Master, it was considered to be a form of abolition. One day while running an errand, Frederick ran into two Irishmen hard at work. Frederick assisted the Irishmen and soon after they asked if he was a slave.
The men then advised Frederick to run away to the north to find friends and freedom. Ever since this encounter he has dreamed of the day he could safely escape. An attempt o carry out his dreams surfaced during his stay with Master Thomas. He did not attempt to escape, however he regrets not doing so since the chances of succeeding are ten times greater from the city than from the country. Anthony, one of Frederick’s two masters, was not a humane slaveholder. Frederick was awakened habitually by the sounds of his own aunt being whipped repeatedly because she was caught away for the evening with a man.
Slaves, when unhappy, sing songs to help drown their sorrow. Frederick would often sing for this purpose, and not to express his happiness as some slaves also do. The men and women slaves received eight pounds of pork or fish and one bushel of corn meal monthly. On a yearly basis, they received very little along the lines of clothing. The children unable to work in the field were given two shirts per year. If they happen to wear out, the children would have to go naked until the next year. No beds were supplied, only coarse blankets.
Master Thomas would not even give a sufficient amount of food to eat, which was usually mush (coarse boiled corn meal). This was considered to be the most pitiful act even among slave holders. The general rule s, no matter how coarse the food is, just make sure there is enough of it. Mr. Severe, one of the overseers, was a cruel and heartless man. He seemed to treasure the time spent with his whip. Mr. Severe was replaced by Mr. Hopkins, a very different man. He was not as brutal as Mr. Severe; he whipped when he felt it was necessary, but took no joy in it.
The slaves considered Mr. Hopkins a good overseer. This was rarely the case, however. Colonel Lloyd, for example, would tar his gardening fence to keep the slaves from eating his fruit. If his horses didn’t move fast enough or wasn’t clean enough, the blame would go to the eepers. The slave could never answer to any complaints, just stand, listen, and tremble. One time Colonel Lloyd passed a slave on the street that belonged to him, but the slave did not know who he was. The slave told the Colonel that his master did not treat him well.
Three weeks later, that slave was shipped off to Georgia, away from his family and friends, to serve his punishment for answering a simple question truthfully. Mr. Gore, an overseer for Colonel Lloyd, was strict, serious, and had no sense of humor. This man had the audacity to shoot another man in the face simply because he would not remove himself from creek where he was recovering from his wounds. Mr. Gore’s response was that this slave was out of control and if he wasn’t controlled then the other slaves would see this and copy the example.
Mr. Gore’s explanation was adequate and all was forgotten. A city slave differs greatly from a slave on the plantation. A slave from the city receives more food and clothing. A city slaveholder will have it known that they provide plenty of food to their slaves. After leaving Master Thomas’s house and living with Mr. Covey, Frederick, for the first time, discovered what it was like to be a field hand. He felt ery awkward in his new environment and came to prove it soon enough. A week after his arrival he received a generous number of lashings.
Frederick had never maneuvered oxen before and was required to take them out to the woods by Mr. Covey. He wrecked the oxen, the cart, and nearly his life on his journey. Upon arrival, Mr. Covey ordered Frederick to return to the forest as to show him the correct way to handle oxen. Surprisingly Mr. Covey ordered Frederick to remove his clothes. Frederick refused to do so, and therefore this is where his first of many whippings came from. As an infant, Frederick was separated from his mother. This is common in Maryland in an attempt to destroy the child’s relationship with their mother.
The separated child is placed with an older woman who cannot work. He never saw his mother more than five times, and each time being in the dark. Since she was a field hand, she was unavailable from sun up until sun down. Around Frederick’s age of seven his mother died. She had passed away and was buried before Frederick knew anything about it. He remembers that time in his life as receiving “the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger”. She never once mentioned who his father was and rumors went around that his master was his father.
He was unable, however, to find out the truth behind those rumors. In my opinion, the most significant point in Douglass’ narrative was when he talked about getting an education. As Mr. Auld said, “if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell”, proves to be true. An ignorant slave will not know better, but an informed slave has that extra edge. Frederick took advantage of his inch and made the most of it. Using his knowledge, he gave others the same gift. I was not aware of such brutal times slaves had to endure on a daily asis prior to reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
I doubt that I would have read it on my own, but am pleased to now that I have. Douglass’ narrative gave me explicit and detailed encounters and experiences that will have me looking at slavery in a completely different, but now informed way. I get upset when I hear certain Afro-Americans complain about how the white man controlled them during the slavery years and we owe them now for what happened over one hundred years ago. Now I am able to understand (to a certain extent) why they are so angry at the white man. I disagree with the slavery issue all ogether.
I wish that it never would have existed, and feel sympathetic that it did. I am glad that we as a nation can grow from such a tragedy and realize that the way those men were treated was nothing but wrong. I don’t care what a man does, nobody deserves to be shot in the face in the middle of a creek for disobeying. Upon completing the reading of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I have a better understanding of what exactly happened to the slaves in the 1800’s and believe that it is an important reading in American history, as everyone should be informed about this part of America’s past.