Category: Literature
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

The historical evidence of the destructive nature of slavery was preserved in narratives like the ones of Frederick Douglass. As for non-fiction and autobiographical text, it provides a truthful account of a slave’s life. There are several arguments against slavery that can be elicited from the story even though they are not always explicitly stated. First of all, Frederick’s narrative reflects his own negative experience of slavery, which is shameful, cruel, and antihuman in its nature. The living facts that the narrator presents appeal to those people who closed their eyes hiding behind their ignorance. Secondly, Frederick does not only expose the negative influence of slavery on slaves themselves but also on slaveholders who are corrupt because of the system in which they have to play a shameful role.

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Frederick starts the narration of his life from telling that he does not even know his exact age. As he explains, “By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant”. Thus, from the first sentences of narration, the speaker defines the real situation about the inequality when the status of black people is no better than that of the cattle. He truly detects ignorance as one of the main tools of manipulating people, because knowledge brings freedom. The narrator also tells the details of his possible origin, claiming that most likely his father is a white man, their master, Captain Anthony. Even though the narrator does not expand on this story, it is quite recognizable, because the case was quite common in the times of slavery. It suggests the idea that black women were victims and sexual objects to white men, usually their masters, who used their power to entertain themselves without any benefit to the woman who could not object. Yet, the fact that the young Frederick served in the house instead of working on the plantation, was probably a small proof of the fact that he was the unrecognized son of the master. The fate of other slaves is shown as far more tragic because the smallest mistake or disobedience is punished by overseers, Mr. Severe, and Mr. Austin Gore – the names which speak about the character of their owners. People are beaten and can be even shot on a whim of their owners. The hardest part of the pain that slaves had to bear was no hope for justice. As Frederick evidence of Mr. Gore, “His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation. It was committed in the presence of slaves, and they, of course, could neither institute a suit nor testify against him”.

The narrator also gives evidence of the fact that slavery was not the same in all regions of the USA is more loyal in the North; yet this relatively better attitude to slaves was not explained by a more progressive system, but rather a bit different culture, which demonstrated dependence on the public opinion. It was fashionable to seem loyal and kind to slaves as the reputation of a cruel slave owner could make a person unpopular. However, as it is shown, this little difference was quite relative, because there were much hypocrisy and make-believe about the attitude to slaves. Even though the attitude seemed more civilized on the surface, the core nature of slavery was the same. When the boy appears in Baltimore at the age of seven, his new master Hugh Auld seems to be kinder than the previous one. The truth, however, consists in the fact that a part of Baltimore’s population has never owned slaves; this is why their slave-owning counterparts were very cautious of their decent reputation.

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It is also remarkable how the narrator depicts the corruptive effect of slavery on slave owners, not only on slaves. His argument that can be found in the texts goes about the idea that slavery awakes the worst qualities in human nature. Even the best and the kindest people, whenever they appear in the position of a slaveholder, develop cruelty and arrogance. Thus, Mrs. Auld who has never had slaves before is very kind to Frederick at first. This happens because she does not have a pattern of how to deal with a slave, so she treats him like she would treat any other boy. Therefore, she teaches him to read and write and does her best to treat him properly. However, the theme of knowledge and ignorance emerges at this moment again when her husband instructs her how to treat a slave: “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world”. Thus, the idea that knowledge is dangerous for slavery is restarted again, and this is what really happens when Frederick learns to read and write and finally realizes that slavery is a shameful practice. Mrs. Auld, in her turn, changes her attitude when she feels the taste of power becoming a slaveholder. As the narrator describes, the transformation is quite obvious: “She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness”. This proves the idea that slavery is destructive for all its participants because the whole system is rotten and has to be destroyed.

When discussing the arguments given by Frederick, it is clear that their aim was to appeal to slaveholders and those who tolerate slavery in order to remove the system. Partially, the narrator’s message was able to reach their ears because for those who were interested in the true nature of things the treatment of slaves would be shocking. Not all people were slaveholders, especially in the North, but they could put up with the system because they did not have a true vision of cruelty and injustice that was going on behind the gates of the plantation. In fact, texts like that of Douglass’ prepared ground for social antagonism that lead to the Civil War. For the part of white Americans, it was clear that slavery led to moral degradation for both parties; thus, for the sake of the nation’s prosperity, the system had to be destroyed.

Overall, there are several themes in the narration on which Douglass focuses to appeal to his readers. In an autobiographical manner, he tells the story of his own transformation from ignorance and fear to knowledge and confidence. Hence, he promotes education among black people as a tool for change. Besides, there was a prejudice against black people, because many white people believed that their slave status was normal as they were just incapable of free-thinking and intelligence. Douglass’ example demonstrated that educated African-Americans received access to a powerful instrument of their own future liberation, which took a few decades but led to their victory in the end.

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