Analysis – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.

1.   Thesis: Frederick Douglass persuades the reader that the institution of slavery not only robs the slave of all of the fundamental elements of manhood but also robs the humanity from any person that touches it, becomes a part of it, or are themselves master of it.  Slavery is a “man-stealer” that removes dignity and dehumanizes the slave, reducing them to the likes of an animal.  Meanwhile, it also quietly steals the dignity, humanity, and morality of those who control it, bringing out the inner demon within.

2.   Structure of supporting argument: Douglass delivers a chronological account of his life from the time he is born to the time of his escape to freedom.  Douglass is born a slave.  It is all he knows until he develops a desire for freedom fostered by a gradual acquisition of knowledge.  He recalls various masters and their personalities, his slave handlers and their methods of punishment, and the inspirational people and their impact on his gradual education.   Douglass transitions from rural to urban slave and back, from light duty to grueling labor to skilled labor, and from a man devoid of identity to a man with strong sense of self and the will to be free.  Recurrent references to religion and animals permeate the narrative.

3.  Evidence in support of that argument:

a. Dehumanization of the slave:

-‘Man-stealer’ – masters portrayed as robbers (p. 84)

-Slave Songs – not for joy but for sorrow (p. 57)

-Lineage/Identity – keep slaves ignorant of age (p. 47), father identity (p.47), master as the father (p.48), separation from mothers at early age, during their illness, death and burial (p.47), change in racial make-up (white masters fathering mixed children, p.50), grandmother example (p.92), kept the name Frederick to “hold on to sense of identity” (p. 147)

Education –restriction of knowledge the key to white man’s mastery (p.78), slavery and education incompatible with each other (p.82), exposure to education spoils a slave, Douglass’ view was knowledge was “the pathway from slavery to freedom” (p ), “to make a contented slave is to make a thoughtless one” (p. 135)

Perceptions – “disgust the slave with freedom by allowing him to see only the abuse of it” (p. 116), providing drink on holidays was a distraction, a “fraud” (p. 114/115)

b. Dehumanization of the master:

-Demby “killed without conscious” (p.66)

-Slavery changes mistress Auld nature to that of a ‘demon’ (p.78)

-Deprived white mistress/masters of “heavenly qualities” (p. 82)

-Mr. Wilson and Mr. Covey religious, yet brutal (p. 98-100)

c. Religious References:

-‘demon’ (p.78), ‘heavenly qualities’ (p.82), in this ‘Christian Country’ (p.83), Catholic Emancipation (p.84), piety of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Covey (p.98-100), angels and wings (p.106), flight from Covey to Master, he looked like he had escaped hell (p.109), “glorious resurrection” and rebirth (p. 112), “religious slaveholders are the worst” (p. 117), lion’s den (p.143)

d. Animal References:

-treated as a pig (p.72), another pig reference (p.80), valuation like animals (p.89), Mr. Covey the “sneaky snake” (p.103), slaves as “breeders” (p.105), “man transformed into a brute!” (p. 105), Covey breaks Douglass in “mind, body and spirit” like an animal (p.105), escaped a “den of hungry lions”/”ferocious beasts of the forest”/crocodiles/”wild beasts”/”helpless fish” (p.143)

4.  Is it convincing? Yes.  Douglass’ accounts are very stirring and compelling arguments against the institution of slavery and its degradation of all involved.  Are there criticisms? Yes.  There seems to be a purposeful peppering of religious references, especially with regard to how paradoxical slavery is in a “Christian” country or “Christian” society.  I cannot help but think that Abolitionists of a religious bent may have influenced Douglass as he wrote this.  This is not because I think Douglass lacks spirituality, but only because he fails to share accounts of any spiritual practices by other slaves or himself during the narrative.  Therefore, the preoccupation of religious references stands out to me as a possible extraneous influence. Moreover, if the institution of slavery is at fault only, does getting rid of slavery or changing the economies of the South provide a simple solution?  Is that notion over simplistic in and of itself?

Posted in History - Pre-Civil War South.