I should have read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” long time ago, but I didn’t. Mostly because I was afraid that the description is so bloody and horrid that I would be depressed after reading it, but I turn out to be stronger than I thought. There are only two or three sections describing the cruelty of slavery–which is horrendous–and the rest is very optimistic. Mostly it is about his fight to get himself educated and to gain freedom.
He was born in Maryland
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough…in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. 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. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.
He didn’t know his mother
My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant–before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor.
He thought his master was his father
… such slaves invariably suffer greater hardships, and have more to contend with, than others. They are, in the first place, a constant offence to their mistress. She is ever disposed to find fault with them; they can seldom do any thing to please her; she is never better pleased than when she sees them under the lash, especially when she suspects her husband of showing to his mulatto children favors which he withholds from his black slaves. The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves, out of deference to the feelings of his white wife
He grew up in poverty and witnessed cruelty
The overseer’s name was Plummer. Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him.
He went to the big city Baltimore
I was probably between seven and eight years old when I left Colonel Lloyd’s plantation. I left it with joy. I shall never forget the ecstasy with which I received the intelligence that my old master (Anthony) had determined to let me go to Baltimore, to live with Mr. Hugh Auld, brother to my old master’s son-in-law, Captain Thomas Auld. I received this information about three days before my departure. They were three of the happiest days I ever enjoyed. I spent the most part of all these three days in the creek, washing off the plantation scurf, and preparing myself for my departure.
His kind-hearted new mistress
My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door,–a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living. She was by trade a weaver; and by constant application to her business, she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery. I was utterly astonished at her goodness.
He learned to read and write
I LIVED in Master Hugh’s family about seven years. During this time, I succeeded in learning to read and write. In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems. I had no regular teacher. My mistress, who had kindly commenced to instruct me, had, in compliance with the advice and direction of her husband, not only ceased to instruct, but had set her face against my being instructed by any one else.
The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read.
When he was 14 years old, he was sent back to the farms but he eventually came back to Baltimore, from where he made his escape. He didn’t describe his escape in detail since he didn’t want to implicate those kind hearted people who helped him. He wrote in a more detailed way 40 years later after slavery was abolished.
I was not so fortunate as to resemble any of my free acquaintances sufficiently to answer the description of their papers. But I had one friend – a sailor – who owned a sailor’s protection, which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers – describing his person and certifying to the fact that he was a free American sailor.
Though I was not a murderer fleeing from justice, I felt perhaps quite as miserable as such a criminal. The train was moving at a very high rate of speed for that epoch of railroad travel, but to my anxious mind it was moving far too slowly.
A free man in New York
I was not long in accomplishing the job, when the dear lady put into my hand two silver half-dollars. To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me,– that it was mine — that my hands were my own, and could earn more coin — one must have been in some sense himself a slave.
My favorite Quote
It had given me a view of my wretched condition without the remedy. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing.