Masterplots II: African American Literature Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself Analysis
To write autobiography is to assess the significance of one’s life. Douglass’s journey from “the peculiar institution” of slavery to freedom has both individual and societal importance. His narrative details the “dehumanizing” and “soul-killing” effects of slavery in language that is both formal and dispassionate.
As others have observed, the first page of the Narrative is replete with negatives: The slave narrator does not know his age; he is not allowed to ask about it; all he knows about his father is that he is white. This lack of identifying data is undoubtedly dehumanizing.
The brutality of the slaveholders provides other examples of the dehumanization of slavery. The beating of Aunt Hester by Aaron Anthony sets the stage for the many whippings to which Douglass is to be witness. Among the first of these is the incident of the two Barneys, father and son. They take care of Colonel Lloyd’s horses, but it is clear that the horses are more valued than they are; their master whips them frequently and arbitrarily. Later, in the incident with Covey, the “nigger-breaker,” Douglass decides that he has had enough. He fights Covey and declares that the encounter marks “the turning-point in my career as a slave.”
The sexual nature of these beatings has been pointed out. In the case of Aunt Hester, this aspect is fairly explicit. Captain Anthony is enraged not so much because Aunt Hester has disobeyed him and gone out in the evening, but rather because she has been with Ned Roberts, another slave. Miscegenation is, of course, rife between slaveholders and their female slaves. The slaveholder who is both master and father to his slave is quite common. Conversely, where both beater and beaten are males, homosexuality has been suggested.
While such physical abuse undoubtedly leaves psychological scars, the custom of separating the slave infant from his mother is perhaps even more emotionally damaging. Douglass several times refers to this unnatural procedure. In fact, he receives the news of his own mother’s death “with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”
The slave narrator, however, is no stranger to religion. References to it become increasingly specific. Early in the Narrative, the death of a cruel overseer is “regarded by the slaves as the result of a merciful providence.” Similarly, Frederick Douglass describes his move to Baltimore as “a special interposition of divine Providence.” Later, slaveholders such as Thomas Auld use religion to “sanction and...
(The entire section is 1067 words.)
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