In his Narrative, Frederick Douglass compares his life on a plantation to his life as an urban slave in Baltimore. How were they different?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Douglass claims that while the life of an urban slave is by no means ideal, it is far more tolerable than life on a plantation. In Chapter 6, he makes the distinction:

...I observed a marked difference, in the treatment of slaves, from that which I had witnessed in the country. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation.

As important, masters in the city feel more constrained by the opinions of their peers, and are more reluctant to physically abuse slaves in the way a rural plantation owner would. The saying that "city air breathes free" did not exactly apply to slaves, but urban slaves had more opportunities to learn to read, acquire a valuable skill, and escape to the north than plantation slaves did. Douglass's time in the city changes his life, though it is also clear when he leaves Baltimore to go work on a plantation, that he does not have the stamina to work in the grueling conditions slaves there had to face. His struggles to survive as a field hand working for Covey lead to his determination to run away.


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