Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave cover image

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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In Frederick Douglass's Narrative, how did slavery impact the author's relationships with his biological family?

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In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, we see that slavery prevented the author from experiencing a familial relationship with either of his parents.

Frederick Douglass’s mother was a slave named Harriet Bailey. He knows her name, and even the names of her parents, Isaac and Betsey Bailey, but he does not really know her.

I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.

Douglass was taken away from his mother as an infant, as were most slaves in the area of Maryland he was from. He believes the purpose of this practice is to squelch the natural feeling between mother and child, which Douglass describes as “the inevitable result.” He saw his mother only four or five times in his life when she sneaked out to visit him, walking the twelve-mile journey on foot. Although he remembers her visits and the tenderness she showed during them, he does not feel a strong affection for her. He illustrates his lack of feeling when he tells of her death when he was seven.

She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.

Douglass has even less of a relationship with his father. He never learns without a doubt the identity of his father, but the slaves on the plantation he labored on as a small child said he was the son of the master. If it was so, the master never acknowledged him. Douglass explains that being the illegitimate son of a slave and the white master made life even harder.

They are, in the first place, a constant offence to their mistress. She is ... never better pleased than when she sees them under the lash ... The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves, out of deference to the feelings of his white wife; and, cruel as the deed may strike any one to be ... unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother ...

The system of slavery developed standard practices to prevent the growth of any family feelings among slaves. By destroying the affections and unity of the family, the individual slave is isolated, and any desire or ability for resistance is quashed.

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Like most people born into slavery at the time, Douglass was denied a notion of his family by his captors, those who "owned" him. He knew who his mother was, but he was taken from her before he was even a year old and before he was able to recognize her as his mother. Biological ties between slaves were actively discouraged. Douglass states that most slaves from the area in which he was born and raised, Maryland, were separated from their mothers at a very young age. He says he doesn't know why this was but supposes it was partly to break the affection of mother for child, and vice versa.

In his case, this does not seem to have completely worked. His mother died when he was only seven, but before this, she tried her hardest to visit him at night; she was able to spend the night with her child four or five times, even though this would cause her to be punished when she returned home. So, we can see that the love of mother for child was not completely broken. However, this was obviously the intent of the slave-owners, who did not want there to be a sense of family or community among the people they enslaved.

As far as his father was concerned, Douglass did not know who this was, except that it was certainly a white man. It was rumored that his father may have been his master.

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Frederick Douglass notes early in his memoir that he does not actually know how old he is. He states that this is common of people born into slavery and that there was a sort of pride taken by the masters in denying the slaves knowledge of their birthdays. This was a means of keeping some of their personhood from them—like "horses," they could only guess at their age and provenance.

In the same way, it was not important to the slave-masters to keep slaves together with their biological families. Douglass knows that his mother was called Harriet Bailey and that both of her parents had been black; his own father, however, was a white man. He did not know who exactly this white man was, although some suggested that it was his master.

Douglass was taken away from his mother when he was only an "infant," before he was able to recognize her. He states that this was a very common custom in the part of Maryland where he was brought up: enslaved children were taken away from their mothers before they had reached a year old and placed under the care of an older woman, presumably to destroy the affection between the mother and child. Again, the slaves are denied the ordinary familial bonds which others are allowed to have.

Douglass states that he saw his mother only four or five times, with his mother sometimes traveling by night to see him but always having to go back before morning came. She died when he was seven years old, and he was not allowed to be with her during her final illness.

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Douglass was born to an enslaved woman named Harriet Bailey. He was believed to be the son of a white plantation owner, but had no proof to that effect. In any case, Douglass's little family was very quickly divided by the institution of slavery, it being a tradition, according to Douglass, "to part children from their mothers at a very early age." He was separated from his mother before he turned one year of age, and was raised, he thinks, by an elderly woman who was too old to work in the fields. Indeed, he only saw his mother, he recollects, "four or five" times in his life, when she visited (at night, to avoid slave patrols) before her death, which occurred when he was seven. In any case, his case was typical of many slaves, whose families were viewed as secondary to the requirements of slavery. 

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