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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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What kinds of conflicts did Frederick Douglass face?

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The many conflicts that Frederick Douglass faced, which he eloquently narrates in his autobiography, propelled him to escape slavery and to become an outspoken abolitionist who championed for freedom for enslaved people everywhere.

One source of conflict was the deprivation of not knowing his family. Douglass notes that everyone told him that his father was a white man—most likely his master—but he never knew the truth of these claims with certainty. He also notes the custom in Maryland at the time to separate mothers and infants as early as possible; thus Douglass knew the woman who was his biological mother, but he never enjoyed a relationship with her, as they were forever separated. Not allowing a true sense of history or the ability to connect with his mother was but one way that those with power maintained such power over Douglass.

Douglass also endured great physical violence to himself and those he cared about. When he was a young boy, one of his most vivid memories was the violent beating of his aunt:

After rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heartrending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over.

Douglass spent most of his early life navigating the world of physical abuse, even watching fellow slaves die for minor infractions. His abuse when living with Mr. Covey reached a climax when Douglass decided to defend himself and fought with the man for nearly two hours. Douglass emerged as the stronger man, and Mr. Covey didn't touch him again "in anger."

The conflict of being kept illiterate was unknown to Douglass until he lived with the Aulds. When he realized how angry Hugh Auld got over his wife's instructing Douglass to learn to read, Douglass understood the power of being able to learn for himself and set out on a quest to master this skill. This conflict drove Douglass to become quite resourceful, striking bargains with hungry white boys and trading knowledge for bread.

Over and over, Douglass proved capable of answering conflict with strategy and solutions. Determined to forge a path to freedom for himself and others, Douglass saw conflict as challenges which he was strong enough to overcome.

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Rumored to have a white father and orphaned at a young age by the death of his mother, whom he hardly knew because she lived on another plantation and could only visit him at night, the child Frederick Douglass had no one to protect him. As a consequence, he suffered in many cases.

Here are some of the conflicts Douglass experienced:

When he was small, Douglass lived on the Lloyd plantation, where his tasks included herding the milk cows in the evening and finding the birds that his young master, Daniel Lloyd,...

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had shot. He suffered no hunger, but he was often very cold; he was provided only a long linen shirt to wear. He had no socks or shoes, no trousers or any other clothing.

I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.

When Douglass was sent to Maryland to be the slave of the Aulds, he felt quite fortunate because he was clothed better and Mrs. Auld was kind to him and taught him the alphabet. Unfortunately for Douglass, Mr. Auld discovered that his wife wanted to teach the boy to read; he scolded her and forbade her to teach the boy anymore. He told his wife that teaching the boy

...could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.

After the scolding by her husband, Mrs. Auld also forbade anyone else to teach Frederick. Determined to learn to read, Douglass figured out a way to tease impoverished white boys into teaching him by giving them bread as payment for help. Learning to read became the key to his freedom.

After Douglass discovered the book The Columbian Orator, which, among other documents, contained a philosophical dialogue between a master and a slave in which the slave logically refuted all the owner's reasons why slavery was necessary, Douglass grew even more embittered toward his masters.

The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. 

Frederick Douglass learned that if he allowed a horse to "run away" to a nearby farm, he could fetch the horse and eat a meal at a nearby farm. Unfortunately, Mr. Auld figured out what he was doing. So he was rented to Edward Covey, who also "trained" him. Covey was extremely cruel, repeatedly issuing punishments to Frederick. After so many beatings, Douglass felt completely bereft of any hope in life and even considered suicide. 

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As a slave who became educated and free, Fredrick Douglass was a renowned speaker who once stated that he did not even own his own head because there was a price on it (Race to Freedom, DVD).  His conflicts with himself resulted in a wondering of "Why me" in two senses.  Throughout the book, he wondered why he was born a slave and at other times he wonders why he was one of the few who could escape slavery.  Douglass was no different than other survivors of great human tragedies in his struggles with God and religion.  Certainly one in the midst of a horrific event has every right to wonder why he is made to endure the hardship.

Finally, in terms of his struggle with others, throughout the book we see almost daily examples of knowing whom to trust and whom to mistrust.  The struggles in this book are on nearly every page.

You might also look at Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom.

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