Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself

by Frederick Douglass

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Which quote from Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself suggests a white father, and what's its narrative significance?

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One quote that provides a sketchy account of parentage that may involve a white father is found beginning on page 27 in some editions of the text. This quote establishes that the status of a mother determined the enslavement of all children she bore. A father's status as a free man had no bearing on this determination. Similarly, any white man who conceived children with slaves could then sell those children, rendering Black women voiceless and powerless in the decision.

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One such quote about parentage can be found on page 27 (continuing to page 28) in my text, published by Boston, De Wolfe & Fiske Co.:

Of my father I know nothing. Slavery had no recognition of fathers, as none of families. That the mother was a slave was enough...

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for its deadly purpose. By its law the child followed the condition of the mother. The father might be a freeman and the child a slave. The father might be a white man, glorying in the purity of his Anglo-Saxon blood, and the child ranked with the blackest slaves. Father he might be, and not be husband, and could sell his own child without incurring reproach, if in its veins coursed one drop of African blood.

This quote establishes several significant societal truths in this historical context. First, this is a strictly patriarchal society. Men hold the power and status, allowing them social privileges that are not afforded to women. Only women had to carry the burden of circumstance when the enslavement of children was in question. A woman who became pregnant, whether this was by her own choice or forced upon her, knew that her status as a slave guaranteed the enslavement of her children. This was an incredible emotional burden for women to bear.

It also means that there was a tangible incentive for masters to victimize their female slaves. Any children conceived to female slaves automatically became the property of the slave owner, who could then either claim them as additional property (for no additional monetary investment on his part) or could sell those children for additional revenue. Female slaves, of course, were rendered powerless to refuse these sexual encounters or to determine what might happen to the children conceived through the victimization.

Douglass believes that his father is white; it has long been rumored that one of his mother's former owners had fathered Douglass. The above quote underscores the hopelessness that many slaves felt because of their parentage; a slave owner could conceive as many children as he desired without ever having to grant freedom to those children. Slaves like Douglass therefore knew that they could not depend upon an unjust legal system to grant their freedom. Instead, Douglass recognizes that he must rely on his own determination and ingenuity to grasp the freedom he desires.

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