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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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Which quote from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave describes slaves' food, clothing, work, and daily pattern, and its importance in the larger narrative?

Quick answer:

Quotes that describe the amount and kind of food and clothing given to slaves, the work required of them, and the pattern of a day can be found in chapter 2. These quotes further contribute to a disheartening tone and demonstrate the incredible tenacity Douglass needed in order to begin to imagine his own freedom.

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In chapter 2, Douglass explains the provisions that were given to slaves:

The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes; the whole of which could not have cost more than seven dollars. The allowance of the slave children was given to their mothers, or the old women having the care of them. The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.

The significance of this quote is to demonstrate that slaves were expected to survive with very little sustenance and that no consideration was given to their comfort. The fabric was "coarse" and provided only once per year. If those clothes became torn or otherwise ruined, no allowance was made for a replacement.

Children who could not work were not given any clothes at all; this signifies that they weren't considered worthy of an investment, not even for a few meager articles of clothing, until they could benefit their owners. One bushel of corn meal and eight pounds of meat certainly wouldn't have gone far for people who spent their entire days performing strenuous physical labor. In order to envision how little meat this would be, consider that burgers and steaks in modern America often weigh between a half pound and a pound each. This meant that slaves had to ration their provisions carefully in order to survive.

Just a few lines later, Douglass describes the working routine of the slaves:

They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day’s work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day; and when this is done, old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed,—the cold, damp floor,—each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets; and here they sleep till they are summoned to the field by the driver’s horn. At the sound of this, all must rise, and be off to the field. There must be no halting; every one must be at his or her post; and woe betides them who hear not this morning summons to the field; for if they are not awakened by the sense of hearing, they are by the sense of feeling: no age nor sex finds any favor.

In short, the slaves were awakened by a "morning summons," and failure to promptly arrive at one's "post" resulted in a beating. After working in the field all day, slaves were given a few hours of rest; however, not all of these hours could be devoted to sleeping. Instead, slaves had to prepare for the following day, mending clothing that had been torn and cooking an evening meal. By the time all these tasks were complete, they simply collapsed to endure the "cold, damp floor" that was their bed.

This description of the work day and the routines of daily life demonstrates the great exhaustion many slaves were burdened with. There was no time for any simple pleasure in life, and their entire existence centered around either completing work in the fields or preparing for the next day's work in the fields. Even worse, their labors were carefully watched by overseers like Mr. Severe, who was constantly ready with a stick and a heavy cowskin to whip any slave who failed to perform to expectations.

These details further establish a bleak and disheartening tone and demonstrate the incredible tenacity that Douglass would need in the days ahead. Great strength was needed to persevere through constant daily exhaustion in order to formulate the hope for his own eventual freedom.

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