When Frederick was a baby, he was separated from his mother and sold to a different plantation, so his memories of her consist of the times she was able to walk for 12 miles to come visit him for a short time at night. At the plantation where he is a slave, he witnesses many cruelties, one of them being an especially cruel overseer tying up his aunt and whipping her. The slaves have to be very careful about what they say or do, because they can be punished. If a slave stole some fruit, or if they say something disapproving about the Master, then they would be severely punished for it. There is no legal repercussions for hurting or even killing a slave. Frederick lives in fear of this, and also has to live in very poor conditions, never having adequate clothing or food. Eventually, he gets to go live with the Auld family, and the woman is kind to him and begins to teach him to read until her husband finds out and stops her. This is the real beginning of Frederick's quest to learn as much as he can and eventually work his way to freedom.
Horrible. Inhuman. Terrible. Any word of misery you can think of to ascribe to Douglass' life as a young boy would be appropriate.
It took me only seconds to find the passage in which Douglass so vividly and unflinchingly relates his childhood, and life under Captain Anthony and Mr. Plummer, the overseer:
Mr Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women's heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of the overseer to affect him. ...I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped...