How did Douglass describe his parents in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As a slave, Douglass did not know his parents well.  His father was most likely his master, and his mother was on a neighboring planation and died when he was still a young boy.

Douglass was frustrated by not being able to tell exactly how old he was, because he was not sure when he was born.  His experiences with his parents were not much better.

When he first describes his mother, he describes the color of her skin and biographical details.

My mother was named Harriet Bailey. She was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey, both colored, and quite dark. My mother was of a darker complexion than either my grandmother or grandfather. (ch 1, p. 4)

He was separated from his mother as an infant, as was the custom with slaves.  She would come and visit him, but he barely knew her. 

He knew even less of his father, who had no emotional ties to him at all and did not even acknowledge his parentage.

My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father… (ch 1, p. 4)

As a result, Douglass had no ties to either his mother or his father and no affection for each.  He did not see his mother “more than four or five times in my life” and he was not even sure who his father was.  This was dehumanizing and frustrating, but he took it as a matter of course.  It was one more indignity of a slave’s life.

Douglass comments on the process of masters having children with their slaves.  It is terribly immoral to be both father and master to your child.  He considered this practice one of the most abominable of slavery.

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