To write autobiography is to assess the significance of one’s life. Douglass’s journey from “the peculiar institution” of slavery to freedom has both individual and societal importance. His narrative details the “dehumanizing” and “soul-killing” effects of slavery in language that is both formal and dispassionate.
As others have observed, the first page of the Narrative is replete with negatives: The slave narrator does not know his age; he is not allowed to ask about it; all he knows about his father is that he is white. This lack of identifying data is undoubtedly dehumanizing.
The brutality of the slaveholders provides other examples of the dehumanization of slavery. The beating of Aunt Hester by Aaron Anthony sets the stage for the many whippings to which Douglass is to be witness. Among the first of these is the incident of the two Barneys, father and son. They take care of Colonel Lloyd’s horses, but it is clear that the horses are more valued than they are; their master whips them frequently and arbitrarily. Later, in the incident with Covey, the “nigger-breaker,” Douglass decides that he has had enough. He fights Covey and declares that the encounter marks “the turning-point in my career as a slave.”
The sexual nature of these beatings has been pointed out. In the case of Aunt Hester, this aspect is fairly explicit. Captain Anthony is enraged not so much because Aunt Hester has disobeyed him and gone out in the evening, but rather because she has been with Ned Roberts, another slave. Miscegenation is, of course, rife between slaveholders and their female slaves. The slaveholder who is both master and father to his slave is quite common. Conversely, where both beater and beaten are males, homosexuality has been suggested.
While such physical abuse undoubtedly leaves psychological scars, the custom of separating the slave infant from his mother is perhaps even more emotionally damaging. Douglass several times refers to this unnatural procedure. In fact, he receives the news of his own mother’s death “with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”
The slave narrator, however, is no stranger to religion. References to it become increasingly specific. Early in the Narrative, the death of a cruel overseer is “regarded by the slaves as the result of a merciful providence.” Similarly, Frederick Douglass describes his move to Baltimore as “a special interposition of divine Providence.” Later, slaveholders such as Thomas Auld use religion to “sanction and support” their “slaveholding cruelty.” Also, the final portion of the Narrative concerns itself with the incompatibility of Christianity and slavery. Douglass, therefore, by examining one life addresses issues that affect society as a whole.
The slave’s sense of community is referred to at crucial points in the Narrative. Douglass plans his aborted escape with other slaves, and his autobiography ends with the hope that the book will increase awareness about “the American slave system.” Such knowledge will, the slave narrator hopes, lead to emancipation. Similarly, when Douglass imagines his grandmother, it is her isolation that pains him most. She has been put out to pasture in utter loneliness.
The passage in which Douglass imagines his grandmother’s loneliness is perhaps the most poignant in the Narrative, perhaps because Douglass is angry at himself for not being there when she needs him. Whatever the reason, the passage’s tone is unlike the tone of the rest of the autobiography. “Dispassionate,” “matter-of-fact,” “detached” are words that come to mind when the tone of the Narrative is considered. Such distanced narration could be the detachment of the erudite adult abolitionist looking back; it might also be that the dehumanizing and soul-killing institution has taken its toll. Occasionally in the Narrative, Frederick Douglass mentions his inability to write down his feelings. Is the slave narrator refusing to feel because it is too painful to do so?
Feelings are perhaps not best served by a formal style, and some have described Frederick Douglass’s language as “high-flown.” One cannot but admire, however, the language of the apostrophe to the ships on the Chesapeake Bay beginning, “You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!” There is also a wonderful chiasmus as Frederick Douglass is about to describe his first confrontation with Covey: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
The fight with Covey has symbolic value for Douglass. As Douglass sees it, the slave-master who whips him in the future must be prepared to kill him. The autobiographer thus uses one incident to shed light on a larger issue, the brutality of slaveholders. The beating of Aunt Hester also addresses this issue symbolically. As the first of such beatings, it sets the stage for all the rest. In addition, the sexual overtones make the whipping akin to rape and therefore more brutal. The inextricable link between slavery and the sexual cannot be denied.
So pervasive is the emphasis on community that there are critics who regard the Narrative not as autobiography but as a personal history of American slavery. That Douglass himself intended the work to be viewed as both is evidenced by the appendix. Here the slave narrator expands on a theme in the work—the incompatibility of slavery and Christianity—at the same time as he signs his new name with a certain pride and flourish. After all, the individual slave can truly be free only when slavery as an institution is abolished.
Literacy, for Douglass, is the key to the slave’s freedom. His epiphany occurs when he witnesses Hugh Auld’s anger at his wife’s teaching Frederick, now eight years old, to read. By the time he is twelve, the autobiographer is reading The Columbian Orator, with its strong antislavery arguments. He soon learns to write from white street children. The ex-slave narrator is aware that true liberation can only be achieved when both body and mind are free.
The actual writing of his autobiography may be regarded as the ultimate freeing of the mind for Douglass. Given the therapeutic nature of the work, therefore, any help from white abolitionists would have been inappropriate. When the ex-slave signs his new name at the end of the Narrative, he is affirming both his literacy and his identity.