Douglass's Narrative is an eye-opening account of how human beings, just because of the color of their skin and their heritage, were stripped of their humanity. Frederick Douglass was one of the very few who ever escaped with his humanity intact. He lived an average slave life, though perhaps in some parts was treated somewhat better.
However, originally Douglass was a slave like any other. Whether they were relatively kind or not, owners reduced their slaves to little very little more than brutes. Douglass was one of those very few slaves who came to realize there was so much more to life than this subhuman existence.
Perhaps Douglass did not have it as badly as many slaves, though that is not necessarily to say that he had some of the best treatment, either. As a child, he witnessed many episodes of terrible treatment. Fortunately for him, he had some masters of conscience, and met some kind people along the way. He got a couple of lucky breaks, most especially in that he became literate. By the time he became a man, because of what literacy he had, along with his brilliant mind and powerful spirit, Douglass decided he had to become free or die.
Reading truly has a way of opening up the mind, especially when one reads pieces that captivate the intellect and shed new light on concepts once shrouded by darkness. Reading dissolves ignorance. To white slave owners, the ignorance of their slaves was their best friend. Once human intellect is sufficiently fed and the mind gains its appetite for more, it becomes a maddening thing to stay repressed.
To have a charged intellect and be denied the most basic of American freedoms, to express one’s self, is immensely frustrating. It was especially unbearable for such a brilliant man as Douglass. Mr. Douglass would attain a legendary reputation as both an orator and a writer. He learned to articulate himself in a better than average fashion, and he shocked everyone with his abilities, especially considering his background.
Because of Sophia Auld, he learned the alphabet and the basics of reading, the foundation of his future literary success. Sadly, Mrs. Auld could not remain his teacher. In fact, she would in time become quite opposed to it per the persuasion of her husband. Teaching a black to read or write was dangerous. Mr. Auld said, “‘A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world.’” Basically, if you cultivate a slave’s intellect, he becomes worthless to his master.
Later, Douglass would involve himself in a secret Sabbath school. There, he and many other slaves taught one another how to read and write. Intellect is what separates human beings from beasts, after all, so his fellow slaves were ecstatic to learn anything they could to remain as human as possible.
The institution of slavery hurt whites as well as blacks; it changed even the kindest whites into terrible monsters. Slavery turned his once kind mistress against him; though it took some time, her husband turned her into a nightmare. “Under its influence,” Douglass wrote of slavery, “the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.”
Nothing would stop him from reading, however. Even at the young age of twelve, Douglass was getting his hands on anti-slavery literature. “The more I read,” he explained, “the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers.” Just as Mr. Auld had said, the more that Mr. Douglass read the more tormented he felt from knowing the horrible truths of slavery. No longer ignorant of the evil bondage he was being kept under, Douglass felt at many times that gaining his literacy had been more of a curse than a blessing.
The dream of freedom became something of a necessity for his sanity. He now envied those slaves who remained ignorant of the true horrors of slavery. Now Douglass knew too much to remain in bondage at all; he was the slave who knew too much. His thirst for freedom needed to be quenched, but it would be quite awhile before he would actually taste the sweetness of freedom.
A short time after becoming cognizant of the horrors of slavery, Mr. Douglass learns of the petitions coming in from the North, “praying for the end of slavery in the District of Columbia, and of the slave trade between the states.” It was then that he came to understand what abolition meant.
The seeds were then planted for his eventual escape to freedom, though the opportunity would not come for quite some time. He was still just a boy. In the meantime, he taught himself how to write. Douglass was aware that literacy would be his ticket to remain more than just a brute. In fact, he would become very much literate. He also realized that literacy would gradually bring out his humanity to the point that he could no longer be a slave. However, Douglass continued to live in slavery for years after learning its truths in books. He had to experience the truths in fact before he would actually attempt escape.
Though despising his own bondage, his treatment was decent for quite some time. However, after the death of his oldest Master, he was shuffled around the family as property. Still. he was not treated all that badly. In 1832, he becomes the slave of Thomas, the son of his now-deceased master, Andrew. As good as Thomas had been as a child, he was now as mean. From this point on, Douglass’ treatment gradually declined. He was underfed and almost simply ignored, much like a forgotten pet.
Then, his master lent him to the well-known negro “breaker” Mr. Covey. He was the worst master he was ever to come across. It was Mr. Covey who gave Douglass his first beatings, and it was he who introduced him to the real truth of slave owner cruelty. He was growing towards manhood now, and masters were working to break his spirit just like they did every other slave.
For quite some time, Mr. Covey succeeded in doing just that. Douglass became a broken man “in body, soul, and spirit.” He describes his experience quite vividly. He wrote,
“My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”
Douglass, however, would eventually get the better of Mr. Covey. After a very bloody incident in which he flees back to Master Thomas, Douglass realized that he could take no more of this atrocious treatment. Thomas was indeed quite shocked at what happened to him, but ordered him back to Mr. Covey in the morning, anyway. Douglass does go back, but hides out in the woods. His friend, Sandy Jenkins, gives him a root that supposedly will protect him from further beatings. Superstitious as the object was, it turns out that he would not again suffer another terrible beating.
The root itself may have had little to do with what actually happened, however. Douglass’ own human spirit had reached the point where it could not be held back any longer. About to be beaten once again by Mr. Covey, Douglass retaliates. Covey is absolutely shocked at his self-defense, and though attempts are made to tie Douglass down, they do not succeed.
Not only is his successful fight a moral victory which greatly stuns the cruel Mr. Covey, but also a spiritual one for Mr. Douglass as well. “My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” From that moment on, his spirit would not be broken.
He may have been becoming content, but he still very much wanted to escape. As Douglass pointed out, “to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make him a thoughtless one… to annihilate the power of reason… he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”
While he later enjoy considerably more freedom under Master Hugh, he was still a slave to him. Douglass was required to turn in all of his wages to him at the end of each week. Sometimes, Hugh would give him a few cents as a sort of pitiful reward. He was still working for the gain of a man other than himself. Now more than ever, Douglass was even less content as a slave. His human spirit could no longer be extinguished. Because his unusually conscientious master,
Douglass was able to make some big steps toward freedom. He was still a slave, but he was getting closer to securing his freedom at last. His first attempt at freedom which he made some time ago had been thwarted before it even got underway. He knew that his second attempt at freedom would be a matter of life or death.
He knew he could not fail a second time and he did not. In September 1838, he made his escape just as he planned, the details of which he could not openly share. There is no doubt that he had it all quite pre-arranged, however. When Douglass finally escapes to the north, the scene he finds is so different from what he had experienced in Maryland. The overall quality of life in the North is considerably better, especially for the free black man.
Now, Douglass is finally able to be a free man. He married a free black woman and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He works there as a skilled artisan for three years until he becomes connected with the anti-slavery movement and joins their cause – feeling strongly compelled to fight for the freedom of his race. While he was free, he still felt so very strongly for his fellow blacks still south of the border, his friends who were still under the bondage of slavery. He realized that his calling was to do all that he could for them, to help more of his kind escape and enjoy the freedoms that human beings deserve.