Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: A Brief Consideration

I’ll wager that you’ve never seen anyone whipped.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass (Penguin Books, 1986)

I’ve read about it in books often enough. In C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books, it’s referred to as “kissing the gunner’s daughter,” because the sailor who committed the offence against the ship’s order was bound over a cannon to secure him for the application of what was — at the time — legal and proper punishment. And sailors, although they were pressed into service more often than not, were nominally free men, at least. So if they disobeyed orders and had to be beaten until their backs bled, well, they had the freedom, in many cases, to do the job right the next time.

But I’ve never been completely under someone else’s power, with no recourse and no right to appeal, and seen that person take out a whip, with the intent of stripping the clothes from the back of someone that I know and care for, and to begin to beat them, methodically or frenziedly, until the victim’s back bleeds and the scream for mercy or faint from the pain, only to be revived and then beaten unconscious again.

Frederick Douglass saw that and more. And, what’s worse, he did so from a young age.

Reading the Narrative, I was struck by just how much of the book seemed completely alien to me. I have long understood slavery as an intellectual concept; the Roman Empire, to name just one, was built on enslaving their defeated foes. Many ancient cultures were built on the backs of slaves, and it’s a fact that their treatment was often brutal. But reading the first-hand account, about reading an unvarnished description of being a slave, from the pen of a man who had been one, turned the intellectual understanding into a visceral one.

I may not need to reiterate the conditions of a slave’s life in 19th century America, but this seems as fitting a moment as any. As a slave, a man, woman, or child had only the liberty allowed them by their master and his family and employees. Your indenture was total and complete. You worked from dawn to dusk (if you were lucky, only that long) in whatever weather there happened to be. The work consisted of the manual labour required by agriculture, or domestic service, or any one of a hundred other tasks for which machines did not yet exist, or for which they were primitive and cumbersome (work that, in mediaeval England, for example, would have been accomplished by serfs). You wore whatever garments your owner saw fit to clothe you in (often inadequate to the weather), and you ate what you were given, which was rarely subsistence fare (unlike the claim of “meat and bread” given to slaves according to a Faux News commentator in 2016, who had obviously never read this book). Slaves were accountable at all times, not merely to their “owner,” but to any other person of the privileged (read: “white-skinned”) class who could threaten them, beat them, flog them, and even kill them, at any reason, for any time. If the owner objected to their slave being ill-treated or killed, it was still little more than a property dispute, as though you had run your car over someone else’s mailbox). Bonds and ties of family and friendship were meaningless, and you could be removed from your loved ones, from your ties of kinship, for any reason and at a moment’s notice. And learning to read was forbidden as well, for the increase in knowledge, including the ability to read subversive things like the Bible and the Constitution, were only considered to threaten to make the slave “unhappy.” Slaves were, in short, little better than cattle in human form, and cattle, at least during this period, were still allowed to roam from field to field consuming grass and hay.

Of course, of course, there must have been exceptions to this brutal reality. Economically, beating a slave labour force to death makes no intellectual sense. But what Douglass recounted, from the first-person eyewitness position, also does not make intellectual sense. These various landowners and slaveholders had absolute power. And, as a result, they were, to greater or lesser degrees, absolutely corrupted by that power. A rational consideration of cost to benefit didn’t apply. Disobedience, failure, or any other perceived slight was often met by a rage which only makes sense if the slaveholder felt that any deviation was an affront to their mastery.

It is the sort of arrogance that we in the reality-based community are unfortunately coming to recognise today.

The intellectual life of a slave was also full of fear, but, unlike depictions of the post-slavery world of the Reconstruction, such as those in the long-banned Disney film Song of the South, it was a fear and a sense of the nature of the world couched in loss and misery. Douglass says, fairly early in his narrative, that:

“I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek.”

p. 57-58

Somehow, that quote doesn’t really put me in the mood for jaunty songs and cartoon birds.

Douglass eventually made his escape to freedom, after an aborted attempt which could have ended with him being killed. He was taken in by abolitionists in New York, and able to practise the trades that he had learned, including caulking the hulls of ships, for a time. And, after taking pains to detail that the cruelties of slave-holders were not lessened by a man’s pretense to religiosity, he takes equal pains at the end of the book to state that, no, he didn’t really mean what he said, at least, not quite:

I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion… I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land… p. 153

Fair enough, but to me, this diluted his point, for the men who pretended to lead a life modeled on Christian teachings on the one hand, and who beat, starved, impregnated, or murdered a slave on the other, were not working from a different Holy Writ, at least, not to my knowledge, than the Northern abolitionists who saw slavery as evil and wrong.

Addressing the aftermath of the human tragedy of enslaving Africans is difficult. Not just for the reasons you might expect… guilt, recrimination, persistent racial bias… I don’t have any standing to talk about those things. But if you read a slave narrative, and you are not a cold, heartless, arrogant worm, you understand that the early history of the United States is built upon the suffering of others. Not exclusively, no, but where labour was required to harvest crops, or where individuals decided that they needed unpaid personal servants, for whatever reason: then there were slaves, up until 1863. Especially, but not exclusively, in the old South. And for generations after, as those formerly enslaved populations tried to find their new place in the world, the old animosities persisted. The legacy of that time is still with us. And at times of unrest, we find that all of the old hatreds and bigotries are still there, simmering just under the surface, waiting for a resentment upon which to feed, and an environment, like some bacterial culture in a dish of agar, on which they can thrive.

Reading Frederick Douglass is not a cure to this condition, nor will it fix all that is wrong with an increasingly sick country. Rather, it is a first step in fully understanding what the problem is, a sort of foundation from which to move forward, on which to build upward. Maybe when we next start again, when and if the poison of this current madness passes, we will finally get it right. But I’m not holding my breath.


About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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