Narrative of the Life of an American Slave
“Narrative of the Life of an American Slave” by Frederick Douglas, written in 1845 with a preface by Wendell Phillips is a brilliant book by a brilliant former slave in Maryland that everyone should read. It is a short, easy to read report of Douglas’ early life, something we should know.
In addition to much more, we read how he made a deep impression upon people who heard him speak extemporaneously. It was after he escaped from slavery and headed north to an anti-slavery convention in 1841. It led to him being invited to speak at many other places, and to become famous.
Slavery in Maryland where he was born was not as bad as in other places, but was still bad. He saw a slaveholder stamp on his younger brother’s head repeatedly until blood flowed. Douglas’s father was white. He did not know who his father was. Slaves were not told who their white father was. He only saw his mother 4 or 5 times, always very short visits. The practice was to send mothers of such children far away, in this case 12 miles, so as not to create any family feelings. She occasionally walked the 12 miles at night to see him. As a result when he heard that his mother died, he had no reaction greater than if told a stranger died. Similarly, he was never told what year he was born. “I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.” He went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, and she very kindly taught him the A, B, C. But her husband heard about it and made her stop. Douglas found clever – indeed fascinating – ways to learn more, even to read and write.
Slaves were given no bed. At the end of the day, after work, they would “drop down side by side, on one common bed – the cold, damp floor – each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets; and here they sleep til they are summoned to the field by the driver’s horn.”
Men and women were sold and treated no better than horses and pigs. “[O]f all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst…the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly of all the rest.” It is a fact, “that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes – a justifier of the most appalling barbarity- a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds – and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.”