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The following research paper discusses the important themes of the narrative of Frederick Douglas as an American slave. Frederick Douglas is among the most famous figures as far as the struggle for racial equality and civil rights in America is concerned.
Douglas was an inspiration to many people through his literary works and politics as he talked about oppression that had deteriorated in America and overseas. Douglas was born around 1818 at a time when slavery was the order of the day and eventually escaped from slavery and became an influential orator and writer who gained respected throughout the United States and he accomplished his feats without formal education.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas as an American slave by Douglas which was published in the year 1845 represents an account of Douglas courage to abolish the slavery and injustice. It describes the life of Frederick Douglas from his early childhood till the time when he escaped from the slavery in 1838.Douglas uses logical analysis to describe the events that took place and creates an emotional feeling in the narrative.
The narrative was produced at a period when there was no audio and visual electronic recordings and so his determination to write the narrative is an important testimony because if it were not for literate slaves like Douglas, we might not have the understanding and knowledge of America’s shameful past .
Thomas Courser was keen to observe that Douglas was indeed a remarkable person who lived at a period that was exceptionally tumultuous as far as the American history was concerned and he provided literary works which are deemed to continue attracting attention of the future generations of the American historians and critics. Many could not understand how a slave could come up with such a narrative of his life in lucid prose (Parish 182)
The theme of slavery/suffering
Slavery/suffering is the overriding theme in the narrative of the life of Frederick Douglas as an American slave. Douglas was born a black slave in Maryland, Talbot County and his mother was taken away from him while he was an infant and so his grandmother took the responsibility of nurturing him.
He never knew much about his father apart from the fact that some people believed that he was a white man. His childhood was relatively happier as he did not know the true meaning of slavery and its impacts until he was taken into slavery himself when he experienced his own aunt being whipped by Colonel Lloyd for disobeying the masters’ orders and going out.
Colonel Lloyd stripped her aunt naked and tied her with a rope after which he whipped her until blood dripped into the floor. All this happened under the view of Frederick Douglas and he was very terrified as he had never experienced such before because there were no bloody events in the plantation where he lived with his grandmother (Asare 17).
When Douglas together with other slaves were living at the Great House Farm, they used to sing good songs that gave them hope of freedom. He was however sad when he was taken to live into plantation where he found Colonel who was a very cruel man. The songs changed from being encouraging ones to mournful ones as a result of the hardship they experienced while working in the plantation. Colonel’s plantation was so big that it was hard for the master to attend to every need of the slaves.
The slaves thus didn’t have someone whom they could rely on incase they needed some help. Frederick Douglas describes the details of a slave who met with his master one day in the plantation. The slave had no clue that he was talking to his master and during their conversations; the slave revealed that they were being mistreated by their masters. The master was indeed ashamed of the slave’ utterances and he chained him up and sold him later to a slave trader.
The punishments that Colonel enacted on the slaves included selling them and whipping them for no apparent reason. The slaves on the other hand tried to put smiles on their faces so that the master could not recognize that they were sad. This hypocrisy and the suffering in the plantations was so much that Frederick Douglas contemplated suicide .At one instance; Frederick Douglas challenged Covey who was feared most by the slaves.
Douglas complained that he was being overworked and so the master was angered and he attempted to tie him up but Douglas resisted and instead fought back and conquered him. From that day henceforth, Covey never beat him again and Douglas was sent to work in another plantation as a result (Winston 125).
The slaves were not allowed to acquire education because the masters had the view that by acquiring education, the slaves will eventually conquer them by demanding their rights and freedom. During the time Frederick Douglas was living with the family of Master Hugh, he succeeded in gaining knowledge on how to read and write by resorting to a range of stratagems.
Frederick Douglas believed that education was the only tool that could help them escape from slavery. The mistress had been kind unto Douglas and taught him the alphabets. In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Hugh were angered by the determination that Douglas showed in reading and so they snatched any materials that Douglas attempted to read such as newspapers and this indicated that ignorance was used a tool of slavery.
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The masters kept a close watch at him and if Douglas took sometimes locked up in a room they thus suspected that he was reading a book and he could be called upon to explain what he had been doing. However, Douglas regarded all this as being too late for having learnt about the alphabet, nothing could hinder him whatsoever from achieving his education.
The first plan that he adopted was to make friends with little white boys and the other plan was to observe the writings that were made by others and he eventually succeeded in learning how to read .The more he continued to read political materials, books of various types as well as newspapers, the more he became aware of the slavery situation in which they were exposed to. Douglas also extended the knowledge to other slaves when he was sent to William Freeland and he did this secretly.
The plantation owners discovered when it was too late that the slaves were being taught on how to read and write and they decided to ban the same. Douglas had the view that slavery and education were completely opposite and so the education that he acquired could help him to be independent and this was the reason that he expanded his knowledge by reading any material that he came across. Douglas thus had an idea that the education that he had acquired could be vital in his escape mission (Blight & Skemp 34-36).
Home and Family
The theme of family and home in Frederick Douglas narrative as an American slave enables the reader to have a different overview concerning the home that the slaves lived. Slaves children also could not be kept together with their families and some of their details like date of birth were not disclosed to them. The infants were left under the care of old women.
The order of the day was slave trade where one was being sold and bought and thus the slaves didn’t have a place where they could call home. While Frederick Douglas was working at Colonel’s plantation, he never regarded the place as home because he didn’t have any family ties. The lack of family ties made slaves to loose their identity and they were being treated in a cruel manner.
No matter how hard the slaves worked, the masters couldn’t get pleased and they were always looking for mistakes. The masters didn’t respect the dignity of the slaves and they would quickly sell them once the slaves become friendly unto their children. Slaves were deemed as mere workers who should not be in the same household with the rest of the family members.
Frederick Douglas possessed personal faith and he strongly believed that he will be a free man one day. This believe came to happen when he escaped from slavery and became an independent man. There are two dual sides as far as Christianity is concerned in this narrative i.e. there are those who practiced true Christianity and there were the hypocrites who regarded themselves as Christians but their deeds were contrary to Christianity. Mr. Covey who was always very cruel unto the slaves was very hypocritical to practice Christianity.
The masters were very inhumane and they did not hold any human dignity towards the slaves and yet they regarded themselves as practicing the Christian faith. On the other hand, the slaves themselves practiced what could be termed as ‘true Christianity’ that was practiced by those white men who were against the slavery in the land as well as Douglas.
Douglas hated hypocrites and strongly believed that one cannot be a slave owner and a Christian at the same time as the two are completely different .He also had the view that religious masters were worse than those slave owners who never practiced Christianity. Douglas was sometimes attacked by Christians who believed that he was indeed attacking the religion instead individually but Douglas was very categorical that he was against the hypocrisy and not religion (Douglas & Edwards 19-23).
Frederick Douglas kept his hopes of freedom alive and he was anticipating that one day he could flee from the hands of his masters and find himself in a place where human rights are given a top priority and above all there is no slavery.His attempt to escape from Colonel Lloyd who was his master then in Freeland, was unsuccessful and sometimes later when he tried to free from Covey, his mission was again unsuccessful.
Finally, his mission to escape from slavery was successful one day. He took a journey of about 24 hours by train and he eventually arrived in New York City. He was thus a relieved man and he compared the escape mission like an escape from hungry lions in a den (Fleischemann & Ungar 17-25).
The concept of freedom remained ambiguous for a period of time to Frederick and his first experiences at the plantation formed the root for his persistent struggle to free from slavery. For instances, Douglas realized when he was very young that all the slaves that he encountered didn’t recall their birthdates and this enabled him to realize the freedom gap that existed between the black and the white children. Frederick Douglas saw several routes that could lead him to liberty and freedom.
His first route that he considered towards attaining freedom was to move in a city and he argued that a city slave was almost free as compared to a slave who lived on a plantation because he was better clothed and fed but he realized later that injustice still existed despite the conditions seeming to be much better.
The other route that he considered to enable him to become a free man was education and in spite of learning as much as he could, he still had doubts as to whether or not education was the key behind the attainment of freedom and he thus argued that education only gave him an overview about his slavery condition but couldn’t give him the much freedom he needed.
The above two elements of freedom i.e. education and moving to the city made him to come up with a thought of becoming rebellious. He thus fought with Mr. Covey, whom he had given the name cruel master because of his cruelty.
This fight marked the turning point of his career as an American slave as it rekindled the desires to attain freedom and also revived his manhood sense. Frederick thus was determined not to allow anyone to suppress him anymore and he began a relentless pursuit towards gaining freedom.
Frederick Douglas was free man at last but he realized that complete freedom doesn’t exist as far as black people are concerned. He found himself as a stranger who was without friends and a place where he could call home and he decided not to reveal to anyone about his sad condition.
The success to freedom was as a result of a number of factors i.e. education, then the rebellious spirit that he developed and equally important the relationships that he developed from the friends who lived in the Northern part away from the plantations. The freedom fruits couldn’t be reaped if there were no combination of the above three factors (Bruck 9)
Frederick Douglas spent a long period of time under the American enslavement since from when he was 20 years of age. During this time, he wrote three autobiographies which gained prominence in the19th century. It is worthy ton note that Douglas began to learn how to write and read at the age of 12 but a few years later he was able to write the three autobiographies. The three autobiographies included freeman, spaced decades apart and about his life as a slave all of which gained him prominence in the 19th century.
Slavery made him scared to an extent that he made up his mind to dedicate his prose and speech to fight it. The quality of Frederick Douglas works was important as it influenced many renown abolitionists to come up with literary works that exposed the oppression that existed in America and this made Frederick Douglas to be regarded as one of the greatest writer of all times.
Douglas in his autobiographies emphasized much on the desire for a man to attain freedom. According to him the desire to attain freedom and arguments concerning it remains timeless. His use of the theme of freedom depicts that he is mindful about the American dream and so, the oppressed people worldwide reads Frederick’s autobiographies (American Bibliographical Centre 167).
American Bibliographical Centre. America, history and Life, Volume 42, Issue 1.ABC- Clio. 2005. P.167.
Asare, Isaac. Slavery reparations in perspective. Bloomington: Trafford Publishing, 2002. P.17.
Blight, Sheila & Skemp, David. Fredrick Douglas and Ben Franklin. New York: Saint Martin’s, 2001.P.34-36.
Bruck, Karl. The Black American short story in the 20th Century: a collection of critical essays. Chicago: John Benjamin’s publishing company, 1977.P.97.
Douglas, Frederick, & Brent, Edwards. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Spark Educational Publishing, 2005.P.19-23.
Fleischemann, Wolfgang & Ungar, Lina. Encyclopedia of world literature in the 20th century, Volume 2. New York: F.Ungar Pub. Co., 1967.P.17-25.
Parish, Peter. Reader’s guide to American History: London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.P.182.
Winston, Leonard. Fredrick Douglas: Narrative on His Life with Connections.Califronia.Holt McDougal, 2000.P.125.