The evolution of Frederick Douglass from a slave to a man is evident in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” As a documentation of slavery in Antebellum America, mainly in the south, thoughts of freedom appear as the redeeming feature for the blacks. Born into slavery, Douglass gives his readers insight into how slaves lived under the rule of the whites as his owners send him from one farm to another courtesy of his masters’ whims. However, unlike most of the slaves, Douglass portrays his need to be free throughout the book by questioning the perceptions of the white Americans and their flimsy defense of slavery. A good illustration finds a basis for the actions of “Mr. West and Mr. Fairbanks, both class-leaders.” According to the author, in the company of “many others”, the two drove off a Sabbath class of young slaves “with sticks and other missiles” whilst forbidding them from meeting again. Such an action is among many others that Douglass deemed hypocritical of the supposed Christians. In turn, the writing of the narration from the author’s point of view portrays the confusion and later, the determination of Frederick Douglass to be a free man. Consequently, in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” there are different incidences that mark the man’s gradual break out from slavery in the mental, emotional, and physical spheres. In turn, Douglass’ narrative carries information pertaining to his ideologies on the differences between a man and a slave. This paper seeks to analyze Douglass’ perceptions of what makes a man out of a slave as presented in the book. Said analysis revolves around the importance of education in the quest for liberation, Douglass’ fight with Covey as the first step to his freedom, and the place of women in the found ideas of freedom.
The discovery of education as a liberating factor for slaves was accidental and unexpected to Douglass. The author’s fascination with freedom emerged at a young age, as he could not tell why his master deprived him of the privilege to know his birth date while white children “could tell their ages.” Consequently, in chapter six, Douglass narrates his life in the house of Hugh and Sophia Auld and the events that led to his liberation in the mental capacity. Foremost, Sophia Auld took it upon herself to give the young slave basic lessons in English including the “A, B, C.” Next, Hugh Auld, in retaliation for his wife’s actions, gave Douglass a lifelong lesson on the means for a slave to be like a master. According to Douglass, Hugh’s exact words upon discovering his wife teaching the slave were, “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.” In other words, a slave would “become unmanageable, and of no value to his master” if he or she gains an education.
Therefore, while Sophia Auld gave the teaching, Hugh provided the worthwhile lesson. Accordingly, Douglass opted to recruit young white children he met on the street as his teachers, at the price of a little bread. As per Hugh’s words, black slaves were never to receive any formal education was “unlawful, as well as unsafe.” In addition, the only fact blacks needs to “know nothing but to obey his master.” Considerably, because of Hugh’s mistake to reprimand his wife in the presence of a young slave, Douglass’ road to freedom had begun. Hence, the author’s idea of a free man revolves around the acquisition of intellectual prowess. In other words, because the whites see slaves as their property, then enjoying the same liberties as the white man will turn a slave into a man. Therefore, in Douglass’ understanding, by gaining education, he will be at par with the master and in turn, be a man.
An educated Douglass’ life takes a turn and his whole demeanor as a slave changes. In 1832, after returning to Thomas Auld in St. Michaels, Douglass reports on having “quite a number of differences” with his master. According to Thomas Auld, Douglass’ time in the city had ruined the slave “for every good purpose” thus deeming Baltimore to have a “very pernicious effect upon” the narrator. Douglass exhibits a thinking capacity that surpasses the average slave in his habit of releasing the master’s horse to his father-in-law’s farm in order to have some food from the latter. At this point, Thomas decides to send Douglass to Edward Covey, a renowned “nigger-breaker” in a bid to regain the initially submissive slave he gave his brother. Thus marks Douglass’ entrance to manhood on the physical capacity. After all, it is at this point that Douglass informs his readers that they “shall see how a slave was made a man.” After many scenarios of Covey’s cruel nature, Frederick Douglass finally stands up for himself. As documented in the book, Douglass and Covey engage in a physical confrontation for almost two hours after which, Douglass emerges the winner.
The fight rekindles “few expiring embers of freedom” that were gradually dying and a sense of manhood in the black man. Evidently, Frederick’s ideology of a man at this point revolves around the triumph that comes after ascertaining his masculinity in the presence of an oppressive master. After a life of submissiveness to the cruel nature of the white slave drivers, one should expect that Douglass feels somehow liberated, at least in the case of Edward Covey. Throughout the book, Douglass portrays instances in which he wishes he could intervene to aid his fellow slaves. To name but a few, in Baltimore, he hopes he can help “Henrietta and Mary” from the malicious Mrs. Hamilton. On the other hand, when his “poor old grandmother” left for the dead because she has outlived her value, Douglass cannot do anything to help. Living in a world where one race dominates the other, Douglass’ ideas of a man at this point revolves around equality. By fighting Covey, Douglass realizes a liberating sense of justice in which the master and the slave are equivalent in status. Said justice although the incident happens years before the liberation of slaves, but Douglass already tasted freedom. After all, following the fight, Covey does not hit Douglass and whenever the former issues a threat, the latter immediately responds without any fear. In addition, as aforementioned, Covey had a reputation because of his savageness and prowess ability in keeping black slaves in line. Douglass’ victory over such a man was an indicator that he could stand up to the slavery institution, a fact proven by his escape and joining of the abolitionists’ movement.
Most of Douglass’ narration portrays the black women as weak and in need of help against their cruel masters and mistresses. Hence raises the question of whether or not Douglass’ quote on the making of a man applies to the female gender. Once one puts the role of education and Douglass' ability to stand up to Covey into consideration, it is evident that Douglass’ terminology does not restrict the female slaves. Firstly, throughout the novel, the male whites hold the reigns of society and the women take the second place, after which, blacks occupy the last position as the inferior race. In support of the sex categorization, there is the case of Hugh Auld reprimanding his wife in front of a slave, showing her subordinate to her husband. It is no wonder that Douglass notes the change in Mrs. Auld's attitude as she tries to prove herself a worthy mistress in the eyes of her husband and the slave. Secondly, the attitude of women being the weaker gender propels Douglass’ pity over the female slaves and not disregard. In other words, Douglass’ inclusions of the sufferings of the female slaves are a way of him reaching out to his audience to pity the black race. A good example is his depiction of Mr. Weeden as a “religious wretch” whose merciless lashes kept a woman’s back “literally raw” for weeks. In addition, there is an incident of Aunt Hester where the master found her in the company of Lloyd’s Ned. In retribution, the master whips her with “heavy cowskin” until “warm, red blood” drips to the floor. Douglass terms the incident as “the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery.” Finally, yet importantly, in the eyes of a slave, to be a man is to be free, not to possess the physical properties that define the gender. That is why; the education and the fight with Covey mark the important milestones in Frederick Douglass’ self-liberation. Considering the white race treats the black race as mere property, gaining emancipation will turn them into human beings and in turn, men.
Conclusively, education transforms slaves into men and for a slave to gain emancipation; he or she has to stand up to the oppressors. Thus, Douglass’ beliefs apply to the slaves as a whole because black skin in Antebellum America warranted slavery.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Boston: The Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.