Perhaps no other American author illustrates the contradiction of American ideals and American slavery better than Frederick Douglass. His widely influential and intellectually powerful “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” is among his premier works and in but a few chapters utterly destroys the uprightness of slavery while simultaneously supporting the ideal of genuine equality united with moral living.
His attack on the institution is built upon his first-hand experience of the same, narrated in concise but visceral detail of the raw and often gruesome reality of slavery. Punctuating the episodes of his life through slavery are erudite analyses of the characters participating, the society and culture around him, the psychology of both slave and master, and his own introspection that led to his escape and freedom.
Through it all, a picture is painted not only of the inhumanity of slavery, but also of the path out of it towards authentically human living.
During his time as a Maryland slave, Douglass describes the conditions common to himself and the slaves around him. He presents a far from pleasant or tolerable image of the physical suffering and injury that pervaded the practice of slavery; the brutality described will churn the stomach of any unfamiliar individual.
Of perhaps even greater interest to Douglass — and the reader — is the mental and moral oppression against the slave. He lays out in all its malice the jarringly clever methods used to subdue the slave population into moral depravity, promoting the abuse of freedom to make bondage seem preferable to self-mastery.
Some of the efforts undertaken to lead the slave morally astray include the promotion and encouragement of drunkenness and adultery, infighting among slaves and even the cultivation of a twisted pride in being a slave of a rich man, lorded over slaves of a poorer one — a mentality along the lines of “it was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!” Nor is his criticism of the immoralizing effects of slavery limited to its obvious victims; Douglass makes short work of showing slavery’s destructive consequences on the slaveowner, and how easily such “irresponsible authority” can corrupt even the best of humanity.
Religion takes center stage in much of his writing, both in its abuse at the hands of slave owners using it to justify barbarity, and as an uplifting force when properly exercised by upright individuals. Regarding the religion of the slave owner, the example of the conversion of one Master Thomas serves the point: “It made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways.” Finding “sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty” in misinterpretation of Scripture, his abuse of those under his boot adopted a self-righteous spirit.
Yet, the contrast Douglass presents between such mockery of religion and a genuine Christianity becomes clear in the sadly ironic anecdote of a Sunday school for slaves, in which he participated, being broken up by supposedly Christian savers. Here were souls seeking to learn divine truth, and there were those professing to serve that truth actively preventing others from doing so.
But despite the obstacles deliberately in place to prevent his spiritual enlightenment, Douglass eventually came to a full practice of Christianity, coinciding with his self-emancipation from slavery, and uses Christian principles to repudiate the culture of enslavement and vindicate a life of moral virtue.
Douglass discusses not only the clear dissonance between slavery and religious education, but also between enslavement and the cultivation of the mind. He marks his first decision to learn to read as the beginning of his path out of slavery, arising out of the humorous and illustrative event of his master berating his mistress for teaching him the alphabet, saying that once he learned to read, “it would make him discontented and unhappy” with his position, the result of which being that “what he most dreaded, that I most desired.”
From then on, Douglass’ self-education and self-emancipation went hand in hand. He identifies his intense disdain for slavery becoming more pronounced the more he became aware of its injustice; some of the early tracts he read were smuggled abolitionist pamphlets and philosophical dialogues expounding the fallacy of slavery, including the “Columbian Orator.”
These revealed to him the logical explanation of the evil of slavery, so sorely experienced by him all his life. This realization coupled with the skills he naturally developed as a result of his education allowed him to pursue a path out of slavery and prepare for a life as a free man.
The entirety of the “Narrative” is fraught with frightful images of the horrors of slavery permeated by the hopeful knowledge that he eventually escapes and the events that led to the end of his enslavement, in both body and mind. Eloquence and acute rhetoric pervade his prose, serving his purpose of repudiating slavery from every angle with articulate abandon. It is a cardinal work for any student of American culture and history, and an illuminating text describing the path out of the darkness and evil of oppression for all involved.