The life and career of former slave, abolitionist, and social reformer Frederick Douglass effectively debunks myths about the powerlessness of blacks. Deeply entrenched racism in society, especially in the pre-Civil War era, portrayed blacks as weak-minded and submissive people incapable of self-governance. His memoir titled Narrative of the Life of Frederic Douglass, arguably the most famous slave narrative and one of the most powerful works that depict racism in literature, on the other hand paints a starkly different picture. This poignant work not only exposes the atrocities of slavery. But more than that, it proves that blacks, too, can rise above their perceived station within society. Douglass ably demonstrates that the powerlessness of the blacks comes not from some inherent flaw but from the cruel impositions of slavery and only by rejecting this condition can slaves claim their freedom and their power.
In order to understand how Douglass’ Narrative debunks the myths perpetuated by slavery, it is important to understand the content of the work and the context within which the author lived. Douglass lived at a time when the Atlantic slave trade remained firmly in place. In his memoir, Douglass recalls his journey from being the illiterate child of a slave mother and a white slaveholder master to a leading abolitionist and civil rights leader. As his story follows him from a position of near total powerlessness to a position of importance and influence, he also sheds light into how blacks were kept powerless and how they must escape this oppressive condition.
The cruelty of slavery serves as a central theme in the memoir. Cruelty, however, was not merely the manifestation of the slavers’ destructive whim. In the process of recounting important events in his life, Douglass also lends insight into the suffering of slaves in general and the purpose it served the slave owners. The author, for instance, reveals the sexual abuse slaves suffered in the hands of their masters. In Chapter 1, Douglass shares the rumor that his master is his father. This rumor essentially implies that his mother was raped by his father. Such a conjecture would not be far from the truth, considering how it is a well-known fact that many slave owners sexually abused their female slaves. In her article “The Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,” Thelma Jennings recounts how female slaves were often denied control of their sex life and fertility. Physical abuses were also committed against slaves. In a particularly harrowing episode during his younger years, Douglass witnessed his Aunt Hester beaten by their master until blood flowed freely from her wounds. Slaves frequently endured such atrocities. After all, the law made it possible for slave owners to do almost anything they wanted with their slaves. The latter were properties and masters were given near absolute control of them.
The heartrending abuses slaves were made to endure were of course intended to keep them powerless. Fear of pain, degradation, and death were used by the masters to keep the slaves in line. Douglass himself describes the use of slave breakers—sadistic individuals whose sole purpose was to break the spirit of rebellious slaves and turn them into docile workers. Violence and the ever-present risk of death rendered slaves weak, hopeless, and dependent on the very people who abused them. Douglass recounts how fellow slaves Henrietta and Mary continued to productively serve their masters despite being shrunken by starvation and almost crippled by gruesome wounds and lacerations throughout their bodies. With the use of fear, violence, and intimidation, black slaves were silenced, rendered defenseless, tamed, and sapped of the drive to desire any other life. This relegated them to a miserable existence that was always on the cusp of death. There simply was no other way of life. They knew of no choice. Surrender was not a choice to many slaves; it was the only way to live another day. Douglass, however, saw through this. While witnessing abuse and experiencing it himself should have made him resign to a life of servitude, it had the opposite effect. Suffering only strengthened his resolve to live and escape.
Apart from violence, the slave owners also used illiteracy to render the slaves powerless. Douglass grew up illiterate until a woman named Sophia Auld taught her the basics of reading. Although his lessons were stopped by his master, the damage to his docility as a slave was done. Douglass already knew that education was one of the keys to freedom. Douglass’ master himself inadvertently admits this. According to his master, slaves were better off illiterate: “if you teach [a slave] how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” This crucial episode exposes a uniquely cruel side to slavery. Those who perpetuated the institution of slavery were well aware that the blacks were capable of learning, and so they took away that capability by denying them the chance to learn. They then perpetuated the myth of weak-mindedness and submission to serve their purposes. In other words, the slavers established a vicious cycle of ignorance and condemnation. If the slaves were kept ignorant and condemned for it, they were more likely to internalize the belief that they were only fit as slaves.
What Douglass learns about the relationship between slaves and masters reveals that violence and ignorance were the tools of the slavers. These were their ways to maintain an exploitative system. As Douglass was insight into how the masters rule over the slaves, he was also given the answers. He realized that hope and education were his keys to freedom. The latter part of his journey illustrates how he wielded these keys to empowerment. Douglass taught himself the rest of the lessons that were cut short by his master’s interference. He also refused to give up the desire for freedom even when he was at breaking point. Through sheer perseverance and cleverness he was able to break the shackles of slavery. But Douglass did not stop upon escaping. Like the individual in Plato’s allegory of the cave, he returned to the darkness so that he could guide others see the light.
Frederick Douglass’ memoir is considered as one of the most valuable works in American literature for good reason, for it presents a vivid look into the institution of slavery. As harrowing as the details are, this autobiographical work is one of the cornerstones of learning why slavery was an evil and destructive force. Douglass’ Narrative can therefore be considered as a history paper of sorts as well as a weapon against slavery. It is both a chronicle of what slaves went through and an argument against the racism that underpins slavery. In this regard, Narrative is a timeless work whose importance never wanes.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845
Jennings, Thelma. “The Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women.” Major Problems in American Women's History, edited by Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander, Cengage, 2006.