Comments on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the slave Douglass searches for a sense of identity on a Maryland plantation. He is unsure of even the most basic things such as his birthday because slaveowners did not want to tell their slaves when their birthdays were. Even as a child this bothers Frederick. He estimates his age as about 27 or 28 years when he’s writing this narrative. Douglass also has a crisis of identity because he is half black and half white. While his mother was black and a slave, his father was white and also very possibly one of his former masters. He suggests that mixed-race children have a particularly difficult time fitting in in 19th-century society. For one thing, their mistresses resent them because they are a constant reminder of their husbands’ unfaithfulness. As a result, few children of slave owners can please their mistresses.

Douglass is also deprived of having a relationship with his mother, which would give him a sense of self. He is separated from her when he is a baby and only sees her a few times in his entire life. As a result, he reacts to his mother’s death the same way that he would react to hearing about the death of the stranger. Cutting family ties was another way that slave owners used to deprive slaves of their identity.

Slaves could not even distinguish themselves through their clothing since they all received the same clothing allowance. As a child Frederick and the other slave children only had two coarse linen shirts each year. When they outgrew them, children went naked until the next allowance came around.

One of the only ways that a slave on the plantation could distinguish him or herself was by being chosen to run an errand at the main building on the plantation. It was called the Great House Farm. Douglass states, “Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm…A representative could not be prouder of his election to the American Congress than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers; and it was on this account as well as a constant desire to be out of field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth living for.” It’s difficult to imagine feeling one’s life worth living simply to run an errand, but such was the state of slaves on Col. Lloyd’s plantation.


Frederick Douglass, 1856

Slaves were almost always illiterate. They did have other ways of expressing themselves however, particularly through their singing. Douglass notes that slaves did not, as some whites thought, sing because they were happy. In fact, they sang most often when they were unhappy. He writes, “every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.”

At around seven years old, Douglass leaves the Lloyd plantation to live with his master’s son-in-law in Baltimore. He is now a town rather than a plantation slave, which gives him a few more privileges such as additional food. His mistress teaches Douglass his ABC’s and he learns a few short words. She is stopped, however, by her husband, who suggests that Douglass would not be fit to be a slave if he learned to read and write. “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.” Douglass writes, “from that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Douglass understands that he’ll be able to forge a new life and identity for himself if he learns how to read. He can’t use his mistress as a teacher, but he manages to get reading lessons from the poor white children in the city. He had one advantage over them. Bread was given freely to him, and so he exchanged bread for as he calls it the bread of knowledge.

To some extent, his master is right. The ability to read does make Douglass more unhappy as a slave. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” He now has knowledge but is powerless to use it just yet. He dreams of escaping from his master but in the meantime determines to learn how to write. Again he uses the boys in the town to help them accomplish this by challenging them to write more words than he can. By the time he is between 10 and 11 years old, Douglass can read and write. He now has two of the tools he’ll need to forge his new identity as an escaped slave.

Learning to Read and Write as a Slave

Learning to read and write was forbidden to many slave children. Slave masters feared young slaves would become increasingly unhappy with their position in society if they realized they were able to learn as well as white children.

Some slaves did learn to read and write, however. A few learned from their masters because the masters believed reading the Bible was important for all Christians, including their slaves. Other slaves learned because it was convenient for their masters to have intelligent slaves. For example, one doctor taught his slave to write so the slave could help him keep records of his patients. Frederick Douglass was initially taught to read by his mistress, who then stopped teaching him because it angered her husband.

Even when help from the master or mistress of the house was not available, slaves found other ways to learn. For example, when Douglass’s mistress stopped teaching him, he found white neighborhood boys who gave him lessons. He snuck bread out of the house when he was sent on an errand, and traded the bread for lessons from the other boys. Learning to write was a bit trickier for Douglass, since his mistress’s lessons had not extended beyond reading. He managed to copy a few letters that he saw at the shipyard in a notebook, however. He convinced other boys to unknowingly teach him even more letters. As he writes in his autobiography, “when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, ‘I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.’ I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that.” Eventually Douglass learned to write with the help of these children.

The kind of determination Douglass and other slaves showed toward learning resulted in about 5% of the 1860 enslaved population becoming literate. The actual number is unknown because some slaves who may have been able to read might have denied it because they did not want their masters to find out.