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.

motto_frederick_douglass_2

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.

George Wasington Carver: The Life of the Peanut Man

Interesting Facts about George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver, 1910

George Washington Carver, 1910

As a young slave in Diamond Grove, Missouri,

  • George Washington Carver knew very little about his parents. His mother’s name was Mary, but she and George were kidnapped when George was young and he never saw her again. His father died before George’s birth. After the Civil War ended, their former owners, Moses and Susan Carver, raised George and his
    brother Jim.
  • Young George got sick often as a child, so he did mostly household chores with Susan. The Carvers treated George like their own child, giving him free time to explore the woods on the family farm. They also taught him to read and George spent a lot of time with his spelling book.
  • George wanted to learn the names of plants, trees, animals, and flowers. Since he couldn’t find the answers in his spelling book, George sought other opportunities to go to school. His determination helped him walk eight miles to the Lincoln school for black children. Unfortunately, George soon discovered that the teacher didn’t know much more than he did.
  • George went to Kansas to finish his education, but he learned more about racial hatred there than anything else. At Ft. Scott, he saw a black man lynched and burned. Though he left Ft. Scott, he stayed in Kansas to finish high school.
  • To pay for his education, George worked a variety of jobs, including helping a black family with their laundry business.
  • Although he was accepted into Highland College in Kansas, when he arrived he was turned away because of the color of his skin. Eventually he graduated from Iowa State Agricultural College.
  • After graduation, George got an offer from Booker T. Washington to teach agriculture at Tuskegee Institute. He took the job because “It has always been the one ideal of my life to be the greatest good to the greatest number of ‘my people’ as possible.”
  • While at Tuskegee, George came up with new ways to help poor black farmers. For example, many farmers were only planting cotton, a crop that used up a lot of nutrients in the soil. George suggested that farmers plant crops like peanuts, which would nourish the soil. He said they should plant peanuts one year, and then plant cotton the next year.
  • After farmers started taking George’s advice, they had way too many peanuts. George had a solution, though—he found more than 300 uses for peanuts, including peanut milk and peanut soap!

Ida B. Wells: African American Activist

Before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., other African-Americans fought for black rights in the South. One of these activists was a young woman named Ida B. Wells.

Photo of Ida B. Wells

Photo of Ida B. Wells

Although she was born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells had advantages that other slave children did not. Unlike most slaves, both of Ida’s parents could read. They taught their oldest daughter Ida to read when she was very young. After the Civil War ended and slaves were freed, Ida’s parents got involved in the politics of the Republication Party, which promoted the rights of free blacks. Her parents died from yellow fever when Ida was just a teenager, but she inherited their interest in education and equal rights for blacks.

Ida went to college and became a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. One day, she purchased a first-class ticket on the train and went to sit in her seat. A white conductor came up to her and told her to move to the black section, which didn’t have first-class accomodations. Ida refused and was removed from the train. She sued the railroad company and won her case in a lower court, but the railroad won in an appeal.

Although she didn’t make much money at first, Ida had a passion for writing. Eventually, she edited her own newspaper, which she named Free Speech. She wrote about the poor quality of schools for blacks and the need for black people to stand up for their rights. One incident, the lynching of a good friend Tom Moss, changed Ida’s life.

Moss owned a grocery store on the edge of the white and black parts of the town. In 1892, he and two other black men were shot when they tried to defend Moss’ store from a white mob.

After Moss’ death, Ida changed her position on black self-defense and told her readers to save their money so they could leave Memphis. Her articles were so effective that the city’s economy started to suffer because of the lack of black customers. Blacks who remained in Memphis started walking to work instead of paying to ride the streetcars that were owned by whites. The owners of the streetcar company asked Ida to tell her readers to start riding the cars again. Instead, she wrote an article calling for a black boycott of the streetcars.

Her friend’s death inspired Ida to expose the evils of lynching through writing and speeches. In one pamphlet, called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases,” Ida wrote, “The mob spirit has increased with alarming frequency and violence. Over a thousand black men, women and children have been thus sacrificed the past ten years. Masks have long been thrown aside and the lynchings of the present day take place in broad daylight.”

During a trip to the Northeast, the offices of her paper were destroyed by a mob. While in New York, she learned that some whites threatened to kill her if she returned to Memphis. As she encouraged her former readers to do, Ida settled in the North. She continued to write and give speeches about the injustice of lynching. She traveled extensively throughout the North and even brought her anti-lynching campaign to England.

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Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

One hundred and fifty years ago on New Years Day, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln never liked slavery, and he recognized that having slaves gave the southern states advantages in the Civil War. For example, southern slaves worked as cooks or nurses on the sidelines to save soldiers energy for fighting.

In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided to write an emancipation proclamation. The document declared that any slave in a state that was fighting Union soldiers would be free on January 1, 1863.

Before issuing his proclamation, Lincoln asked his cabinet members to listen to a rough draft. He told them he would use his powers as president in wartime to free slaves who might otherwise help the Union cause. His Secretary of State, William Seward, supported the idea of freeing slaves, but warned Lincoln that the Union army’s losses during the year might influence the public’s opinion. He suggested that the president wait for a battle victory before announcing the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln agreed.

When the South’s General Lee retreated from the North after the battle at Antietam, Lincoln publicly announced his intention to sign the proclamation on January 1, 1863. Some people doubted that he would follow through on his promise, but they were wrong. On the morning of January 1, Lincoln made a major change in the proclamation. Though it still said that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebel southern states “are, and henceforth shall be free,” he added that African Americans could join the Union army. Lincoln knew the Union needed the manpower. In fact, though they served in all black units, between 180,000 and 200,000 black men fought for the Union during the war.

Before he could sign the document, Lincoln and his wife Mary hosted a New Years Day reception at the White House. First government officials mingled with the president, and then the public was invited to stand in a line to shake the president’s hand. Afterwards, Lincoln went back to his office to sign the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” His hands were so stiff after three hours of shaking hands that he waited before signing his name. He said, “If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated.’” After a few moments, Lincoln’s hand felt less numb and he put his signature on the historic document.

The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any slaves right away. It only declared the slaves in the rebel states free—something Lincoln could not enforce in 1863. The document was important because it changed the way people thought about the war. Now soldiers in the Union army were fighting not only to bring the southern states back to the Union, but also to free the slaves.