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The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

“A communalism born of oppression led to an emphasis on mutual co-operation, joyful camaraderie, humor, respect for elders, and an undisguised zest for life” (John Blassingame, 1980). Discuss the extent to which The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass supports this revisionist interpretation of slavery.

A certain kind of communalism, necessary for survival, was produced by slavery, but it did not tend to lead to joy for the slaves. Often when a person is imprisoned, they know that they will be released after a certain period of time. Although imprisonment may not be a pleasant experience, prisoners can hope to gain their freedom. Meanwhile, prisoners enjoy certain rights and privileges, and may partake in joyful camaraderie with fellow prisoners. But slaves, who had committed no crime, had little hope of gaining their freedom and therefore experienced little joy. If they experienced camaraderie, it was seldom joyful - more comforting. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself illustrates that no matter how many privileges a slave is allowed they can never be happy until they are free. He relates how his fair treatment at the hands of William Freeland only further inspired in him the desire to be “my own master”. (1)

In Chapter ten of his Narrative Frederick Douglass makes his own comparison about slavery and jail. He admits that the slaves found “much more comfortable quarters” than they expected at the jail. Like during slavery, they were not given much to eat but had “a good clean room”. The slaves did not find being jailed too uncomfortable and Frederick concluded, “Upon the whole, we got along very well, so far as the jail and its keeper were concerned.” (2)The jail keeper was much more beneficent than the slave master was and their living conditions were greatly improved.

There are many examples within Douglass’s Narrative to illustrate Blassingame’s argument that the communalism of slavery led to an emphasis on mutual co-operation. However, not all slaves are mutually co-operative. In one of his first accounts, groups of slaves with different owners quarrel over whose master was the richest. Frederick Douglass argues that “It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!” (3)

Frederick Douglass’s first experience of mutual co-operation was with the “little white boys” (4) in Baltimore. Douglass needed to learn to read, and they wanted food so they exchanged these things for mutual benefit. Frederick Douglass took bread from the house to “bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return would give” him “that more valuable bread of knowledge.” (5)

When Douglass is in trouble with Edward Covey, he turns to another slave, Sandy Jenkins for advice. Sandy is not a close friend of his, only someone he was “somewhat acquainted” with, but he tries to help Frederick by giving him a root, which “could do no harm, if it did not good.” (6) During another instance when Edward Covey beats Douglass, Bill refuses to help Covey: “ Bill said his master hired him out to work, and not to whip me.” (7) For their mutual benefit, slaves will not encourage the beating of each other. Group solidarity in the slave quarters enabled the slaves to unite in their struggle against their masters. (8)Despite their weakness as isolated individuals, they found some protection in the mutually co-operative group from their masters. (9)

On Mr. Freeland’s farm, the slaves co-operated in their desire to learn. Frederick gains the slaves’ support by teaching them, but he states that he taught the slaves “because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.” (10)When Frederick decides to escape, he was “not willing to cherish this determination alone” . (11) The slaves are grateful for Frederick’s help and decide to join him. Even when Sandy decides to stay he appears supportive, but this was probably to cover his desire for personal gain. When they are all captured, except for Sandy it is clear to the slaves who betrayed them: “We came to a unanimous decision among ourselves as to who their informant was.” (12)This shows that not all slaves were mutually co-operative – some worked for personal reward at all costs. Later Douglass admits that he cannot even trust black people: “I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust.” (13)

It is also true to suggest that slaves experienced close camaraderie, however it was not necessarily joyful - it was more comforting. Since slaves viewed whites as their enemies, it was hardly surprising that they developed a strong sense of loyalty to all blacks. (14) Frederick Douglass’s first companion is his master’s son, Master Daniel, who became “quite attached” to Frederick. Daniel protected Frederick from the older boys and “would divide his cakes” with him. (15) However, as a slaveholder’s son he can not be a true friend to Frederick.

When he reaches Baltimore, Frederick befriended “all of the little white boys”. They expressed the “liveliest sympathy” for Frederick and consoled him with “the hope that something would occur” to grant his freedom. When Frederick had to leave Baltimore to be valued with Captain Anthony’s property he felt “the pain of separation” from the boys. (16) When he has to leave permanently Frederick mourns the “painful separation” from “those little Baltimore boys” that he felt “the strongest attachment” to. (17) Although the boys are white, they are poor and do not support slavery, so Frederick can enjoy a close friendship with them.

When Frederick goes to Mr. Freeland’s farm he experiences close camaraderie with other slaves, and he declares “We loved each other” . (18) His love for the slaves was “stronger than any thing I have experienced since.” (19) In reply to the critics Douglass responds: “It is sometimes said that we slaves do not love or confide in each other...I have never loved any or confided in any people more than my fellow slaves.” (20) Slaves enjoy a close companionship because they have nothing or no one else, and can best understand each other. Frederick’s separation from his fellow slaves caused him “more pain than anything else in the whole transaction.” (21) However, it is perhaps significant that until he goes to work for Edward Covey, “Douglass mentions no specific friends, only fellow slaves as a group.” (22) As his conclusion on camaraderie Douglass states: “ It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends.” (23) Friendship is positive because of the comfort it provides the slaves, but it also keeps them trapped within slavery.

Frederick Douglass’s respect for elders is directed toward his grandmother. The slaveholders “base ingratitude” to his grandmother served to deepen his “conviction of the infernal character of slavery” and fill him with “unutterable loathing of slaveholders.” (24) Her loyalty to her master was not repaid because she was “left a slave – a slave for life – a slave in the hands of strangers.” (25) Her age makes Frederick’s grandmother worthless to the new owners so they abandon her in the woods “in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die!” (26) The pitiful description of the helpless elderly lady condemns the slaveholders: “She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water.” (27) At this time of life she should be cared for by her devoted family, she needs “that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise toward a declining parent.” (28) Instead, she is “left all alone, in yonder little hut.” (29) With this narrative, Frederick shows his disgust at the way the slaveholders treat the elderly. They do not let her spend time with her family and finally abandon her instead of taking care of her.

It has been argued that the slave songs demonstrate the slaves’ zest for life. Frederick Douglass relates how the slaves used to sing on their way to the Great House Farm “revealing at once the highest joy and deepest sadness.” (30) Their joy is at leaving the farm and their sadness is presumably because of their bondage. It is significant that the whites do not understand the words of the songs, which to them were “unmeaning jargon” (31), so they assume that the slaves are happy. Douglass states that you can learn more about “the horrible character of slavery” (32) from listening to the songs than you could from reading philosophy. This is because the slaves do not write the philosophy, so they express their discontentment through song. There was no joy in the slaves’ songs, instead they “told a tale of woe” in “tones loud, long and deep.” (33)

Frederick Douglass is disgusted by the suggestion that slave songs represent their happiness: “I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness.” (34) He says that slaves sing when “they are most unhappy” and are only relieved by their songs “as an aching heart is relieved by its tears” (35). The slave songs are therapeutic but not joyful.

Frederick also answers another popular myth that slaves are content with their condition. People believed that slaves were content because slaves are afraid to tell the truth. When a slave was asked about their master’s character they tend to say that they are “contented, and that their masters are kind.” (36) The slaves can not be sure that the enquirer is not a spy for their master.

The slaves experience a lack of zest for life due to the oppressive nature of slavery. Frederick Douglass, after being beaten by his master, told how he “was broken in body, soul, and spirit.” (37) His only cause for hope is that his “misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free.” (38) However, his confidence grows when he stands up to Covey: “My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place.” (39) A slave can only have zest for life when he values his own life. As Douglass says, he would prefer “death to hopeless bondage” (40). This is reinforced when Douglass reaches New Bedford to find that blacks were “much more spirited than I had supposed they would be.” (41) Once they have escaped the oppressive grip of slavery, they can enjoy a zest for life.

Critics of Douglass have questioned the validity of his Narrative. In particular they have pointed to his doubtful parentage to explain his atypical slavery experience. As Sundquist has argued, the historical evidence suggests that Douglass was not as physically deprived during his childhood as his Narrative suggests. He was afforded opportunities not given to most slaves, including being sent to Baltimore. (42) Even Douglass asserted that being sent to Baltimore was a privilege: “it was no small affair, in the eyes of the slaves, to be allowed to see Baltimore.” (43) Garrison, in the “Preface” to the Narrative, admits that Douglass’s “lot was not especially a hard one” and that “Many have suffered incomparably more”, but his condition was severe enough. (44) If the treatment that Douglass received was kind, then it is clear that slavery was even more atrocious for many slaves. Douglass experienced little joy, so in comparison the other slaves must have hit the depths of misery. Garrison also states that Douglass’s Narrative “is essentially true in all its statements” .(45)

Allison Davis was particularly interested in the relationship between Douglass and Lucretia Auld. Davis argues that Douglass enjoyed a status different from that of other slaves because “Miss Lucretia pitied him and perhaps even loved him.” (46) Both at Captain Anthony’s plantation and at Colonel Lloyd’s house, Frederick experienced “the solicitude and affection of young white adults.” (47) However, the “unfamilial purgatory” in which Douglass was placed was not always beneficial to him. (48) In particular, Douglass chose to emphasise in the Narrative how slavery undermined family feeling among slaves. (49) His black relatives were moved away from him and his white father showed him no affection. When his master died instead of receiving land and goods, like the white children, Douglass “was immediately sent be valued with the other property”. As the slaveholder’s illegitimate black child, Frederick’s role was “ not to inherit but to be inherited.” (50)

Douglass was one of the few slaves who turned to writing to authenticate his oral testimony about his slave experience. But his oral testimony also authenticates his Narrative. One reviewer said that he would have doubted that Douglass wrote the Narrative if they had not heard “his efforts as a public speaker” of “the highest intellectual culture” .(51)

Douglass chooses deliberately the elements of his life that he wants to present, and does so in a carefully crafted manner. (52) Douglass’s literary act of self-presentation was “skilfully engineered” to produce desired effects on certain sets of white liberals. (53) In the Narrative Douglass depicts himself as a lone fighter. (54) However, it has been argued that Douglass plays the role of “isolato” in order to gain the approval of his white audience for the benefit of all slaves. (55)

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is merely one subjective account on slavery. As it is impossible to measure the extent of the slave’s dissatisfaction we have to rely on such accounts. However, objective evidence on this subject appears in Helen Catterall’s Judicial Cases Concerning American Society and the Negro. According to these records, hundreds of slaves sued for their freedom, ran away, assaulted whites, destroyed their master’s property and committed suicide. The cases reveal that slaves were often unruly, refused to work and killed livestock in retaliation for mistreatment. (56) Marion J. Russell’s survey of the Supreme Court also revealed several types of discontent and insubordination. The most common reaction was to sue for freedom, and also to run away. The least recorded reaction was discontent and insubordination, probably due to the fact that this would not often have been taken to court, and not openly expressed for fear of reprisal. The most suits for freedom were in Louisiana and Maryland, and the most suits lost were in Maryland. The largest amount of slaves that ran away was in Louisiana, but the highest amount of violence occurred in Maryland. The highest amount of discontent and insubordination was recorded in Louisiana, but there was probably widespread unrecorded discontent. (57)

These objective accounts reinforce Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, disproving Blassingame’s argument that slaves experienced joy out of the “communalism born of oppression”. Although they experience mutual co-operation, it is for survival and may not exist between slaves belonging to different masters. Likewise, it is possible that the slaves experience companionship, but this is frequently terminated by the resale and relocation of slaves. There is little reason for slaves to display humour and there is no apparent evidence of it in Douglass’s Narrative. Slaves may display a zest for life, but it is a life of freedom not a life in chains. As Frederick Douglass states in his narrative:

I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. ...he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man. (58)

Only a mindless person can endure the conditions of slavery and feel some contentment.


  1. Eric J. Sundquist, ed., Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p107
  2. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Writtem by Himself, Chapter X, in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Nina Baym, 5th ed., vol. 1 (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), p.2041
  3. Frederick Douglass, Narrative, Chapter III, p. 2009
  4. Frederick Douglass, Narrative, Chapter VII, p. 2016
  5. Ibid p. 2017
  6. Frederick Douglass, Narrative, Chapter X, p.2031
  7. Ibid., p.2032
  8. John Blassingame et al., eds. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p.210
  9. Blassingame, The Slave Community, pp. 75-6
  10. Ibid. p. 2037
  11. Ibid. p. 2037
  12. Ibid. p. 2041
  13. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter XI, p. 2049
  14. Blassingame, The Slave Community, p.210
  15. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter V, p. 2011
  16. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter VII, pp. 2016-17
  17. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter IX, p. 2022
  18. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter X, p. 2036
  19. Ibid. p. 2037
  20. Ibid. p. 2037
  21. Ibid. p. 2041
  22. Rafia Zafar, The Afro-American as Representative Man in Frederick Douglass, ed. Eric J. Sundquist, p. 110
  23. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter XI, p. 2048
  24. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter VIII, p. 2021
  25. Ibid. p. 2021
  26. Ibid. p. 2021
  27. Ibid. p. 2022
  28. Ibid. p. 2022
  29. Ibid. p. 2022
  30. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter II, p. 2005
  31. Ibid. p. 2006
  32. Ibid. p. 2006
  33. Ibid. p. 2006
  34. Ibid. p. 2006
  35. Ibid. p. 2006
  36. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter III, p. 2008
  37. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter X, p. 2028
  38. Ibid. p. 2029
  39. Ibid. p. 2033
  40. Ibid. p. 2038
  41. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter XI, p. 2052
  42. Sundquist, Frederick Douglass, p. 6
  43. Douglass, Narrative, Chapter II, p. 2003
  44. William Lloyd Garrison, "Preface" in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, p. 1996
  45. Garrison, "Preface", p. 1996
  46. Wilson J. Moses, Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing in Frederick Douglass, ed. Sundquist, p. 73
  47. Moses, Frederick Douglass, p. 74
  48. Zafar, The Afro-American, p. 107
  49. Nathan Irvin Huggins, Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980), p. 21
  50. Zafar, The Afro-American, p. 107
  51. Anti-Slavery Bugle, August 22, 1834, 4, in From Wheatley to Douglass, Frederick Douglass, ed. Eric J. Sundquist, p. 61
  52. Sundquist, Frederick Douglass, pp. 6-7
  53. Moses, Frederick Douglass in Frederick Douglass, ed. Sundquist, p. 68
  54. Zafar, The Afro-American, p. 111
  55. Ibid. p. 112
  56. Helen Catterall, Judicial Cases Concerning American Society and the Negro as quoted in The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, ed. John Blassingame, p. 107
  57. Marion Russell, "American Slave Discontent in Records of the High Courts", Journal of Negro History XXXI (October 1946), 411-34, as quoted in The Slave Community , pp. 107-8
  58. Douglass, Narrative , Chapter X, pp. 2044-45