Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Chapter XI & Appendix
Summary: Chapter XI
Douglass explains that the final chapter of his Narrative portrays the part of his life during which he escaped from slavery. He explains, however, that the chapter does not describe the exact means of his escape, as he does not want to give slaveholders any information that would help them prevent other slaves from escaping to the North. In fact, Douglass hopes slaveholders will become frantic with thoughts of unseen foes around them, ready to snatch their slaves away from them or hinder them in their quest to reclaim their slaves.
Douglass resumes his narrative in the spring of 1838, when he begins to object to turning over all his wages to Hugh Auld. Auld sometimes gives Douglass a small portion of the wages, which only confirms Douglass’s feeling that he is entitled to the wages in their entirety. Auld appears to sense this unfairness and tries to remedy his guilt by giving Douglass small portions of the money.
Thomas Auld visits Baltimore, and Douglass approaches him asking to be allowed to seek work on his own. Thomas Auld refuses him, assuming that Douglass intends to escape. Two months later, Douglass asks the same of Hugh Auld, who agrees, with the stipulation that Douglass must find all his own work and pay Auld three dollars each week to buy his own tools, board, and clothing. Though it is an ungenerous arrangement, Douglass looks forward to having the responsibilities of a free man.
For four months, Douglass hires his own time and pays Hugh Auld on Saturdays. Then, one Saturday in August, Douglass gets delayed at a meeting outside Baltimore and is unable to give Auld his wages until the next day. Hugh Auld is furious and revokes Douglass’s privilege of hiring his own time, fearing that Douglass will soon attempt to escape. In protest, Douglass does no work the following week, to Auld’s anger and dismay. Then Douglass resolves to escape on the third of September. He decides to work diligently until that date to keep Auld from growing suspicious.
As the date of escape draws closer, Douglass experiences anxiety about leaving his many Baltimore friends and about the possibility of failure. Nonetheless, he carries his plan through and reaches New York City smoothly on the third of September. Rather than feeling relieved upon reaching New York, however, Douglass is seized with terror. He finds himself in an unfamiliar city, without shelter, food, money, or friends. He is surrounded by people, but afraid to speak with anyone for fear they will turn him in. Soon, though, a free black named David Ruggles takes Douglass in. Ruggles, an abolitionist and journalist, advises Douglass to go to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to find work as a caulker. Douglass writes to his fiancée, Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore. Anna joins Douglass in New York. Ruggles witnesses their marriage and gives Douglass five dollars and a letter of recommendation.
When Douglass and Anna reach New Bedford, they receive help from Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Johnson, who pay their travel debt and help Douglass choose a new name. Mr. Johnson suggests “Douglass,” the name of a knight in Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.
Douglass is surprised by the wealthy and clean appearance of New Bedford. Douglass has always assumed that Northerners, because they own no slaves, are poor. But the city’s industries appear prosperous, and the workers labor smoothly. Douglass sees no extreme poverty. Even the city’s blacks enjoy good living conditions. They are more politically aware and educated than many Southern slaveholders. Additionally, the Northern blacks take care of one another and guard escaped slaves from recapture.
Douglass works for the next three years in miscellaneous jobs at the docks in New Bedford. After several months, he earns enough money to subscribe to the Liberator, an abolitionist magazine. In August 1841, Douglass attends an antislavery convention in Nantucket and is urged to speak about his experience as a slave. He is nervous about speaking in front of whites, but soon talks with ease. Since that day, Douglass has worked to plead the case against slavery.
Douglass uses the appendix to clarify his position about religion. He concontends that there is a great gap between the pure and peaceful Christianity of Christ and the corrupt Christianity of slaveholding America. Douglass articulates his understanding of the hypocrisy of Southern “Christians” who whip slaves, prostitute female slaves, and steal the wages of working slaves while professing Christian values of humility, purity, and virtue. Douglass implies that the Southern church and slaveholders support each other. The church accepts the slave money of slaveholders. Douglass quotes from the Bible, an abolitionist poem, and a parodic version of a Southern hymn to support his argument.
Analysis: Chapter XI & Appendix
Douglass’s explanation about why he does not describe the means of his escape elaborates on one of the Narrative’s main themes—the perpetuation of slavery through enforced ignorance. Douglass has said that slave owners keep blacks enslaved by refusing to let them be educated. Douglass presents this strategy as an aggressive, dehumanizing policy. In Chapter XI, Douglass turns the tables, refusing to educate slaveholders about the means of his escape or about how slaves escape in general. Douglass does not want slaveholders and slave catchers to stop slaves from escaping in the future. But Douglass’s tone also becomes impassioned, as he suggests that he also wishes that slaveholders and slavecatchers suffer in their ignorance. Just as ignorance dehumanizes slaves, Douglass imagines that ignorance about slaves’ means of escape will change slaveholders into hunted animals. The slaveholders’ panic and paranoia would be comparable to what slaves are made to feel. Douglass’s tone makes this wish seem vindictive, but it also expands a theme of the Narrative, showing that lack of knowledge robs people of their ability to control.
The second, implicit, reason that Douglass does not relay the details of his escape to the North is to protect the safety of those who helped him. Douglass’s account of the time of his escape is understandably conflicted as a result. Douglass acknowledges that he has friends and a fiancée in Baltimore, but he does not provide any information about his relationships with them. The only indication of how important Douglass’s friends are to him is the extent to which he suffers from their absence in New York City. This omission of supportive characters from the Narrative seems to be not only an effort to protect their identities, but also a concession to the conventions of the individual success story. The Narrative suggests that slaves are made on an individual level by depriving men of selfhood. The Narrative therefore shows Douglass’s quest for freedom as an individual accomplishment, achieved without the help of others.
Douglass’s first few days alone in New York represent a new stage in his self‑formation. Douglass renders this time as a new sort of trial—a trial of solitude—and his rhetorical treatment of this time reinforces his feelings of isolation. Douglass gives the reader a sense of his circumstances and sentiments at this time, but he also repeatedly insists that no reader can fully sympathize with his feelings without experiencing all of the conditions he himself faced. Douglass’s rhetoric invites the reader to imagine his feelings while forcing the reader to recognize the impossibility of this imagining. The passage thus sets apart Douglass’s first few days in New York as a difficult, individual trial.