Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of [my mother’s] death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.
In this passage, which appears in Chapter I of the Narrative, Douglass explains that his master separated him from his mother soon after his birth. This separation ensured that Douglass did not develop familial feelings toward his mother. Douglass devotes large parts of his Narrative to demonstrating how a slave is “made,” beginning at birth. To some readers in Douglass’s time it may have seemed natural for blacks to be kept as slaves. Douglass upsets this point of view by depicting the unnaturalness of slavery. He explains the means by which slave owners distort social bonds and the natural processes of life in order to turn men into slaves. This process begins at birth, as Douglass shows in Chapter I, which describes his introduction into slavery. Slaveholders first remove a child from his immediate family, and Douglass explains how this destroys the child’s support network and sense of personal history.
In this quotation, Douglass uses descriptive adjectives like “soothing” and “tender” to re-create imaginatively the childhood he would have known if his mother had been present. Douglass often exercises this imaginative recreation in his Narrative in order to contrast normal stages of childhood development with the quality of development that he knew as a child. This comparative presentation creates a strong sense of disparity between the two and underscores the injustice that creates that disparity.
Though Douglass’s style in this passage is dry and restrained, his focus on the family structure and the woeful moment of his mother’s death is typical of the conventions of nineteenth-century sentimental narratives. Nineteenth-century readers placed great value on the family structure, viewing families as a haven of virtue. The destruction of family structure would have saddened readers and appeared to be a signal of the larger moral illnesses of the culture. Douglass, like many nineteenth-century authors, shows how social injustice can be expressed through the breakdown of a family structure.
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