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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.