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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass
Summary Chapters I–II
Summary Chapters I–II

Lloyd owns about three to four hundred slaves in total. All slaves report to Lloyd’s central plantation for their monthly allowances of pork or fish and corn meal. Slaves receive one set of linen clothing for the year. Adult slaves receive one blanket, but no bed. The floor is uncomfortable, but the slaves are so exhausted from work that they hardly notice. The overseer of Captain Anthony’s farm is Mr. Severe—an appropriate name for such a cruel man. After Severe dies, Mr. Hopkins replaces him as overseer. Hopkins is less cruel and profane than Severe and is considered a fair overseer.

All of Colonel Lloyd’s slaves refer to the central plantation, on which Douglass grew up, as the “Great House Farm” because it resembles a small village. Slaves from other plantations feel privileged to be sent to the Great House Farm on an errand. Douglass likens these slaves to state representatives proud to serve in the American Congress.

Slaves on their way to the Great House Farm usually sing wild, spontaneous songs that sound both joyful and sad. Douglass explains that he did not know the underlying meaning of these songs while he was a slave, but now understands that the songs are a bitter complaint about slavery. Douglass is now often moved to tears hearing them, and it was while listening to the songs that he first begins to understand the evil of slavery. Northerners who believe that the slaves are singing out of happiness, he says, are misinformed.

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. . . .

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Analysis: Chapters I–II

The first paragraph of Douglass’s Narrative demonstrates the double purpose of the work as both a personal account and a public argument. Douglass introduces the reader to his own circumstances—his birthplace and the fact that he does not know his own age. He then generalizes from his own experience, explaining that almost no slaves know their true ages. Next, Douglass takes this detail of his experience and analyzes it. He points out that slave owners deliberately keep their slaves ignorant, and that this is a tactic whites use to gain power over slaves. This is the recurrent structure Douglass uses in his Narrative: he presents his personal experience as a typical slave experience, and then usually makes an analytical point about the experience and what it tells us about how slavery works and why it is wrong.

The main tactic of Douglass’s antislavery argument in the Narrative is to analyze the institution of slavery and show how and why it works. This analysis demystifies slavery and reveals its brutality and wrongness. To many people who were not abolitionists, slavery appeared an entirely natural practice. To them, religious and economic arguments had demonstrated that blacks were inherently inferior to whites and belonged as an enslaved labor force. Douglass makes a clear case that slavery is sustained not through the natural superiority of whites, but through many concrete and contrived strategies of gaining and holding power over blacks. For example, Douglass shows how slave owners make slaves vulnerable by taking them from their mothers. Blacks are not subhuman to begin with, but are dehumanized only by such cruel practices of slavery.

Douglass also intends to use the Narrative to expose the even more evil underside of slavery. He writes to educate white audiences about what really goes on at slave plantations, including more cruel and depraved behaviors. For example, he devotes several paragraphs in Chapter I to a discussion about white slave owners impregnating their slaves. Douglass’s narrative technique here is not sensationalist. He does not seek to overly shock or titillate his readers. He does not, for example, dwell on the implied rapes of black women, but rather upon the practical fate of their children. He seeks instead to present a practice and explain how it degrades both slaves and slave owners. Douglass often returns to this theme, depicting slavery as dehumanizing to both slaveholders and slaves.