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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Chapters I–II

Summary Chapters I–II

Douglass associates his witnessing of Captain Anthony whipping Aunt Hester with his mental initiation into the horror of slavery. Douglass describes the effect of this scene upon his young self and uses this scene to help explain how slavery works. Part of the pain for Douglass was not simply watching the whipping, but being unable to stop it. He presents slavery as not only a type of physical control, but also a type of mental control. Slaves become virtual participants in brutality because they are made to fear for their own safety too much to stop it. Douglass highlights these psychologically damaging effects of slavery as much as physical effects such as lash wounds.

The scene of Captain Anthony stripping and whipping Aunt Hester is the first of several scenes that feature the abuse of women. Douglass often uses scenes of the abuse of female slaves to depict the brutality of slave owners. Together, these images of whipped or beaten female bodies constitute a motif in Douglass’s Narrative. The motif serves as an emotionally affecting, rather than logic-based, argument about the evils of slavery. Additionally, Douglass’s use of women in his imagery serves to safely distance Douglass himself from the dehumanized and demeaned body of the slave.

Douglass likewise maintains distance between himself and slavery in his commentary on slave songs. He explains that he did not fully understand the meaning of the songs when he himself was a slave, but can now recognize and interpret them as laments. Douglass’s voice in the Narrative is authoritative, and this authority comes from his standing as someone who has escaped mental and physical slavery and embraced education and articulation. Douglass’s position as mediator between slaves and the Northern white reading audience rests on his doubleness of self. He must be both the demeaned self who experienced slavery and the liberated, educated self who can interpret the institution of slavery. This doubleness or fracturing of self is not without consequences, though. In his analysis of the slave songs, Douglass exhibits a sense of nostalgia for when he was part of the “circle” of singing slaves.