Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

by: Frederick Douglass

Chapters IX–X

Summary Chapters IX–X

Douglass recalls that he spent his hardest times as a slave during his first six months rented to Covey. Douglass becomes deadened by work, exhaustion, and Covey’s repeated punishments. Douglass loses his spirit, his intellect, his desire to learn, and his natural cheerfulness. Sunday is the slaves’ only leisure time, and Douglass usually spends the day in a stupor in the shade. He considers killing himself, or even Covey, but he is paralyzed by both hope and fear.

Covey’s house is situated near the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, where large ships with white sails travel past. To Douglass, these ships symbolize freedom, cruelly reminding him of his own enslaved condition. Douglass recalls standing on the bank and speaking aloud to the ships, asking them why they should be free and he enslaved. He begs for God’s deliverance and then wonders if there actually is a God. He vows to run away.

Having traced his dehumanization from a man into a slave, Douglass now recounts his transformation back into a man. In August 1833, on a particularly hot day, Douglass collapses from fatigue. Covey discovers him and kicks and hits him with a plank. Douglass resolves to return to Thomas Auld and complain about Covey. When Covey is not looking, Douglass starts to walk feebly to Auld’s. Douglass has blood pouring from his head and his progress is slow. He stays in the woods to avoid detection. Douglass finally arrives at Auld’s and complains about Covey’s behavior. At first Auld seems sympathetic, but then he insists that Douglass return to Covey’s.

When Douglass arrives back at Covey’s the next morning, Covey runs toward him with a whip. Douglass runs and hides in the cornfield among the stalks. Covey eventually gives up searching for him and leaves. Douglass returns to the woods, where he runs into Sandy Jenkins, a slave from a neighboring farm. Sandy is traveling to the home of his free wife, and he invites Douglass to come. At the house, Douglass explains his troubles to Sandy. Sandy advises Douglass to carry a certain magical root from the woods, explaining that the root will save him from white men’s beatings. Douglass is skeptical, but then decides it cannot hurt to try.

Douglass returns to Covey’s on Sunday morning with the root in hand. Covey, who is on his way to a religious meeting, speaks kindly to Douglass. Douglass begins to suspect that the root has worked. But on Monday morning, Covey finds Douglass in the stable and attempts to tie his legs. Douglass suddenly decides to fight back. He grabs Covey by the throat in an effort to keep Covey from tying and whipping him. Covey is terrified and calls for another slave, Hughes, to hold Douglass back. Hughes approaches, and Douglass kicks him down. Next, Covey calls on another slave, Bill, for aid, but Bill refuses. Douglass explains to Covey that he will not stand being treated like an animal any longer. The two men fight for two hours. Covey brags afterward that he whipped Douglass, but he did not. Covey never touches Douglass again.

[T]he dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

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Analysis: Chapters IX–X

In Chapter IX, Douglass uses the character of Thomas Auld to show that slaveholding is not a natural way of life. Because Auld was not born owning slaves, he must learn the techniques of being a slave master. Auld imitates the mannerisms of someone comfortable with power, but he is unsuccessful in his imitation. Both the slaves and Auld himself realize the falseness of his manner, and Auld becomes more cruel to compensate for his own inconsistency. Douglass shows that the power of slaveholders is created through role‑playing. Auld fails as a slaveholder because his role‑playing is unskilled. If power, then, consists only of the successful enactment of outward demeanor, actions, and words, it follows that slave-holding must not be part of the natural order.