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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Douglass encounters white-sailed ships moving up the Chesapeake Bay during the spiritual and physical low point of his first months with Covey. The ships appear almost as a vision to Douglass, and he recognizes them as a sign or message about his demoralized state. The ships, traveling northward from port to port, seem to represent freedom from slavery to Douglass. Their white sails, which Douglass associates with angels, also suggest spiritualism—or the freedom that comes with spiritualism.
Sandy Jenkins offers Douglass a root from the forest with supposedly magical qualities that help protect slaves from whippings. Douglass does not seem to believe in the magical powers of the root, but he uses it to appease Sandy. In fact, Douglass states in a footnote that Sandy’s belief in the root is “superstitious” and typical of the more ignorant slave population. In this regard, the root stands as a symbol of a traditional African approach to religion and belief.
Douglass first encounters The Columbian Orator, a collection of political essays, poems, and dialogues, around the age of twelve, just after he has learned to read. As Douglass becomes educated in the rudimentary skills of literacy, he also becomes educated about the injustice of slavery. Of all the pieces in The Columbian Orator, Douglass focuses on the master‑slave dialogue and the speech on behalf of Catholic emancipation. These pieces help Douglass to articulate why slavery is wrong, both philosophically and politically. The Columbian Orator, then, becomes a symbol not only of human rights, but also of the power of eloquence and articulation. To some extent, Douglass sees his own life’s work as an attempt to replicate The Columbian Orator.
The blood-stained gate represents the symbolic passage that every slave goes through when they recognize their status as a slave and understand the brutal reality of the slave system. Douglass mentions the blood-stained gate when he witnesses Aunt Hester being beaten by Captain Anthony. The experience is traumatizing and lingers over every subsequent experience of violence in the Narrative, especially in scenes that are tinged with blood. After seeing the dehumanization of his aunt, Douglass claims he has passed through the gate into the “entrance to the hell of slavery,” a place which he can never un-see.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass!