Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave By Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis Chapter I

Summary

Douglass begins his Narrative by explaining that he is like many other slaves who don't know when they were born and, sometimes, even who their parents are. From hearsay, he estimates that he was born around 1817 and that his father was probably his first white master, Captain Anthony. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was a field hand who wasn't allowed to see him very often; she died when Douglass was seven years old. Children of mixed-race parentage are always classified as slaves, Douglass says, and this class of mulattos is increasing rapidly. Douglass implies that these mulatto slaves are, for the most part, the result of white masters raping black slaves. He tells about the brutality of his master's overseer, Mr. Plummer, as well as the story of Aunt Hester, who was brutally whipped by Captain Anthony because she fancied another slave. Captain Anthony apparently wanted her for himself exclusively.

Analysis

From the very beginning of his Narrative, Douglass shocks and horrifies his readers. Not only does he vividly detail the physical cruelties inflicted on slaves, but he also presents a frank discussion about sex between white male owners and female slaves.

Like other autobiographers of his time, Douglass chooses to begin his story by telling when and where he was born. However, this is impossible, he says, because slave owners keep slaves ignorant about their age and parentage in order to strip them of their identities. (Douglass is also implying that this ploy is also a refusal by white owners to acknowledge their carnal natures.) Slaves are thus reduced to the level of animals: "Slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs." The tone of this passage is simple and factual, presented with little emotion, yet the reader cannot help feeling outraged by it. The separation of mother and child is another way slave owners control their slaves, preventing slave children from developing familial bonds, loyalty to another slave, and a knowledge of heritage and identity.

Douglass' underlying tone is bitter, especially about his white father creating him and then abandoning him to slavery. He immediately tackles an uncomfortable topic for the readers of his and our times — the rape of black women by white men with power. According to Douglass, the children of white masters and female slaves generally receive the worst treatment of all, and the master is frequently compelled to sell his mulatto children "out of deference to the feelings of his white wife." For the wife, her husband's mulatto children are living reminders of his infidelity.

With a single bold stroke, Douglass deconstructs one of the myths of slavery. In the nineteenth century, Southerners believed that God cursed Ham, the son of Noah, by turning his skin black and his descendants into slaves. For Southerners, therefore, the descendants of Ham were predestined by the scriptures to be slaves. However, Douglass asks, if only blacks are "scripturally enslaved," why should mixed-race children be also destined for slavery? Douglass wonders if it's possible that this class of mulatto slaves might someday become so large that their population will exceed that of the whites. Beneath his bitterness is a belief that time is on his side; the natural laws of population expansion will allow his people to prevail.

Douglass concludes this chapter by devoting a long section to childhood memories, to the first time he witnessed a slave being beaten. Later, the extended description of the cruelty inflicted on Aunt Hester foreshadows the kind of brutality to come: "I expected it would be my turn next." Douglass has come to realize that sexuality and power are inseparable. He strongly implies that Captain Anthony's beating of Hester is the result of his jealousy, for Hester had taken an interest in a fellow slave.

Glossary

odiousness contemptible, detestable.

overseer one who manages slaves and keeps them well disciplined and productive.

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