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

Summary

Douglass describes his master's family and their relationship with Colonel Lloyd, who was sort of a "grand master" of the area. Douglass explains that if slaves broke plantation rules, tried to run away, or became generally "unmanageable," they were whipped and shipped to Baltimore to be sold to slave traders as a "warning to the [other] slaves." He discusses the meager food and clothing allowance given to slaves: "Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen all seasons of the year." Slaves had no beds and only some were given blankets. They had to work long hours in the fields and were deprived of sleep. The master's latest overseer, with the fitting name of Mr. Severe, was "armed with a large hickory stick and heavy cowskin" and took "fiendish pleasure in manifesting barbarity." Severe's early death was considered a sign of a "merciful providence" by the slaves, but he was soon replaced by Hopkins, a less profane man, but no less cruel than Severe.

The home plantation of Colonel Lloyd was called the Great House Farm, and it was a privilege for a slave in the outlying areas of the plantation to be asked to run errands there. Many of the songs that slaves sang at that plantation mention the Great House Farm; Douglass didn't understand the implications of the lyrics of the songs while he was enslaved, but as a free man in the North, he has heard whites commenting that the singing of slaves is "evidence of their contentment and happiness." He refutes this myth, stating that slaves sing in order to relieve their sorrow much like tears relieve an aching heart.

Analysis

Besides the master-slave division, Douglass points out that within the slave-owning class, there is also a hierarchy. Douglass' master, Captain Anthony, worked as a clerk and superintendent for Colonel Lloyd, who would have been considered virtually a feudal lord of the region. Captain Anthony was not a rich slaveholder, but he had slaves and hired hands working for him.

As bad as conditions were for slaves in that part of Maryland, conditions were far worse on Deep South plantations. Although Douglass does not explicitly mention or state details, conditions in Georgian plantations, for example, were much worse for slaves than they were in Maryland.

Douglass' mention of other slaves' belief that divine retribution was responsible for the agonizing death of Mr. Severe is somewhat curious because despite Douglass' religiosity, he does not say whether or not he believes in this "merciful retribution."

While Douglass does not use the term false consciousness (a Marxist concept which proposes that workers are fooled into believing in and contributing to a system benefiting only those in power), he is essentially debunking this false consciousness of slaves who believed that being chosen to serve Colonel Lloyd was a great honor. Slaves were led to believe in a false system of values, where certain tasks were considered more prestigious than others; in fact, however, all tasks performed by slaves should be considered unacceptable.

Douglass also debunks the ignorance of Northern whites who believe that the sound of slaves singing on plantations is a sign of their happiness. If Douglass were alive today, he would perhaps find it ironic that today's mainstream blues and pop music have their origins in the grieving music of a disenfranchised people.

Glossary

blasphemy profane, a sacrilege.

jargon idioms; words used within a subculture.

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