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

Summary

Douglas spent a year (1833) with Covey, during which he was frequently and brutally whipped. Having spent considerable time in the city, Douglass was not familiar with farm instruments and techniques. Because of this unfamiliarity, he made mistakes and was continually punished. Covey pushed his slaves to the limit, making them work long hours, and he constantly spied on them to make sure they did the work. Despite his professed religious piety, Covey saw profit in breeding slaves, so he bought a female slave and hired a married man to have sex with her for a year. Douglass confesses that witnessing this inhuman tyranny may have been the lowest point in his life for he contemplated killing Covey and ending his own life. Because Covey's farm was located on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass often saw ships from all around the world. The sight of their billowing white sails continually renewed his hope for an eventual escape.

One hot day in August, Douglass collapsed from fatigue, an event which led to matters that changed his life. Covey came by, kicked him, and gave him a beating. Although Douglass was bleeding profusely, he managed to escape and walked seven miles to St. Michael's, to ask Master Thomas for help. Although Thomas didn't believe Douglass' story and sent him back to Covey in the morning, he did allow him to stay for the night. On reaching Covey's farm, Douglass found himself the object of another beating. This time, however, Douglass ran into the cornfields and Covey couldn't find him.

Eventually, Douglass encountered Sandy Jenkins, a fellow slave who believed in the supernatural powers of certain plants. Sandy advised him to carry a certain root on his right side, an act which would make it impossible for any white man to harm him. Sandy believed that his own root had always saved him. To humor Sandy rather than argue with him, Douglass followed his instructions. To Douglass' surprise, when he returned to Covey's farm, Covey spoke kindly to him. A few days later, however, Covey pounced on him. This time, Douglass decided to physically resist. In the ensuing fight, Douglass gained the upper hand, and, after nearly two hours of wrestling and struggling, Covey finally gave up. Douglass recalls:

"Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all."

Douglass thinks that because Covey enjoyed a widespread reputation for being the region's best slave breaker, it provided him with plenty of free labor, and he didn't want to punish Douglass any further because doing so would be an admission of his having lost a physical fight. For the rest of Douglass' stay, Covey didn't touch him again. Douglass recalls: "This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free."

Douglass then discusses why slaveholders allowed slaves to celebrate holidays. If it were not for these days of rest, Douglass reasons, that there would be a multitude of slave insurrections. Holidays, he says, are opportunities for slave owners to encourage slaves to get drunk, and keeping slaves drunk is one way of keeping them servile.

Douglass' tenure with Covey ended after a year, and he was hired out to William Freeland in January 1834. Douglass calls Freeland "the best master I ever had, till I became my own master." Freeland never hit Douglass, but, more important, he didn't profess religiosity. Douglass tells the reader that religious slave owners are all unparalleled hypocrites, vicious and perverse.

Douglass soon grew attached to other slaves with whom he worked, and together they celebrated the Sabbath. Douglass became the Sabbath school instructor to his fellow slaves, a task he enjoyed greatly.

In 1835, Douglass began to think seriously about escaping. Together with several other slaves, he planned to steal a canoe and row up Chesapeake Bay. He even forged notes stating that they had permission from their owners to travel to Baltimore. This escape attempt failed, however, before it began because another slave betrayed them. The group was arrested, and, to Douglass' surprise, Thomas Auld came to the jail and arranged for Douglass' release. Douglass, however, was considered the ringleader, so there was a general dislike of him in the community. Auld eventually sent him to live with his brother Hugh because he feared that someone might kill him. In turn, Hugh loaned Douglass to William Gardner, a ship builder.

For several months, Douglass was at "the beck and call of about seventy-five men," continually running errands for them. He might have stayed longer had it not been for a fight he had with his fellow white workers. The white carpenters were worried that free black men and slaves might become so proficient that they might eventually take their jobs away. One day, Douglass' fellow white apprentices started heckling and striking him. Because Douglass had promised himself after the Covey incident that he would fight back if physically mistreated, he struck back, and the ensuing fight nearly turned into a mob scene. Douglass was badly beaten and feared being lynched. In the end, however, he managed to escape.

Returning to Hugh Auld, he found his master and mistress surprisingly very kind to him. After taking care of his wounds, Auld took him down to Gardner to lodge a complaint. None of the white workers would testify on his behalf, though, and the words of black workers meant nothing.

Master Hugh didn't let him work with Gardner again; instead, he sent Douglass to work in the shipyard where he was foreman. Douglass took up the task of caulking (waterproofing boats) and soon became a skilled worker. In time, he started earning wages equal to the most skilled caulkers. All of his salary went to Hugh Auld, though, and this injustice made him more determined than ever to escape.

Analysis

This is the book's longest and perhaps most important chapter. Initially, Douglass returns to familiar themes, declaring again his contempt for histrionically religious slave owners. One such man was Covey, who bred slaves for profit. He was, however, one master who worked with his hands and thus knew what kind of work each slave could endure. His sneakiness and ability to deceive were his strengths to the degree that Douglass thinks Covey may have fooled himself into believing that he was a religious person.

Religion is an important element throughout Douglass' life and his Narrative. At the lowest points in his life, he speaks silently to God — for example, while watching the ships on Chesapeake Bay, sailing toward the Northern states. Some critics argue that it was at this point that Douglass became free, for once the mind is freed, the body will follow. Other critics, however, point to the fight that Douglass has with Covey as the real turning point, the moment when Douglass becomes psychologically free. Douglass himself believes that the Covey episode was significant.

Throughout his Narrative, Douglass repeatedly illustrates that Southern whites almost always close ranks when one of them is accused of a misdeed. We saw this behavior in Chapter IV, when the murder of blacks was condoned by the community. Similarly in this chapter, Thomas Auld won't listen to Douglass' complaints about Covey's barbarism.

The incident with Jenkins is puzzling. Douglass never lets us know whether he truly believed in the magical power of the root. Apparently, he was never "fairly whipped" again after the episode with Covey. Did Jenkins' root provide this protection? Douglass' opinion on this matter is unclear, for he says that he "was half inclined to think that the root [was] something more than I at first had taken it to be." Strangely, as a fervent Christian, his religion does not interfere with his adoption of this obviously pagan superstition. Whether this superstition harks back to an early African tradition is also unclear. It is possible that Douglass is making a sort of affirmation of his cultural roots when he follows Jenkins' instructions.

Douglass is fervent in his depiction of the reasons why slave-holders allow a certain number of holidays for their slaves. Keeping them working all the time would invite insurrections. Furthermore, holidays are occasions for slave owners to encourage drunkenness among the slaves. Douglass feels that slaves are so discouraged by their morning drunken stupors that they are "rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom [that is, drunkenness], back to the arms of slavery." Douglass fails to mention another reason why owners provide holidays. Owners need holidays, too, for they can't spend all year managing and overseeing slaves. Implicit in Douglass' arguments is his criticism of his fellow slaves who allow themselves to be subjugated by alcohol.

Douglass' literacy provided him with a means of forging notes, stating that his group had their master's permission to travel. Douglass plays on the white man's stereotyping of the illiteracy of all blacks. But Douglass' first escape attempt failed because he was betrayed by a fellow slave; the slave system discourages solidarity among slaves. Unlike Southern whites who close ranks to protect their privilege, slaves are discouraged from establishing ties with each other. Douglass again makes an implicit criticism of his fellow slaves who do, or will not, unite for their gain. A united black population would definitely pose a threat to whites.

Later, Douglass again experienced the wrath of a united majority against the minority. After being beaten up in the shipyard and almost lynched, none of his fellow white workers would testify on his behalf that Douglass had been viciously mistreated. The white workers were also united against working with free blacks and slaves; they were afraid that black workers in the job market would eventually take jobs away from them. This fear is not unlike today's backlash against immigrants; many Americans today are indeed worried that immigrants will steal their livelihoods.

Glossary

forte strength.

natural elasticity the ability to absorb tension; a resilience to harshness.

stern harsh.

rod five and a half yards.

quailed to be afraid; to show a loss of courage.

gratification enjoyment and satisfaction.

digressing rambling.

a severe cross indeed a heavy burden.

perdition hell.

calk (or caulk) to waterproof; to make watertight.

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