“From a literary standpoint, the autobiographical narratives of former slaves comprise one of the most extensive and influential traditions in African American literature and culture. Until the Depression era slave narratives outnumbered novels written by African Americans. Some of the classic texts of American literature, including the two most influential nineteenth-century American novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn (1884), and such prize-winning contemporary novels as William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), bear the direct influence of the slave narrative. Some of the most important revisionist scholarship in the historical study of American slavery in the last forty years has marshaled the slave narratives as key testimony. Slave narratives and their fictional descendants have played a major role in national debates about slavery, freedom, and American identity that have challenged the conscience and the historical consciousness of the United States ever since its founding.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, slave narratives were an important means of opening a dialogue between blacks and whites about slavery and freedom. The most influential slave narratives of the antebellum era were designed to enlighten white readers about both the realities of slavery as an institution and the humanity of black people as individuals deserving of full human rights. Although often dismissed as mere antislavery propaganda, the widespread consumption of slave narratives in the nineteenth-century U.S. and Great Britain and their continuing prominence in literature and historical curricula in American universities today testify to the power of these texts, then and now, to provoke reflection and debate among their readers, particularly on questions of race, social justice, and the meaning of freedom.
Literary Contexts for Slave and Ex-Slave Narratives
As historical documents, slave narratives chronicle the evolution of white supremacy in the South from eighteenth-century slavery through early twentieth-century segregation and disfranchisement. As autobiography these narratives give voice to generations of black people who, despite being written off by white southern literature, still found a way to bequeath a literary legacy of enormous collective significance to the South and the United States. Expected to concentrate primarily on eye-witness accounts of slavery, many slave narrators become I-witnesses as well, revealing their struggles, sorrows, aspirations, and triumphs in compellingly personal story-telling. Usually the antebellum slave narrator portrays slavery as a condition of extreme physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deprivation, a kind of hell on earth. Precipitating the narrator’s decision to escape is some sort of personal crisis, such as the sale of a loved one or a dark night of the soul in which hope contends with despair for the spirit of the slave. Impelled by faith in God and a commitment to liberty and human dignity comparable (the slave narrative often stresses) to that of America’s Founding Fathers, the slave undertakes an arduous quest for freedom that climaxes in his or her arrival in the North. In many antebellum narratives, the attainment of freedom is signaled not simply by reaching the free states, but by renaming oneself and dedicating one’s future to antislavery activism.
Advertised in the abolitionist press and sold at antislavery meetings throughout the English-speaking world, a significant number of antebellum slave narratives went through multiple editions and sold in the tens of thousands. This popularity was not solely attributable to the publicity the narratives received from the antislavery movement. Readers could see that, as one reviewer put it in 1849, “the slave who endeavors to recover his freedom is associating with himself no small part of the romance of the time.” Selling in the tens of thousands, the most popular antebellum narratives by writers such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs, stressed how African Americans survived in slavery, making a way out of no way, oftentimes subtly resisting exploitation, occasionally fighting back and escaping in search of better prospects elsewhere in the North, the Midwest, Canada, or Europe. Not surprisingly, in their own era and in ours, the most memorable of these narratives evoke the national myth of the American individual’s quest for freedom and for a society based on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Slave narrators such as Douglass, Brown, and Jacobs wrote with a keen sense of their regional identity as southern expatriates (the forerunners, quite literally, of more famous literary southerners in the twentieth century who left the South to write in the North). Knowing that the land of their birth had produced the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, southern-born slave narrators were often keen to contrast the lofty human rights ideology of Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” with his real-world status as a slaveholder. While the autobiographies of the men of power and privilege in the nineteenth-century South are not read widely today, the slave narrative’s focus on the conflict between alienated individuals and the oppressive social order of the Old South has spurred the re-evaluation of many hitherto submerged southern autobiographical and narrative forms, including the diaries of white women.
In most post-Emancipation slave narratives slavery is depicted as a kind of crucible in which the resilience, industry, and ingenuity of the slave was tested and ultimately validated. Thus the slave narrative argued the readiness of the freedman and freedwoman for full participation in the post-Civil War social and economic order. The biggest selling of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century slave narratives was Booker T. Washington‘s Up from Slavery (1901), a classic American success story. Because Up from Slavery extolled black progress and interracial cooperation since emancipation, it won a much greater hearing from southern whites than was accorded those former slaves whose autobiographies detailed the legacy of injustices burdening blacks in the postwar South. One reason to create a complete collection of post-Civil War ex-slave narratives is to give voice to the many former slaves who shared neither Washington’s comparatively benign assessment of slavery and segregation nor his rosy view of the future of African Americans in the South. Another reason to extend the slave narrative collection well into the twentieth century is to give black women’s slave narratives, the preponderance of which were published after 1865, full representation as contributions to the tradition.”
Importance of This Project to the Nation
Slave and ex-slave narratives are important not only for what they tell us about African American history and literature, but also because they reveal to us the complexities of the dialogue between whites and blacks in this country in the last two centuries, particularly for African Americans. This dialogue is implicit in the very structure of the antebellum slave narrative, which generally centers on an African American’s narrative but is prefaced by a white-authored text and often is appended by white authenticating documents, such as letters of reference attesting to the character and reliability of the slave narrator himself or herself. Some slave narratives elicited replies from whites that were published in subsequent editions of the narrative (the second, Dublin edition of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative is a case in point). Other slave narratives, such as The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), gave rise to novels implicitly or explicitly intended to defend the myth of the South, such as John Pendleton Kennedy‘s Swallow Barn (1832), traditionally regarded as the first important plantation novel. Both intra-textually and extra-textually, therefore, the slave narrative from the early nineteenth century onward was a vehicle for dialogue over slavery and racial issues between whites and blacks in the North and the South. When reactionary white southern writers and regional boosters of the 1880s and 1890s decanted myths of slavery and the moonlight-and-magnolias plantation to a nostalgic white northern readership, the narratives of former slaves were one of the few resources that readers of the late nineteenth century could examine to get a reliable, first-hand portrayal of what slavery had actually been like.
Modern black autobiographies such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) testify to the influence of the slave narrative on the first-person writing of post-World War II African Americans. Beginning with Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) and extending through such contemporary novels as Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Sherley Ann Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990), the “neo-slave narrative” has become one of the most widely read and discussed forms of African American literature. These autobiographical and fictional descendants of the slave narrative confirm the continuing importance and vitality of its legacy: to probe the origins of psychological as well as social oppression and to critique the meaning of freedom for black and white Americans alike from the founding of the United States to the present day.
Notes on the first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave Written by Himself.
significance of the final phrase: as with Equiano, an effort to establish the authenticity and authority of the work, to demonstrate the literacy of its author.
authenticity: Middle English autentik, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos, from authentēs perpetrator, master, from aut- + -hentēs (akin to Greek anyein to accomplish, Sanskrit sanoti he gains)
Date: 14th century
authority Middle English auctorite, from Anglo-French auctorité, from Latin auctoritat-, auctoritas opinion, decision, power, from auctor
Date: 13th century
author Middle English auctour, from Anglo-French auctor, autor, from Latin auctor promoter, originator, author, from augēre to increase —
Date: 14th century
The narrative begins with a geographical location– the place of FD’s birth is more certain than the time of it. Think about “slave time” or the temporality of the enslaved: “planting-time, harvest time, cherry-time, spring-time or fall-time”. These are markers of time drawn from an agrarian experience, a pre-industrial temporality.
Parents: he knows who his mother was though he had almost no relationship with her. HIs paternity, on the other hand, is doubtful– it may have been his master– though FD is certain that he “was a white man”. Separated from his mother shortly after birth. The destruction of the family, a key theme in slave narratives, already makes its appearance. The reasons for this destruction are economic; they are a violation of “natural feeling” and sentiment.
Rape. The fall out from slave-owners’ “lusts”: the children of that forced union suffer b/c it is “a constant offence to their mistress”.
Masters and overseers. The image of violence on p. 877: “It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery.”
Chapter II: the plantation’s locale, its produce, its economy. “Upkeep” in terms of food and clothing allotments. “the mechanical operations” of the plantation take place at Colonel Lloyd’s home plantation.
Slave culture: Sorrow songs.
My own poetic tradition is Fred Douglass, The Sorrow Songs, David Walker, The Shouts and The Hollers, Work Songs, Arwhoolies, Prison House moans, Tubman and Nat Turner. Vesey and Prosser and John Brown and Melville and Harper and Du Bois, Twain, Truth and Linda Brent and Box Brown. Whitman (except for his American Destiny) Brecht, Mayakovsy, Sembene Ousman, Lu Shun, Baldwin, Hansberry, Margaret Walker Mao, Ho, Guillen, Lorca, Roque Dalton, Otto Rene Castillo, Henry Dumas, Larry Neal, Neruda, Louis Armstrong, Babs Gonzalez, Dizzy Gillespie, Monk, Ellington, Sassy and Billie, The Ginsberg who proselytized for American speech, the breath phrase and Bop Prosody and the exposure of the Moloch of US imperialism, Sterling Brown, Aime Cesaire, Olson, The Black Church, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson.
Amiri Baraka, Social Change and Poetic Tradition (1997)
“The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolations of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
— Ralph Ellison “Richard Wright’s Blues”
THEY that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days—Sorrow Songs—for they were weary at heart. And so before each thought that I have written in this book I have set a phrase, a haunting echo of these weird old songs in which the soul of the black slave spoke to men. Ever since I was a child these songs have stirred me strangely. They came out of the South unknown to me, one by one, and yet at once I knew them as of me and of mine. Then in after years when I came to Nashville I saw the great temple builded of these songs towering over the pale city. To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.
— WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
“I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes, always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.
To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and on allowance day, place himself in the deep pine wood, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds….
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be a Ès appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”
This is an important passage. FD seems to be talking about what DuBois called “sorrow songs” and a later age would term “Negro spirituals”. This is NOT the Blues, which is secular music, but instead sacred music. Two things: FD’s insistence that slaves do not express happiness when they sing– a statement he must have felt compelled to make given the popularity of the Minstrel Show and the stereotype of the plantation– and the hint here of the origins of a blues consciousness. Though Blues itself would not arrive on the scene until the late 19th century, this passage suggests that some of its components were already in place.
“I was myself within the circle”: what does FD mean?
As the narrative progresses, we get an insider’s view of slavery, from the arbitrary cruelty inflicted on Old and Young Barney (882) to the tendency of slaves to lie regarding the true character of their masters (883) to the internalization of enslavement (884).
Douglass’s account of Austin Gore, “a man possessing, in an eminent degree, all those traits of character indispensable to what is called a first-rate overseer…. though a young man, he indulged in no jokes, said no funny words, seldom smiled…. He spoke but to command and commanded but to be obeyed; he dealt sparingly with his words, and bountifully with his whip, never using the former where the latter would answer as well. When he whipped he seemed to do so from a sense of duty, and feared no consequences. He did nothing reluctantly, no matter how disagreeable; always at his post, never inconsistent. He never promised but to fulfill. He was, in a word, a man of the most inflexible firmness and stone-like coolness” (884).
Gore’s ruthless professionalism leads him to murder Demby, a slave who refused to be whipped, on the grounds that the man’s disobedience sets a bad example: Gore “raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight….” (885).
Douglass’s profile of Gore reveals a man whose qualities– “proud, ambitious, and persevering”– though they might sound like a catalog of national virtues from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, are the personal marks of an impersonal and authoritarian logic.
The justice dispensed by Gore on Great House Farm was implacable: “To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other with immutable certainty. To escape punishment was to escape accusation; and few slaves had the fortune to do either….” (885).
In discussing Gore’s crimes, FD not only gives an account of his own struggles, but publishes the identity and address of a criminal. The same for Giles Hick’s wife, who killed FD’s wife’s cousin.
“Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as teh first plain manifestation of that kind Providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors” (888).
Providence as a recurring theme in the texts we have read thus far: Rowlandson, Equiano, the notion of Manifest Destiny, etc.
FD is sent to Baltimore to serve people who have never owned slaves. His narrative argues that the institution of slavery not only degrades the enslaved but damages the virtue of slave owners.
“this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her handsd and gradually commenced its infernal work” (889).
Mrs. Auld begins to teach FD. Mr. Auld finds out and stops FD’s instruction immediately b/c “It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.”
Literacy is thus that which “unfits” slaves, it is a capacity that renders them unserviceable.
“From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” 889
Compare with Equiano, who converts to Xianity and educates himself as part of a larger plan to gain his freedom.
Continuing education: the Columbian Orator, white playmates, the Aulds’ son’s copybooks.
Literacy as literally a way out of slavery in that it enables slaves to write their own passes.
Capt. Anthony dies. FD eturns to the plantation to be valued. Dehumanization: “ranked with horses, sheep, and swine” 894
Sent to St. Michael’s to work under Thomas, who sends him to Edward Covey “to be broken” 900
The effects of breaking: “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!
Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.” 903
Covey beats FD, wounding him in the head. FD returns to Hughes and is sent back to Covey. On the way he meets Sandy Jenkins (who was probably the person who later betrayed FD and his compatriots in their plan to escape) who advises him to carry a root for supernatural protection against Covey.
Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment– from whence came the spirit I don’t know–I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers. Mr. Covey soon called out to Hughes for help. Hughes came, and, while Covey held me, attempted to tie my right hand. While he was in the act of doing so, I watched my chance, and gave him a heavy kick close under the ribs. This kick fairly sickened Hughes, so that he left me in the hands of Mr. Covey. This kick had the effect of not only weakening Hughes, but Covey also. When he saw Hughes bending over with pain, his courage quailed. He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer. With that, he strove to drag me to a stick that was lying just out of the stable door. He meant to knock me down. But just as he was leaning over to get the stick, I seized him with both hands by his collar, and brought him by a sudden snatch to the ground. By this time, Bill came. Covey called upon him for assistance. Bill wanted to know what he could do. Covey said, “Take hold of him, take hold of him!” Bill said his master hired him out to work, and not to help to whip me; so he left Covey and myself to fight our own battle out. We were at it for nearly two hours. 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. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn’t want to get hold of me again. “No,” thought I, “you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before.”
The fight with Covey is one of the most important passages in the narrative b/c of what it implies for the abolition of slavery and the future of African Americans.
“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. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.”
This was precisely the logic of John Brown’s plan to incite a massive slave insurrection by attacking Harper’s Ferry.
Relationship of John Brown and Frederick Douglass (from Life and Times):
First met in 1847.
“He denounced slavery in look and language fierce and bitter, thought that slaveholders had forfeited their right to live, that the slaves had the right to gain their liberty in any way they could, did not believe that moral suasion would ever liberate the slave, or that political action would abolish the system.” 717
“He was not averse to the shedding of blood, and thought the practice of carrying arms would be a good one for the colored people to adopt, as it would give them a sense of their manhood. No people, he said, could have self-respect, or he respected, who would not fight for their freedom. “
“When I asked him how he would support these men, he said emphatically that he would subsist them upon the enemy. Slavery was a state of war, and the slave had a right to anything necessary to his freedom.” 718
“From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass., 1847, while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful of its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man’s strong impressions.” 719
“The men who went to Kansas with the purpose of making it a free State were the heroes and martyrs. One of the leaders in this holy crusade for freedom, with whom I was brought into near relations, was John Brown, whose person, house, and purposes I have already described. This brave old man and his sons were amongst the first to hear and heed the trumpet of freedom calling them to battle.” 743
“Deeply interested as “Ossawatomie Brown” was in Kansas, he never lost sight of what he called his greater work–the liberation of all the slaves in the United States. But for the then present he saw his way to the great end through Kansas. It would be a grateful task to tell of his exploits in the border struggle–how he met persecution with persecution, war with war, strategy with strategy, assassination and house-burning with signal and terrible retaliation, till even the bloodthirsty propagandists of slavery were compelled to cry for quarter. The horrors wrought by his iron hand cannot be contemplated without a shudder, but it is the shudder which one feels at the execution of a murderer. The amputation of a limb is a severe trial to feeling, but necessity is a full justification of it to reason. To call out a murderer at midnight, and without note or warning, judge or jury, run him through with a sword, was a terrible remedy for a terrible malady.
“The question was not merely which class should prevail in Kansas, but whether free-State men should live there at all. The border ruffians from Missouri had openly declared their purpose not only to make Kansas a slave State, but that they would make it impossible for free-State men to live there. They burned their towns, burned their farm-houses, and by assassination spread terror among them, until many of the free-State settlers were compelled to escape for their lives. John Brown was therefore the logical result of slaveholding persecutions. Until the lives of tyrants and murderers shall become more precious in the sight of men than justice and liberty, John Brown will need no defender.” 744
“Men who live by robbing their fellow-men of their labor and liberty have forfeited their right to know anything of the thoughts, feelings, or purposes of those whom they rob and plunder. They have by the single act of slaveholding voluntarily placed themselves beyond the laws of justice and honor, and have become only fitted for companionship with thieves and pirates–the common enemies of God and of all mankind. While it shall be considered right to protect one’s self against thieves, burglars, robbers, and assassins, and to slay a wild beast in the act of devouring his human prey, it can never be wrong for the imbruted and whip-scarred slaves, or their friends, to hunt, harass, and even strike down the traffickers in human flesh.” 752
Returning to the narrative: Christmas Holidays on the plantation intended to keep slaves dissipated and confused.
“From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. Were the slaveholders at once to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity. But for these, the slave would be forced up to the wildest desperation; and woe betide the slaveholder, the day he ventures to remove or hinder the operation of those conductors! I warn him that, in such an event, a spirit will go forth in their midst, more to be dreaded than the most appalling earthquake.” 908
Southern religion: “I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,–a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,–a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,–and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, ~religious~ wretch. He used to hire hands. His maxim was, Behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master occasionally to whip a slave, to remind him of his master’s authority. Such was his theory, and such his practice.” 909
FD teaches other slaves to read.
He further utilizes his literacy by forging a slave pass:
“This is to certify that I, the undersigned, have given the bearer, my
servant, full liberty to go to Baltimore, and spend the Easter
holidays. Written with mine own hand, &c., 1835.
“Near St. Michael’s, in Talbot county, Maryland.” 913
FD sent back to Baltimore where he works for a ship-builder. Attacked by other apprentices.
Gardner keeps FD as busy as possible:
“When in Mr. Gardner’s employment, I was kept in such a perpetual whirl of excitement, I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty. I have observed this in my experience of slavery,–that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.
“I was now getting, as I have said, one dollar and fifty cents per day. I contracted for it; I earned it; it was paid to me; it was rightfully my own; yet, upon each returning Saturday night, I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh. And why? Not because he earned it,–not because he had any hand in earning it,–not because I owed it to him,–nor because he possessed the slightest shadow of a right to it; but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up. The right of the grim-visaged pirate upon the high seas is exactly the same.” 918
Slavery is piracy, a metaphor FD repeats:
“I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate.” 922
After his escape FD encounters other free African Americans and comes to an understanding of how serious the matter of re-enslavement is:
“Soon after my arrival, I was told of a circumstance which illustrated their spirit. A colored man and a fugitive slave were on unfriendly terms. The former was heard to threaten the latter with informing his master of his whereabouts. Straightway a meeting was called among the colored people, under the stereotyped notice, “Business of importance!” The betrayer was invited to attend. The people came at the appointed hour, and organized the meeting by appointing a very religious old gentleman as president, who, I believe, made a prayer, after which he addressed the meeting as follows: “~Friends, we have got him here, and I would recommend that you young men just take him outside the door, and kill him!~” With this, a number of them bolted at him; but they were intercepted by some more timid than themselves, and the betrayer escaped their vengeance, and has not been seen in New Bedford since. I believe there have been no more such threats, and should there be hereafter, I doubt not that death would be the consequence.” 925-6
He also discovers the prevalence of racism in the north.
APPENDIX: FREDERICK DOUGLASS ON JOHN BROWN
TO JAMES REDPATH, ESQ.
Rochester, June 29, 1860
My Dear Sir:
Your kind note, inviting me to meet with yourself and other friends on the 4th of July, at North Elba, came into my hands only yesterday. Had it reached me only a day or two earlier, I certainly should have complied with it. Very gladly would I assemble with you and the others on that revolutionary day, to do honor to the memory of one whom I regard as THE man of the nineteenth century. Little, indeed, can you and I do to add lustre to his deathless fame. — The principles of John Brown, attested by a life of spotless integrity and sealed by his blood, are self-vindicated. His name is covered with a glory so bright and enduring, as to require nothing at our hands to increase or perpetuate it. Only for our own sake, and that of enslaved and imbruted humanity must we assemble. To have been acquainted with John Brown, shared his counsels, enjoyed his confidence, and sympathized with the great objects of his life and death, I esteem as among the highest privileges of my life. We do but honor to ourselves in doing honor to him, for it implies the possession of qualities akin to his.
I have little hope of the freedom of the slave by peaceful means. A long course of peaceful slaveholding has placed the slaveholders beyond the reach of moral and humane considerations. They have neither ears nor hearts for the appeals of justice and humanity. While the slave will tamely submit his neck to the yoke, his back to the lash, and his ankle to the fetter and chain, the Bible will be quoted, and learning invoked to justify slavery. The only penetrable point of a tyrant is the fear of death. The outcry that they make, as to the danger of having their throats cut is because they deserve to have them cut. The efforts of John Brown and his brave associates, though apparently unavailing, have done more to upset the logic and shake the security of slavery, than all other efforts in that direction for twenty years.
The sleeping dust, over which yourself and friends proposed to meet on the 4th, cannot be revived; but the noble principles and disinterested devotion which led John Brown to step serenely to the gallows and lay down his life will never die. They are all the more potent for his death.
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Not anxiously are the eyes and hearts of the American slaves and their friends turned to the lofty peaks of the Alleghanies. The innumerable glens, caves, ravines and rocks of those mountains, will yet be the hiding-places of hunted liberty. The eight-and-forty hours of John Brown’s school in Virginia taught the slaves more than they could have otherwise learned in a half-century. Even the mistake of remaining in the arsenal after the first blow was struck, may prove the key to future successes. The tender regard which the dear old man evinced for the life of the tyrants — and which should have secured him his life — will not be imitated by future insurgents. Slaveholders are as insensible to magnanimity as to justice, and the measure they meter must be meted to them again. My heart is with you.
The Liberator, July 27, 1860
Speech on John Brown
It was no simple task… to revive the old spirit of the anti-slavery movement in the weeks following Lincoln’s election. As threats of secession of the southern states mounted, northern conservatives tried to convince the slaveholders that they had nothing to fear from remaining in the Union. Personal liberty laws to prevent the return of fugitive slaves were repealed, resolutions condemning the Abolitionists were adopted by Union-Saving gatherings, and paid hoodlums were hired to disrupt anti-slavery meetings. Northern newspapers fanned the flames of hysteria, calling for demonstrations wherever Abolitionists gathered. 153
Douglass was once again the special target for attack. At a meeting in Boston on December 3, 1860, to commemorate the anniversary of John Brown’s execution, ruffians, hired by merchants engaged in the southern trade, invaded the hall, disrupted the proceedings, and singled out Douglass for attack. Fighting “like a trained pugilist,” the Negro Abolitionist was thrown “down the staircase to the floor of the hall.” 154
The meeting was adjourned to a church on Joy Street. As the audience poured into the street, Negroes were seized, knocked down, trampled upon, and a number seriously injured. “The mob was howling with rage,” Douglass recalled years later. “Boston wanted a victim to appease the wrath of the south already bent upon the destruction of the Union.” 155 (II: 99 — 100)
Delivered in Tremont Temple, Boston, December 3, 1860
Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: — I occupied considerable attention this morning, and I do not feel called upon to take up much of the time this evening. There are other gentlemen here from whom I desire to hear, and to whom, I doubt not, you wish to listen.
This is a meeting to discuss the best method of abolishing slavery, and each speaker is expected to present what he regards as the best way of prosecuting the anti-slavery movement. From my heart of hearts I endorse the sentiment expressed by Mr. Phillips, of approval of all methods of proceeding against slavery, politics, religion, peace, war, Bible, Constitution, disunion, Union — [laughter] — every possible way known in opposition to slavery is my way. But the moral and social means of opposing slavery have had a greater prominence, during the last twenty-five years, than the way indicated by the celebration of this day — I mean the John Brown way. That is a recent way of opposing slavery; and I think, since it is in consequence of this peculiar mode of advocating the abolition of slavery that we have had a mob in Boston today, it may be well for me to occupy the few moments I have in advocating John Brown’s way of accomplishing our object. [Applause]
Sir, we have seen the number of slaves increase from half a million to four millions. — We have seen, for the last sixty years, more or less of resistance to slavery in the U.S. As early as the beginning of the U.S. Government, there were abolition societies in the land. There were abolition societies in Virginia, abolition societies
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in Maryland, abolition societies in South Carolina, abolition societies in Pennsylvania. These societies appealed to the sense of justice, appealed to humanity, in behalf of the slave. They appealed to the magnanimity of the slaveholders and the nation; they appealed to the Christianity of the South and of the nation, in behalf of the slave. Pictures of slavery were presented. — The ten thousand enormities daily occurring in the Southern States were held up — men sold on the auction-block — women scourged with a heavy lash — men tied to the stake and deliberately burned, the blood gushing from their nose and eyes, asking rather to be shot than to be murdered by such slow torture. The facts of these charges have been flung before the public by ten thousand eloquent lips, and by more than ten thousand eloquent pens. — The humanity, the common human nature of the country has been again and again appealed to. Four millions have bowed before this nation, and with uplifted hands to Heaven and to you, have asked, in the name of God, and in the name of humanity, to break our chains! To this hour, however, the nation is dumb and indifferent to these cries for deliverance, coming up from the South; and instead of the slaveholders becoming softened, becoming more disposed to listen to the claims of justice and humanity — instead of being more and more disposed to listen to the suggestions of reason, they have become madder and madder, and with every attempt to rescue the bondman from the clutch of his enslaver, his grip has become tighter and tighter, his conscience more and more callous. He has become harder and harder, with every appeal made to his sense of justice, with every appeal made to his humanity, until at length he has come even to confront the world with the pretension that to rob a man of his liberty, to pocket his wages, or to pocket the fruits of his labor without giving him compensation for his work, is not only right according to the law of nature and the laws of the land, but that it is right and just in sight of the living God. Doctors of Divinity — the Stuarts and the Lords, the Springs, the Blagdens, the Adamses, and ten thousand others all over the country — have come out in open defense of the slave system. Not only is this the case, but the very submission of the slave to his chains is held as an evidence of his fitness to be a slave; it is regarded as one of the strongest proofs of the divinity of slavery, that the Negro tamely submits to his fetters. His very non-resistance — what would be here regarded a Christian virtue — is quoted in proof of his cowardice, and his unwillingness to suffer and to sacrifice for his liberty.
Now what remains? What remains? Sir, it is possible for men to trample on justice and liberty so long as to become entirely oblivious of the principles of justice and liberty. It is possible for men so far to transgress the laws of justice as to cease to have any sense of justice. What is to be done in that case? — You meet a man on the sidewalk, in the morning, and you give him the way. He thanks you for it. You meet him again, and you give him the way, and he may thank you for it, but with a little less emphasis than at first. Meet him again, and give him the way, and he almost forgets to thank you for it. Meet him again, and give him the way, and he comes to think that you are conscious either of your inferiority or of his superiority; and he begins to claim the inside of the walk as his right. — This is human nature; this is the nature of the slaveholders. Now, something must be done to make these slaveholders feel the injustice of their course. We must, as John Brown, Jr. — thank God that he lives and is with us to-night! [applause] — we must,
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as John Brown, Jr., has taught us this evening, reach the slaveholder’s conscience through his fear of personal danger. We must make him feel that there is death in the air about him, that there is death in the pot before him, that there is death all around him. We must do this in some way. It can be done. When you have a good horse, a kind and gentle horse, a horse that your wife can drive, you are disposed to keep him — you wouldn’t take any money for that horse. But when you have one that at the first pull of the reins takes the bit in his teeth, kicks up behind, and knocks off the dasher-board, you generally want to get rid of that horse. [Laughter.] — The Negroes of the South must do this; they must make these slaveholders feel that there is something uncomfortable about slavery — must make them feel that it is not so pleasant
after all, to go to bed with bowie-knives, and revolvers, and pistols, as they must. This can be done, and will be done — [cheers] — yes, I say, will be done. Let not, however, these suggestions of mine be construed into the slightest disparagement of the various other efforts, political and moral.
I believe in agitation; and it was largely this belief which brought me five hundred miles from my home to attend this meeting. I am sorry — not for the part I humbly took in the meeting this morning — but I am sorry that Mr. Phillips was not there to look that Fay in the face. [“Hear!”] I believe that he, and a few Abolitionists like him in the city of Boston, well-known, honorable men, esteemed among their fellow-citizens — had they been there to help us take the initiatory steps in the organization of that meeting, we might, perhaps, have been broken up, but it would have been a greater struggle, certainly, than that which it cost to break up the meeting this morning. [Applause.]
I say, sir, that I want the slaveholders to be made uncomfortable. Every slave that escapes helps to add to their discomfort. I rejoice in every uprising at the South. Although the men may be shot down, they may be butchered upon the spot, the blow tells, notwithstanding, and cannot but tell. Slaveholders sleep more uneasily than they used to. They are more careful to know that the doors are locked than they formerly were. They are more careful to know that their bowie-knives are sharp; they are more careful to know that their pistols are loaded. This element will play its part in the abolition of slavery. I know that all hope of a general insurrection is vain. We do not need a general insurrection to bring about this result. We only need the fact to be known in the Southern States generally, that there is liberty in yonder mountains, planted by John Brown. [Cheers.] — The slaveholders have but to know, and they do now know, but will be made to know it even more certainly before long — that from the Alleghanies, from the State of Pennsylvania, there is a vast broken country extending clear down into the very heart of Alabama — mountains flung there by the hand and the providence of God for the protection of liberty — [cheers] — mountains where there are rocks, and ravines, and fastnesses, dens and caves, ten thousand Sebastopols piled up by the hand of the living God, where one man for defense will be as good as a hundred for attack. There let them learn that there are men hid in those fastnesses, who will sally out upon them and conduct their slaves from the chains and fetters in which they are now bound, to breathe the free air of liberty upon those mountains. Let, I say, only a thousand men be scattered in those hills, and slavery is dead. It cannot live in the presence of such a danger. Such a
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state of things would put an end to planting cotton; it would put an end not only to planting cotton, but to planting anything in that region.
Something is said about the dissolution of the Union under Mr. Lincoln or under Mr. Buchanan. I am for a dissolution of the Union — decidedly for a dissolution of the Union! Under an abolition President, who would wield the army and the navy of the Government for the abolition of slavery, I should be for the union of these States. If this Union is dissolved, I see many ways in which slavery may be attacked by force, but very few in which it could be attacked by moral means. I see that the moment you dissolve the union between the South and the North, the slave part going by itself and doing so peaceably — as the cry is from the Tribune and the Albany Evening Journal, and other such papers, that it shall do 156 — establishing an independent government — that very moment the feeling of responsibility for slavery in the North is at an end. But men will tell us to mind our own business. We shall care no more for slavery in the Carolinas or in Georgia than we care for kingcraft or priestcraft in Canada, or slavery in the Brazils or in Cuba. My opinion is that if we only had an anti-slavery President, if we only had an abolition President to hold these men in the Union, and execute the declared provisions of the Constitution, execute that part of the Constitution which is in favor of liberty, as well as put upon those passages which have been construed in favor of slavery, a construction different from that and more in harmony with the principles of eternal justice that lie at the
foundation of the government — if we could have such a government, a government that would force the South to behave herself, under those circumstances I should be for the continuance of the Union. If, on the contrary — no if about it — we have what we have, I shall be glad of the news, come when it will, that the slave States are an independent government, and that you are no longer called upon to deliver fugitive slaves to their masters, and that you are no longer called upon to shoulder your arms and guard with your swords those States — no longer called to go into them to put down John Brown, or anybody else who may strike for liberty there. — [Applause.] In case of such a dissolution, I believe that men could be found at least as brave as Walker, and more skillful than any other filibusterer, who would venture into those States and raise the standard of liberty there, and have ten thousand and more hearts at the North beating in sympathy with them. I believe a Garibaldi would arise who would march into those States with a thousand men, and summon to his standard sixty thousand, if necessary, to accomplish the freedom of the slave. [Cheers.]
We need not only to appeal to the moral sense of these slaveholders; we have need, and a right, to appeal to their fears. Sir, moral means are good, but we need something else. Moral means were very little to poor John Thomas on the banks of the Wilkesbarre river, in Pennsylvania, when the slave-catchers called upon him to provide them with a breakfast at the hotel, that while in the act of serving them with their beef-steak they might fall upon him and return him to slavery. — They did fall upon him; they struck him down; but, recovering himself, he ran and plunged into the Wilkesbarre. There he stood, up to his shoulders, and the slave-catchers gathered on the banks — and the moral suasion people of that vicinity gathered also on the banks — they looked indignantly on the slave-catchers. But
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the slave-catchers did not heed the cries of indignation and shame; they fired their revolvers until the river about that man was red with his blood, and no hand was lifted to strike down those assassins. — They went off, indeed, without their victim, but they supposed he was dead. Sir, what was wanted at that time was just what John Brown, Jr., has told us to-night — a few resolute men, determined to be free, and to free others, resolved, when men were being shot, to shoot again. Had a few balls there whistled, as at Christiana, about the heads of the slave-catchers, it would have been the end of this slave-catching business there. There is no necessity of permitting it. The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make a few dead slave-catchers. [Laughter and applause.] There is no need to kill them either — shoot them in the legs, and send them to the South living epistles of the free gospel preached here at the North. [Renewed laughter.]
But, Sir, I am occupying too much time. — [“Go on!” Go on!”] I see a friend on my right, whose voice to-night I have not heard for many years. These troublous times in which we live, and have been living for a few years past, make that voice doubly dear to me on this occasion; and I seize this occasion, as the first that has happened to me in at least six to eight years, to say that I rejoice, most heartily rejoice, in the privilege — for a privilege I esteem it — not only of hearing Mr. Phillips’s voice, but of standing on a platform with him in vindication of free speech. [Applause.] But I hope to speak in Boston on Friday. I, therefore, will not prolong my remarks further. I thank you for this hearing. [Applause.]
Douglass’ Monthly, January, 1861