Black History
A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


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Painting by Ruth McMillan in 1976
Shows the Head of the Rideau Canal Locks in Ottawa, Canada in 1893
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March 9, 2010:

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself
Allan Lewis History 2400 Professor Ross Cameron I am glad the time has come when the "lions write history". We have been left long enough to gather the character of slavery from the involuntary evidence of the masters. (1) (1) Excerpt from a letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq. To Frederick Douglass, April 22, 1845, Boston MA, quoted in A Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, (New York: Random House, 1989), page xxi, by Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery about 1818 on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, USA. By 1845 he was a free man living in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and had written a book (a primary document) describing conditions in the pre-civil war American south. Two letters by prominent northern abolitionists form a preface to this book. William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1830, and Wendell Phillips both endorse the book as an accurate picture of the experiences of the life of one southern slave and also as a useful source for exposing the general and particular evils of slavery and supporting the abolitionist cause. The abolitionist movement gathered strength starting about 1820. Gradually white society in the north questioned slavery on moral grounds and by 1830, slaves had been emancipated in South America, the Caribbean and Mexico. The book by Frederick Douglass re-inforced the contemporary abolitionist position and today, serves as a window into the institution of slavery. Frederick Douglass had two white masters before gaining his freedom. The patriarchal society which existed in the south in the first half of the nineteenth century is exemplified by his relationships with his masters, their families, overseers, lower-class white society and the slave community. His first master, Captain Anthony may have been his father. Frederick Douglass lived on the plantation of Captain Anthony until the age of seven. He uses this period of his life to explain the slave experience and society in the American rural south. His life spent with his second master, Mr. Thomas Auld in Baltimore, illustrates the urban slavery experience. As a child on the plantation, Frederick first worked in the Big House, a position of higher status than that of the older field hands. Working in the Big House involved close contact with genteel southern family life. It afforded him the chance to surrepticiously learn to read and write. Literacy was one measure of a slave's "independence" and increasing rates of literacy would later become one measure of the progress of American blacks after emancipation. In 1838 Frederick Douglass escaped from his life of slavery and made his way, initially to New York city, and then to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The reader is then given a northern perspective of slavery, both from the black viewpoint of Mr. Douglass and his wife and the perspective of supportive whites and abolitionists. Here another irony occurred. Trained in the shipbuilding trade, Mr. Douglass was unable to gain employment at his skill due to the white tradesmen refusing to work with black workers. The "free" labour market of the northern economy excluded free blacks. This was similar to his experience while working away from the plantation for wages while a slave in Baltimore. While in New Bedford he became involved in the meetings and work of black abolitionist groups and a subscriber to William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator. Gradually the details of his life became generalized by the northern abolitionists. A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave gives a thorough documentation of slave life and society in the pre-Civil War era - from childhood to adulthood, urban and rural, north and south. It probes the depth of the degradations of everyday slave life and provides insight into the southern economy, culture and social conditions and the southern legal system as it affected slaves. Several articles both elaborate on the book by Frederick Douglass and provide different perspectives. Peter Kolchin in "The White South: Society, Economy, Ideology" , discusses how slavery permeated all aspects of the south. It retarded southern economic development and urbanization. Based on the production of agricultural staples without a free market in its labour force, the south lacked the commercial and manufacturing institutions and infrastructure of the north. Per capita income and the standard of living of most of the population was much lower in the south. Politically, in the half century before the Civil War, the south gradually became more insular and conservative. Financial and banking centers were located in the north. Capital investment in transportation systems (roads, canals and railways) was concentrated in the northern states. The developing cities of the north attracted the bulk of nineteenth century immigration. The south had a distrust of urbanization, partly because of the difficulty of controlling slaves in an urban environment. Throughout the world-wide history of slavery, the American south was alone in its willingness to go to war to preserve its lifestyle. "The Masks of Obedience: Male Slave Psychology in the Old South" by Bertram Wyatt-Brown explores the personality trade-off of male slaves in regards to their subservience, on the one hand, and their honour and independence of thought on the other. Three categories of male subservience are described. First, the inherent pride and dignity of many slaves from Africa allowed them to retain a strong sense of self identity and thereby withstand the radical adaptation to life on a plantation in America. Secondly, a sense of shame and lack of self-worth kept many slaves subservient by habit, even after emancipation or relaxation of slave customs by enlightened slave owners. Third, the "Sambo" image whereby a male slave was able to assume a semi-fantasy world based on deceit was a common survival method. The tone of the slave-master relationship, established by the individual master, determined the form of obedience adopted by the slave. In the case of Frederick Douglass many references are made to the debilitating emotional effects of slavery on his life - the contrast he felt seeing white persons and freed slaves in comparison to his own life. In addition to the psychological damage done by slavery, throughout the book are many references to physical violence perpetuated by persons in power. Drew Gilpin Faust, in "Culture, Conflict and Community: The Meaning of Power on an Ante-bellum Plantation", describes the complex social relationships within the slave community on the plantation of James Henry Hammond in Georgia. Rather than using strict physical force, such as whippings, Hammond and his slave community worked out power relations by a system of informal daily negotiations. This strong slave "family" was able to successfully maintain and practice their religion, achieve the best working conditions within their system and acquire amenities such as holidays. There were some attempts at escape but only by slaves who had no close family ties to the slaves at Silver Bluff. If not caught and sold, runaways quite often returned of their own volition to their community. This sense of community and identity to particular slave communities sometimes led to a sense of pride in their own plantation. Frederick Douglass describes how slaves on his own plantation defended their sense of place even to the point of violence against slaves from neighbouring plantations. The final article "Jezebel and Mammy" by Deborah Grey-White discusses two opposite perceptions of female slaves - that of a promiscuous temptress and that of a strong, matriarchal and super-competent household administrator and mother figure. The many individual family relationships and roles of black women are illustrated in the book by Frederick Douglass. The difficulty in keeping slave families intact when any member could be sold away at any time and the degradation of black women at the hands, not only of white males, but black men too are shown to contribute to deep stresses on family life. For instance, while working for Mr. Covey, a small-time white farmer who had a reputation of being able to "break" slaves, Mr. Douglass describes how black men and women were chained together in hopes of increasing the capital stock of slaves. There were many paradoxes to slavery. In a country which had been created on the principles of freedom and equality, how could a society and economy based on a minority of aristocratic landowners who owned human beings as property, continue to exist? The institution of slavery was perversely defended by the south as being the "freedom" to own slaves. How could a Christian society, experiencing the religious fervour following the Second Great Awakening, justify slavery? Again, twisting logic the defenders of slavery stated that the African-Americans had been saved from a heathen African society. Thomas Auld, Mr. Douglass's second master, ironically became more inhumane after experiencing a religious conversion at a Methodist camp meeting in 1832. Mr. Douglass was of the opinion that the worst masters and overseers were the devout Christians. A slave labour market was justified by claiming that the slaves had more economic security than the poor white wage earners who worked in the factories in northern cities and in Britain. However, at times as a slave Mr. Douglass worked alongside white labourers who discriminated against him. The heirarchical, conservative southern society was held to enforce superior social controls than did the free labour system of the north which was subject to labour violence, insecurity, poverty and riots. The legal system held many inequities between black slaves and white society. Reform influences in the north, such as the labour movement, feminism and the development of left-wing local politics were all seen by the southern aristocracy as detrimental to their ordered society. The publication of Frederick Douglass's book in 1845 provided ammunition for the anti-slavery cause and helped to win over thousands to the cause. His work is an example of how contemporary literature helps to effect social change.
Bibliography Douglass, Frederick, A Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, (New York: Random House, 1989). Gilpin Faust, Drew, "Culture, Conflict and Community: The Meaning of Power on an Ante-bellum Plantation", Journal of Social History, 14:1 (Fall 1980): 83-97. Grey-White, Deborah, "Mammy and Jezebel", from Ar'n't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (Norton, 1985): 27-61. Kolchin, Peter, "The White South: Society, Economy, Ideology", American Slavery, 1619-1877, (Hill and Wang, 1993): 166-199. Murrin, John et al., Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People, (Belmont: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2003). Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, "The Masks of Obedience: Male Slave Psychology in the Old South", American Historical Review, (1988): 1228-1252.
New February 27, 2011: The Bytown or Bust Library now has a copy of The Blacks in Canada. Written in 1971, this 556 page book by Robin W. Winks at Yale University is the authoritative book describing the history of the Black community in Canada from 1628 to the 1960's. ... Al
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