Frederick Douglass

Topics: Slavery in the United States, Slavery, Frederick Douglass Pages: 5 (1678 words) Published: January 30, 2013
It was well known among American slaveholders that an educated slave was a threat to the institution of slavery. There was no better example of this than the autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The influence of Douglass’ work is immeasurable as it offers greater understanding of the mindset of a slave of any time period. The insight provided is valuable to historians of slavery who have little to no documentation from a slave’s perspective in their own era of study. While he could not know the impact his narrative would have on future generations, his objective was to enlighten white northern readers about the reality of the institution of slavery. In this respect he succeeded, selling 4,500 copies in the first four months of publication and 30,000 before the start of the war. By combining his experience as a slave with his understanding of the northern society dynamics, Frederick Douglass was able to target the deeply held cultural values of his readers. These values were shaped by two influences: the standards and expectations of women and the authority of religion. Douglass understood the importance of these values and constructed his narrative to make obvious the contradiction between the role of women and religion in its ideal and the reality of slavery. By emphasizing the distortion of these values, Douglass manipulated Americans, forcing them to reevaluate the institution of slavery. In nineteenth century culture, the mother-child relationship was central to the functioning of society. It was a widely held belief that while the husband’s duty was to provide for the family, the woman was to be naturally gentle and nurturing and her primary responsibility was to be caretaker of the home. This involved maintaining the house, tending to her husband’s needs and most importantly, raising the children; thus creating a special bond between mother and child. Motherhood was viewed as one of the most important contributions a woman could make to her family, and by extension to the nation. Douglass understood the importance of motherhood to northern culture and contrasted their ideal family with the lack of familial relationships in slavery. At the beginning of the narrative, Douglass revealed he had little recollection of his own mother and that the practice of separating mother from child was commonplace in the slave system. He went on to describe how despite being separated from her child in his infancy, his mother would go to great lengths, just to visit for a few hours. She arrived in the night, essentially traveling all that way only to lie next to her son while he slept. By illustrating the stark difference in familial relationships in the north and those inhibited by slavery, Douglass forced readers to admit that slaves had the same natural family connections as whites, yet the institution of slavery prevented them from fulfilling their natural family roles. It is the same notion of the ideal woman as determined by society that Douglass targeted when depicting the treatment of women in slavery. This strategy is evident when Douglass recalls his home in Baltimore. Upon his arrival, Douglass was introduced to Mrs. Sophia Auld, his new mistress and a woman with no previous experience with slaves. Initially, Mrs. Auld struck Douglass as “ a woman of the kindest heart and the finest feelings”, unlike any white woman he had seen before. Her lack of slaveholding experience became obvious when she instinctively expressed her maternal compassion by teaching Douglass to read. She had unknowingly committed the cardinal sin of slaveholding by arming her slave with the skill of literacy. In the eyes of northern readers, these actions were the embodiment of the ideal woman – a kind and nurturing mother. By portraying Mrs. Auld as a naturally compassionate woman, Douglass was able to illustrate the inevitable crumbling of society’s values beneath the unyielding weight of...
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