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Frederick Douglass: The Notions Of Freedom Constructed In Nineteenth-century American Literature

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Nineteenth century American literature was marked by the closeness of independence of America from Britain. It was a time of individualism and self-interest. Literature was mainly focused on The American Frontier, as a new country was born it was time to describe their landscapes, geography and natural history, Transcendentalism, after narrating the geographical landscapes it was the time to explain the American psyche, Slave Narratives, which will make a transition from the literature that talks about the American dream to the reality, and The Civil World, which would relate the facts and stories that surround American civil war. This essay will be focused on slave narrative and freedom.

“Freedom” a simple word which may have a lot of different meanings depending on the person who read it and in the age they are reading it; through history people’s freedom have radically changed, centuries ago freedom was only available for a few people whereas today almost everyone in western society is free. But are we really free? Can we do whatever we want or do we have laws that restrict or freedom? Can we buy whatever we want or do we need an amount of money to do certain things as travel around the world or have a fancy house? For this reason, “freedom” has different meanings.

The reach of freedom is the main topic of “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1845) a memoir written by Frederick Douglass in which he explains his early life as an slave and his way to freedom and how he achieved; however, due to slavery being still legal when he published the novels, he released two more autobiographies “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855) and “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” (1881), latest one being the most detailed about how he escaped from slavery and became a free man. This essay will focus on Douglass’ journey and self-construction to freedom and what he considered as freedom.

Becoming a free man for a slave was not an easy task, although there were free black people –called “Free Black” or “Free negro” – children from free colored women, mulattos, mixed-races, freed slaves or those who escaped- those were the minority of the population. Only in the middle of the eighteen century when political and social movements against slavery merged and some states established as illegal slavery, black people started to gain rights, some of them risking their own life moving to states where it was illegal. The main reason why it was so hard for black people to become free was their lack of knowledge and the force and threat they were submitted.

When it comes to the lack of knowledge, they were omitted even their birth day and although this may not seem as harder as whipping slaves it was the way to start controlling them: prohibiting them any kind of knowledge, Douglass specifies this: “I have no accurate knowledge of my age […] a want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood […] I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege [of white children]” (Douglass, 1845:1). However, inhibiting them to not know their birthday it was not the strongest things masters would do in order to manipulate them; they were taken out of their mothers just months before they were born and some of them did not even know their father: “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, ad at night” (Douglass, 1845:20).

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Ignorance was not the only way slave owners had to control slaves; they had to use force as well. People not knowing how to read, write, where they came from, people who were forced to be raised without feelings and relatives, they only knew if they did not do what they told them, they will be whipped, they had nothing to do but obey. The use of force was a way not only of punishment but a warning for the rest of the slaves letting them know their fate if they disobeyed. Douglass explains how he was separated from his family and how due to that he would not feel any pain of one of them died: “I had two sisters and one brother, that lived in the same house with me, but the early separation of us from our mother had will night blotted the fact of our relation from our memory “(Douglass, 1845:25).

But how could a slave become free if they were worth less than an animal? In slavery times a slave life was worthless, they could be killed and there would not be a trial about them. In The Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Douglass tells the story of how Mr. Gore –a slave overseer- decided to kill a slave because as an self-defence reflection he ran and hided on a River, the overseer made him three calls and at the third one he shot, no regret, in fact, he was cool with his action and the action was accepted by the slave owner. Moreover, they would be sold the same way an animal was: “There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children” (Douglass,1845:39) and how, after his old master died and had no one left to leave his properties, he was sent to be value in the same way a piece of furniture.

Slave’s life could vary depending on the zone they were living or on their slave masters behaviour. Slaves were often led or exchanged to other owners so on their life span the could live with more than an owner and revised by more than one overseer; some of the slaves could be “lucky” and have enough food and be treated “right”, while others suffered from starving and were used by their master to blow off steam. Douglass got “lucky” and when he was moved to Baltimore his mistress was “a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings”, as Frederick was her first slave and before she got married she gained her life by herself with her own company, she did not treat Frederick as other slave owners did, in fact, he started to touch him how to read and spall words, however, one day he Mr. Auld got her teaching him and forbid her to keep doing it, it was that day when Douglass understood that learning was his way to freedom and started to pursue his dream to become free. He described the moment he knew how to be free as “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty- to wit, the white ma’s power to enslave the black man […] I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass, 1845:29).

There was also a difference between men and women; they were not treated the same way, although Douglass does not talk a lot about women in his book, thanks to other narratives such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Ann Jacobs we know women suffered even more. They were raped by their owners, got pregnant from other men rather than their husband so their owners would have more slaves besides the work men did as well. The fact that Douglass only refers to manhood can be a bit contradictory when he is writing about freedom and having the same privileges men and women.

Douglass way to freedom was not what he expected, frustration took over him as his masters prohibited any kind of learning but he refused to stop learning, refused to stop his path to freedom; kids from the town helped him until he learnt to read but he is trip to freedom was not successful, he somehow regretted to have that knowledge as still he would be “an slave for life”. After being back with Mr. Covey something unexpected happened with made Douglass stronger, one day Covey was about hit him and he decided to fight back, Covey lost the fight and was more careful with Frederick since then; Douglass could have been punished by law but then the whole town would know a slave had hit him and he would lose all his good reputation. A few months later, Douglass escaped to New York where slavery was illegal, but however, he did not find freedom; he saw racism, people not willing to help –more likely the opposite- he knew he would still a lot to fight, but it was the beginning of his emancipation.

When it comes to the way Frederick Douglass wrote the narrative, he wants the reader to feel what he has been through, his style is straightforward. Descriptions of how he was feeling and the things he saw as descriptive as possible to make the person reading the book imagine how it happened. The main reason behind this is that most of slavery narratives were written before slavery came to an end in all states and they contributed to the fight against slavery, spreading how slavery work and how human being were being treated as animals. Between 1845 and 1860, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” got to sell 30,000 copies.

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Frederick Douglass: The Notions Of Freedom Constructed In Nineteenth-century American Literature. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from
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