1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 28: Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass

The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass is unique among slave narratives for many reasons, but the one that stands out the most to me is the eloquence with which Douglass speaks. His narrative is articulate, intelligent, self-reflective and, most especially in the appendix, easily cuts through the hypocritical nature of America’s religious institutions and exposes the disgustingly, darkly stained underbelly of American history which has wallowed in its own feces for so long that it has yet to clean itself of its own stench to this day (I may be throwing in some of my own thoughts along in with Mr. Douglass’s there).

Douglass himself is a product of the hypocrisy which he details over the course of his narrative. The son of both a slave and slave owner, Douglass’s destiny is thrown in with the lot of his mother, for those who are born of slaves, remain of slaves, at least in the southern states of America. Douglass describers what it is to see one brother of a darker shade, be whipped by a man who shares the same father, but whose skin is but a few shades lighter. How the mistresses of the slave owning homes saw fit to project their jealousy onto the mulatto children that were the offspring of her own husband’s infidelities. And it is not without a strong understanding of irony that Douglass details such things.

Having been traded among slave owners, Douglass illustrated how, even among the debased, slaves still tried to find some sort of pride in their station, bragging of how rich their masters were, and telling other slaves that though they be slaves, at least they are slaves to rich men instead of poor white trash, and how their owners would be sure to encourage heavy drinking and wrestling amongst the slaves whenever they were allotted any ’free’ time. But such things did not fill Douglass with pride, and instead he took to learning to read and filling his mind with thoughts of freedom. Though he learned little, his cleverness allowed him to learn more. He had learned few letters from marking planks in the shipping yards, and a few more from a mistress who saw fit to teach him until her husband ordered her to cease her schooling (it was illegal to teach Blacks to read in some states). So whilst playing amongst the same streets as White children he would challenge them to contest of writing out the letters they knew, learning from one, and showing it to another that he might learn more still, and in this way became literate. His education was as much a burden as a blessing though, as he was unhappy with his station and had the means to articulate it to himself, it to nobody else, and his free spiritedness lead his oppressor to send him off to a farm where a poor, White farm owner hired out slaves from slave owners, and was know to be able to ‘break in’ the wild ones. But Douglass would soon make it be known that if a slave driver were to rely on blows to earn his obedience, he would not be shy about fighting back. And when he beat the slave driver in a fight in a barn one evening, he forced the slave drivers hand, for he was known for his ability to tame Black men, and if he conceded in public that he had been beaten by a Black man, then his reputation would dissipate.

Moving back and forth form one owner to another, Douglass eventually found himself in the Northern parts of the South and saw fit to escape to New York, and though his trials and tribulations did not end upon his arrival in the north (he had to work for a pittance of what white men earned, and the wife he took on too had to work tirelessly), he still found that Black men had far more room to grow in the North than they did in the South.

The appendix for me however if the most potent part of the narrative. In it, Douglass wishes to make clear that though he may have spoken harsh of religion throughout his narrative, Christ’s Christianity is not far from his heart, but rather it is the bastardization of Christianity which America in general pretend to practice that he has no faith in. He employ fierce juxtaposition to illustrate the America Christianity that he sees, and uses this juxtaposition as well as it has ever been used in the English language. “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other.” “The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week, fill the pulpit on Sunday.” He says of American Christianity: “I… hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity…. Never was there a clearer case of ’stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil’”. It is a harsh, brutally honest, and sharply accurate appraisal of Christianity in America and perhaps holds true even still to this day.

This is the poem with which Douglass concludes his narrative (though he himself did not write it):


A Parody

Come, saints and sinners, hear me tell

How pious priests whip Jack and Nell,

And women buy and children sell,

And preach all sinners down to hell,

And sing of heavenly union.

They’ll bleat and baa, dona like goats,

Gorge down black sheep, and strain at motes,

Array their backs in fine black coats,

Then seize their negroes by their throats,

And choke, for heavenly union.

They’ll church you if you sip a dram,

And damn you if you steal a lamb;

Yet rob old Tony, Doll, and Sam,

Of human rights, and bread and ham;

Kidnapper’s heavenly union.

They’ll loudly talk of Christ’s reward,

And bind his image with a cord,

And scold, and swing the lash abhorred,

And sell their brother in the Lord

To handcuffed heavenly union.

They’ll read and sing a sacred song,

And make a prayer both loud and long,

And teach the right and do the wrong,

Hailing the brother, sister throng,

With words of heavenly union.

We wonder how such saints can sing,

Or praise the Lord upon the wing,

Who roar, and scold, and whip, and sting,

And to their slaves and mammon cling,

In guilty conscience union.

They’ll raise tobacco, corn, and rye,

And drive, and thieve, and cheat, and lie,

And lay up treasures in the sky,

By making switch and cowskin fly,

In hope of heavenly union.

They’ll crack old Tony on the skull,

And preach and roar like Bashan bull,

Or braying ass, of mischief full,

Then seize old Jacob by the wool,

And pull for heavenly union.

A roaring, ranting, sleek man-thief,

Who lived on mutton, veal, and beef,

Yet never would afford relief

To needy, sable sons of grief,

Was big with heavenly union.

‘Love not the world,’ the preacher said,

And winked his eye, and shook his head;

He seized on Tom, and Dick, and Ned,

Cut short their meat, and clothes, and bread,

Yet still loved heavenly union.

Another preacher whining spoke

Of One whose heart for sinners broke:

He tied old Nanny to an oak,

And drew the blood at every stroke,

And prayed for heavenly union.

Two others oped their iron jaws,

And waved their children-stealing paws;

There sat their children in gewgaws;

By stinting negroes’ backs and maws,

They kept up heavenly union.

All good from Jack another takes,

And entertains their flirts and rakes,

Who dress as sleek as glossy snakes,

And cram their mouths with sweetened cakes;

And this goes down for union.

Up next: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston

If you liked this, try:

Black Boy, by Richard Wright

The Life Of Olaudah Equiano, by Olaudah Equiano

Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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