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Frederick Douglass A Reader’s Perspective Essay, Research Paper

The narrative of Frederick Douglass illustrates the life of a slave. He was not an ordinary

slave. Indeed he dreamed of freedom, just as all slaves did, but there was something about

Frederick Douglass that made him different. He dreamed of an education. It was this

education that made him to be different. It was the knowledge that gave him self

awareness that he was a man just as a white man was. It gave him the will to run away

and live on his own. He no longer wanted to subject himself to the punishment of the

overseer. This knowledge brought him the strength to stand up to those who thought

themselves superior to him. It changed his personality and the notion of his own self. In

this paper I will discuss the changing self image, the personality, the instances that reflect

these changes and the point of the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass?s notion of self in the novel revolve around the life that he

lived. If it weren?t for certain aspects of his life, he wouldn?t have thought about himself

as he did. Slavery scarred him just as other slaves. He was treated as property so he felt

himself as property. In him lied no burning desire for something better at an early age. He

never fought or protested. He merely went along with his work hoping that he would not

be subjected to the overseers whip. His notion of self at this time, as I said, was that of a

normal slave – property. All he knew was the slave world. He did not even know the love

of a true family. He quotes, ?I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four

or five times in my life? (pg. 909) His father was a white man, so naturally he never saw

him, since he had African blood in him. Frederick Douglass never had the upbringing of a

loved child. He was never taught that he was special or unique in the world. He just

knew that if he didn?t work hard enough or do what master said, the whip would crack.

This all reflected on his notion of self. Which at the beginning of the story was very low.

Various incidences occurred in Frederick?s life that reflected the view of himself.

One incident mirrors notion of self at the beginning of the story. This was the first

whipping that he ever saw. The first whipping was that of his Aunt Hester. At a young

age he stood at ?the bloodstained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery? (pg. 911) He

watched as she was stripped, tied up, and shredded by the arm of the master. He watched

her blood drip to the floor and heard her heart-rending shrieks. This event ?struck me

with awful force? (pg. 911) and gave added to his own self notion. Slaves obeyed the

rules or faced the consequences.

As different events occurred in his life, his attitude and notion changed. He was

given to a different master. It was here that things dramatically changed. The second

significant event in Frederick?s life came at the young age of seven or eight, when he was

given to Master Hugh and his wife, a distant relative of Captain Anthony his former

master. Here he was treated differently by his new “family.” No longer did he have to fear

the whip from wrong doings or not working hard enough. His primary responsibility was

to take care of their only child, Thomas. Also, Master Hugh?s wife was kind enough to

teach Frederick to read. Her lessons would be short-lived, however, due to Master Hugh?s

firm belief that it would be dangerous to teach a slave to read or write. He said, ?If you

give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his

master? (pg. 923-924) His words motivated Frederick to further his education and

continue to learn however he could. He felt as if some secret lay behind knowledge. So he

read everything he could. Eventually, newspapers and publications such as The

Columbian Orator opened his eyes to the abolitionist movements in the North. It was then

that his self-image changed, and he became aware of himself as more than just black


His self-perspective changed when he tasted his first bit of knowledge. It was then

that his mind opened up and he began to think. He found out that there was more out

there…that there was opportunity out there for himself and his people. He looked at his

own situation and became angry. He became angry with the life he was subject to. He

became mad at the idea of slavery. He also gained pride. This was pride of a human

being. He realized that he himself was a human being, and that his black brothers and

sisters also were human beings. It also gave him agony, because it had given him a view

of his, ?wretched condition, without the remedy.? (pg. 927) This depressed him to the

extent that he wanted to kill himself. But the realization that he was something in the

world, kept him living, and fighting. After this education, his self notion changed so much

that he would actually fight back if a white man came after him. He would no longer be

treated as he had been treated his whole life.

The personality of Frederick Douglass is one that changes throughout the

narrative. At the beginning of the narrative, he had the personality of an unfortunate child

born into the evils of slavery. He depicted everything seen through the eyes of a child

during the early stages of the narrative. Everything remained this way until he became

educated. It was then that the personality began to change, just as his notion of self

changed at that point. He began to change inwardly. His personality seemed to morph

into something different from what it had been. He began to think more maturely and in a

more educated fashion. He seethed from the inside and internally emitted hatred as a

reaction to the evils of slavery. All the while he thought. He thought about his condition,

the condition of others slaves, and of escaping. His esteem was uplifted from the

education, as said previously, and therefore his personality reflected that. He held himself

higher and because of that he changed throughout the narrative. He no longer was like a

child looking at everything, not able to do anything, and naive to the world. Now he was

like fire, burning hotter and hotter, engulfing everything, ready to erupt. The tone

changed after this point as he expressed his hatred of his knowledgeably existence. He

suppressed much of it, but his personality changed. It stayed this way throughout the rest

of the narrative. At times his personality seemed patient. These were the times where he

had to wait for the time to come, when he could then let the fire come out…where he

could let his true personality come out and escape to freedom.

With his relationship to slavery and his personality he related to the reader. He had

the biases of slaves. He depicted everything as he saw or thought. This is not a fault, but

merely the reaction of anyone who would go through such events in his life. Even if

Frederick Douglass tried to write an unbiased narrative, it still is one sided. He relates to

the reader as one who is telling a story about himself. It does not seem that he is trying to

sway anyone, but just telling it as it was for him. He includes the feelings, the details, the

horrors of his life. He writes about how he was treated and the evils of slavery. It

describes the whipping in detail. He tells us of the shrieks of pain and the blood. Also he

tells of the fear of the white man and of punishment. Whenever he tells of a white person

he does not speak very kindly. Even when describes Master Hugh?s wife as, ?a woman of

the kindest heart and finest feelings? (pg. 923) he then turns around and says how she

changed to a woman of, ?harsh and horrid discord? (pg. 923) Of course not all white

men are evil. It seems that he relates by trying to show how in every way slavery is

corrupt as exemplified through the life that he lived and what he experienced. It seems

that nothing good was ever achieved through it. It is when he escapes and is free that he

speaks of good things such as life, work, and abolition. In speaking like this he tells the

reader that there is nothing good in slavery – that only when there is no slavery good

things happen. It is not hard to see such things in his writings. The message is obvious

and because of that people relate.

In my view the autobiography is a depiction of the evils of slavery. That is its

point. It was written by a former slave and therefore contains the perspective of the slave.

When the personality change and the transition of self esteem is seen in the novel, one can

conclude that there are underlying meanings throughout the narrative. Such meanings are

the importance of education, and the clich? of ?ignorance is bliss?. That does not concern

me at all. Of course they are very relative in the story and are linked to very relevant

incidents in the narrative, but they are not essential to the main meaning of the

autobiography. Which is slavery is evil. We did not need this story to know that slavery

was a very dark mark in the history of the United States. We did not need this

autobiography to know that morally, slavery is wrong. What this story did do was make

us see firsthand what went on in the mind of a slave and how they depicted themselves,

and slavery. The autobiography expressed many mixed feelings from Frederick

Douglass?s life, and told his story. The only thing that bothers me is that it was told in

great detail up to his escape and after he escapes the narrative trails off and then ends. In

my opinion Frederick wanted people to read his story and be sympathetic with him and be

outraged by slavery at that time. I think in this sense he did a good job. On the other

hand I think his autobiography is just another story of slavery just as other former slaves?

stories are (for this time period). We know what happened, and we know the stories. I

personally do not hold his autobiography as any great work. To me it is just another

unfortunate ?slave story?. Indeed it moved me but what can I do about it? There isn?t

any slavery in the United States anymore.

In conclusion the notion of Frederick Douglass?s self changes throughout the

story. In such a way his personality changes too. When looked at both one can conclude

that they are intertwined into the incidences that occurred in his life. The first incident

being born into slavery and treated as a slave, as exemplified with the whipping of his

aunt. The other incident was his education. That is when things changed. That is when

the esteem changed as did the personality. These are all very relevant to the story as

Douglass tries to immerse the reader into the world, mind, and life of a slave. To me

though, the point is the entire overlying issue of the story. It is true that these incidences

and transitions make up the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, but to me the

autobiography only holds one main point that was made very clear…slavery is evil.


The Norton Anthology Expanded Edition, Vol 2.

w.w. Norton & Company, New York 1995

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