Frederick Douglass Narrative Analysis

The Nature of Slavery


Frederick Douglass’s story “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” explained the nature of slavery and advocated for the then abolition of the slave trade during the 1800s. Other contemporary writers such as Orlando Patterson in “Slavery and Social Death” and Kwame Appiah in “What’s Wrong with Slavery?” have also tackled the nature of slavery using different angles. The paper summarizes Douglass’s narrative and takes the position that even though Appiah and Patterson in their respective works use different approaches from Douglass’s to explain the nature of slavery, they both to varying degrees contribute to the understanding of some aspects of Douglass’s narrative.

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative

In the story, Douglass tells the tale of his struggles as a slave from a boy to a man and to his liberation from slavery. Douglass was born into slavery in Massachusetts to a slave woman. His father was white and a slave owner and, therefore, did not recognize the boy as one of his children. A child born to a slave mother automatically became a slave (Zack 67). As it was common in Massachusetts, slave children were separated from their parents and became socially alienated.

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The lives of all slaves belonged to their master. Douglass had only two masters during his period of slavery, Captain Anthony and later on Mr. Hugh. He, just like the rest of the slaves, was, however, under the care of several overseers who worked for his masters. It was in the hands of the supervisors that Douglass experienced the brutalizing nature of slavery. The slaves would only be given provisions once a month consisting of several pounds of pork or fish of a similar amount, and a bag of cornmeal (Douglass 10). They faced torture from the hands of their overseers. Douglass on several occasions described the beating slaves endured from their overseers mostly in the forms of whippings. However, the slaves did not just face torture but also death (Douglass 22). Douglass described one scenario where a slave, Mr. Demby, was shot in the head by Mr. Gore, an overseer, as a punishment for running away while the latter was whipping the former.

Douglass found the chance to improve his life when he left for Baltimore as a slave for his master’s son-in-law. While in Baltimore, he learned how to read first from Mrs. Auld, his master’s wife, and later through trickery. Douglass befriended the poor white children who taught him how to read in return for him giving them bread (Douglass 38). He became passionate about books, and articles like Sheridan’s on the liberation of Catholics enabled him to plant emancipation roots in his brain. Douglass used his intelligence for convincing his second owner, Mr. Hugh, to allow him to work for other people and, after that, pay Mr. Hugh three dollars at the end of every week (Douglass103). His satisfaction at gainful employment inspired him to plan and successfully run away to New York where he became emancipated in 1838. In New York, Douglas met Mr. David Ruggles, an abolitionist, who helped him settle and find a job in New Bedford. He started attending anti-slavery conventions where with time he became a permanent fixture on anti-slavery rallies.

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Orlando Patterson’s Nature of Slavery in “Slavery and Social Death”

Patterson uses a different approach in explaining the nature and constituent elements of slavery. He majors his argument on slavery being the cause of the social death of slaves (Bennett 52). Patterson believed that the reason slavery thrived was that the slave faced alienation from other people in his/her life, he/she had to depend on his/her master for survival (Patterson 1). It is from this angle of social isolation that Patterson relates to Douglass’s narrative on slavery. According to Patterson, upon a slave master paying for a slave, he was entitled to the slave’s life. The latter, therefore, lacked any social existence apart from his/her master (Patterson 4). The slave became deprived of all rights, and he/she ceased to belong legitimately to himself/herself. Douglass just like Patterson believed that the nature of slavery was one that alienated the slaves from the world. These people were denied any existence to their parents and families. Douglass uses his example to explain how he was alienated from his mother when he was an infant. It was a common custom in his town in Massachusetts that upon children of slave mothers reached a year, they were separated from their parents. The mothers were then hired out in some other farms to work as slaves (Douglass 2). Douglass believed that the alienation was meant to destroy the affection between mother and child and to ensure that each party stayed loyal to their masters without any distractions.

Patterson also asserts that the nature of slavery was one that involved violence (Park 3). He posited that masters did not just use whipping as a form of punishment. To them, it was a conscious device to impress upon the slaves about their social role (Patterson 3). In essence, violence acted as a crucial form of social control. His views on the nature of slavery involving violence contribute to an understanding of the same kind of violence described by Douglass in his narrative. Douglass’s story is full of experiences of violence the slaves encountered from their masters. In one instance when demonstrating the level of violence the slaves endured, Douglass describes the case of a lady slave who was whipped by an overseer, Mr. Severe, until her body was full of cuts and her blood running (Douglass 11). The whole time that Mr. Severe was whipping the lady, her children were crying and pleading for their mother’s release. Therefore, Patterson influences a person’s understanding of Douglass’s narrative as they both expose the nature of slavery as one of social control, alienation, and violence.

Kwame Appiah’s Nature of Slavery in “What’s Wrong with Slavery?”

Appiah uses a different approach from Douglass in explaining the nature of slavery. He gives a general account of slavery during the period of the Asante Kingdom in Ghana that is slightly different from that of the American slaves, while Douglass’s approach is more of a universal account of slavery, experienced by most slaves around the world. For example, Douglass talks of how slaves were considered possessions of a slave owner. In one instance, Douglas was sent from Baltimore to return to Massachusetts upon the passing of his master. He and the other slaves were to be valued as their master’s properties before being divided among his heirs. Douglass described how men were valued equally with horses, women with cattle and children with pigs (Douglass 450. Unlike the slaves in Douglass’s narrative, the slaves in the Asante Kingdom were treated in a more humane manner (Appiah 251). They were not possessions and could not be transferred from master to master without their consent.

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Even with his different approach to the nature of slavery, Appiah, to some extent, contributes to understanding Douglass’s narrative. He does that by agreeing with Douglass on the adverse effects of slavery. According to Appiah, slavery imposes heteronomy on people. It allows slave owners to dictate the entire lives of their slaves without giving regards to their concerns. Such treatment denies slaves the social basis of respect and, consequently, undermines the slaves’ belief in the ability to run their lives (Appiah 257). It is the reason why most slaves even after emancipation still lacked the social recognition to manage their lives. Douglass faced such a situation upon his emancipation in New York. He describes how the feeling of freedom was soon overwhelmed by that of loneliness and a lack of direction. Thankfully he met Mr. Ruggles, who assisted him to find a job and learnt to live life as a free man (Douglass 109). However, not all slaves were usually as lucky as Douglass. For such individuals, the law could not command respect for them or grant them self-respect. It also could not guarantee that these people who were only used to slavery would manage a free life (Gross 548). Appiah, therefore, advises that emancipation is just the beginning of freedom but does not guarantee former slaves a comfortable life. He believes that, perhaps, the only way to avoid these long-term adverse effects of slavery is to ensure slavery does not occur in the first place.


Douglass exposes the nature of slavery as one of violence, suffering, death, and loss of dignity. He was, however, lucky to be able to emancipate himself in the end. Patterson, in his approach to the nature of slavery as the source of social alienation of slaves, agreed with Douglass that slaves were alienated from family and friends as a form of social control by their masters. He also agreed with Douglass that slavery was violent in nature. On his part, Appiah, while explaining the general account of slavery in Ghana, agreed with Douglas that the adverse effects of slavery were forever entrenched in a former slave’s mind even after emancipation. In their varying ways, both Patterson and Appiah contribute to the understanding of Douglass’s narrative.

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