The theme of freedom and its acquisition is a key one for all African-American literature. This is due to the cultural trauma that slavery inflicted on the entire black population, taking away the human status of slaves and turning them into victims deprived of the power of speech and thought. Therefore, African Americans needed to reinterpret the past in order to rebuild their collective identity. The first such attempts in literature were the narratives of slaves. These are autobiographical narratives told to white copy editors or written by escaped or freed slaves themselves. Literary critics consider the Narrative by Frederick Douglass to be the standard of the genre, in which the writer shows the way from slavery to freedom. In his work The Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, which belongs to the best examples of the genre of “slave narratives”, F. Douglass talks about how, despite slavery, he managed to build and preserve inner freedom. Even in his early childhood, Frederick found differences in himself from other slaves. He was sure that slavery would not be his permanent lot in life, “the living word of faith and the spirit of hope never left him” (Douglass 27). Slaves were given only a few hours to sleep, and constant punishments for the slightest offense, which Mr. Covey easily found.
However, Frederick did not lose his spiritual strength redefining his subsequent behavior even during a life of this unbearable work. When Mr. Covey once again was going to flog him for an offense in which, as Frederick believed, he was innocent, the young man began to fight and, not allowing himself to be flogged, prevailed. This social situation has finally consolidated in him the idea of his own freedom. His fight with Covey and a failed spanking leads to the acquisition of a person’s identity, exit from hell and enter the path to freedom. After the first escape, Frederick “was put on board the sloop, carried to Baltimore” (Douglass 8). Frederick’s master was forced to send the young man back to Baltimore, because the other slave owners were strongly opposed to the main conspirator and could have killed him.
Upon arrival, the young man was sent to learn a craft – caulking and tarring ships. Frederick was able to use this new social situation to his advantage. He began to look for work himself, sign contracts, earn good money. However, this did not change his identity as a slave in the eyes of his master, did not lead him to freedom. The owner still considered himself entitled to take the entire salary of the young man, treated Frederick as his property and, accordingly, had power over him.
Therefore, despite the improvement of living conditions, and the appearance of friends among the slaves, Frederick understood that he was still not free, so he decided to escape. He remained a slave only in the eyes of the slaveholders, he did not identify himself with this social group and strove for freedom with all his might. Realizing that, remaining a slave, he could lose all advantages at any moment at the behest of the master, Frederick nevertheless decided to escape a second time. The escape was successful: the young man managed to get to New York and find the desired freedom there.
From New York, Frederick writes to his betrothed, who, reunited with him in this city, immediately becomes his wife. The author strongly emphasizes the legitimate nature of the entire ceremony and even gives the full text of the marriage certificate. This document is another component of his freedom, confirming his independence and solvency as a person. This is due to the fact that when slaves got married, most often no ceremonies were held, and even if in rare cases they were performed, the owners could annul the marriage at one moment.
In a new place, the young head of the family takes on any, even the hardest work. He feels at the same time the happiest person. Working for himself, his family confirms his status as a person, and not someone else’s property, and therefore causes feelings of freedom. In New Bedford, Frederick meets runaway and free blacks and sees that here, in a different social situation, they are much bolder than he expected. They are ready to protect each other from slave hunters, no matter what it takes. As one of them, Frederick could not help but think about freedom not only for himself, but also for his fellow prisoners. One day he was asked to speak at one of the meetings for the abolition of slavery, which he did. Since then, he has been engaged exclusively in abolitionist activities, speaking at various meetings and advocating for the abolition of slavery.
Thus, Frederick Douglass in his narrative shows the path that he went from a slave. He grew into a person who is endowed with additional hypostases in freedom – the head of the family, a fighter for the abolition of slavery, a writer. And the book became the documentary confirmation that reinforces the legitimacy of such self-description.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. The Boston Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.