Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Chapter 1 Summary
Autobiographies tend to start with the details of your birth, the names of your parents, and that sort of thing. The trouble is that Douglass was born a slave, so he doesn't have much to work with. He doesn't know his parents or his birthday.
He's heard that his father was a white man, perhaps even his master, but he has no way of finding out for sure. He doesn't seem interested in finding out (and why would he if his father was a rapist?).
He has met his mother – all of four or five times. She would walk twelve miles from the neighboring plantation to see him, though always at night so she could walk back and be ready to work by dawn.
When his mother died he was not allowed to go to her burial. This does seem to bother him, for some strange reason.
Douglass has no idea when his birthday is, or even what year it was. This is pretty common for slaves. When Douglass was an older man, by the way, he adopted February 14 as his birthday. He picked Valentine's Day, he said, because his mother had called him her "little Valentine."
Douglass likes to tell us about his own life in order to depict slave life as a whole. Talking about his own parents is a way of showing how slavery prevents slaves from ever having normal families. For example, slave children unlucky enough to have their white masters as fathers would get whipped by their own fathers and brothers and were often sold to strangers to appease the jealousy of their father's white wife.
Douglass predicts that so much interbreeding between slaves and masters will disprove the argument that slavery is justified by God's curse on Noah's son Ham, since before long, most slaves will be descended from both white and black parents. (You can learn more about the Curse of Ham here.)
Douglass remembers watching his master whip his Aunt Hester. He describes the blood and the insane fury of the beating in gruesome detail. You can tell how traumatic the event was by the way he describes it, giving us a picture through the eyes of a horrified child too innocent to understand what was happening.
This event was a turning point for Douglass, the end of his innocence. As a much older writer, Douglass thinks back to the whipping and wonders whether there might have been something sexual in the way the overseer stripped his Aunt Hester naked before he whipped her. Her crime had been spending time with a slave from another plantation, and the master seems a little jealous.