Study Guide

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Family

By Frederick Douglass


Chapter 1
Frederick Douglass

Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with the much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger. (1.4)

Is there any bond stronger than the one between mother and child? But Douglass barely spends any time with his mother; in fact, he tells us that he never saw her in the daylight. His mother is such a stranger that he doesn't feel any great loss when she dies. Douglass wants us to see that slavery doesn't just take people away from their families; it prevents them from even having families in the first place.

Chapter 3
Frederick Douglass

The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. (3.6)

In telling us that slaves often had to lie in order to protect themselves, Douglass might seem to be criticizing those who lacked his courage to stand up for what was right, no matter what the consequences. But he wants to assure us that this doesn't make these slaves any less part of the human family; in fact, it is exactly this urge for self-preservation that makes them a part of the human family.

He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment's warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death. (3.5)

The greatest fear of slaves was not death, but separation from their families. It could happen in an instant, with no warning, and for no reason. Douglass is saying that when a slave's master decides to send him somewhere else, it's just as impossible to do anything about it as death itself.

Chapter 5
Frederick Douglass

The ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case. I found no severe trial in my departure. My home was charmless; it was not home to me; on parting from it, I could not feel that I was leaving any thing which I could have enjoyed by staying. My mother was dead, my grandmother lived far off, so that I seldom saw her. I had two sisters and one brother, that lived in the same house with me; but the early separation of us from our mother had well nigh blotted the fact of our relationship from our memories. I looked for home elsewhere, and was confident of finding none which I should relish less than the one which I was leaving. If, however, I found in my new home hardship, hunger, whipping, and nakedness, I had the consolation that I should not have escaped any one of them by staying. (5.6)

Just as he feels emotionless when his mother dies, Douglass doesn't really mind being sent away from the only home he has ever known. After all, it was never really a home for him anyway, so he determines to look for a real home somewhere else. In a way, Douglass might be provoking us to think about what a home really is; perhaps it's more than just the place where we live.

Chapter 7
Frederick Douglass

I lived in Master Hugh's family about seven years. (7.1)

Even though Douglass lives as a part of Master Hugh's family, he is in it without being of it. Slaves are inside the household without fully being family members.

Frederick Douglass

The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,--sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers,--leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. (Appendix.1)

In the appendix, Douglass shows his rage at religious hypocrites who preach one thing then do the complete opposite. His main example is all the religious people who preach sermons about the importance of family, then rip apart the families of the slaves they own.