Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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Frederick Douglass

FREDERICK DOUGLASS was born into slavery in February 1818 on a plantation in Maryland. The exact date of his birth and the identity of his father were never known to him. Though Douglass knew his mother, Harriet Bailey, he had little contact with her. He eluded the demands of slavery and lived in relative happiness with his maternal grandmother Betsey Bailey until 1824, when he was forced by his master Aaron Anthony to serve the Lloyd family, from whom Anthony rented a farm. On that day, he claims, his childhood ended. Douglass was introduced to the horrors of slavery during this period, as well as the ostentatious wealth of the Lloyd family. Douglass was the companion of Colonel Lloyd's son, Daniel, until 1826 when he was sent to Baltimore to serve the Auld family, in-laws of Aaron Anthony, where he became the companion of the Auld's newborn son, Thomas. Douglass also received the tutelage of Sophia Auld, who began to teach him how to read and write until forbidden to do so by her husband.

From 1827 to 1832 Douglass, who became the property of Thomas Auld upon the death of Aaron Anthony in 1826, remained with Hugh and Sophia Auld. During this time he continued to educate himself, met free blacks, and read abolitionist newspapers. He also helplessly watched the Aulds separate his family, selling many members south. Thomas Auld, discouraged by Douglass's worsening disposition, sent him to a slave breaker named Edward Covey. Douglass endured the worst of slavery—the fields and the whip—until he could stand no more and wrestled Covey for his dignity. His will strengthened by the victory over Covey, Douglass planned an escape. The escape, however, was discovered, and Douglass was returned to the Aulds.

From 1836 to 1838 Douglass worked as an apprentice ship caulker. His life around the docks brought him into contact with the outside world again, renewing his hope for freedom. On September 3, 1838, Douglass, in the guise of a sailor, boarded a train and rode without incident to the free states. Shortly thereafter, on September 15, he married Anna Murray, a free black


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