Douglass & Trauma

In Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative, the early years of his life are filled with severe traumatic experiences. The narrative is straightforward and written in clear terms, which is astonishing given how horrific his childhood was growing up as a slave. In Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography, trauma can be recounted in a resolved manner (250). When Douglass’ mother dies, he is not present for “her death, or burial” (341). Since their relationship was distant, the death of his mother is likened to “the death of a stranger” (341). The lack of familial knowledge and emotion between a slave mother and child was normal, according to Douglass; the mystery surrounding who is father is also important factor in his identity (340). He grows up as an orphan essentially, which is probably why he became such a strong individual, only having himself to rely on to survive.

In Douglass’ account of his aunt’s abuse, the reader understands that this is one case among thousands. When Douglass witnesses Aunt Hester’s brutal beatings, he in turn witnesses the social injustice of being a slave on a on a plantation and having no voice (344). His aunt was beaten constantly to make her submissive; slaves were meant to be controlled bodies used for whatever efficient means necessary. So, when Mr. Auld tells his wife that she shouldn’t teach Douglass how to read, it’s to keep him down, uneducated and unaware of his potential (364). It’s incredibly damaging to realize that not only your physical body, but your mind is meant to be captive and limited.

I also see a reaction against the trauma that slaves endured through their slave songs. Prior to getting their freedom, the use of song can be literally one of the few ways that slaves were able to have a voice. According to Douglass, the songs he heard weren’t always articulate, but the immense amount of “woe” was translated nonetheless: “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart” (349-350).

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