Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Chapter 6

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Text courtesy of Project Gutenberg

My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at
the door,--a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had
never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to
her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living.
She was by trade a weaver; and by constant application to her business,
she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and
dehumanizing effects of slavery. I was utterly astonished at her
goodness. I scarcely knew how to behave towards her. She was entirely
unlike any other white woman I had ever seen. I could not approach her
as I was accustomed to approach other white ladies. My early instruction
was all out of place. The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a
quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her. Her favor
was not gained by it; she seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not
deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face.
The meanest slave was put fully at ease in her presence, and none
left without feeling better for having seen her. Her face was made of
heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music.

But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The
fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon
commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence
of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet
accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic
face gave place to that of a demon.

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly
commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she
assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at
this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at
once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other
things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to
read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a nigger an
inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his
master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would _spoil_ the best nigger
in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of
myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever
unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no
value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great
deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These
words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay
slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought.
It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious
things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but
struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most
perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the
black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that
moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just
what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it.
Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind
mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the
merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the
difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and
a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The
very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife
with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince
me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me
the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the
results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he
most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most
hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was
to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he
so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire
me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe
almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly
aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

I had resided but a short time in Baltimore before I observed a marked
difference, in the treatment of slaves, from that which I had witnessed
in the country. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a
slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys
privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is
a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and
check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the
plantation. He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity
of his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave.
Few are willing to incur the odium attaching to the reputation of being
a cruel master; and above all things, they would not be known as not
giving a slave enough to eat. Every city slaveholder is anxious to have
it known of him, that he feeds his slaves well; and it is due to them
to say, that most of them do give their slaves enough to eat. There are,
however, some painful exceptions to this rule. Directly opposite to us,
on Philpot Street, lived Mr. Thomas Hamilton. He owned two slaves. Their
names were Henrietta and Mary. Henrietta was about twenty-two years
of age, Mary was about fourteen; and of all the mangled and emaciated
creatures I ever looked upon, these two were the most so. His heart
must be harder than stone, that could look upon these unmoved. The
head, neck, and shoulders of Mary were literally cut to pieces. I have
frequently felt her head, and found it nearly covered with festering
sores, caused by the lash of her cruel mistress. I do not know that her
master ever whipped her, but I have been an eye-witness to the cruelty
of Mrs. Hamilton. I used to be in Mr. Hamilton's house nearly every day.
Mrs. Hamilton used to sit in a large chair in the middle of the room,
with a heavy cowskin always by her side, and scarce an hour passed
during the day but was marked by the blood of one of these slaves. The
girls seldom passed her without her saying, "Move faster, you _black
gip!_" at the same time giving them a blow with the cowskin over the
head or shoulders, often drawing the blood. She would then say, "Take
that, you _black gip!_" continuing, "If you don't move faster, I'll move
you!" Added to the cruel lashings to which these slaves were subjected,
they were kept nearly half-starved. They seldom knew what it was to eat
a full meal. I have seen Mary contending with the pigs for the offal
thrown into the street. So much was Mary kicked and cut to pieces, that
she was oftener called "_pecked_" than by her name.