Like other slaves, Douglass had no knowledge of his birthday, and while this made him unhappy because he did not see that he should be so different from the white boys who did know their ages (31), his lack of knowledge about his father (or rather, the opinion that his master was his father (31)) placed him in the dangerous category of a potential double relationship to his master (32). The conjecture that his father was his master placed him at risk for “greater hardships … [and] … more to contend with” as his master (32), and all white masters in similar situations, would defer to his wife in selling off his own mulatto children (33) so that she would not be reminded of her husband’s infidelity and, thus, her own shame. This dangerous position included the possibility that Douglass’ own father would have to whip Douglass himself, that his white brothers would have to punish Douglass, and that Douglass faced harsher punishments so that his master / father would not be accused of going against custom by defending his nonwhite children (33). Douglass’ one potential tie to family was a dangerous one, and Douglass undoubtedly learned quickly, once he was out of his grandmother’s house (34) and saw his own aunt regularly beaten until her back was his shreds (33), that he would be judged harsher than his darker co-slaves.
Douglass developed an identity as a child based upon what he saw white children were granted, such as having a birthday and being schooled, especially in reading. While Douglass could do nothing to learn his actual birthdate or the name of his father, he could learn to read. First, he was taught by Mrs. Auld (49-50) and then by tricking the white boys he met in the street (50) and by borrowing the Auld’s son’s spelling books while the son was at school (53). Douglass constructs his identity around that of a white child, but of one who must surreptitiously work towards his goals of being able to read and becoming free. As a result, the reader realizes that not only was Douglass’ childhood the horrid childhood of slave children separated from their mothers before a year old (31) with no monthly allowance because they cannot work in the field (36), but his was a childhood in which he was in constant physical danger due to his potential paternal relationship to his master, the shame that his master’s wife must have felt at knowing her husband was sexually unfaithful, and his own construction of identity as being equal to the learning his Baltimore master forbid him to have. Douglass was willing, from a young age, to do what he believed was necessary for his own survival, including fighting back when attacked by the slave breaker Mr. Covey (68), destroying his forged pass to freedom when he realized he was betrayed (78), and creating a desire to learn in others and then teaching over forty other colored men to read during a Sabbath school he held (73).
While Douglass’ childhood may not be unique, his ability to construct an identity by age twelve (51) that recognized, recoiled, and fought against the inhumanities of slavery for the class of people who less resembled their African ancestors than their white masters (33) does place him in the unique position of constructing his own identity despite what his masters intended.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The Oxford Frederick Douglas Reader, edited by William L. Andrews, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 21-97.