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No Liminal Moment for Frederick Douglass: It's All a Process of Maturation

Frederick Douglass

There is a process of maturation in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, but there never appears to be a liminal moment unless one counts every choice Douglass made since childhood as one in which Douglass chooses to act “in a courageous, risk-taking, adult-like way” (prompt). The liminal model does not work for Douglass’ Narrative because he appears to have known from a young age that he was different. As I discussed in “Frederick Douglass I,” Douglass’ understanding that he had a potential double relationship of slave / son to his master created a physically dangerous situation for him, especially once he saw his aunt repeatedly beaten until the flesh of her back was shredded (33). He enjoyed a “connection” with Daniel Lloyd, who protected Douglass to some extent, and Douglass appears aware, even as a child, of this advantage (44). In addition, between the ages of seven and eight, Douglass made the privileged trip to Baltimore to become a slave in Captain Thomas Auld’s house (45). Douglass relates that he looked for home in places other than with family members (45) for his idea of family had been destroyed before he was old enough to realize who his relatives were, so his longing for Baltimore as life far better than plantation life, as Cousin Tom had explained to him, allowed Douglass to view his new circumstances as young master Thomas’ slave as an improvement and not a separation. “Baltimore,” Douglass says, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity” (47), and he appears to have been aware that this opportunity was fortuitous and rightly earned.

In Baltimore, Douglass learns basic reading from Mrs. Auld until her husband forces her to stop teaching him (47-8). He then learns to trick the white boys he meets on the streets to teach him more reading (50), he borrows young Thomas’ used spelling books (53), and he even leads a Sabbath school where he taught over forty other colored men how to read (73). Douglass’ incessant pursuit of reading, despite its illegality, could be a liminal moment, but it is more likely part of Douglass’ personality and a growth. He was willing to do what he needed to in order to thrive, and he felt that, perhaps as a result of his early association with Daniel Lloyd, that he should be treated, if not in the same manner white children were treated, then better than other slaves because he was going to learn to be better by reading, by writing (53), and by helping others to read.

But Douglass did more than learn to read and write and learn a trade. He tried to use the system for his own benefit, and he physically fought back when attacked. At sixteen, Douglass entered a complaint with his master against the slave breaker Mr. Covey (66), and then when Covey attacked him, Douglass fought back (68). Douglass also realized the white masters’ tricks for keeping slaves happy, such as allowing slaves a holiday on which anyone who worked or did not get drunk was viewed askance (70). Douglass realized this trick of allowing slaves to release pressure so as to prevent violence and condemned the practice (71). His awareness at a young age of the systems of oppression (not being taught to read, being encouraged to become a drunken fool when on a rare holiday) indicate that Douglass matured in stages but that he was too aware of the system and his own abilities to ever have that liminal moment. Douglass’ actions are all steps in his ultimate goal of becoming his own master. He was throughout his life aware of what it took to always act “in a courageous, risk-taking, adult-like way”, a way of viewing life in concert with his construction of his own identity as of one deserving the same rights as other (white) boys.

Work Cited

Childree, Heather D. “Frederick Douglass I.” ENG 551: African American Rhetoric Discussion Post, Arizona State University, 23 Aug. 2016.

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.

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