Frederick Douglass, Child Life


I was born in what is called Tuckahoe, on the eastern shore of Maryland, a worn-out, desolate, sandy region. Decay and ruin are everywhere visible, and the thin population of the place would have quitted it long ago, but for the Choptauk River, which runs through, from which they take abundance of shad and herring, and plenty of fever and ague. My first experience of life began in the family of my grandparents. The house was built of logs, clay, and straw. A few rough fence-rails thrown loosely over the rafters answered the purpose of floors, ceilings, and bedsteads. It was a long time before I learned that this house was not my grandparents', but belonged to a mysterious personage who was spoken of as "Old Master"; nay, that my grandmother and her children and grandchildren, myself among them, all belonged to this dreadful personage, who would only suffer me to live a few years with my grandmother, and when I was big enough would carry me off to work on his plantation.

The absolute power of this distant Old Master had touched my young spirit with but the point of its cold cruel iron, yet it left me something to brood over. The thought of being separated from my grandmother, seldom or never to see her again, haunted me. I dreaded the idea of going to live with that strange Old Master whose name I never heard mentioned with affection, but always with fear. My grandmother! my grandmother! and the little hut and the joyous circle under her care, but especially she, who made us sorry when she left us but for an hour, and glad on her return,—how could we leave her and the good old home!

But the sorrows of childhood, like the pleasures of after-life, are transient. The first seven or eight years of the slave-boy's life are as full of content as those of the most favored white children of the slaveholder. The slave-boy escapes many troubles which vex his white brother. He is never lectured for improprieties of behavior. He is never chided for handling his little knife and fork improperly or awkwardly, for he uses none. He is never scolded for soiling the table-cloth, for he takes his meals on the clay floor. He never has the misfortune, in his games or sports, of soiling or tearing his clothes, for he has almost none to soil or tear. He is never expected to act like a nice little gentleman, for he is only a rude little slave.

Thus, freed from all restraint, the slave-boy can be, in his life and conduct, a genuine boy, doing whatever his boyish nature suggests; enacting, by turns, all the strange antics and freaks of horses, dogs, pigs, and barn-door fowls, without in any manner compromising his dignity or incurring reproach of any sort. He literally runs wild; has no pretty little verses to learn in the nursery; no nice little speeches to make for aunts, uncles, or cousins, to show how smart he is; and, if he can only manage to keep out of the way of the heavy feet and fists of the older slave-boys, he may trot on, in his joyous and roguish tricks, as happy as any little heathen under the palm-trees of Africa.

To be sure, he is occasionally reminded, when he stumbles in the way of his master,—and this he early learns to avoid,—that he is eating his white bread, and that he will be made to see sights by and by. The threat is soon forgotten, the shadow soon passes, and our sable boy continues to roll in the dust, or play in the mud, as best suits him, and in the veriest freedom. If he feels uncomfortable, from mud or from dust, the coast is clear; he can plunge into the river or the pond, without the ceremony of undressing or the fear of wetting his clothes; his little tow-linen shirt—for that is all he has on—is easily dried; and it needed washing as much as did his skin. His food is of the coarsest kind, consisting for the most part of corn-meal mush, which often finds its way from the wooden tray to his mouth in an oyster-shell. His days, when the weather is warm, are spent in the pure, open air and in the bright sunshine. He eats no candies; gets no lumps of loaf-sugar; always relishes his food; cries but little, for nobody cares for his crying; learns to esteem his bruises but slight, because others so think them.

In a word, he is, for the most part of the first eight years of his life, a spirited, joyous, uproarious, and happy boy, upon whom troubles fall only like water on a duck's back. And such a boy, so far as I can now remember, was the boy whose life in slavery I am now telling.

I gradually learned that the plantation of Old Master was on the river Wye, twelve miles from Tuckahoe. About this place and about that queer Old Master, who must be something more than man and something worse than an angel, I was eager to know all that could be known. Unhappily, all that I found out only increased my dread of being carried thither. The fact is, such was my dread of leaving the little cabin, that I wished to remain little forever; for I knew, the taller I grew, the shorter my stay. The old cabin, with its rail floor and rail bedsteads up stairs, and its clay floor down stairs, and its dirt chimney and windowless sides, and that most curious piece of workmanship of all the rest, the ladder stairway, and the hole curiously dug in front of the fireplace, beneath which grandmammy placed the sweet potatoes to keep them from the frost, was MY HOME,—the only home I ever had; and I loved it, and all connected with it. The old fences around it, and the stumps in the edge of the woods near it, and the squirrels that ran, skipped, and played upon them, were objects of interest and affection. There, too, right at the side of the hut, stood the old well, with its stately and skyward-pointing beam, so aptly placed between the limbs of what had once been a tree, and so nicely balanced, that I could move it up and down with only one hand, and could get a drink myself without calling for help. Where else in the world could such a well be found, and where could such another home be met with? Down in a little valley, not far from grandmamma's cabin, stood a mill, where the people came often, in large numbers, to get their corn ground. It was a water-mill; and I never shall be able to tell the many things thought and felt while I sat on the bank and watched that mill, and the turning of its ponderous wheel. The mill-pond, too, had its charms; and with my pin-hook and thread line I could get nibbles, if I could catch no fish. But, in all my sports and plays, and in spite of them, there would, occasionally, come the painful foreboding that I was not long to remain there, and that I must soon be called away to the home of Old Master.

I was A SLAVE,—born a slave; and though the fact was strange to me, it conveyed to my mind a sense of my entire dependence on the will of somebody I had never seen; and, from some cause or other, I had been made to fear this Somebody above all else on earth. Born for another's benefit, as the firstling of the cabin flock I was soon to be selected as a meet offering to the fearful and inexorable Old Master, whose huge image on so many occasions haunted my childhood's imagination. When the time of my departure was decided upon, my grandmother, knowing my fears, and in pity for them, kindly kept me ignorant of the dreaded event about to happen. Up to the morning (a beautiful summer morning) when we were to start, and, indeed, during the whole journey,—a journey which, child as I was, I remember as well as if it were yesterday,—she kept the sad fact hidden from me. This reserve was necessary, for, could I have known all, I should have given grandmother some trouble in getting me started. As it was, I was helpless, and she—dear woman!—led me along by the hand, resisting, with the reserve and solemnity of a priestess, all my inquiring looks to the last.

The distance from Tuckahoe to Wye River, where Old Master lived, was full twelve miles, and the walk was quite a severe test of the endurance of my young legs. The journey would have proved too hard for me, but that my dear old grandmother—blessings on her memory!—afforded occasional relief by "toting" me on her shoulder. My grandmother, though old in years,—as was evident from more than one gray hair, which peeped from between the ample and graceful folds of her newly-ironed bandanna turban,—was marvellously straight in figure, elastic, and muscular. I seemed hardly to be a burden to her. She would have "toted" me farther, but that I felt myself too much of a man to allow it, and insisted on walking. Releasing dear grandmamma from carrying me did not make me altogether independent of her, when we happened to pass through portions of the sombre woods which lay between Tuckahoe and Wye River. She often found me increasing the energy of my grip, and holding her clothing, lest something should come out of the woods and eat me up. Several old logs and stumps imposed upon me, and got themselves taken for wild beasts. I could see their legs, eyes, and ears till I got close enough to them to know that the eyes were knots, washed white with rain, and the legs were broken boughs, and the ears only fungous growths on the bark.

As the day went on the heat grew; and it was not until the afternoon that we reached the much-dreaded end of the journey. I found myself in the midst of a group of children of many colors,—black, brown, copper-colored, and nearly white. I had not seen so many children before. Great houses loomed up in different directions, and a great many men and women were at work in the fields. All this hurry, noise, and singing was very different from the stillness of Tuckahoe. As a new-comer, I was an object of special interest; and, after laughing and yelling around me, and playing all sorts of wild tricks, the children asked me to go out and play with them. This I refused to do, preferring to stay with grandmamma. I could not help feeling that our being there boded no good to me. Grandmamma looked sad. She was soon to lose another object of affection, as she had lost many before. I knew she was unhappy, and the shadow fell on me, though I knew not the cause.

All suspense, however, must have an end, and the end of mine was at hand. Affectionately patting me on the head, and telling me to be a good boy, grandmamma bade me to go and play with the little children. "They are kin to you," said she; "go and play with them." Among a number of cousins were Phil, Tom, Steve, and Jerry, Nance and Betty.

Grandmother pointed out my brother and sisters who stood in the group. I had never seen brother nor sisters before; and though I had sometimes heard of them, and felt a curious interest in them, I really did not understand what they were to me, or I to them. We were brothers and sisters, but what of that? Why should they be attached to me, or I to them? Brothers and sisters we were by blood, but slavery had made us strangers. I heard the words "brother" and "sisters," and knew they must mean something; but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning. The experience through which I was passing, they had passed through before. They had already learned the mysteries of Old Master's home, and they seemed to look upon me with a certain degree of compassion; but my heart clave to my grandmother. Think it not strange that so little sympathy of feeling existed between us. The conditions of brotherly and sisterly feeling were wanting; we had never nestled and played together. My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had many children, but NO FAMILY! The domestic hearth, with its holy lessons and precious endearments, is abolished in the case of a slave-mother and her children. "Little children, love one another," are words seldom heard in a slave-cabin.

I really wanted to play with my brother and sisters, but they were strangers to me, and I was full of fear that grandmother might leave without taking me with her. Entreated to do so, however, and that, too, by my dear grandmother, I went to the back part of the house, to play with them and the other children. Play, however, I did not, but stood with my back against the wall, witnessing the mirth of the others. At last, while standing there, one of the children, who had been in the kitchen, ran up to me, in a sort of roguish glee, exclaiming, "Fed, Fed! grandmammy gone! grandmammy gone!" I could not believe it; yet, fearing the worst, I ran into the kitchen, to see for myself, and found it even so. Grandmamma had indeed gone, and was now far away, clean out of sight. I need not tell all that happened now. Almost heartbroken at the discovery, I fell upon the ground, and wept a boy's bitter tears, refusing to be comforted.