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Chapter 3

_Parentage_

MY FATHER SHROUDED IN MYSTERY--MY MOTHER--HER PERSONAL
APPEARANCE--INTERFERENCE OF SLAVERY WITH THE NATURAL AFFECTIONS
OF MOTHER AND CHILDREN--SITUATION OF MY MOTHER--HER NIGHTLY
VISITS TO HER BOY--STRIKING INCIDENT--HER DEATH--HER PLACE OF
BURIAL.


If the reader will now be kind enough to allow me time to grow
bigger, and afford me an opportunity for my experience to become
greater, I will tell him something, by-and-by, of slave life, as
I saw, felt, and heard it, on Col. Edward Lloyd's plantation, and
at the house of old master, where I had now, despite of myself,
most suddenly, but not unexpectedly, been dropped. Meanwhile, I
will redeem my promise to say something more of my dear mother.

I say nothing of _father_, for he is shrouded in a mystery I have
never been able to penetrate. Slavery does away with fathers, as
it does away with families. Slavery has no use for either
fathers or families, and its laws do not recognize their
existence in the social arrangements of the plantation. When
they _do_ exist, they are not the outgrowths of slavery, but are
antagonistic to that system. The order of civilization is
reversed here. The name of the child is not expected to be that
of its father, and his condition does not necessarily affect that
of the child. He may be the slave of Mr. Tilgman; and his child,
when born, may be the slave of Mr. Gross. He may be a _freeman;_
and yet his child may be a _chattel_. He may be white, glorying
in the purity of his Anglo-<40>Saxon blood; and his child may be
ranked with the blackest slaves. Indeed, he _may_ be, and often
_is_, master and father to the same child. He can be father
without being a husband, and may sell his child without incurring
reproach, if the child be by a woman in whose veins courses one
thirty-second part of African blood. My father was a white man,
or nearly white. It was sometimes whispered that my master was
my father.

But to return, or rather, to begin. My knowledge of my mother is
very scanty, but very distinct. Her personal appearance and
bearing are ineffaceably stamped upon my memory. She was tall,
and finely proportioned; of deep black, glossy complexion; had
regular features, and, among the other slaves, was remarkably
sedate in her manners. There is in _Prichard's Natural History
of Man_, the head of a figure--on page 157--the features of which
so resemble those of my mother, that I often recur to it with
something of the feeling which I suppose others experience when
looking upon the pictures of dear departed ones.

Yet I cannot say that I was very deeply attached to my mother;
certainly not so deeply as I should have been had our relations
in childhood been different. We were separated, according to the
common custom, when I was but an infant, and, of course, before I
knew my mother from any one else.

The germs of affection with which the Almighty, in his wisdom and
mercy, arms the hopeless infant against the ills and vicissitudes
of his lot, had been directed in their growth toward that loving
old grandmother, whose gentle hand and kind deportment it was in
the first effort of my infantile understanding to comprehend and
appreciate. Accordingly, the tenderest affection which a
beneficent Father allows, as a partial compensation to the mother
for the pains and lacerations of her heart, incident to the
maternal relation, was, in my case, diverted from its true and
natural object, by the envious, greedy, and treacherous hand of
slavery. The slave-mother can be spared long enough from <41 MY
MOTHER>the field to endure all the bitterness of a mother's
anguish, when it adds another name to a master's ledger, but
_not_ long enough to receive the joyous reward afforded by the
intelligent smiles of her child. I never think of this terrible
interference of slavery with my infantile affections, and its
diverting them from their natural course, without feelings to
which I can give no adequate expression.

I do not remember to have seen my mother at my grandmother's at
any time. I remember her only in her visits to me at Col.
Lloyd's plantation, and in the kitchen of my old master. Her
visits to me there were few in number, brief in duration, and
mostly made in the night. The pains she took, and the toil she
endured, to see me, tells me that a true mother's heart was hers,
and that slavery had difficulty in paralyzing it with unmotherly
indifference.

My mother was hired out to a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve
miles from old master's, and, being a field hand, she seldom had
leisure, by day, for the performance of the journey. The nights
and the distance were both obstacles to her visits. She was
obliged to walk, unless chance flung into her way an opportunity
to ride; and the latter was sometimes her good luck. But she
always had to walk one way or the other. It was a greater luxury
than slavery could afford, to allow a black slave-mother a horse
or a mule, upon which to travel twenty-four miles, when she could
walk the distance. Besides, it is deemed a foolish whim for a
slave-mother to manifest concern to see her children, and, in one
point of view, the case is made out--she can do nothing for them.
She has no control over them; the master is even more than the
mother, in all matters touching the fate of her child. Why,
then, should she give herself any concern? She has no
responsibility. Such is the reasoning, and such the practice.
The iron rule of the plantation, always passionately and
violently enforced in that neighborhood, makes flogging the
penalty of <42>failing to be in the field before sunrise in the
morning, unless special permission be given to the absenting
slave. "I went to see my child," is no excuse to the ear or
heart of the overseer.

One of the visits of my mother to me, while at Col. Lloyd's, I
remember very vividly, as affording a bright gleam of a mother's
love, and the earnestness of a mother's care.

"I had on that day offended "Aunt Katy," (called "Aunt" by way of
respect,) the cook of old master's establishment. I do not now
remember the nature of my offense in this instance, for my
offenses were numerous in that quarter, greatly depending,
however, upon the mood of Aunt Katy, as to their heinousness; but
she had adopted, that day, her favorite mode of punishing me,
namely, making me go without food all day--that is, from after
breakfast. The first hour or two after dinner, I succeeded
pretty well in keeping up my spirits; but though I made an
excellent stand against the foe, and fought bravely during the
afternoon, I knew I must be conquered at last, unless I got the
accustomed reenforcement of a slice of corn bread, at sundown.
Sundown came, but _no bread_, and, in its stead, their came the
threat, with a scowl well suited to its terrible import, that she
"meant to _starve the life out of me!"_ Brandishing her knife,
she chopped off the heavy slices for the other children, and put
the loaf away, muttering, all the while, her savage designs upon
myself. Against this disappointment, for I was expecting that
her heart would relent at last, I made an extra effort to
maintain my dignity; but when I saw all the other children around
me with merry and satisfied faces, I could stand it no longer. I
went out behind the house, and cried like a fine fellow! When
tired of this, I returned to the kitchen, sat by the fire, and
brooded over my hard lot. I was too hungry to sleep. While I
sat in the corner, I caught sight of an ear of Indian corn on an
upper shelf of the kitchen. I watched my chance, and got it,
and, shelling off a few grains, I put it back again. The grains
in my hand, I quickly put in some ashes, and covered them with
embers, to roast them. All this I <43 "AUNT KATY">did at the
risk of getting a brutual thumping, for Aunt Katy could beat, as
well as starve me. My corn was not long in roasting, and, with
my keen appetite, it did not matter even if the grains were not
exactly done. I eagerly pulled them out, and placed them on my
stool, in a clever little pile. Just as I began to help myself
to my very dry meal, in came my dear mother. And now, dear
reader, a scene occurred which was altogether worth beholding,
and to me it was instructive as well as interesting. The
friendless and hungry boy, in his extremest need--and when he did
not dare to look for succor--found himself in the strong,
protecting arms of a mother; a mother who was, at the moment
(being endowed with high powers of manner as well as matter) more
than a match for all his enemies. I shall never forget the
indescribable expression of her countenance, when I told her that
I had had no food since morning; and that Aunt Katy said she
"meant to starve the life out of me." There was pity in her
glance at me, and a fiery indignation at Aunt Katy at the same
time; and, while she took the corn from me, and gave me a large
ginger cake, in its stead, she read Aunt Katy a lecture which she
never forgot. My mother threatened her with complaining to old
master in my behalf; for the latter, though harsh and cruel
himself, at times, did not sanction the meanness, injustice,
partiality and oppressions enacted by Aunt Katy in the kitchen.
That night I learned the fact, that I was, not only a child, but
_somebody's_ child. The "sweet cake" my mother gave me was in
the shape of a heart, with a rich, dark ring glazed upon the edge
of it. I was victorious, and well off for the moment; prouder,
on my mother's knee, than a king upon his throne. But my triumph
was short. I dropped off to sleep, and waked in the morning only
to find my mother gone, and myself left at the mercy of the sable
virago, dominant in my old master's kitchen, whose fiery wrath
was my constant dread.

I do not remember to have seen my mother after this occurrence.
Death soon ended the little communication that had <44>existed
between us; and with it, I believe, a life judging from her
weary, sad, down-cast countenance and mute demeanor--full of
heartfelt sorrow. I was not allowed to visit her during any part
of her long illness; nor did I see her for a long time before she
was taken ill and died. The heartless and ghastly form of
_slavery_ rises between mother and child, even at the bed of
death. The mother, at the verge of the grave, may not gather her
children, to impart to them her holy admonitions, and invoke for
them her dying benediction. The bond-woman lives as a slave, and
is left to die as a beast; often with fewer attentions than are
paid to a favorite horse. Scenes of sacred tenderness, around
the death-bed, never forgotten, and which often arrest the
vicious and confirm the virtuous during life, must be looked for
among the free, though they sometimes occur among the slaves. It
has been a life-long, standing grief to me, that I knew so little
of my mother; and that I was so early separated from her. The
counsels of her love must have been beneficial to me. The side
view of her face is imaged on my memory, and I take few steps in
life, without feeling her presence; but the image is mute, and I
have no striking words of her's treasured up.

I learned, after my mother's death, that she could read, and that
she was the _only_ one of all the slaves and colored people in
Tuckahoe who enjoyed that advantage. How she acquired this
knowledge, I know not, for Tuckahoe is the last place in the
world where she would be apt to find facilities for learning. I
can, therefore, fondly and proudly ascribe to her an earnest love
of knowledge. That a "field hand" should learn to read, in any
slave state, is remarkable; but the achievement of my mother,
considering the place, was very extraordinary; and, in view of
that fact, I am quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any
love of letters I possess, and for which I have got--despite of
prejudices only too much credit, _not_ to my admitted Anglo-Saxon
paternity, but to the native genius of my sable, unprotected, and
uncultivated _mother_--a woman, who belonged to a race <45
PENALTY FOR HAVING A WHITE FATHER>whose mental endowments it is,
at present, fashionable to hold in disparagement and contempt.

Summoned away to her account, with the impassable gulf of slavery
between us during her entire illness, my mother died without
leaving me a single intimation of _who_ my father was. There was
a whisper, that my master was my father; yet it was only a
whisper, and I cannot say that I ever gave it credence. Indeed,
I now have reason to think he was not; nevertheless, the fact
remains, in all its glaring odiousness, that, by the laws of
slavery, children, in all cases, are reduced to the condition of
their mothers. This arrangement admits of the greatest license
to brutal slaveholders, and their profligate sons, brothers,
relations and friends, and gives to the pleasure of sin, the
additional attraction of profit. A whole volume might be written
on this single feature of slavery, as I have observed it.

One might imagine, that the children of such connections, would
fare better, in the hands of their masters, than other slaves.
The rule is quite the other way; and a very little reflection
will satisfy the reader that such is the case. A man who will
enslave his own blood, may not be safely relied on for
magnanimity. Men do not love those who remind them of their sins
unless they have a mind to repent--and the mulatto child's face
is a standing accusation against him who is master and father to
the child. What is still worse, perhaps, such a child is a
constant offense to the wife. She hates its very presence, and
when a slaveholding woman hates, she wants not means to give that
hate telling effect. Women--white women, I mean--are IDOLS at
the south, not WIVES, for the slave women are preferred in many
instances; and if these _idols_ but nod, or lift a finger, woe to
the poor victim: kicks, cuffs and stripes are sure to follow.
Masters are frequently compelled to sell this class of their
slaves, out of deference to the feelings of their white wives;
and shocking and scandalous as it may seem for a man to sell his
own blood to the traffickers in human flesh, it is often an act
of humanity <46>toward the slave-child to be thus removed from
his merciless tormentors.

It is not within the scope of the design of my simple story, to
comment upon every phase of slavery not within my experience as a
slave.

But, I may remark, that, if the lineal descendants of Ham are
only to be enslaved, according to the scriptures, slavery in this
country will soon become an unscriptural institution; for
thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who--like
myself--owe their existence to white fathers, and, most
frequently, to their masters, and master's sons. The slave-woman
is at the mercy of the fathers, sons or brothers of her master.
The thoughtful know the rest.

After what I have now said of the circumstances of my mother, and
my relations to her, the reader will not be surprised, nor be
disposed to censure me, when I tell but the simple truth, viz:
that I received the tidings of her death with no strong emotions
of sorrow for her, and with very little regret for myself on
account of her loss. I had to learn the value of my mother long
after her death, and by witnessing the devotion of other mothers
to their children.

There is not, beneath the sky, an enemy to filial affection so
destructive as slavery. It had made my brothers and sisters
strangers to me; it converted the mother that bore me, into a
myth; it shrouded my father in mystery, and left me without an
intelligible beginning in the world.

My mother died when I could not have been more than eight or nine
years old, on one of old master's farms in Tuckahoe, in the
neighborhood of Hillsborough. Her grave is, as the grave of the
dead at sea, unmarked, and without stone or stake.

Frederick Douglass

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