Saturday, September 10, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- Triumph
… On one of the hottest days of the month of August, 1833, Bill Smith [another hired slave], William Hughes [Edward Covey’s cousin], a slave named Eli, and myself, were engaged in fanning wheat.  Hughes was clearing the fanned wheat from before the fan.  Eli was turning.  Smith was feeding, and I was carrying wheat to the fan.  The work was simple, requiring strength rather than intellect; yet, to one entirely unused to such work, it came very hard.  About three o’clock of that day, I broke down; my strength failed me; I was seized with a violent aching of the head, attended with extreme dizziness; I trembled in every limb.  Finding what was coming, I nerved myself up, feeling it would never do to stop work.  I stood as long as I could stagger to the hopper with grain.  When I could stand no longer, I fell, and felt as if held down by an immense weight.  The fan of course stopped; every one had his own work to do; and no one could do the work of the other, and have his own go on at the same time.
Mr. Covey was at the house, about one hundred yards from the treading-yard where we were fanning.  On hearing the fan stop, he left immediately, and came to the spot where we were.  He hastily inquired what the matter was.  Bill answered that I was sick, and there was no one to bring wheat to the fan.  I had by this time crawled away under the side of the post and rail-fence by which the yard was enclosed, hoping to find relief by getting out of the sun.  … He came to the spot, and after looking at me awhile, asked me what was the matter.  I told him as well as I could, for I scarce had strength to speak.  He then gave me a savage kick in the side, and told me to get up.  I tried to do so, but fell back in the attempt.  He gave me another kick, and again told me to rise.  I again tried, and succeeded in gaining my feet; but, stooping to get the tub with which I was feeding the fan, I again staggered and fell.  While down in this situation, Mr. Covey took up the hickory slat with which Hughes had been striking off the half-bushel measure, and with it gave me a heavy blow upon the head, making a large wound, and the blood ran freely; and with this again told me to get up.  I made no effort to comply, having now made up my mind to let him do his worst.  In a short time after receiving this blow, my head grew better.  Mr. Covey had now left me to my fate.  At this moment I resolved, for the first time, to go to my master, enter a complaint, and ask his protection. 
… I … watched my chance, while Covey was looking in an opposite direction, and started for St, Michael’s; I succeeded in getting a considerable distance on my way to the woods, when Covey discovered me, and called after me to come back, threatening what he would do if I did not come.  I disregarded both his calls and his threats, and made my way to the woods as fast as my feeble state would allow; and thinking I might be overhauled by him if I kept the road, I walked through the woods, keeping as enough from the road to avoid detection, and near enough to prevent losing my way.  I had not gone far before my little strength again failed me.  I could go no farther.  I fell down, and lay for a considerable time.  The blood was yet oozing from the wound on my head.  For a time I thought I should bleed to death; and think now that I should have done so, but that the blood so matted my hair as to stop the wound.  After lying there about three quarters of an hour, I nerved myself up again, and started on my way, through bogs and briers, barefooted and bareheaded, tearing my feet sometimes at nearly every step; and after a journey of about seven miles, occupying some five hours to perform it, I arrived at master’s store.
From the crown of my head to my feet, I was covered with blood; my shirt was stiff with blood.  My legs and feet were torn in sundry places with briers and thorns, and were also covered with blood.  … In this state I appeared before my master; humbly entreating him to interpose his authority for my protection.  I told him all the circumstances as well as I could, and it seemed, as I spoke, at times to affect him.  He would then walk the floor, and seek to justify Covey by saying he expected I deserved it.  He asked me what I wanted.  I told him, to let me get a new home; … that Covey would surely kill me.  … Master Thomas ridiculed the idea … and said that he knew Mr. Covey, that he was a good man, and that he could not think of taking me from him; that, should he do so, he would lose the whole year’s wages; that I belonged to Mr. Covey for one year, and that I must go back to him, come what might; and that I must not trouble him with any more stories, or that he would himself get hold of me.  … He gave me a very large dose of salts, telling me that I might remain in St. Michael’s the night.
 … I remained all night, and, according to his orders, I started off to Covey’s in the morning (Saturday morning) wearied in body and broken in spirit.  I got no supper that night, or breakfast that morning.  I reached Covey’s about nine o’clock; and just as I was getting over the fence … out ran Covey with his cowskin, to give me another whipping.  Before he could reach me, I succeeded in getting to the cornfield; and as the corn was very high, it afforded me the means of hiding.  He seemed very angry, and searched for me a long time.  …. I spent that day mostly in the woods, having the alternative before me, -to go home and be whipped to death, or stay in the woods and be starved to death.  That night, I fell in with Sandy Jenkins, a slave with whom I was somewhat acquainted.  Sandy had a free wife who lived about four miles from Mr. Covey’s; and it being Saturday, he was on his way to see her (Douglass 79-80).
… Jenkins was warm, witty, and generous.  … Sandy Jenkins believed in magic.  Taking Frederick home with him for the night—he and his wife risked much in harboring a runaway—he gave the confused boy a root to protect him from Covey’s blows.  Jenkins said it had always worked for him, and the next morning, Sunday, it seemed to work for Frederick too.  When, in fear, he went back to the farm, Covey smiled at him and drove off to church—perhaps, in part, to discover in town if [Thomas] Auld was likely to intercede for the boy.
Before dawn on Monday, Frederick was in the barn caring for the horses.  When Covey came in, he gave the impression that he would ignore the slave’s having run away.  But as Frederick sat in the loft, with his legs dangling, Covey suddenly grabbed and tried to tie them.  Resisting, the boy braced himself firmly.  Covey tugged, and Frederick “gave a sudden spring” and landed on top of the man.  “Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man who, eight-and-forty hours before, could, with his slightest word have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm, I do not know; at any rate, I was resolved to fight, and  what was better still, I was actually hard at it.  … I felt as supple as a cat, and was ready for the snakish creature at every turn.”  Wrestling furiously, Frederick grabbed Covey by the throat.  Totally surprised by the attack and quaking as Frederick’s fingernails drew blood, Covey croaked out a call for help to William Hughes, his cousin.
Hughes pulled Frederick’s hands away in order to bind them, but Frederick gave a powerful kick and Hughes doubled over in pain.  When Covey, frightened, ordered the furiously aroused slave to be still, Frederick thundered that six months brutality were enough.  The two lunged for each other again, and Covey dragged Frederick out into the yard toward a piece of lumber that he could use as a weapon.  At this point Covey spotted Bill Smith, who had just returned after spending Sunday night with his wife, and called to him to help subdue Frederick.  But Bill, with splendid nonchalance, instead treated Covey to a bit of black American’s verbal rebellion.  By feigning misunderstanding of his orders, the black man on the street—or the hand in the field—could outwit the white man.
Douglass, looking back, recognized that this was what occurred; there was “something comic” afoot.  In response to Covey’s order to grab Frederick, Bill, “who knew precisely what Covey wished him to do, affected ignorance.  … ‘What shall I do, Mr. Covey,’ said Bill.  ‘Take hold of him-take hold of him!’ said Covey.  With a toss of his head, peculiar to Bill, he said, ‘indeed, Mr. Covey, I want to go to work.’  This is your work,’ said Covey; ‘take hold of him.’  Bill replied, with spirit, ‘My master hired me here, to work, and not to help you whip Frederick.’  It was now my turn to speak.  ‘Bill,’ said I, ‘don’t put your hands on me.’  To which he replied, ‘My God!  Frederick, I ain’t goin’ to tech ya,’ and … walked off.”
Suddenly another danger loomed.  Caroline, a slave owned by Covey, arrived to milk the cows; “she was a powerful woman, and could have mastered me very easily, exhausted as I now was.  As soon as she came into the yard, Covey attempted to rally her to his aid.  Strangely—and, I may add, fortunately--Caroline was in no humor to take a hand in any such sport.  We were all in open rebellion, that morning.”
 Frederick and Covey fought on in the intimacy of battle—“He held me, and I held him”—and, crucial to an understanding of the outcome, Frederick neither knocked out Covey nor pinned him.  Instead, they grappled for what Douglass, no doubt exaggerating but making a telling point, said was “nearly two hours.”  In impotent rage, Covey struggled against Frederick’s remarkably strong arms and firm hands—and struggled too against the mocking grins of Frederick and the other slaves. 
… They, not he alone, bested Covey.  Bill and Caroline helped not simply by disobeying Covey’s orders to hold Frederick, but by bringing into play the psychological counterattack.  Caroline was later whipped for her insolence; Bill was not, because his master forbade it.
More surprisingly, neither was Frederick; for the remaining months of his stay with Covey, he was not struck.  Conceivably, Auld had sent word that there were to be no more beatings.  Douglass himself attributed his luck to Covey’s embarrassment; calling in the constable to whip a slave would have been an admission that he was not the Negro breaker he claimed to be.  But it seems at least as likely that Covey’s restraint was a direct result of the action of the slaves; one slave had fought back physically—and bravely—but all three had attacked him psychologically, with telling effect (McFeely 46-48).
Frederick saw great significance in his victory over the slave-breaker.
… I felt as I never felt before.  It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.  My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.  I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me (Douglass 83).
Works Cited:
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.