The Soul’s Complaint

The Soul’s Complaint


Here is an excerpt of what is probably one of the most significant crossroads in Frederick Douglass’s life:

My master and myself had quite a number of differences.  He found me unsuitable to his purpose.  […]  One of my greatest faults was that of letting his horse run away, and go down to his father-in-law’s farm […] I would then have to go after it.  My reason for this kind of carelessness, or carefulness, was, that I could always get something to eat when I went there.  Master William Hamilton, my master’s father-in-law, always gave his slaves enough to eat.  I never left there hungry, no matter how great the need of my speedy return.  Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer.  I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.  He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey.  […] Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. […] Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion – a pious soul – a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church.  All of this added to his reputation as a “nigger-breaker.” […]

I had been at my new home but one week before Mr. Covey gave me a very severe whipping, cutting my back, causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little finger.  The details of this affair are as follows: Mr. Covey sent me, very early in the morning of one of our coldest days in the month of January, to the woods, to get a load of wood.  He gave me a team of unbroken oxen.  He told me which was the in-hand ox, and which the off-hand one.  He then tied the end of a large rope around the horns of the in-hand ox, and gave me the other end of it, and told me, if the oxen started to run, that I must hold on upon the rope.  I had never driven oxen before, and of course, I was very awkward.  I, however, succeeded in getting to the edge of the woods, when the oxen took fright, and started full tilt, carrying the cart against trees, and over stumps, in the most frightful manner.  I expected every moment that my brains would be dashed out against the trees.  After running thus for a considerable distance, they finally upset the cart, dashing it with great force against a tree, and threw themselves into a dense thicket.  How I escaped death, I do not know.  There I was, entirely alone, in a thick wood, in a place new to me […] and there was none to help me.  After a long spell of effort, I succeeded in getting my cart righted, my oxen disentangled, and again yoked to the cart.  I now proceeded with my team to the place where I had, the day before, been chopping wood, and loaded my cart pretty heavily, thinking in this way to tame my oxen.  I then proceeded on my way home.  I had now consumed one half of the day.  I got out of the woods safely, and now felt out of danger.  I stopped my oxen to open the woods gate; and just as I did so, before I could get hold of my ox-rope, the oxen again started, rushed through the gate, catching it between the wheel and the body of the cart, tearing it to pieces, and coming within a few inches of crushing me against the gate-post.  Thus twice, in one short day, I escaped death by the merest chance.  On my return, I told Mr. Covey what had happened, and how it happened.  […] He went to a large gum-tree, and with his axe cut three large switches, and after trimming them up neatly with his pocket-knife, he ordered me to take off my clothes.  I made him no answer, but stood with my clothes on.  He repeated his order.  I still made him no answer, nor did I move to strip myself.  Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for a long time after.  This whipping was the first of a number just like it, and for similar offenses. […]

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey.  […] It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or show, too hard for us to work in the field.  Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night.  The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him.  I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me.  Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.  I was broken in body, soul, and spirit.  My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time.  I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.  At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished.  I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition.  I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear.  My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.

Our house stood within a few rods of Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe.  Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.  I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean.  The sight of these always affected me powerfully.  My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships: –

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!  You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!  You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!  O that I were free!  O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing!  Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll.  Go on, go on.  O that I could also go! Could I but swim!  If I could fly!  O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!  The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance.  I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery.  O God, save me!  God, deliver me!  Let me be free!  Is there any God?  Why am I a slave?  I will run away.  I will not stand it.  Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it.  I had as well die with ague [malaria] as the fever.  I have only one life to lose.  I had as well be killed running as die standing.  Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free!  Try it?  Yes!  God helping me, I will.  It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave.  […] Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off.  Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke.  I am not the only slave in the world.  Why should I fret?  I can bear as much as any of them. […] It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free.  There is a better day coming.”

Thus I used to think, and thus I used to speak to myself; goaded almost to madness at one moment, and at the next reconciling myself to my wretched lot.

I have already intimated that my condition was much worse, during the first six months of my stay at Mr. Covey’s, than in the last six.  The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me for an epoch in my humble history.  You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.

At this point, I’ll hold you in suspense as to the details of Douglass’s “epoch” – another blog for another day.  It’s enough for now to say that God gave Douglass a way out.  I wrote a response to my reading assignments for my literature class, The Narratives of Slavery.  The goal of my response, per instructions, was to take just one of literary critic James Olney’s ideas and find specific evidence for or against Olney’s idea in a slave narrative.  I chose Frederick Douglass’s narrative.  Here is my response, in less than 250 words.  My apologies for the academic (hoity-toity) writing style:

Conventions, or as James Olney writes, the “Master Plan for Slave Narratives,” (153) are characteristics that distinguish the slave narrative from other narratives. Olney contends that Frederick Douglass “paradoxically transcends the slave narrative mode while being at the same time it fullest, most exact representative,” in that Douglass-as-narrator, unlike many of his literate, ex-slave peers, is independent of the possession and use of the abolitionist (154).

Here I focus solely on the convention of physical abuse and violence, which does occur in Douglass’s narrative, beginning with the vicious beating of his Aunt Hester (284-5), continuing with an account of Mr. Severe, who lives up to his name as a cruel slave overseer (288), and other examples, the most noteworthy, in my opinion, being Mr. Covey, the “nigger-breaker” (320). Because the history of slavery is not marked with the extreme violence and horror of antebellum slavery and because the abolition of slavery is accomplished on the heels of this time period, I suspect that the devil may have overplayed his hand in the violent dehumanization of slaves. Douglass’s turning point is a microcosm of Olney’s two-word existential description of slave narratives, that is, “I exist” (155). Douglass’s experience, in his own words: “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.” What Douglass accomplishes with physical strength, he later accomplishes with intellect and the power of words.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself.” Boston: Anti-Slavery Office. 1847. Slave Narratives. Andrews, William L., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. New York: First Library of America College Edition, 2002. 267-368. Print.

Olney, James. “Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” The Slave’s Narratives. Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1985. 148-75. Print.

Since I’m in the middle of a blog series on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, the inclusion of Frederick Douglass’s crisis of faith is worthwhile.  As with so many other areas of study, the human experience gives tangible substance to spiritual truth.  You may recall from the previous blog in this series, Road Hazards, I quoted Peter L. Berger, sociologist and author of The Sacred Canopy.  His quote puts Douglass’s situation into perspective for theodicy.  Theodicy is “an attempt to resolve the evidential problem of evil by reconciling God’s traditional characteristics of omnibenevolenceomnipotence and omniscience (all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, respectively) with the occurrence of evil in the world” (Wikipedia).  Here’s Berger’s quote:

Every nomos [a person’s sense of order of the world]… implies theodicy.  Every nomos confronts the individual as a meaningful reality that comprehends him and all his experiences.  It bestows sense on his life, also on its discrepant and painful aspects… In consequence, the pain becomes more tolerable, the terror less overwhelming, as the sheltering canopy of the nomos extends to cover even those experiences that may reduce the individual to howling animality.

God can handle your honesty.  Go ahead.  Be angry.  Unload your frustration, your outrage, your disgust.

Suffering, grief, and all other consequences associated with evil or tragedy have a way of reducing a human being to his/her most basic emotional instincts.  We become gut-wrenchingly honest with ourselves and our Creator.  Douglas describes this as “My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way…”  The thing is, God already knows what is going on inside your heart and mind, and He even has a clearer view of you than you do.  But for your sake, not His, embrace the idea, “I exist!”  You are here for a reason.  Your life is not the culmination of a grand cosmic accident.  You were born during this time period to this particular genetic heritage and disposition in this particular geographical location, ON PURPOSE.  Your feelings matter to God.  Right or wrong, theologically sound or heretical, positive or negative – in the “howling animality” of ENOUGH ALREADY, God is not going to stop you and make you become the church-approved version of yourself in order to hear you.  He’s there.  He’s hurting with you.  And He’s ready for you to pour out your heart to Him.  He is not the cruel slave-master burdening you with more than you can handle, always waiting to catch you doing something wrong or looking at Him the wrong way, He is the wind in the white sails of the ships on the bay, the silent voice of freedom drawing you to Himself.  He knows that you are “prevented by a combination of hope and fear” in the “stern reality” of “only one life to lose.”

If “You have seen how a man was made a slave” then “you shall see how a slave was made a man.”

Next blog in this series: Awakening, by Asia Samson

  • Mary Vanderplas September 15, 2012 at 11:19 am

    While there is no denying or minimizing that Douglass was treated like a dumb beast, that he did not become one is clear from the fact that he did not lose his capacity to choose, to make conscious decisions about how he was going to act, if only to decide that he was going to resign himself to his terrible situation while at the same time pouring out his anguish to the Almighty. Douglass’ reflections give testimony to (among other things) the fact that we as human beings possess an inner will that isn’t lost or destroyed even in situations of extreme constraint.

    I love what you say by way of inviting and granting permission to be honest with ourselves and with God about our feelings in response to unjust suffering. It is reassuring to know that God listens and cares and is present with the suffering. If the cross reveals anything, it is that God is a God of suffering, self-giving love, a God who stands with us and by us in the depths of suffering – or, as you put it, One who hurts with us and who is well able and willing to handle our expressions of (intense) negative emotions. I love, too, your picture of God as “the wind in the white sails…the silent voice of freedom.” It is, of course, not always physical deliverance that God grants, salvation from hardships and suffering, but freedom from overwhelming fear – the ability to endure and have courage in the midst of the struggle. And, yes, he grants freedom from slavery to sin to become the persons he created us to be – to him be the praise!

    I like your suggestion that the demise of the evil system quite possibly was hastened, if not caused, by the extreme violence against slaves – by causing the victims of such violence to affirm their own humanity in the face of unimaginable acts by those who denied their humanity. And I especially like your spiritual interpretation: that the devil’s plan backfired (“the devil may have overplayed his hand”!) and, by implication, God’s vision of freedom and life won out.

    • admin September 15, 2012 at 11:37 am

      “It is, of course, not always physical deliverance that God grants, salvation from hardships and suffering, but freedom from overwhelming fear – the ability to endure and have courage in the midst of the struggle.” – This is a really important distinction. The freedom that God gives is a freedom that doesn’t depend on circumstance. The way I see it, Douglass became a free man that day. Outwardly, no, but in his own mind, yes. Some people may think that this concept is stupid, but it is only because they are seeing the outward, physical, temporary, practical situation. The spiritual realm transcends all of that. Douglass writes about this in his narrative and explains it so much more clearly and eloquently than I can. I’m saving those quotes for a blog later in the series.

      • Mary Vanderplas September 15, 2012 at 8:08 pm

        I like your description of the freedom God gives. I look forward to reading more of Douglass’ writings – and more of your thoughtful reflections on him.

      • Stephen Helbig September 17, 2012 at 12:15 am

        There in plots way (even within a hostile, unlawful, or evil purpose) let my soul pour out to you O Lord ~ compel , induce my utterance’s amidst the audience of the Great Almighty God, and I WILL pour out my soul’s complaint even in my rude way… ~ for truly I only have one life to lose as I gaze upon the white ship ~ The vessel of freedom named The Lord Jesus Christ. Praise you God! Let me begin to see the GOOD that comes from the assaults of the mighty whips, so that I am able to appreciate all the more the greatness of my God and the depth of the wisdom of His great mind. Praise You Lord ~ I exist for your purpose.

        p.s. ~ […] It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming. Today is the day of my salvation.

        p.s.s. ~ He knows the way that I take: when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10)

        psst ~ Thanks

        • admin September 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

          “the greatness of my God and the depth of the wisdom of His great mind” YES!!!

  • Blamilton September 18, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    A story such as Douglass’s fills me with such hope, because he possesses that inner will, as Mary said. I felt much the same in high school reading Azar Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Reading about people who exercised that will and survived makes me believe firmly that God really makes us strong when the occasion requires.

    Furthermore, Alice, I think this type of blogging (and more basically, reading) is super effective. Following your blog for almost a year now, I think this type of post really enriches your site. It provides another great voice (in addition to yours and Mary’s) to testify to the important things in life, especially since you quote Douglass so generously here. Please keep it up, it’s great! Can’t wait for part two.

    • admin September 18, 2012 at 9:55 pm

      It’s always good to hear from the quiet, hovering readers 🙂

      I’m glad you included Mary in your comment as well, because it seems to me that we are, by God’s grace, a microcosm of “disagreeing in love” – a picture of how believers everywhere can get along (iron/iron). And her comments often shed new light on what I’ve written, and admittedly, at times correcting what I’ve written.

      Thanks for your encouragement.

  • […] few weeks ago, I wrote a blog called The Climax of All Misnomers and a blog called The Soul’s Complaint.  In both of these blogs, I generously quoted from the slave narrative of Frederick Douglass. […]

  • […] with Douglass. I wrote several blogs about his writing: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, The Soul’s Complaint, and The Climax of All […]

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