” . . . 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.”
The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass is a detailed account on the inhumanity that Douglass faced during his time being a slave. The quote reflects the moment where Douglass was able to free himself from the doubt of his worth – allowing reality to take precedence.
In Chapter Six, Douglass speaks of Sophia Auld, Douglass’ mistress after Colonel Lloyd’s plantation. During his time spent with the Auld family he comes across the established need to keep a slave in the form of a slave. When Mrs. Auld begins to teach Douglass how to read and write, Mr. Auld stops any further teaching, stating “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master.”
Later in Douglass’ narrative he comes across the overseer for the Auld’s, Mr. Covey. Covey was a tough overseer known as “the snake” for the way he would hide and slither around in the grass to watch the slaves and try to catch them do something disobedient. Eventually, Douglass and Covey got into a physical altercation which led to Douglass’ revelation and the breakdown of this form vs. fact structure. Something fascinating about this altercation and in the overall business of slavery is the enslavement which everyone is subject to. Not to sympathize with obvious moral wrongs – like the overseers or plantation owners who subject blacks to tough labor, whipping and much, much worse – but it shows the inhumanity that the whole process pours onto everyone else. Douglass for obvious reasons represents the obvious forms of slavery, but doesn’t represent the factual enslavement – although many perceive that he does. Covey, and even Mrs. Auld, don’t represent the form of slavery but because Covey is “forced” to be cruel (however, it was likely he took pleasure in it as well), and to spy, and to hold this image as a strong overseer, he is the factual slave. Mrs. Auld, who Douglass says was a pleasant and nice person when he first met her, wanted to teach Douglass but was forced by her husband to reserve her aspirations so they hold this perceived power.
The structure of slavery that in effect creates this incredibly inhumane way of life is something that Douglass was able to see and with him standing up to Covey it was able to shine a light on this form vs. fact, which ultimately provided a role reversal on the formed slave and the factual slave.