Thursday, July 7, 2011

Required Work: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

It is time to begin tackling the slave narratives and speeches…well, at least some of them. The next few weeks will be spent on Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Frances E.W. Harper, and of course, Fredrick Douglass, with whom I’ll be starting off. Make no mistake; this is hard stuff to deal with. Now I know that statement seems sort of ridiculous given some of the material this blog has already dealt with, but for me especially, most slave narratives specifically are just incredibly hard to read. And the fact that these first two works that I’ll be covering in the next couple of weeks are non-fiction, well, it really doesn’t help matters. With that being said, they are important works and I believe everyone, English major or not, should read at least one of them during their lifetime. I’ll try to make this quick – like a band-aid: right off!


On the surface, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is an obvious slave narrative and memoir. If it were fiction it would probably also fall under the category of a bildungsroman or coming of age tale as it follows Douglass from his childhood into his adult life after he (spoiler alert!) finally runs away to freedom. Douglass gives extensive and eloquent detail of his life as a slave and of the cruelty (as well as some kindness) he endures as a result of the peculiar institution. Everything leads to his eventual escape and transition into the abolitionist movement.

Narrative can also be seen as a treatise on abolition and is considered by many as one of the most important works of literature by a former slave and the most influential in fueling the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century.


Like pretty much every slave narrative I have ever read, Douglass highlights the extreme cruelty he would come to know as a standard way that most slave-masters dealt with their “property.” And an interesting side note to this theme is Douglass’ account of one master of his that started out very kind but eventually came to be as cruel as others. This shift in his slave-master’s behavior highlights the argument that slavery affected whites as well as blacks, without stating the case too overtly. Slavery turned blacks into objects (as slave-holders and traders insisted on treating them as such) and whites into cold-hearted people.

Another theme that crops up throughout the book is that of identity. Early on in Narrative Douglass laments the fact that he does not know when his actual birthday is and consistently has to guess at his age at different points in the story. He didn’t really ever identify with his mother as they were separated early in his life, and it is generally believed that his father was a white man, or even his master from when he was a young boy. He also undergoes several name changes as he moves around between masters and locations. When he finally achieves freedom, he makes the final name change to Frederick Douglass. He holds onto “Frederick” as it was the name his mother gave him and he wanted to hold onto some of his past identity. A Nathan Johnson, whose home he was escorted to after reaching New Bedford, chose the last name “Douglass,” and from then on he was known as such. To name something is to hold ownership of it, and Douglass’ name seemed to change as his owners did. In the end, he came away with a name all his own.

There is also a somewhat underlying theme of validation and acceptance. Upon its publication, there were many people who were not willing to accept Narrative as written by a former slave as it was written too well. So not only is Douglass attempting to convince the world of the evils of slavery, but also of the simple fact that what he is saying is true.

There are also recurring issues of the education of slaves, even for just reading the Bible. Two arguments make their appearance in the book: 1. that an educated slave is no good for a slave, and 2. that an educated slave will only dream of freedom. It seems that in Douglass’ case, both arguments proved to be true. His new ability haunted him and only helped to make him more resolved to escape.


As I have already mentioned, upon its publication, there were many who were not ready to believe that Narrative was written by Douglass’ own hand. A neighbor of one of Douglass’ former masters said that the former slave was “unlearned” and just not capable of writing such a narrative. But Douglass’ use of real dates, places, and people simply cannot be ignored. And he did teach himself to read and write at a young age. Also, before its publication, people were generally reluctant to believe Douglass’ story as he told them the events of his own life. Just the publication alone of Narrative added a great amount of credibility to a story many had already heard.

The publication of Narrative also helped Douglass in his relations with the whites he was acquainted with in the abolitionist movement. Before the publication, the white people even of the abolitionist movement demeaned Douglass and attempted to control what issues he could speak of when he took the platform, but that all changed. Also, he fled to England and Ireland for two years after the publication because he feared recapture from his former master. While there, he gained support from others who raised the funds to pay for his emancipation from his legal owner. Now that is one influential story.

Okay, so I didn’t really make it that quick…it happens. Next week I’ll rip the band-aid off of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs – a story that is proving to be for me an even more difficult account to take in than the one by Douglass…if you can imagine that.

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