Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself Frederick Douglass
The following entry presents criticism of Douglass's autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). See also Frederick Douglass Criticism.
The Narrative is the most famous of the more than one hundred American slave narratives written prior to the Civil War.
Douglass, whose mother was a black slave and whose father was an unidentified white man, possibly his master, was born around 1817 in Tuckahoe, Maryland, as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was separated from his mother in infancy and raised by his maternal grandmother on the estate of his master, Captain Aaron Anthony. His childhood was relatively happy until he was transferred to the plantation of Anthony's employer, Colonel Edward Lloyd. In 1825 Douglass was again transferred, this time to the Baltimore household of Hugh Auld, whose wife began teaching Douglass to read until Auld insisted that she stop. Douglass became convinced that literacy provided an important key to achieving his freedom and secretly began learning to read on his own.
In 1838, Douglass escaped to New York where he became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. In the 1840s he began speaking publicly as a lecturer for William Lloyd Garrison's Massachusetts Antislavery Society, and wrote the Narrative, his account of his experiences as a slave, in response to those critics who doubted that such an eloquent orator had ever been in bondage. Concerned that he could be returned to captivity under the fugitive slave laws, Douglass traveled to England and Ireland, where he was well received by local social reformers. He returned to America in 1847 and bought his freedom from his former master.
In a break with Garrison and his abolitionist paper The Liberator, Douglass founded his own weekly paper, The North Star. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s he continued his work as a writer and speaker for the abolitionist movement, and in 1863 he served as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln on the use of black soldiers in the war effort. After the Civil War, Douglass became involved in diplomatic work, including an assignment as consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. He published two more versions of his life story, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). He died in 1895 at his home in Washington, D.C.
Plot and Major Characters
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a detailed, firsthand account of slave life and the process of self-discovery by which Douglass recognized the evils of slavery as an institution. Douglass began his story with his birth and immediately ran into a problem specific to the life of a slave. Although he knew where he was born, he had no exact knowledge of the date, a fact that set him apart from the white children of the plantation who knew their ages and could celebrate their birthdays. Slaves, according to Douglass, “know as little of their age as horses know of theirs.” His awareness of his status as a slave and of the meaning of slavery as an institution was furthered when he witnessed his aunt being stripped to the waist and savagely beaten. One of the more famous episodes in the book involves Douglass overhearing his master, Hugh Auld, rebuking his wife for her desire to teach the slave to read and declaring that literacy “would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass gleaned two valuable lessons from this experience. He first concluded that keeping slaves ignorant and illiterate was an important element in their subjugation, and resolved to teach himself to read. Second, by observing Mrs. Auld's transformation from a kindly woman with no previous experience as a slave-owner to a harsh mistress under her husband's tutelage, Douglass learned of the institution's effects on even well-intentioned whites.
Douglass's growing dissatisfaction with his condition led to the pivotal incident in which he was sent to Edward Covey, a notorious “slave-breaker,” to be disciplined. Initially reduced to little more than a brute by endless work, Douglass finally refused to submit to Covey's “discipline” any longer. The two engaged in a violent fight and Douglass, in the end, overcame his tormentor, resolving that “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” From that point, Douglass was firmly on the road to freedom although it would take him some time before he was able to accomplish that feat. He avoided going into detail on the specific means of his escape, because to do so would “run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery.”
One of the most prominent themes in the Narrative involves the association of literacy with freedom. The acquisition of the one precipitated the desire for the other, which was, for Douglass, a two-edged sword. He had occasional regrets about the knowledge that literacy afforded him because without the ability to change his status as slave, he was more miserable than ever. Nonetheless, Douglass's ability to tell his story in his own words firmly refuted the commonly held belief at the time that slaves were incapable of communicating through the standard conventions of American literature. Douglass not only displayed his facility with the dominant literary modes of his time, but he also incorporated folkloric elements from both black and white cultures into his text. Robert G. O'Meally points out that Douglass drew on the tradition of the African-American sermon, itself grounded in folklore, and that the Narrative was meant to be preached as well as read.
Douglass's ambivalent relationship to Christianity is another important theme of his story. The Narrative exposed the hypocrisy of individual Christians whose treatment of slaves was cruel and inhumane, and of organized Christianity as a whole which, with few exceptions, supported the institution of slavery and even claimed that it was sanctioned by God. Douglass believed that the more religious the master, the more cruel he would be, and claimed that “of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.” Douglass's harsh criticism of Christianity was tempered by his later writings, including the Appendix to the Narrative.
Of the many slave narratives produced in the nineteenth century, Douglass's has received the most critical attention and is widely regarded as the best. H. Bruce Franklin notes that “from Ephraim Peabody and William Wells Brown to the present, all students of the slave narrative have agreed that the masterpiece of the form is Frederick Douglass' first autobiography.” David W. Blight claims that “what sets Douglass's work apart in the genre … is that he interrogated the moral conscience of his readers, at the same time that he transplanted them into his story, as few other fugitive slave writers did.” But despite the Narrative's preeminent position within the slave narrative genre, until the 1970s it received little attention as a literary work, and was out of print from the 1850s until 1960. Franklin complains that the work has been neglected by literary historians and that Douglass, “one of the most important authors in nineteenth-century America, has remained a virtual nonentity outside the academic ghetto of Afro-American studies.”
In the years since Franklin's essay, however, the text has received increasing scrutiny from a wide variety of perspectives. Scholars have focused on Douglass's participation in various discourses, both black and white, including those associated with folklore and with Christianity. Kelly Rothenberg discusses Douglass's use of elements from black folklore that warn against the dangers of resistance to slavery, although he himself rejected the advice those tales offered and tried to escape despite the risks. A. James Wohlpart explores Douglass's double challenge: to the institution of slavery and also to the institution of the Christian Church that supported slavery. Douglass, claims Wohlpart, operated within the discourse of white Christianity at the same time that he subverted it. John Carlos Rowe examines Douglass's text in economic and political terms, claiming that the author was “clearly developing his own understanding of the complicity of Northern capitalism and Southern slave-holding in the 1845 Narrative.” Lisa Yun Lee also explores the politics of language in the text, noting that in the first half of the narrative Douglass is silent and powerless, but as he acquires the ability to speak within the dominant discourse, he becomes increasingly powerful and increasingly vocal. According to Lee, “the delineation between the experience of silent marginalization and speaking presence is so thoroughly presented that the binary nature of the two halves of the Narrative must be purposefully drawn.” Winifred Morgan has examined Douglass's narrative in conjunction with Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, claiming that there are basic gender-related differences between the two texts. According to Morgan, what distinguishes Douglass's story from Jacobs's and indeed from most other slave narratives, is the author's emphasis on his existence as an individual who achieved both literacy and freedom almost entirely on his own. Morgan believes that Douglass “sets up two contrasting frames: he presents himself as someone who is ‘one of a kind’ and at the same time ‘representative.’” Gwen Bergner discusses Douglass's narrative as a tale of masculine subject formation with parallels to the theory of the Oedipus complex established by Freud. Bergner examines Douglass's description of the whipping of his Aunt Hester whereby he became painfully aware of slavery as an institution. Bergner explains that “while psychoanalytic theory explains—by way of the Oedipus complex—how the subject apprehends sexual difference, Douglass's whipping scene demonstrates how an individual also learns racial difference.” Michael Bennett explores the link between anti-pastoralism and African-American literature and culture beginning with Douglass's narrative. According to Bennett, the usual terms of the city/country dichotomy were reversed in the Narrative because urban spaces offered a certain amount of freedom from the worst abuses of plantation slavery practiced in isolated rural areas. “For Douglass,” Bennett reports, “the city is not just relatively more free than the country, it is also a place that offers hope of the ultimate freedom: escape.”
Frederick Douglass: From Slavery to Freedom and Beyond
The great civil rights activist Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a Maryland Eastern Shore plantation in February 1818. His given name, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, seemed to portend an unusual life for this son of a field hand and a white man, most likely Douglass's first master, Captain Aaron Anthony. Perhaps Harriet Bailey gave her son such a distinguished name in the hope that his life would be better than hers. She could scarcely imagine that her son's life would continue to be a source of interest and inspiration nearly 190 years after his birth. Indeed, it would be hard to find anyone who more closely embodies this year's Black History Month theme, "From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas." Like many in the nineteenth-century United States, Frederick Douglass escaped the horrors of slavery to enjoy a life of freedom, but his unique personal drive to achieve justice for his race led him to devote his life to the abolition of slavery and the movement for black civil rights. His fiery oratory and extraordinary achievements produced a legacy that stretches his influence across the centuries, making Frederick Douglass a role model for the twenty-first century.
One reason Douglass's story continues to resonate is that his life embodies the American dream of overcoming obstacles and reaching one's goals. Young Frederick Bailey spent his first twenty years in slavery, first on a Talbot County, Maryland plantation, then in the ship-building city of Baltimore. In the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, he recounts the adversity of his early life. He rarely saw his mother who worked as a field hand, had barely enough clothes to cover his body, and had to eat from a trough like a farmyard animal. As he grew old enough to work he passed through a series of masters, some kind and some cruel.
Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott's epic poem, The Lady in the Lake.
Although it was a momentous achievement, attaining freedom was merely a starting-point for Frederick Douglass. Within a few years he was a world-famous abolitionist, author, and orator. He published his narrative detailing his time as a slave, edited his own newspaper, and traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on important civil rights and social justice topics. He was the single male delegate at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights to support the call for woman's suffrage. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to advise President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops. Following the war, hoping that equality would be achieved with the end of slavery, he moved his family to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed president of the Freedman's Savings Bank. In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him federal marshal for the District of Columbia, and in that capacity he stood beside James Garfield as he took the presidential oath of office in 1881. By 1889 Frederick Douglass was the U.S. resident minister and consul general (ambassador) to Haiti. Ending his life at Cedar Hill, his twenty-one room District of Columbia home, in February 1895, Frederick Douglass had come about as far as humanly possible from his beginnings in a Maryland slave cabin.
The social distance Douglass traveled during his lifetime continues to inspire modern Americans to take a lesson from his life. If he could achieve so much after his most humble of beginnings, perhaps our own dreams and goals are within reach. Indeed, the words, images and heritage of Douglass abound in history and popular culture. Douglass once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning." Because he was willing to dedicate his life to struggle and agitate for the abolition of slavery, and then the cause of civil rights, Douglass remains at the forefront of the American consciousness.
His eloquence with words and prolific publications also make him accessible to modern Americans. Each of his three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), remain in print and are widely read by schoolchildren, college students, historians, and literary scholars. The remaining texts of his famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century. A scholar at a conference was once overheard to say, "When in doubt, quote Douglass." Indeed, President George W. Bush invoked Douglass's name when he spoke to an assembled group during his visit to Senegal in 2003. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has quoted Douglass in his rulings on several education cases.
Modern Americans are constantly reminded about the importance of Douglass's life and accomplishments. Many sites in the United States pay homage to the civil rights activist through adopting his name. At least twenty-four schools and academies are named for Douglass, and parks and buildings from New York to Louisiana bear his name. Places as diverse as Harlem, Detroit, and Oklahoma City have Frederick Douglass streets or avenues. His life has been dramatized in the fiction of such authors as Miriam Grace Monfredo and Jewell Parker Rhodes, and celebrated in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Robert Hayden. He was memorialized on a U.S. postage stamp in 1985. The famous "history painter" Jacob Lawrence painted a series of thirty-two canvases dedicated to the life and memory of Douglass. To ensure that his words remain accessible, Yale University Press and a series of historical editors are producing modern editions of Douglass's autobiographies as well as his correspondence and speeches. The Library of Congress has digitized its entire collection of Douglass's papers and made them available at its American Memory website. Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center awards an annual Frederick Douglass Prize for the best book on slavery or abolition. Monuments to Douglass stand in all of the cities and towns where he once lived, and Cedar Hill, his Anacostia, D.C., home is a National Park Service site visited by thousands each year.
The influence of Frederick Douglass reaches beyond his symbolic role as America's most famous former slave, although in his lifetime moving from slavery to freedom proved a tremendous accomplishment. He continues to be relevant to both history and modern American culture because he moved beyond enjoying freedom to dedicate his life to the principle that struggle is necessary to achieve progress. His desire to make his world a more just place led him to fight for the abolition of slavery and to support social justice and civil rights for African Americans and women. We would do well to follow his example, and to take inspiration from his famous words that "It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake."
L. Diane Barnes
Youngstown State University