I make no secret of my affection for Frederick Douglass. I consider him to be one of the greatest orators, and I've dedicated a not insubstantial time to studying his speeches and writings. I am now in the process of revisiting this man's life and work in order to consolidate my thoughts about him. In this process, I've recognized that I should be recording my responses to the books I read in order to chronicle my thoughts, and I feel that others may appreciate my thoughts or at least find them worth note, so I am posting them here.
I visited my local library and borrowed the Dover Thrift edition of the text, reading the book over a period of two days while on buses and during idle time between various jobs. At 75 pages, the book is a manageable length for the attention deficit. The longest of the eleven chapters was 15 pages, making this an ideal book to consume incrementally.
In this, the first of his autobiographies, Douglass details the experience of his childhood and adolescence as a slave, his subsequent maturing and eventual escape from the peculiar institution. The text is brimming with descriptions of slavery, often graphic and disturbing. Images of whippings and other racist violence are plenty. These images are used not only to shock white readers into abhorrence of slavery, but also to validate Frederick Douglass' former status as a slave. At the time of its publication, Douglass was an orator in the employ of white abolitionists. His job was to travel and speak, inspiring others to join the abolitionist cause. Many could not believe his story-- It was already difficult to believe the Black man before them could speak so articulately, and almost impossible for them to believe he could do so in the absence of formal schooling!
If Douglass did attend a school, it was one taught by violence and indifference. Indeed, the frequency of violence in the text and Douglass' world was astounding. Slaves were regularly whipped and punished otherwise, often for no offense. Some were starved and families were routinely torn apart. The slave system's cruelty is emphasized by Douglass not only to highlight the injustice suffered by slaves but also to bring light to the effects of slavery on the masters. Throughout the text, Douglass speaks of the hideous transformations of both slave and master. The master's transformation is embodied in Sophia Auld.
When Douglass begins serving the Auld house, Sophia is "made of heavenly smiles" with a "voice of tranquil music," but in a short time, her angelic visage gives way to the face of a demon. When she begins teaching Douglass the alphabet, her husband, Thomas, forbids the practice. Thomas claims that if educated, Douglass will be made "unfit to be a slave." Hearing this concern, Douglass begins his association of literacy with freedom. This association is continued throughout the narrative and serves as a central theme.
Another central theme within the work is the ability of slavery not only to debase the slave but also to cause moral harm to the master. Sophia is the character in which this transformation is most tragic, but there are numerous other instances in which masters, in order to satisfy their role, debase themselves. This practice is marked doubly wrong in the case of those who veneer their actions with religious faith. Douglass rightly points out the incongruence of their conduct and religious professions. He asks how followers of Christ can allow and inflict suffering on their neighbors and brothers. If his criticism seems familiar, it is only because it has been continually repeated by many skeptics of protestant faith and American Christianity as a whole.
The third central theme is the nature of liberty. For Douglass, the slave's liberty to drink and sport during the holiday is a false liberty designed to "disgust" slaves with their freedom and drive them "back to the arms of slavery." Douglass notes other instances where false liberty is used to create comfort in slavery. A thief who steals molasses is caught and forced to eat molasses until sick. Another complains of hunger and is stuffed until ill. Douglas points out that, by limiting the avenues of liberty only to those which prove self-destructive or undesirable, slave masters were able to control their slaves in both labor and leisure.
The overall effect of the work is to arouse moral outrage in the reader. Douglass is skilled at detailing the injustice of the slave system without overtly condemning those involved in its commission. Indeed, he does partially exonerate some of his tormenters as ignorant. This tact was necessary in a climate in which readers needed to be courted gently. Still, the graphic descriptions of violence tell a story of suffering and injustice, and it is by these images that the audience is seized and taken through the narrative.
Ultimately, Douglass emerges from slavery, but he is reluctant to share his exact method for fear of spoiling the potential for others' escape. His transformation from illiterate slave boy to world-class orator is remarkable, but while some choose to herald Douglass as a self-made man and use his story to shame those who are unable to improve their situations, it is important to remember how often Douglass exposes us to those not so fortunate. There are more than a few junctures during the work where he explicitly acknowledges how he felt blessed by Providence. This may be the most telling indictment of slavery. Under the slave system, the lord's intervention was a prerequisite for Black success.
Even so, to view the Narrative of Frederick Douglass as a success story is to miss the point of the work. Douglass can do nothing but be exceptional. His skill with words was viewed as impossible by his stunned spectators. His escape from slavery was unbelievable. This work helped to contextualize and explain the story behind the speaker who wowed audiences and proved instrumental in helping to change public opinion about slavery. In addition, Douglass provided readers with a first-person view of slavery from the perspective of a slave. Both aspects are important, as Douglass was skilled in both speech and prose. Douglass was and is a treasure, and his story is just as valuable.
I highly recommend this work for educators who view literacy as freedom, religious folk and anyone who has questioned the nature of liberty. The Narrative is a great jumping off point for discussions about these topics, and I look forward to discussing them with you!
The Narrative of Frederick Douglass can be found in most libraries and also on Amazon (current price $2.70). As the text is no longer protected by copyright, it is available for free online in numerous forms.