Introduction to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the autobiography of the self-freed slave Frederick Douglass. This was not an easy book to read, and it will not be an easy book for anyone who believes in the rights and freedoms of all. This book is about Douglass’ life in slavery, his experiences and the experiences of other slaves – what he saw for himself.
The brutality of the whippings and people taking great joy in marginalizing others, believing that one life is worth more than another. Many overseers of the slaves on the plantations showed no mercy, because to them it would be a sign of weakness.
This is a book worth reading, not for finger-pointing, but to understand what life was like for blacks before the abolition of slavery. It also shows how people sometimes use religion as a scapegoat, for them to dehumanize and control others.
I read this book because it is among the books that Gene Waddell, architectural historian and College Archivist, included on his list, Using Rare Books to Inspire Learning. Along with the classics, I have been reading books from this list.
After you have finished reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, you will get the feeling that his story is incomplete. That there are many gaps – and there are. Douglass deliberately left out a lot of information to protect the identity of other slaves.
Also, he freed himself from slavery by running away, so he didn’t want slave owners to discover weaknesses in their systems that allowed slaves to escape. Fortunately for me, I had seen a documentary about Blacks who did extraordinary things, and Douglass was among those profiled. So I was able to fill in some of the gaps for myself.
Daily Life of an American Slave
Black slaves on plantations were not considered to be human beings and were treated that way. The author talks about the food being thrown into a trough for them to eat like pigs with no eating implements. The kids who were fastest got the most food.
Douglass was moved around a fair bit because slaves were sometimes loaned to others. Throughout his story you see the personalities of the slave owners and overseers of the plantations, and sometimes while you are reading you’ll think that it couldn’t get any worse than this, and you later discover that you were wrong.
Douglass never lost his faith as he suffered the many ordeals as a slave – his faith and a spirit of hope got him through. There were a few instances where his spirit was broken and he didn’t want to go on. But something happened to snap him out of it.
Defining Moment in Frederick Douglass’ Life
A defining moment in his life was when he was sent from his master’s plantation, Colonel Lloyd, on loan to Mr and Mrs Hugh Auld to take care of their little son Thomas. This moment shaped Douglass’ life because it was a start to freedom, and many years later when he was eventually able to sit at his own desk, in a happy home, writing his autobiography, he realized this.
Mrs Auld was unlike other whites, she spent time teaching young Douglass the alphabet and how to spell simple words, and like a sponge, he soaked up the knowledge. When Mr. Auld found out, he forbade his wife to continue, saying, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…If you teach a nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master…”
The harsh comments of Mr Auld gave Douglass an understanding he didn’t have before, because he was still a young boy, but he now understood the enslavement of Blacks. It’s worth mentioning that Mrs Auld had never had a slave before so she treated all people with dignity. The comments by Mr Auld changed both Mrs Auld and Douglass. Mrs Auld eventually slid into the role of slave owner which stripped her of her goodness, and Douglass decided to teach himself to read, though he knew it would be tough going without a teacher. Douglass understood that the ability to read was a pathway to freedom.
Mrs Auld became even worst than her husband and would watch Douglass like a hawk so that he wouldn’t learn to read. But Douglass was extremely smart. Unlike on the plantation, Douglass had more than enough to eat, so he made friends with many white boys, many of whom came from poor white families who didn’t have enough food. Young Douglass exchange food for knowledge when he was sent out on errands, he converted them without their knowledge, into his teachers. He made sure that he always had a book with him. Douglass was about 12 years old at the time.
Frederick Douglass – Mini Bio
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Education: The Road to Freedom
At some point, Douglass got hold of the book, The Columbian Orator which was a discourse between master and a slave who had run away three times. In the end, the runaway slave’s great oratory skill led to his emancipation. This book had a profound impact on Douglass’ life. And it’s a book he would read over and over. The more Douglass read The Columbian Orator, the more he understood the content of the book and the more he grew to detest his enslavers.
Mr Auld was correct, the ability to read opened up Douglass’s eyes to the realities of slavery and at times he wondered if it was a blessing or curse to be able to read. He not only learned to read, but now his ability to think deeply was awakened and he spent a lot of time contemplating his lot in life, and he hungered for freedom.
Learning What Abolitionist Means
Douglass kept on hearing the word abolitionist and wanted to know what it meant, but couldn’t very well ask his owners. One day he got hold of a newspaper and read about the petitions in the north to abolish slavery and now knew what the word meant. Shortly after that, he was down on the docks one day and saw two Irishmen unloading a “scow of stone.” Douglass assisted them without being asked, and when they were finished, one asked if he was a slave for life and he responded yes.
They thought it was a waste to be a slave for life and suggested to him that he should run away to the north because he would find friends there. Douglass pretended he wasn’t interested because of self-preservation. Many slave owners had been known to use spies to find out what their slaves thought of them. And if it wasn’t flattering, they would punish the slaves mercilessly. The two Irishmen planted a seed in his mind. Douglass knew that one day, he would run away, but the time wasn’t right because he wasn’t old enough, so he instead opted to learn to write first.
Frederick Douglass Learning to Write: The Power of the Written Word
Douglass tricked a boy into teaching him how to write, by egging him on, telling the boy that he could not write as well as he. Douglass used the pavement and fence as his copy-book, and a lump of chalk in lieu of pen and ink.
By the time little Thomas (the youngster that Douglass was supposed to be caring for) had gone to school, Mrs Auld would go out to a meeting every Monday afternoon and left Douglass to take care of the house. He would use Thomas’ old copy-book and practice his writing. He continued this practice for years until he mastered the art of writing.
The story is an autobiography, so you see in very graphic details some of the things he suffered at the hands of slave owners who abused power. In 1838, he escaped from slavery and went to New York where he married his girlfriend, Anna Murray, a freed black woman he had met in Baltimore. It wasn’t safe for a runaway slave to be in New York, but he got help there.
There were many whites who believed that all men should be freed and they worked to abolish slavery. Douglass found such people in New York, and he changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass. The abolitionists helped him to disappear in New Bedford. After three days being there, he found employment, and never again had to hand over all his earnings to another.
Frederick Douglass and Underground Railroad No. 1 of 6
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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a tale of a man’s yearning for freedom, and the desire for all to be treated fairly. Frederick became an abolitionist and fought hard for the freedom of other Blacks. In his later years, Douglass held such positions as Secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission, Marshall and Recorder of Deeds of the District of Columbia, and United States Minister to Haiti.
I recommend Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass because it gives us a view of what life was like as a black slave.
Books About Frederick Douglass
National Geographic Readers: Frederick Douglass (Level 2) (Readers Bios)Voice of FreedomFrederick DouglassFrederick DouglassFrederick Douglass A BiographyFrederick DouglassFrederick Douglass: Rising Up from SlaveryFrederick Douglass: For the Great Family of ManFrederick Douglass: From Slave to Statesman
Frederick Douglass Books
These are some of Frederick Douglass Books