Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave is the extraordinary memoir of Frederick Douglass, famous abolitionist, human rights activist and social reformer. The book was printed in 1845 and was enormously popular and offered powerful evidence for the inhumane treatment of slaves and the injustices of the institution of slavery. After escaping bondage, Douglass was determined to speak out against slavery, educate the nation about the reality of the institution and channel his intellectual and oratory abilities into the abolitionist movement. With literary skill and straightforward detail to events and facts, Frederick Douglass shares the “soul killing effects of slavery” with the world (14).
Douglass’ tale begins with a description of his early life, birth in Maryland, and discusses how he does not know his mother except for a few nightly visits. Douglass shares that the separation he endured from his mother is common practice, as slave mothers are separated from their children at their twelve month (2). He also suspects his father to be the plantation master. From this platform, Douglass attends to the subject of the “class of slaves” that are mixed race, who are born of a slave woman and white master. Surely, this exposé on mulatto children helped name a taboo cruelty that many saw but few were wont to speak about (Douglass 3-4). With few words, Douglass effectively sums up the conflicting nature of maintaining offspring slaves on the same plantation with their fathers and half-siblings, and the special cruelty and attention they would be paid for their father’s sins in the way that the mistress of the house would purposely “find fault” and the brothers would be in charge of punishing or whipping them (5).
Chapters II and III are dedicated to describing the work and living conditions of Maryland slaves and the slim to nonexistent means for clothing and food allotted to slaves and children. Later, when he is about 7 years of age, Douglass is sold to Mr. Hugh in Baltimore and Douglass begins to read. Yet, after his mistress is forbade to teach him to read by his master, Douglass realizes that the road to freedom lays in developing his intellect, the first step of which is to learn to read. He lives there with Mr. Hugh a total of 7 years and teaches himself to read and write, but that it “gave me a view of my wretched condition without a remedy” (Douglass 24). At 16 or so he goes to Edward Covey, a slave breaker, and stays with him one year, and was beaten weekly for six months and “broken in body, soul, and spirit” (38). Yet, the epic struggle with Covey to avoid whipping signaled a crucial turning point in Douglass life, and age 20 he escapes from bondage.
A major strength of the narrative lies in Douglass’ analytical abilities. Throughout the accounts of his life, the author blends deep character analysis of slaveholders, slaves, overseers, and mistresses to paint a graphic picture of life as a slave and explain the psychology of oppressors. He adeptly analyzes the reasons behind the “contented slave” and dissects the cruel intentions behind slaveholders such as Captain Auld. This is significant because the human mind and heart wants to understand how individuals and society at large, could become complicit in such an inordinately cruel practice.
The book showcases Douglass’ ability with words and emotions to affect the reader’s awareness. A book like this surely affected thousands of whites who read it at the time as it was published. David Blight, historian and professor at Yale University writes about how abolitionists used slave narratives like Douglass’ book as tools to educate and mobilize whites against slavery in the United States. Douglass was 27 at the time of the book’s printing in 1845, and it sold 30,000 copies in the first 5 years (Blight). Douglass expertly and effectively conveys the scenes of whippings, punishment and other physical and emotional cruelty in the most matter of fact way was to be a credible witness, victim and survivor at the same time. Professor Blight writes: “sixty-five to seventy slave narratives published in America or England between 1760 and 1860 were windows into the nature of slavery itself; they were first-person witnesses to the will to be known” (“Slave Narratives”). Such is the case with Douglass’ narrative, and its purpose is twofold: it serves to relay his harrowing tale and two is a vehicle for social and political commentary on the institution of slavery and its impact on the human being. For example, in the first paragraph of his book, Douglass begins by explaining that no slave knows his real birthday. This is an incredibly striking way to begin a book because birthdays are something everyone knows regarding their individual existence on the planet. The only conclusion to make is that slaves are not worthy of a birthday because to do so would celebrate their lives and welcome them into the human family. The institution of slavery could not permit that, and so relegated birthdays as irrelevant for slaves: “it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant” (1).
At the very core of the institution of slavery is to deny human value. Douglass achieves his goal of revealing the horror and the inhumanity of slavery, of which the United States economy was built upon. Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical work is a must read for any person interested in 19th century American history, the conditions of slavery or in the anti-slavery movement. Personally, I would recommend this book to anyone shares these common interests.
- Blight, David W. “The Slave Narratives: A Genre and a Source.” Web. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. 11 November 2013.
- Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. New York: Dover Publications. Print.