|Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass|
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
I confess, I’ve wanted to read this book for awhile, but I was under the impression it was going to be long and rather unwieldy. This was not the case at all. When I went to the bookstore to buy a copy (because can you believe my entire library system doesn’t have it!) I was surprised to see that it was just over a hundred pages.
Douglass is not afraid to name names and detail the abuses suffered by himself and others he knew. The introduction points out that this lent to his credibility, as any false statements could be roundly attacked by his detractors. He details the horrors expected – separating family members, brutal whippings, cold-blooded murders. As bad as it was, though, there was always the terror of being sold even further south, where conditions were far worse.
Douglass also talks about how he learned to read, and that his master was right in saying that if slaves were educated and knew how to read they’d be more likely to rebel. He explains how, after his mistress was forbidden to teach him more, he covertly taught himself. I love the picture of his of learning from the area schoolchildren, using games and sticks in the dirt.
It’s clear that Douglass was committed to helping other slaves achieve their freedom. He railed against the system like few others could, since he himself survived it. However, he criticized those who took a more literal approach in freeing those still in bondage – the operators of the Underground Railroad. He says that his concern is that they are telling slavery’s operators how slaves are escaping, thereby increasing the chances that they’ll be caught.
I have to admit I’m puzzled by this. I mean, yes, perhaps there was a general understanding that there’s a network of people and safe houses that help transport people north. However, I don’t exactly think the operators were publishing their routes. It’s hard for me to agree that Harriet Tubman and others like her shouldn’t have done what they did. Of course, perhaps there’s more to this than I’m aware. I’m certainly not an expert in this area. I also respect the right of people to disagree about the best way to get to a shared end goal.
Anyway! Read this – seriously. It’s good! And a classic! And there are two more autobiographies that follow it, so there’s more to read.
One lucky commentor will WIN my copy. All you have to do is tell me something you’re doing to celebrate Black History Month. I’ll randomly choose a winner and email you for your address. Good Luck!
Want more like this? Try:*
- Sarah H. Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Tubman dictated incidents in her life to Sarah Bradford, an admirer.
- Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative. Prince’s narrative was the first written by an enslaved woman.
- Briton Hammon, Narrative of the Uncommon Suffering and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon. Generally considered the first slave narrative.
*These selections are taken from the back of my copy of Narrative, where other slave narratives are listed.