Book Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

F. DouglassFrederick Douglass was originally named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey around 1817 or 1818–he was never sure of the exact date and year. He was born in Maryland to a black slave mother and an unknown white father, rumored to be his master but never confirmed. It was common practice in that time and place to remove slave children from their mothers at a young age, so his mother was sent away and he lived with his grandmother.

As he grew up, he witnessed the whole gamut of slavery, from kind masters to cruel ones, of savage beatings and even murders with no recourse or help for the slave against an unfair master. Any beatings were felt to be deserved because of something the slave had done or needed to keep him in his place. His master could pass him around to other relatives or even renters. When one master died, Frederick and all the other slaves owned by the master were reckoned up as property alongside the animals. One of his masters bought a slave woman specifically for breeding purposes. Under one of the worst masters, with inadequate clothing, food, and shelter, and being worked beyond endurance all hours of the day, he “was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” During that time he spent Sundays, his only free time, “in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.”

At one time when he was a child, he was sent to a mistress who had never had slaves before, and she treated him more kindly that any white woman had ever treated him. He was to help take care of her son, and she started to teach him to read alongside her son. But her husband stopped her,

…telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a n—– an inch, he will take an ell. A n—– should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n—– in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that n—– (speaking of myself) 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. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

He used any means and methods he could to learn to read and write, including asking other white boys to help him:

The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge. I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids;—not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country.

When he was older and working at a shipyard, he noted that the different boards were marked with the letter for the part of the ship they were meant for (“S” for starboard, etc.). He learned to make those letters, and “After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, ‘I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.’ I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way. During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk.”

His harshest words were for masters who professed to be Christians, because, sadly, they were often the worst, and because, if they were Christians, they should have known better than to treat people the way they did. In fact, he spoke so strongly against them that at the end of a book he felt he should put an appendix explaining

I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Earlier in the book he says of his being sent to the mistress who began to teach him to read:

It is possible, and even quite probable, that but for the mere circumstance of being removed from that plantation to Baltimore, I should have to-day, instead of being here seated by my own table, in the enjoyment of freedom and the happiness of home, writing this Narrative, been confined in the galling chains of slavery. Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors. I regarded the selection of myself as being somewhat remarkable. There were a number of slave children that might have been sent from the plantation to Baltimore. There were those younger, those older, and those of the same age. I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice.

I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.

This quote about singing especially touched me:

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

He tells of a failed attempt to escape, but shares little detail about the time he succeeded, both to protect those who helped him and to avoid letting masters in on ways that a slave could escape. In his early twenties at this time, he settled in New York, doing any kind of work he could find. Besides feeling”gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil,” he noted when visiting a shipyard, “almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange.” All the wealthy, refined people in the places he had been all had had slaves, so he had thought the North, with no slaves, would be poor and rough. He was surprised to find that was not the case.

He married, changed his last name to Douglass, and got involved in the abolitionist movement. At one meeting he was asked to speak, and people were so taken by his oratory and articulation that some didn’t feel that he could have been a slave. That led to the writing of A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself when he was 27 or 28. This narrative stops at about this time in his life. I wish, when I decided I wanted to read about him, that I had checked into his other writings, because he wrote two later autobiographies which included his life beyond this time. I did enjoy reading about it on the Wikipedia article about him. He spent the rest of his life fighting for freedom for slaves, and after the Civil War, fought for fairness for them as well as others who did not have equal rights.

Several things stood out to me in this book. In reading about slavery, treatment of POWs, and things like this, I am astonished at man’s inhumanity to man and the depths it will go. Just utterly astonished. And sadly it’s still not vanquished: there is still slavery in other parts of the world, and though we have come a long way since this era, there are still negative attitudes that cling to society that need to change.

Douglass’s passion for education and his value of being able to work for himself when he was free also spoke to me. We who have free education and opportunities for work take those gifts so for granted.

I agree with his assessment that “kind providence” led him in the way he should go and gave him opportunities to learn, and then he made the most of them. It was thought at that time by some that slaves couldn’t learn, and he disproved that abundantly. Then he used the rest of his life and his gifts to give a voice to those who were oppressed and to help them. I highly recommend the reading of this inspiring life. The text of this book is free online through Project Gutenberg and is also available as a free Kindle book. I listened to the audiobook but also reread many portion in the Kindle version.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)


7 thoughts on “Book Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  1. Pingback: Reading Plans for 2016 | Stray Thoughts

  2. I teach high school and my 11th grade students are reading and studying this book right now. It is a book I think that all Americans should read. I loved your review.

  3. Pingback: What’s On Your Nightstand: March 2016 | Stray Thoughts

  4. Looking back through your reviews to find some other classics to read. Just got this one sent to my Kindle. I’ll read it first before deciding on the (much!) longer book he wrote afterwards. 🙂 Thanks for posting this.

  5. Pingback: Back to the Classics Challenge Wrap-Up | Stray Thoughts

  6. Pingback: Books Read in 2016 | Stray Thoughts

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