Title: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Author: Frederick Douglass
Genre: Non-fiction, Autobiography, Slave Narrative
I regret that I only now got to this book. I mentioned in my first post months ago that literature written by Black authors wasn’t a big part of my curriculum in high school, so I’m only now reading books that many read a while ago. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is one of them.
I mentioned in my discussion about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad that slave narratives are sort of bittersweet; the splendor of the writing is suppressed by the very detailed depictions of the horrors of slavery. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass has the added weight of being a real-life, non-fiction account, and so the descriptions of violence, while maybe not as prominent as they were in The Underground Railroad or Kindred, still sting just a little bit more. However, I will say that I’m thankful I read this book because it was such an excellent read.
Given the obvious societal obstacles in regards to education for enslaved people, it’s quite remarkable to see how good of a writer Frederick Douglass became and how vivid his recollection of events was — although I suppose it would be hard for anybody to forget the kind of horrors he had to watch/experience during the time in which he was enslaved.
Early on in the book, Douglass describes his early life and the barbarity of slavery, detailing some of the horrific acts he witnessed by the slaveowners and overseers. However, one of the most pivotal moments of Frederick’s life was when he was sent to work for a “nicer” slaveholder named Hugh Auld. Hugh’s wife, Sophia, taught Frederick his ABCs, to Hugh’s dismay. Hugh forbid his wife from educating Frederick, claiming it would “spoil” him. (“Now if you teach that n****r how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”) From that point on, Frederick realized that education would be his path to freedom, and he strove to learn how to read and write. From there, Douglass recounts his continued efforts to educate himself, the discrepancies between the experiences he had with various slaveholders, his growing disdain for the institution of slavery / passion for freedom, and ultimately his escape to the north.
There were a couple moments of enlightenment that Douglass recalls that really stuck out to me personally. The first was his observation of the paradoxical nature of American Christianity. He first encounters the paradox when describing the brutality of his master Thomas Auld. Thomas attended a Methodist camp where he converted to Christianity, after which Douglass says his cruel treatment of the slaves actually got WORSE. (“Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.”) In the appendix of the book, Douglass expands on his views of this paradox, and the reader can tell that Douglass is absolutely pissed off about the blatant hypocrisy with which slaveholders worshipped Jesus but then enslaved people. This quote was one of the most potent in the entire narrative:
Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels…I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.
Another of Douglass’s important moments of awakening was during another stint under Hugh Auld. Douglass had become a skilled calker and was contracting his services to other people, pulling in decent wages every week. However, at the end of each week he promptly had to hand over all the profits to Hugh. This caused Frederick’s desire for liberation to grow, as he watched his hard work exploited and his income robbed from him every single week. This last paragraph of Chapter 10 really stood out to me:
I was now getting…one dollar and fifty cents per day. I contracted for it; I earned it; it was paid to me; it was rightfully my own; yet, upon each returning Saturday night, I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh. And why? Not because he earned it — not because he had any hand in earning it — not because I owed it to him — nor because he passed the slightest shadow of a right to it; but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up.
It’s interesting to see how the situation Douglass described, which took place under a system of slavery, somewhat mirrors the situation that many working class people find themself in modern-day capitalism. But I guess that’s a discussion for another day…
Anyway, the only part of this book that was disappointing was the lack of details concerning Douglass’s escape, but of course, as Douglass explains in the last chapter, he didn’t want to give away any information that would cause slaveholders to make escape harder for other slaves in the future. I certainly get that and respect it; still, it would’ve been great to hear more about his journey (and perhaps he divulges the details in one of his later autobiographies).
Overall this was a great read. An intriguing, well-written, concise narrative. It’s easy to see how influential, from a political, social and academic standpoint, this book became.
Did you read this book? If so, did you enjoy it? What parts of the book resonated with you the most?