A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
© 1845 Frederick Douglass
Although modern readers take for granted the idea that slavery is “bad”, its horrors can only be fully appreciated by the shared experience of those who were subjected to it. No finer conveyor is available than Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became an abolitionist leader, who achieved such renown in his lifetime that he dined in the White House. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was penned by Douglass for the benefit of an abolitionist society to arouse sympathy in the north. Douglass later authored other biographies, but The Narrative is limited to his years in bondage, and – considering its intended purpose — focuses on the evil slavery was in practice. The tale of constant beatings, of the culture of subservience, of the dehumanizing ways slaves were forced to live is surely enough to set anyone’s blood on fire, though the modern mind may be numbed by the thought of the Holocaust, or the obscenities we subject ourselves to voluntarily through the daily news. The antidote to rage and despair are joy and hope, both offered by Douglass’ story. Cause for hope stems not from the fact that he escaped — he is very coy about how he did it, so slaveholders cannot use his narrative to improve their security — but the fact that he made himself a man. Douglass’ greatest triumph is not in escaping physical slavery, but escaping the enslavement of his mind and spirit. Given a start by a briefly sympathetic mistress, Douglass learned to read — but even after she abandoned her kindness, her soul corrupted by the conceit of owning another man, he pushed himself forward. In defiance of the slave-culture created by the plantation owners, Douglass pursued what he recognized as the sure route to liberty, and sought out every opportunity to make advances. He taught himself to write as well, enough to forge passes in an abortive escape attempt, and enough to write with a command of style that was doubtless a boon to the abolitionist cause. His strength of spirit would make him a free man even if his body were in chains.