American history, autobiographies, Classics, nonfiction, writing

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

frederick douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass. Kindle Edition. Original work published in 1845. Paperback edition, 82 pages.

I hadn’t planned to re-read this autobiographical work by the famed orator, abolitionist and escaped Frederick Douglass. It wasn’t in my queue for the fall. However our kids were assigned excerpts from it in a lesson on persuasive literary techniques and in the 20 years since my first reading, there were large portions I’d forgotten.

When unforeseen events found us on a road trip this weekend, I purchased the Kindle version of The Narrative for 0.99, using the travel time to reintroduce myself to Frederick Douglass’ brief but passionate recounting of his life in slavery, from his early years to his eventual escape and rise to prominence as a free man and respected abolitionist speaker and writer. I’m glad I reacquainted myself with it.

For myriad reasons, I long ago made the decision not to expend significant time reexamining nor ruminating on the history of slavery in America. To the extent that we want our children to understand the fruit of human sin as well as the blessings they now enjoy, we teach them the history of their ancestors, including those ancestors still among us who haven’t always shared the freedom they enjoy.

It means teaching the good as well as the bad. Those lessons however, are always balanced with the truth that they have enormous amounts of opportunities available to them as a result of earnest attempts at redress, no matter how imperfect. Their mission, should they choose to rise to the challenge of morality, industry, and integrity, is to seize it.

Frederick Douglass, with no opportunity, and only bitter yokes of oppression somehow seized the reins of his destiny and emerged not only successfully, but triumphantly. He wasn’t content with the achievement of his own freedom. He had a deep Christian faith which sparked in him the desire to see all men be free.

That is the moral of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, alongside his fervent abolitionist message. And his narrative is indeed an excellent example to use as a tool to teach the principles of persuasive writing. To that end, I will keep this short and sweet by ending with a few persuasive and eloquent quotes from Douglass’ narrative.

On how his master unwittingly sparked his passionate desire for knowledge and freedom when he was a young boy between 8 and 10 (Douglass never knew his exact age or birth date). His master discovered that his mistress was teaching him to read:

Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (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.

On the importance of keeping the mind of the slave in captivity. This quote feels especially apt in our current cultural climate, regardless of race:

“To make a contented slave, you must make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate his power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery. The man that takes his earnings, must be able to convince him that he has a perfect right to do so. It must not depend upon mere force; the slave must know no Higher Law than his master’s will. The whole relationship must not only demonstrate, to his mind, its necessity, but its absolute rightfulness.”

On the unprecedented and unparalleled cruelty of those oppressors who claim to be Christians:

“For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”

Further:

“We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”

None of this spoiled Douglass’ fervor for and belief in Christ and the Christian faith:

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the
corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical
Christianity of this land.”

This indeed is an excellent piece for exploring the power of persuasive rhetoric, and a powerful narrative of an important period in American history. I could go on, but the only other option is to paste the whole narrative here, which I don’t think is feasible.

It’s worth a read.

5 out of 5 stars.

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4 thoughts on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

  1. Indeed, there is a lot of opportunity here for deep reflection, Crystal.

    In fact, reading this with a couple of decades of living under my belt helped me to appreciate more the spiritual and intellectual thoughts Douglass offered.

    Rather than hyperfocusing on the specific moments of suffering, I was able to put them in a better context when combined with the whole of the ideals Douglass espoused regarding the plight of slaves and the nature of mankind as a whole.

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  2. …So many deep thoughts worthy of pondering.

    Including this one not in the book: I have yet to meet the woman who does not chase the lowest price.

    In order for the producer to compete with other producers at the lowest price, he must drive his costs of production lower. The natural outcome of this go-round and round is slave wages – and, finally, slavery itself.

    I only know my time, not civil war time, so I can only comment on what I see. But I also know finance and economics and I know that the producer must make a profit or he cannot continue in business. I know that when women chase the lowest price, the producer must turn to cheaper labor, slave wages, slavery. Since that sort of thing is frowned on in this country, the producer turns to foreign countries where he can pay slave wages. In the process, other women’s husbands lose their jobs.

    Why don’t you stop chasing the lowest price, we ask our women. Why don’t you agree to pay a fair, higher price so that the producer can pay his workers higher wages? We can’t, say the ladies, because our husbands are having their wages cut because other women want to buy the products our husbands make at the lowest possible price. Why is that, we may wonder. Probably because the husbands of these other women have had their wages cut because other women want to buy the products that they make at the lowest possible price.

    There is a savage penalty to be paid for chasing the lowest price, but the process that leads to that penalty has never become a useful part of our national conversation. Too complicated for the common folks to understand, they say.

    I’m willing to bet something on the order of the process just discussed is what made slavery – not just attractive, but necessary. Consider the wages available to those freed slaves who made their way north to work in the factories. There were a few exceptions – but, for the most part, the factories paid the lowest wages they could get away with. All because they needed to be able to compete with other like businesses that were selling to women chasing the lowest price.

    It is not likely that the world-wide practice of chasing the lowest price is going to stop. Which has huge implications for economic sustainability in many countries, not just the U.S.

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  3. Good morning Richard P. Was this quote a Frederick Douglass quote? I spent a few seconds looking for it but couldn’t find it anywhere.

    If not, I am searching my mind for its relevance. Is it that women cause slavery by chasing the lowest price?

    And while I can certainly appreciate the connection to chasing low prices and slave wages (I intimated a bit about how one of Douglass’ quotes is relevant even in the USA of today), I fail to see how any of that enlightening economics lesson relates to the particular situation which Douglass escaped from and wrote about.

    It was not my intent to pretend that we live in that same era or situation, only to review a well written, persuasive narrative from a slave who escaped slavery 180 years ago, in 1838, and penned his narrative in 1845.

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