Friday, October 3, 2014

BOOK REVIEW | Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery.  With a slave owning father - who was presumably his first master - and a slave mother, all Douglass ever knew was slavery.  However, even though he was a slave, he knew he was being denied his basic human rights without anyone telling him: "The white children could tell their ages.  I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege." 

Douglass also offers an interesting insight into the emotions of slaves:

"Slave 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.  To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery." 

This is before Douglass has learned how to read or write.  There is something innate in people that tells them when they are being wronged and Douglass knew that his condition as a slave - and the entire enterprise of slavery - was wrong.  But it wasn't just wrong for himself.  When describing his owner's wife, he describes her as angelic, as one of the first people who ever looked upon him with kindness and sincerely smiled at him.  However, "The cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon." (Emphasis is mine.)   He goes on to explain that when it came to Sophia Auld, the aforementioned woman, "Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me."  Douglass explains that she wasn't a born slave owner and that in the power of owning another being she became as corrupted as the worst of them.  The slaving system is detrimental not only to the slaves, but also to their masters.

Douglass also sheds a light on the hypocritical nature of the slave holder.  How the most pious of Christians turn out to be the worst of slave breakers, using the example of Mr. Covey: "Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion - a pious soul - a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church.  All of this added weight to his reputation as a "nigger-breaker."*  He then goes on to compare Mr. Covey to God, in what I can only imagine was meant to be a sardonic and ironic comparison by saying "His comings were like a thief in the night" when he went to go check on the slaves and make sure they were doing their work.

Throughout the narrative, Douglass is trying to establish his identity.  He is forming himself from nothing.  He has nothing to remember except a mother who used to sneak in to his plantation even though it was miles from his own to visit him, a grandmother who was left to rot by her slave owners and a father who may or may not have been his actual master.  When it comes time for him to find a name, he changes his surname a few times, from Bailey to Johnson and then eventually to the last name Douglass, which was actually given to him.  But when Mr. Johnson, the man who named him, gave him his name, Douglass told him that "he must not take from me the name of 'Frederick.' I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity."  At this point Douglass is a free man in the North, and his identity is that of an ex-slave, now married, and living a life where he can be his own master.  But there is power in that first name, as I believe it reminds him of where he came from and how hard it took for him to get to where he is.  There is power is names. 

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a narrative that is well worth the read, and I understand why it is required reading in high schools and colleges.   It offers an in-depth and personal look into slavery from an ex-slave's point of view while also being incredibly accessible and readable.  This review is a brief overview of the amount of subjects offered up, the themes involved and more.  To properly explain this book it would require multiple dissertations, but I hope it gave you interest in wanting to read it.  Highly recommended.

* I'm sorry to have had to use the "n" word in a review.  Please understand it was in the quotation and does not reflect my own speech.


  1. I've never read a book, fictional or not, about slavery in the US but of course I know some because I had to study a bit for my American culture course last year. I'll be honest and say I don't know if I will have the guts to read something like that, is the same when I'm reading something based on any world war. It takes a lot of previous preparation for me because otherwise I won't be able to keep my emotions at bay. I don't know if I'm making any sense but what I wanted to say is that I could give this a go, but I need to be mentally prepared

    1. I actually didn't cry over Douglass's narrative. So far, the only ones I really teared up in were Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Before this class I'm taking for uni, I really hadn't read a slave narrative either, but I had seen heaps of movies about it and was exposed to its horrors at an earlier age, which I think most Americans are, especially in Liberal states.