The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

“I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland.”

Born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey around 1817/1818, Douglass learned to read and write as a boy with the help of the wife of his master. In spite of his situation, he claims that he always had an implicit belief that he would not always be a slave.

“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 embarce; and in the darkets hours of my career in slavery, this living world of fath and spirit of ope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angles to cheer me through the gloom.  The good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and peace.”

At around twenty years old, he escaped to the north, married, and soon afterwards changed his name to Douglass.  Becoming involved in the abolitionist movement, Douglass was encourage to speak and tell the story of his experiences as a slave.

Yet while he was welcomed by the anti-slavery community, Douglass did not only find critics outside this movement, but also opposition from within.  He was limited by white abolitionists as to what he could say during speeches, attempting to avoid any reference to current issues or a way forward for black people as a race.  Yet upon the publication of his book, Douglass’ popularity soared and he gained a credibility he has not experienced previously.

Douglass elucidates on the cruelty of slavery that goes beyond the physical. He speaks of being shut up in a “mental darkness” by the refusal of masters to educate their slaves.  He relates how slaveholders would practice mental fraud on their slaves by allowing and encouraging them to drink to excess during their free holiday time, with the result that the conditions of slavery and liberty did not appear to have a decided difference.

Douglass also gives the recipe for making a content slave:

“…… I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.  It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.  He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”

Douglass has some interesting insights into slave masters:

“……. and of all men, adopted slaveholders are the worst  …… He was a slaveholder without the ability to hold slaves.  He found himself incapable of managing his slaves either by force, fear, or fraud.  We seldom called him, “master;” we generally called him “Captain Auld,” and were hardly disposed to title him at all ……. He wished to have us call him master, but lacked the firmness necessary to command us to do so ……”

There are apparently two editions of this narrative, this one being a rather shorter narrative, and the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which is a third publication and expanded to give more detail about his life including some history of the period.

The next book in the WEM order is Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. While the first two slave narratives have been interesting, they certainly haven’t been gripping and I must admit I’m not really looking forward to this next book.  In any case, onward and upward!

7 thoughts on “The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

  1. Question: How many books are on the WEM and where can I find the list?
    Feeling of hesitation starting a book on a list is familiar.
    I really did no want to start the long Zola book Le Débâcle …but had to if I wanted to finish the challenge.

  2. Here is the full list from Ruth's blog: I'm missing the novels on my list which is under my "Current Pages" in the Well-Educated Mind list.

    I'm really glad that I've read most of the books on the list so far. If I have to go through a few minor-yawners for some excellent ones, I'm happy to do it.

    I'm taking on vacation both Zola's "Money" to finish and the next one "The Dream". Boy, I'm plodding through the Rougon-Macquart series lately. I think I got Zola-ed-out. His writing is fabulous but often so depressing. I should try some uplifting palate cleansers in between!

  3. Sorry you're not getting into these latest few. Hopefully it picks up for you. It is curious how Bauer listed three slave narratives in a row.

  4. Even though I haven't been thrilled with the first two, I'm glad she did. I'm woefully ignorant of the U.S. history of slavery and I have a much better grasp of it now.

  5. This work is considered one of the first and seminal works of true "African American" voices. I have never read it, though its been on my TBR forever simply because I am kind of apprehensive of the whole depressiveness of the subject. There is no denying that slavery is an awful horrific practice, reading it in the voice of someone actually who lived it, may be a bit too much for me! But I really should summon the courage to read it one of these days!

  6. He's definitely less depressing than Harriet Jacobs. He's more a-matter-of-fact in his narrative.

    What I've missed from these books so far, is a way to move forward in a human way. You can speak about practicalities and reason and that's useful, but if one tries simply to protect one segment of the population or to legislate people's behaviour, it almost seems as if nothing has truly changed. I'd love to read something that communicates ideas of how to changes hearts and minds; imo, that's the way to effect true change.

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