Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass – by Frederick Douglass

FD

He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence … The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. 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 soul!
                                 Frederick Douglass – Appendix to ‘Narrative’.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, the son of a female slave and an unknown white man. As was common practice then, he was separated from his mother when he was still a baby and raised by an elderly female slave who was too old to work in the fields.  His mother was subsequently sent to work on a plantation some twelve miles distant but would, as often as she could, make the round trip of 24 miles on foot to see her son. Poignantly, he says that his only memories of her were at night, when she lay down to sleep with him … because when he woke in the morning she was always gone, having left early to be back in the fields by sunrise.

Even that tenuous link, however, was broken by his mother’s death when he was about seven years old, and he received the news of her death, he said, ‘with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger’. His early severance from her had broken the maternal bond, which is presumably exactly why the children of slaves were separated from their mothers in infancy.

Douglass was raised, like most other slaves, to be docile, passive, unthinking and illiterate.

Early in his life, however, he was taught the rudiments of reading by his kindly – and at that time very unworldly – mistress. When her husband found out, he stopped her, telling her it was both illegal and unsafe to teach a slave to read. Douglass reports that he laid down the law to his young wife thus:

‘If you give a n*gger an inch, he will take an ell. A n*gger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n*gger in the world. Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that n*gger (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.’

Given that the boy was only eight at the time, the likelihood of his remembering with such precision what his master said is, of course, extremely remote – but they were doubtless words he was to hear many more times in his life, so we can fairly safely assume the basic message being conveyed is entirely accurate – and that diatribe, along with the dawning of literacy, changed the course of the young boy’s life:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering and called into existence an entirely new train of thought … I now understood what had to me been a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man … from that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.

He went on to teach himself to read and write, began reading everything he could lay his hands on and – inevitably – started to think deeply about slavery, hypocrisy and his own condition – because language is power and literacy begets critical thought.

It would be another twelve years before he finally escaped, with the aid of a borrowed merchantman’s papers and the financial assistance of his fiancée, (a free black woman of Baltimore called Anna Murray – whom he subsequently married), but once he had done so, he quickly became an in-demand, salaried speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society, and his Narrative, published in 1845, rapidly became the best-selling and most influential of all the anti-slavery texts of the period.

The reasons for its success are fairly obvious when you read it. In raw and straightforward  language, which is nevertheless elegant in its simplicity, he delineates the brutal  hopelessness of the slave’s existence. Their treatment as unreasoning beasts and chattels – with particular emphasis upon the dreadful lives of the women – is in stark contrast to Douglass’s growing self-awareness and sophistication of thought.  His moral, intellectual and emotional superiority to those who considered themselves his betters underlined –if they needed underlining – the enormous evils of slavery.

Indeed SO eloquent is the Narrative that some at the time inevitably questioned its authenticity. After all, how could an unreasoning and unfeeling lower form of life possibly be so articulate and impassioned? These days, we call it cognitive dissonance.

While there is no doubt that Douglass employed many rhetorical devices when writing his Narrative, and engaged in some creative reinvention of himself over the years (as, indeed, most of us do) the basic facts of the story he tells withstood close examination. He told the truth.

It wouldn’t have been surprising if the inhumanity of the ‘Christian’ slave owners had turned him against religion completely – but he was far too intelligent and clear-sighted for that, recognizing – and not hesitating to point out – that their cloak of piety was soaked in blood and hypocrisy.

The Oxford World Classics edition of the Narrative that I read includes copious explanatory notes from John Charles, a thoughtful and informative introduction by Deborah E McDowell and also a selection of Douglass’s other writings (especially on women’s rights – of which he was a staunch supporter), along some of his source material. A huge amount is packed into a slim volume. If you’d like to know more about Frederick Douglass, this is an excellent place to start.

And I’m very happy to confirm that, one hundred and twenty-two years after his death, he is indeed still doing a terrific job.

This edition: Oxford World Classics. OUP. 2009. ISBN: 978-0-19-953907-9. 130pp.

(Note: The Narrative contains repeated use of the epithet ‘n*gger’ which I had no qualms about quoting, given the context. My only reason for deploying an asterisk was to avoid possible problems sharing to social media sites and elsewhere.)

One comment on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass – by Frederick Douglass

  1. Jackie
    March 17, 2017

    I’ve read about Mr. Douglass, but have never read anything actually by him, so I was interested in this review. I’m impressed that he was also a proponent of womens’ rights, too, which was very enlightened for the times.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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