Everybody Needs to Read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass, 1845

If you haven’t read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or you haven’t read it in a long time, you should read it. It will make you feel terrible, but you should read it. It has a happy ending.

I read this book when I was a child and while I really wasn’t able to process or understand the cruelty that Douglass witnessed and endured as a slave, I was inspired by the strength of his character. As an adult, the facts of Douglass’ early life are much more gut-wrenchingly horrific, and his ability to retain a sense of personal worth and dignity are even more admirable.

No rags-to-riches story in the canon of English fiction is more dramatic than the true story of Frederick Douglass’ life. As a child he was separated from his mother. He suspected that his white owner was his father, but this was never acknowledged. He was barely fed and given one shirt per year as clothing. During winter, on “the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”

Douglass was sent to Baltimore, where the wife of his owner began to teach him to read, until her husband made her stop, because it was illegal to teach slaves to read. With dogged determination and resourcefulness, Douglass secretly continued to teach himself how to read. He read abolitionist tracts. He became more enraged at the cruel injustice of slavery and more determined to be free.

Look, I was going to keep writing, but I don’t actually want to say much about this book. You don’t need to hear it from me, you should hear it from Frederick Douglass himself. The entire purpose of a “slave narrative” is to learn about oppression from the oppressed, instead of getting your information second hand. Besides, Douglass is way more eloquent than I am. Every line in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass agitates my emotions.

I have admired Frederick Douglass for a long time. I think he possibly lived the most admirable life of any American ever.

I didn’t dress up as Frederick Douglass, because that didn’t seem respectful and racial politics are complicated. What I did do was visit the house where he lived in Washington, D.C. which is a historical site now. If you live in or are visiting the D.C. area, you should go to the site and learn about this man. Ironically, his house is very close to a school where I taught. A school in which 98% of students are African American and 14% of students are proficient in reading. Frederick Douglass’ work is not done.

One other thing I must mention, Douglass spoke out vehemently about the false Christianity of the slaveholders. In his experience, religious slaveholders were the most cruel. I probably don’t need to warn any of my readers about the way religion is still used in this country as a justification for hatred, oppression and cruelty towards minorities. But, here’s an excellent quote for good measure:

“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.”

Beware of religious revivalism. It saves no souls.

Here are some  more quotes:

Be faithful, be vigilant, be untiring in your efforts to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free.

It’s easier to build strong children then repair broken men.

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

Final thoughts:

Just read it. It’s not very long. It’s in the public domain, so you can get it for free. No excuses, just read it.

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