Frederick Douglass is one of the most prominent African American heroes in the history of the United States. He was among the small group of pioneers who, through the example of their lives and brave political actions, advocated the abolition of slavery. During his lifetime, he gained popularity as a charismatic and eloquent speaker. He was also a master of the written word and drew praise from all quarters for his autobiographical works. The first of his autobiographies was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and it received both critical and popular appreciation. The subsequent autobiographies were extended and revised versions of this first book. The book in question has firmly established itself in the American Literary Canon and quite deservedly so. In it, Douglass narrates the story of his life in all earnestness and feeling. Born into the system of Chattel slavery, there were no inklings in his early life of what was to transpire later. But through good fortune and his own curiosity, Douglass learned the English alphabet early in life and became a literate person. This was against the law at the time, as black slaves were prohibited from getting an education. As a result of his interest in reading, his intellectual horizons expanded and his moral outrage against the injustices of slavery got affirmed. This would inspire him to escape from his owner and join his fellow activists and abolitionists. And by the time the Civil war broke out, many blacks started seeing him as their leader in their struggle for freedom. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass captures such key events and personal developments during his life.
I found certain aspects of the book particularly striking. Firstly, for someone who was self-taught and did not have a formal education, the quality and power of language employed is quite amazing. Indeed, the quality of the prose and the construction of the narrative was so rich and eloquent that some people did not believe that it was originally authored by Douglass. Such views were dismantled by Douglass himself, whose powerful oration and the ease with which he addressed public audiences removed any doubt that the identity of the speaker and the writer are one and the same. Secondly, the book contains no express hatred of his former white masters. Despite having lived the early and formative years of his life as the ‘property’ of a white landowner, Douglass’ ire is directed at the institution of slavery as a whole and not at individual slave owners. Such a nuanced understanding of the social problem shows Douglass is good light and suggests that his thinking was far ahead of his times. I would even say that his thinking was more sophisticated than some of his contemporary abolitionists who did not condemn violent retaliation as a mode of protest.
Finally, reading the book has been a great personal journey for me. In contrast to the image of slave system that I gathered from popular media outlets such as Television and film, this book has sharpened and refined my understanding of its injustices. By the time I finished the book, Frederick Douglass had already become a cultural, historical and political hero for me and he would continue to be so. I also realized that the book was not just about the life of one individual but about an entire era in American history with all its cultural conflicts, moral dilemmas and political dynamics. Indeed, the time and energy I spend reading the book was spent worthily and the education it has given me will stay with me for the rest of my life.