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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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Born a slave circa1818 (slaves weren't told when they were born) on a plantation in Maryland, Douglass taught himself to read and write. In 1845, seven years after escaping to the North, he published Narrative, the first of three autobiographies. This book calmly but dramatically recounts the horrors and the accomplishments of his early years—the daily, casual brutality of the white masters; his painful efforts to educate himself; his decision to find freedom or die; and his harrowing but successful escape.

An astonishing orator and a skillful writer, Douglass became a newspaper editor, a political activist, and an eloquent spokesperson for the civil rights of African Americans. He lived through the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the beginning of segregation. He was celebrated internationally as the leading black intellectual of his day, and his story still resonates in ours.

158 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1845

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About the author

Frederick Douglass

851 books1,202 followers
Frederick Douglass (né Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) was born a slave in the state of Maryland in 1818. After his escape from slavery, Douglass became a renowned abolitionist, editor and feminist. Having escaped from slavery at age 20, he took the name Frederick Douglass for himself and became an advocate of abolition. Douglass traveled widely, and often perilously, to lecture against slavery.

His first of three autobiographies, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, was published in 1845. In 1847 he moved to Rochester, New York, and started working with fellow abolitionist Martin R. Delany to publish a weekly anti-slavery newspaper, North Star. Douglass was the only man to speak in favor of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's controversial plank of woman suffrage at the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. As a signer of the Declaration of Sentiments, Douglass also promoted woman suffrage in his North Star. Douglass and Stanton remained lifelong friends.

In 1870 Douglass launched The New National Era out of Washington, D.C. He was nominated for vice-president by the Equal Rights Party to run with Victoria Woodhull as presidential candidate in 1872. He became U.S. marshal of the District of Columbia in 1877, and was later appointed minister resident and consul-general to Haiti. His District of Columbia home is a national historic site. D. 1895.

More: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederic...






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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,193 reviews
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11k followers
January 31, 2012
Thank you Mr. Douglass…this was a life changer for me. You are a true American hero and the fact that there are not more monuments, government buildings, holidays or other commemorations of your life seems to me an oversight of epic proportions.

How often is it that you can honestly say that you’ll never be the same after reading a book? Well, this life story of a singular individual has changed me....irrevocably. I will never be able to sufficiently express my gratitude to Mr. Douglass for that extraordinary gift of insight. I’m just not sure how to properly express how deeply this story impacted me both with its content and its delivery. Impressive seems such a shallow word. I guess I will call it a unique and special experience and simply state that this autobiography has been added to my list of All Time Favorites .

Being a fan of history, in general, and American history, in particular, I was somewhat familiar with Frederick Douglass and his reputation for being a great orator and a tireless opponent of slavery. However, this is the first time I’ve actually read any of his writings and I was blown away, utterly, by the intellect, character and strength of this American hero. And make no mistake, this man was a HERO in every sense of the word. I can imagine few people in a generation with the combination of intelligence, strength of character, sense of morality, charity and indomitable will as Frederick Douglass.

Here is a man who, as a slave with little or no free time to himself, spent every spare moment he had teaching himself to read and write. Think about that. In a very telling passage, Douglass says that he knew how important it was to educate himself because of how vehemently his master was opposed to it. I’m paraphrasing, but his message was, ‘What my master saw as the greatest evil, I knew to be a perfect good.’ Such determination and clarity of thought boggles the mind. Rarely have a come across a person whose moral fiber I admire more (John Adams being the other historical figure that jumps to mind).

On the issue of slavery itself, I am resolved that there could be no better description of the horrendous evil of slavery than this book. I previously read Uncle Tom's Cabin and, while an important novel, that story had nowhere near the effect on me that this one did. Again, thank you Mr. Douglass.

While there are many aspects of the narrative that are worthy of note (the quality of prose, the excellent balance between details and pace and the fascinating events described), the most memorably impressive thing to me was the tone used by Frederick Douglass to describe his life and the people he came in contact with during his time both as a slave and after securing his freedom. Despite having seen and personally endured staggering brutality at the hands of white slave owners, Douglass never, NEVER comes across as bitter or hate-filled towards all white people. Had I been in his position, I am not sure I could have been so charitable with my outlook.

He speaks frankly and in stark terms about the evil and brutality suffered by himself and his fellow slaves. He sees great wrong and he confronts it boldly with his writing. However, he never generalizes people beyond his indictment of slavery and slave holders. He doesn’t stereotype or extend his anger beyond those whom he rightfully condemns. That is a person of great strength and even greater charity. The dignity of the man is humbling to behold.

After finishing this inspirational, never-be-the-same autobiography, Frederick Douglass has joined my pantheon of American heroes right along side George Washington and John Adams. I plan to read further works by Douglass and can not more strenuously urge others to do the same.

July 18, 2018
Time for a reread! What I like more about Douglass than anything else at all is his clear thinking on subject peoples. He saw that the discrimination against blacks and women was from an identical stance. That white men were imposing a structure of equality and entitlement that placed them at the top, and everyone else far beneath them. Indeed America's much lauded equality didn't apply to Blacks as they property not people. It hasn't changed much in very many countries, if not all, but you can change the descriptive'white' to whichever group of men have ensured they are sitting at the top of the economic and social freedom tree. But it is always men.

In the UK, where Douglass was on a speaking tour with William Wilberforce, he emphasised that the emancipation of slavery had also to include that of women whose condition was also as owned property with few rights.

There is a quote I very much like:

“I asked them why when they persecute men, for religion or colour it was seen by the world as oppression and when they persecute women, it was dismissed as tradition.” The Goodreads author, Emer Martin

The real reason I am going to reread this book is this wonderful review,

"I love the review on here that says, "This book was kind of hard to get into because of the high level words used in this book." In the 21st century a grown adult/product of the USA's educational system finds the vocabulary of a self-taught 19th century slave beyond their comprehension, seriously? God Bless America."
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,113 reviews44.4k followers
April 9, 2017
"Once you learn to read you will forever be free"

This is powerful, so, so powerful. This is a remarkable achievement considering it is written in such a straight forward manner by a man who taught himself to read. There is no embellishment or dramatic imagery here; it is simple, straightforward, harrowing, fact. It is such a strong narrative that I’m extremely glad I read. I recommend it to everyone.

Moreover, to emphasise the sheer depravity, and brutality, these slaves were subjected to, the forward of the book suggests that Douglas had it easy. It was written by a close friend of his who argues that in comparison with other tales of slavery, Douglas’s subjugation was mild and not too bad. This, in itself, speaks volumes because this narrative relays an awful series of events. It does make you wonder what awfulness the others contained if this is considered a lesser form of evil treatment. Douglass had an awful childhood:

I do not recollect of every seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone

From a very young age he had no sense of closeness with anyone. He was separated from his mother at the incredibly young age of ten months. When his mother later dies, he simply doesn’t care. He’s not formed a lasting bond with her, so her demise is like the passing of a stranger: she means nothing to him. They didn’t have enough time together for Douglass to have conceptualised who this person was to him. Indeed, he has very little conception of the world outside his slavery. He doesn’t fully conceive the harshness he is enduring until he is into his early teens. To his mind one of the overseers is a “good” man because he takes no pleasure in the whippings he exacts. In his later life he does fully realise how he’s been controlled and forced to think certain things, but at the time he just wasn’t ware of the full extent of his situation. He doesn’t even know his own age. The slavers loved to keep their chattel in ignorance, so they’d work harder and have fewer dreams of freedom. If they don’t have the knowledge, then they cannot question their masters.


However, Douglass became wise to his enforced ignorance; he quickly learnt that his path to freedom resided in his education. So, after a few brief lessons with a kind, and temporary, mistress he set about learning how to read in any way he could; he learnt from dockworkers and poor white children, and began to see a route to liberty through his increasing knowledge of the world. In this respect, his friend was right about the mildness of Douglass’s treatment. At this point in his life, he only witnessed barbarity rather than being subjugated to it. In this he was lucky, but that luck was to quickly run out. As he grew older his learning opportunities dwindled, as did his hope. He was contracted out to a brute of an owner who was the very image of a sadist slaver.

His new master was terrible and vicious. He almost broke Douglass, but his strength of will bounced back and managed to keep him on his feet. He learnt to strike back with such vigour that his master, who had a reputation for breaking unruly slaves, actually began to fear Douglass. He quickly got rid of him, and fortune sent him into the hands of a former, and gentler, master. Luck was in his favour again. It seems rather ironic to speak of a slave as having such luck, but when considering that very few successfully escaped their bonds it becomes clear that Douglass had a very fortunate opportunity in front of him. In truth, very few were allowed such liberty, and in the process presented with a narrow window of escape, which Douglass quickly leapt through. It took him many years to achieve every slave’s dream, but he got there nonetheless.

This is such an interesting narrative; it is frank, clear and powerful. There are no literary embellishments here. Instead, Douglass provides you with the harsh, and straightforward, truth of his life. The quote I placed at the start of the review says it all for me, it’s also one of my favourite quotes altogether in literature, after reading this it made really appreciate the importance of reading in this world.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 4 books431 followers
February 8, 2017
This book is not an important historical document to be placed in a glass case and venerated during Black History Month. It should be read by all, regardless of race or creed, as a warning against prejudice and oppression.

Douglass' description of the cruel conditions of slavery is mind-searing. His analysis of the system which fostered and condoned it shows amazing depth. He shows that slavery made wretched the lives of the victims but that it also warped the perpetrators, and created a regime in which people were afraid to object to injustice.

That a man could rise from such abject conditions, get an education, and not only share his knowledge with others but become a guiding star of the abolitionist movement is remarkable. That he could be a good Christian and remain untainted by racial prejudice is a testament to his greatness of soul.
Profile Image for Jon Nakapalau.
4,916 reviews682 followers
February 7, 2022
Every once in awhile you read what I call a 'satori' book...you see things from a perspective that will never let you go back to your previously held beliefs. This book really opened my eyes to slavery and the toll it took on countless human beings. Frederick Douglass is truly one of the great intellectuals of American history.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews593 followers
December 24, 2015
"…My copybook was the board-fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write."As with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, I feel as though I should start by reiterating these simple truths about the narrative: Yes, Douglass did write this book himself; No, he was not against Christianity, only a staunch opponent of hypocritical Christians; No, he did not promote hatred of man - his hate was of slavery.
The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door.

This is Douglass' grandmother he speaks of, the woman who after raising generations of her "master's" family, after increasing her "master's" wealth by training generations of her family, she is sent out into the woods in her old age, to live her remaining years alone, while her family is taken away from her and sold. After all, she is of no use to him now.

The more I embrace slave narratives, the more I learn that the good ones always teach new things the big screen hasn't fully capitalized upon. So this one again highlighted the horrific chaining and whipping of slave women who stirred jealousy within their slave owners, but it goes a step further into showing how the wives of slave owners were also brutal murderers and slave beaters. We don't see this highlighted too often, just as we don't see this too often: those black slave women given the separate concubine's houses in the country, where the children were raised.

I tried to envision how a slave like Douglass could ever become close to a woman, after viewing the treatment of his mother, aunt, and grandmother (later, his wife and daughter will die before he did). How could generations of black families survive, let alone thrive, in such environments? In that case, why expect this narrative to be anything less than the brutally honest, passionate, indignant pathos that it is? Douglass lived with siblings but didn't even see them as family - always wanting to get away, always seeking freedom, always distrusting of others.

He saw education as his ticket out of slavery, but once he became educated, he realized how much of a burden it was: "I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy…in moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast…anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!"

After the publication of this book, he feared for this identity so he fled to Europe because of The Fugitive Slave Act; still he spoke against slavery. He didn't believe in revealing too many secrets of his escape (at times even referring to how the underground railway had become the uppergroundrailway), or of the abolitionists and teenage friends who helped educate him.

I read this years ago but once I started reading, the language and tone lured me and kept me involved until the end. To read this American classic and historical treasure, I suggest the Barnes and Noble Classics Edition for the great notes and letters from abolitionists, the time outline, and scholarly introduction and notations.

Profile Image for James.
Author 19 books3,570 followers
March 10, 2020
Book Review
I first read the biographical introduction about Frederick Douglass and learned many new things. I knew he wrote a few autobiographies, but I never knew that he spanned them over 40 years of writing and that he lived for close to 80 years. I then read both the preface by Garrison and the letter to Douglas. They were excellent introductions to the narrative by Frederick Douglass. They set the mood and get you ready to experience a whole new set of emotions when you read Douglass’ Life of an American Slave, etc. It really prepares you for the glory in the words and language. You realize how much Douglass meant to the enslaved people. It also gives you an overwhelming sense of sullen melancholy. You almost can’t believe that something like “this” happened to Douglass. It is very powerful and emotional.
Douglass work definitely is effective. It moves the reader deeply. All I can say about book 1 is that I was utterly repulsed by what I read. How any person could do that to another human being because their skin is a different color is absolutely hideous. I was so angry that I wanted to just scream out profanities to the slaveholders. Douglass’ memory and description is so vivid. I could see the apple red blood drip to the floor almost like it was an IV at times when he whipped her so much there was hardly any blood left. I wonder though if this was an exaggeration. Garrison claims that it isn’t, but it is so vile and disgusting that it can’t be real. Can it? In Book 2, at least we learn that the slaves are treated a little better at times. They go for a walk to the Great Farm House if they are a representative which gives them some time to themselves without the fear of a whipping. They sing songs and have a little bit of fun at least: although Frederick says that they never had any real joy with it, not tears of joy or happiness. I was so upset by this. No joy and forced to go through all that they did. It is horrible. Also, the rations they received were so minute. I wonder how they ever survived.
In Book 3... The garden that was near the plantation was nice. It would give the slaves something to look at, except that it also tempted them to steal some fruit and vegetables, which would result in severe punishing. And all of this so far, happened when Frederick was still just a child. I often thought that it was just a game to see how many times they could whip a slave or get him/her to do wrong. It was almost as if they purposely set them up using spies, etc. To try and catch them in the act. I think that is incredibly inhumane and awful. If I have this many feelings about the narrative so far, it just shoes how great an author Douglass is. He is able to capture attention and make you yell out in angst against the evil masters and overseers. By the end of Book 6, we learn that Douglass has learned how to read and write. He has also learned what an abolitionist is. He begins to see more out into real life, rather than the life of a slave. He has been through several new masters, some good and some bad. Also, during this time, he tells the readers that it is better off to be dead than to be a black slave in 19th century America.
In later books we learn that it is especially horrible when you have been treated nicely as a slave and then you go to a plantation where they treat you despicably. Douglass is extremely effective at showing his audience this. Douglass also tells how he was shipped all over the place whenever his masters died or got tired of him. I see how it becomes a game again. I also see that maybe the slaves could be compared to the life of a nomad who has no one common place to stay.

Not an easy one to read, but important to understand how bad the situation was. Hearing about it or knowing of it is one thing. Reading specifics is entirely another.

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Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,225 followers
October 28, 2014
Powerful, eloquent and utterly moving, especially considering it was written by a man who taught himself how to read and write while a slave.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass regrettably does not go into detail regarding the particulars of Douglass' escape to freedom. Having written his memoirs while slavery was still ongoing, he was afraid to reveal his methods for fear of endangering the lives of those who assisted him, as well as potentially shutting down an avenue of escape for other slaves after him. The reader must respect that and be satisfied with his well articulated descriptions of life in the south while serving under white masters.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,453 followers
September 16, 2020
Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

(Rom 13:9, Luke 10:29)

This short intense painful powerful book shows us very clearly that the regime in American slaveholding farms in the 19th century was similar to Nazi concentration camps. Severe whippings were dished out arbitrarily to induce a state of permanent terror. If an owner killed a slave there were no consequences. Starvation-level food was grudgingly allowed. There was grossly inadequate clothing and shelter. And the only way out of this totalitarian regime was by dying. One difference (aside from scale) was that the Nazis were deliberately working the camp inmate to death, and the slave owners wanted to extract maximum work from their victims. So life on the plantation was probably marginally better than life in Dachau. Oh yes, another similarity was that both the Nazis and the slave owners were Christians.

Frederick Douglass has some severe things to say about religion in 19th century America

I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.

Later on, he clarifies what he means :

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.

Christians of today may say well, individuals may be corrupted and gravely misunderstand the meaning of the gospel but they must sadly note that the in the slave owning states the church was part of the problem, there was no outright condemnation, it was all considered to be Biblically sanctioned, and the daily beatings, rapes and murders were politely ignored by all right thinking people.

[The examples of American slavery and Nazi concentration camps also indicate that on this earth there is never a shortage of sadistic men, but that’s a whole other subject.]


The controlled fury of the author makes every other paragraph of this remarkable book worth quoting. I will limit myself to two very moving passages. Young Frederick, I think he is around 11 or 12 at this time, is sold to new owners.

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read.

“ Now," said he, "if you teach that n---- 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."

So this is the slave owner’s very sensible view. The genius of Frederick Douglass was that as a boy he realised that reading and writing was crucial. So he slowly and painfully taught himself. One of his tasks takes him regularly to a shipyard where the joiners write letters on the finished timber pieces to indicate where they are intended for. S for starboard, L for larboard, etc.

I soon learned the names of these letters, and for what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in the ship-yard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, "I don't believe you. Let me see you try it." I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way.

We may describe this as literacy by stealth.


And finally, as a fan of black music from the 20s and 30s, this passage was both beautiful and sad for me to read. Here, slaves are returning from the day’s work

While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out—if not in the word, in the sound;—and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone.

I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do….

They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them.

Just one last quote :

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves 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.

'Slaves Waiting for Sale' by Eyre Crowe (1861). Heinz collection, Washington DC
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
789 reviews1,179 followers
February 7, 2019
File:Frederick Douglass as a younger man.jpg
("Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a younger man", engraving by J.C. Buttre, 1855)

"You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”

Why is this book not required reading for American high school students?? It is a difficult book to read, to be sure, but ought still be required reading, Frederick Douglass' story should be known to all Americans, representative as it is to the suffering of the thousands upon thousands of people who built this nation.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a brief book, written about Mr. Douglass' life as a slave as a child and teenager, before escaping the cruel clutches of slavery as a young adult. Mr. Douglass writes of the horrors he both witnessed and had inflicted upon him, of the indignity of being a slave, of the powerlessness and at times hopelessness he experienced. I could not read this book in one sitting or even two, brief as it is. I could only read a chapter at a time, sometimes less, so overcome with emotion I was. I have read books about slavery before of course, and yet this one was even more difficult because it was written by one who was once a slave, written of his own experiences. It is written with dignity and grace, and Mr. Douglass analyzes both the mindset of the cruel slave owner, and the mindset of a slave -- most notably, what it takes to make a slave: the fear, the degradation, the violence which must be heaped upon an individual to break him. How humans can do such things to other humans is beyond me, but many have and many would still do. For this reason, it is important to bear witness to the suffering of the past. If humanity is not to repeat our history, we must first know it.

(I'm aiming to read a classic a month in 2019. This was my February pick and I'm glad it was.)
Profile Image for Kevin.
493 reviews82 followers
January 21, 2023
Frederick Douglass was a man of faith, and as such he wanted to believe that all men of faith were, at their core, decent men.

“In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp meeting held in Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects...”

Experience taught Frederick Douglass some hard lessons...

“If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways... Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.”

...experience opened his eyes...

“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter, under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.”

...experience shaped his perceptions.

“...I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me ...religious slave holders are the worst. I have ever found them to be the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”

And in the end, he saw the light...

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
Profile Image for Raya راية.
770 reviews1,331 followers
November 28, 2017
"ليس مُهمٍّا تحت أي اصطلاح مزيّف تتستّر العبودية، فإنها لا تزال بشعة وبها ميل طبيعي حتى للعصف بكل مَلَكة نبيلة عند الإنسان."
-دانيال أوكونيل

لم ولن أفهم أو أستوعب كيف يمكن لإنسان أن يقوم باستعباد وإذلال إنسان آخر، لا لشيء سوى أنه مختلف عنه باللون أو بالعِرق أو بالدين أو باللغة! من الذي قرر بأن الإنسان البيض يمتلك أفضلية عن الإنسان الأسود! لقد جاء الأبيض من آخر العالم، وغزا أفريقيا بحجة نشر الحضارة والتقدّم ونشر تعاليم الدين، لكنه بالحقيقة جاء لينهب ثروات هذه القارة الغنّية ويلسب شعبها حرّيته!

نحن أمام وثيقة مهمة تصوّر بدقة فظاعة نظام العبودية الوحشي الذي لا يقرّه أي دين أو عُرف. وثيقه كتبها فريدريك دوغلاس، الذي وُلد وكَبُر تحت مظلة هذا النظام الغاشم، وشاهد وقاسى ألوانًا شتى من العذاب والظلم والاستبداد. ونبتت فكرة التحرر من العبودية في عقله منذ أن كان صغيرًا، وبقي يسقيها بماء العلم والقراءة والتمرّد على سادته، حتى حان وقت قطاف ثمرة هذه النبتة، وبالفعل نجح دوغلاس بالهروب وبتحقيق حلمه بالحرية. وقام بفضح ممارسات نظام العبودية في كتابه هذا. وظل حتى نهاية عمره يدعو لتحرير العبيد وفضح السادة المتوحشين.

أكثر ما يثير حيرتي واستغرابي واشمئزاري كذلك، هو وجود الكثير من السادة المُستَعبِدين المتدينين! كيف يستطيع أن يصلي ويركع لله بقلب خاشع ويطلب الرحمة والرزق، وهو يجلد الضعفاء ممن يستعبدهم، يجلد الطفل والمرأة والشيخ المسن! يحرمهم من الطعام والكساء والدفء والنوم! يجلدهم ويعذبهم ويغتصب حريتهم بقلب قاس وروح متجمّدة! أي إنسان هذا! وأي دين يقبل هذا! أَلا إن جميع الأديان لهي براء منه!

كتاب مؤثر بلا شك، فلا يمكنك أن تقرأه دون أن تغرورق عيناك بدموع الألم والضيق، وأن ينقبض صدرك، على كل ما عاناه أولئك البؤساء المساكين!

Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,652 followers
December 31, 2014
What a powerful piece of writing this is. Slavery is such an ugly part of American history, and this narrative tells all of the ordeals that Frederick Douglass had to overcome, including whippings, beatings, hunger, tyrannical masters, backbreaking labor, and horrible living conditions.

Douglass was born in Maryland in 1818, but even that year is a guess because slaves were generally not allowed to know their birthdate. He knew little of his mother because the master sent her away, and then she died while Douglass was still a child. It was whispered that his father was the master, but he had no way of knowing for certain.

There are some horrifying stories in this narrative. But there is also inspiration, because we know Douglass was able to escape and live freely. My favorite part was when Douglass explained how he learned to read and write after he was shipped off to a master's house in Baltimore. He was very clever and had to learn in secret, because his master had said that slaves shouldn't learn to read because it would make them miserable and unmanageable. But Douglass couldn't stand the thought of being a slave for life, and he knew he had to learn to read if he wanted to run away.

"The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent on errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me... This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge."

However, when Douglass read newspaper articles about slavery or about the abolitionist movement, he became even more upset:

"The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast."

Fortunately, Douglass had a plan to escape, and he was able to flee his master's home in Baltimore and make it to New York, which was a free state. He was able to marry and became a passionate advocate for abolition. I highly recommend this narrative.

Memorable Quotes:
"I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves 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. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion."

[On masters who profess to be good Christians] "I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes — a justifier of the most appalling barbarity — a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds — and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others."
Profile Image for Ruxandra (4fără15).
239 reviews4,627 followers
January 22, 2021
O, God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,177 reviews1,934 followers
February 15, 2014
This is a very brief first volume of a three volume autobiography. It is moving, powerful and horrific portrait of slavery in one of the so-called more humane slave states in the 1820s and 1830s.
It is an important historical document, but is also much more than that; published in 1845 it opened a window for the general public in the north who knew little about the inner workings of slavery. Douglass does not know his birthday, who his father was and was separated from his mother very early in life (this was usual). He describes the brutality, whippings, the deaths of other slaves and the attitudes of various owners. Some are crueller than others; in general the most pious and religious were the worst, especially when it came to whipping. Douglass does not describe how he escaped as this was written before slavery was abolished and he did not want to give slave holders information which might prejudice the escape of others.
This is a book that demands to be read; it is passionate and eloquent. It really should be better known here in the UK and ought to be mandatory reading in any serious study of slavery and racism. It is interesting to look at the history of the time and the reactions of slave-owners to Douglass’s book.
The rest of Douglass’s life is fascinating as is his political career; he was also a noteworthy supporter of women’s rights;
“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world”
Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Howard.
333 reviews230 followers
February 26, 2022
Third Reading

“I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” ― Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in 1817 (or 1818). After several failed attempts he managed to escape to the North in 1838. He became an ardent and effective abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman.

He had learned to read and write as a slave, first aided by the wife of one of his masters, until her husband stepped in and convinced her that teaching slaves to read and write was dangerous because literacy would make them dissatisfied with their bondage and make them more likely to plan escape attempts, which, of course, was true.

“Once you learn to read, you'll be forever free.” – Frederick Douglass

That did not stop Douglass from continuing his studies. He would later say that white boys on the streets in Baltimore had aided him in his quest and that he later was able to teach himself.

After his escape, he gained notice when he gave a famous speech to a white audience about his experiences as a slave. The speech was so eloquent and so powerful in describing the evils of slavery that abolitionists held him up as an example, an example that argued that slaves did possess the intelligence to live and function as free and independent American citizens.

However, some people – even in the North – found it difficult to believe that such an articulate speaker could have spent his childhood and adolescence in bondage.

Douglass would eventually write three autobiographies, beginning with Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845).

The book was a firsthand account of what it was like to be born a slave, to live as a slave, and to escape from slavery, and it would become his bestselling book and the most beneficial to the abolitionist cause. It received many positive reviews, but, similar to the response to his earlier speech, it was so well written that some people were skeptical that such a book could have been written by an ex-slave.

Nevertheless, in the first three years it was reprinted nine times, was translated into French and Dutch, and had 11,000 copies circulating in the United States, which for the times was a huge number.

Up to this point in Douglass’ life, he had spent almost a decade as an escaped slave and as such was subject to the Fugitive Slave Acts, which allowed runaway slaves to be seized and returned to their owners. But a year after the publication of his book its sales allowed him to accumulate enough money to purchase his freedom. (The Fugitive Slave Acts were not repealed until 1864.)

Douglass was also a champion of the rights of women. In fact, he was the only black person to attend the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which was the first women’s rights convention. He spoke at that gathering saying that as a black man he would never be able to accept the right to vote as long as women did not have that same right and that the world would be a better place if women were able to cast votes.

When he died in 1895, his funeral services were held in the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Thousands of people passed by his casket in order to show their respect for a man born a slave who was able to overcome cruel odds that hardly any free persons could even fathom, but if they chose, they could learn about them by reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” – Frederick Douglass
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,305 reviews750 followers
December 30, 2015

Unlike many on this site, if one may judge from the reviews and most popular tags of this work, I did not encounter this in school. This is unfortunate, as exposure to this at a younger age may have made my frame of references less solidified, Moby Dick over here and slavery narratives of there and all the usual sorts of aborted cross-reference and false literary linearity. These days, I am not as suspect to being fenced in by required reading in academia, but there are some still some sickening traces of surprise at how a specific author was writing at a certain time that really does need to be gotten over. If there's one thing I learned from my concurrent reading of Dhalgren, it's that I have a very restricted view of how writing of "quality" comes to be that, ultimately, is very harmful indeed.

So, what constituted that elitist surprise? On the whole, it was the matter of how this read very much like a psychological bildungsroman with a wonderful sense of prose and a swift and easy manner of outer description and inner self. Frederick Douglass not only had a keen interest in presenting his own life, but also in how slavery continues to work itself into the framework of society and its social animals. The result is a piece which, if any white person at the time had wanted to write in a similar vein, would be comparable to a memoir that continually focused on the effects of US conceptual "freedom" on the memoirist's growth to maturity. While there's probably a few out there that come close to the mark (you can't step into the surface knowledge of the 1800's without squashing a few dozen names of physiognomic worth and solipsistic character), it's doubtful any achieve a comparable moral imperative. Being the person I am, that manner of thematic engagement matters a lot, so deal.

That does it for the general level. On the more specific level, passages of note include Douglass' analyses of holidays in lands of legalized slavery, his imbibed assumption that a society could not be well-off without the (overt) systematic owning of human beings, and his scorn for, in his words, the "upperground" railroad; or, Liberal White People Fucking Over Others With "Help" Since 1845. He remains as eloquent throughout this face-palm as he does in his fervent condemnation of the machine that controlled his upbringing, which reads well so long as once doesn't prescribe it in a fit of respectability politics to those who continue his efforts today. Things have changed since Douglass' day, and protests of a different nature are required for making this modern day public squirm.
Profile Image for Cinzia DuBois.
Author 1 book2,751 followers
October 31, 2020
This is just the first volume of a three volume autobiography which paints a horrific portrait of the so-called “humane” slave states in the early 1800s.

Douglas’ eloquent and powerful narrative details brutality of slave existence, from being separated from their mothers at a young age, to rape, whippings, abuse and denial of any human rights or sense of self.

His autobiography shares various, intricate details to the nuanced experience of slavery. He gives us glimpses into the various attitudes towards him from various slave owners as well as slaves. This first volume reveals how Douglas’ determination to become educated steered his life towards his political career as an advocate for human rights and racial justice.

I don’t understand why this isn’t mandatory reading in schools. There’s nothing written in here that I couldn’t have been exposed to by senior school, and the insight was far more visceral and important to read than anything else I was given. Douglas’ struggle and conquering of his fate deserves to be celebrated and read by everyone.
Profile Image for Alan.
Author 2 books31 followers
February 21, 2009
This is one of the most amazing pieces of writing I have ever read. Unfortunately, I grew up in Texas--a fact for which I have only recently forgiven my parents, with difficulty--and therefore was never forced to read anything more incendiary than To Kill a Mocking Bird or Uncle Tom's Cabin. Digression: Also, I had a creationist biology teacher. But yes. We didn't read any firsthand slave narratives. I don't even remember learning about the civil rights movements. Maybe we did. All of this jibbajabba is a way of stuffing unrelated sentences into the hole: how possibly could I have anything legitimate to say about this book? It is that kind of book. There is simply nothing a person like me can say about a book like this except, Thank you.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,685 followers
October 25, 2015
This is one of those works of nonfiction where it is difficult (if not impossible) to rate. As a memoir or narrative autobiography it is good and solid, just not great. After reading it, I wished Douglas had gone into more detail and bulked it up a bit with more of his experiences.

However, if you consider the time, the author, the impact, etc., of NLoFD it is hard NOT to give the book every accolade. This book seems to be the 'Common Sense' of the Pre-Civil War abolitionist movement. It didn't just summarize sentiments of abolitionists and slaves, but seemed to actually create energy and expand the movement out of Douglass' words (like Paine's 'Common Sense' did in the 1770s). So grade that. How do you rate something that transformed the world?
Profile Image for Vaishali.
1,032 reviews262 followers
January 27, 2019
If you want a primer on defying impossible odds, GRAB THIS BOOK. Page after page we hear a singularly strong, impassioned voice yearning, trying, and roaring like a lion. Given the time period, the writing has run-on sentences and difficult word-flow ... but compared to contemporaries like Thoreau/Alcott, they're still few and far between. Considering Douglass was a self-educated slave, you really develop tremendous respect for a clarity in expression that far outshines New England's celebrated literary elite. Each paragraph blasts Douglass's ferocious spirit, so much so that you find yourself closing the book to shake it off. Bold, bold words... every chapter its own series of ice-storms. Emerson? Fuller? Ninnies. Do not mess with Frederick Douglass.
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews946 followers
July 4, 2014
Houston A Baker Jr introduces Douglass' narrative by positioning it within a rich tradition in two senses. Firstly, many former slaves published accounts of their experiences - a fact that I was not aware of and that Baker says has been poorly acknowledged, while the work of white abolitionists has been much-celebrated. Secondly, the literary interests of the period, absorbed by Douglass in his forbidden, covert, voracious reading, are expressed through the lyrical and dramatic qualities of his prose.

I suppose I expected a very spare memoir, but the writing is very beautiful, in a style that feels of the period: elegantly formal, never deploying a pronoun when a nice synonym is at hand, yet always quick-footed and clear.

Douglass, born a slave, experienced hunger, cold, whippings, beatings and other abuses, from childhood. Brutal overseers and slaveholders are often presented as exceptionally evil people, but Douglass shows through examples that slave-holding brutalises folks who would otherwise be kind and generous by disposition, watching the sweet-hearted woman who began to teach him to read (he had to finish the process unaided after her husband forbade it) become as bitterly cruel as any whip-cracking overseer. Slavery dehumanises both owned and owner.

As Douglass gained more autonomy and better conditions (his experience was fortunate relative to the circumstances of the vast majority of slaves) he became ever more determined to gain his freedom. He trained in caulking, and began contracting, completing and collecting money for his own work, and at the end of the week had to give up his entire earnings - a situation identical to plantation slavery in terms of exploitation, but all the more galling in that he received the money directly before it was stolen from him!

I liked reading about Douglass' arrival in wealthy New Bedford, where he says he was astonished by the quality of life enjoyed there, and the sight of free black people living in houses finer than those of Southern slave-holders. He had been led to believe that prosperity could not exist without slavery and that the people of the North must be in the miserable condition of 'poor whites' ie non slave-holders in the South. (However, I think this revelation should not be used to obscure that Northern prosperity was built on the backs of slaves.)

Special ire is reserved for very religious slaveholders, who Douglass adamantly declares to be the worst kind in every way. A devout Christian himself, he writes passionately against 'the boldest of all frauds and the grossest of all libels' manifest in calling the USA a Christian country.
Profile Image for #AskMissPatience.
161 reviews20 followers
August 22, 2021
Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is gut-wrenching and meaningfully poignant.

Narrated by Jonathan Reese on the library overdrive app. Was very disappointed this man didn't sound as though he is Mr. Douglas. It sounded like the content was read. Not performed to be genuine.

I'd like to hear someone who acts or does theater give Mr. Douglas depth of feeling. This man suffered greatly. And, is a brilliant mind deposit his circumstance of abuse and deprivation.

Frederick Douglas is a hero of mine. Enamored or his observations. Relate personally to a few of his perceptions.

When Mr. Douglas discovered the truth of literacy fell deeper in love with his intellect and ability to create an outlook to free himself upon such unfortunate circumstances.

As Mr. Douglas teaches himself to read as a boy find myself cheering him on.

I'm infuriated at Mr. Douglas's treatment by Christians and his experience as fear of Christians because they're the worst type.

Mr. Douglas, sir, I know you are past a long time. From the bottom of my heart in the name of the God, I devote my life to, I apologize for all the pain thrust on you by any demon claiming to be a believer. They most definitely were not.

Thank you for your inspiration. I will make certain to tell others about you and include your story in the work I'm doing. Including the curriculum I’m creating, with people of color as advisors, honoring you and others who suffered.

Thank you for sharing your truth, sir. Your heart will go on.

Kind warm sincere regards,
Patience Phillips

To read the story here is a free copy of the book. For audio conversion I recommend Speechify if you don't have text yo speech. 👇🏼


Highly recommend this autobiography. Especially if you're interested in actual reality and experiential history through the heart of a slave to a freeman.

If you are not disgusted with American history you're reading the sins of omission version. We can not improve what we don't acknowledge.

America is not so beautiful until we take back what is truth. And, validate what we have systemically perpetuated to erase equity.

We the people have been treated in a way that has rendered us ignorant to continue the violence dressed up in pretty words that I've since discovered hurt people. Not help America heal and build better forward.

Why in school are we taught there are different colors for crayons. But also teach ’color doesn't matter’ or equality exists meanwhile create affirmative action to attempt to create equality without equity and think this works or is okay?

I'm very thankful for the preservation of works such as this. No longer will these historical facts be buried. I won't allow it.

Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book486 followers
August 6, 2020
What a powerful and wrenching narrative this is! How amazing that Frederick Douglass managed to teach himself to read and write in the manner in which he did, which opened the door to his eventually being able to escape his imprisonment in slavery. This has so much more impact than any novelization of what slavery was, because it is one man’s personal experience, set down in a very straightforward manner without any attempt at sensationalism. And, believe me, no embellishment is needed, the facts are quite horrific enough.

Douglass’ is a compelling tale, put forth by an obviously intelligent man. Not only does he understand the mind of the slave, but he sheds a light upon the thinking of the slave-holders as well. It is a glimpse into why even a “good master” is a bad man, why any form of slavery is the equivalent of the worst kind of slavery, and how the institution itself harmed both its victims, the slaves, and those who participated as slave-holders.

I found the appendix to be of especial interest, since, as a Christian, I have often wondered how anyone could possibly profess to believe in Christ and ever hold a slave or support the existence of the institution of slavery in any form. Douglass points to the hypocrisy of the men dealing in bodies and souls, selling women into prostitution and forcing them into adultery, separating families while touting family values, and denying blacks the right to read the Bible that they hold up to them as a justification for the holding of slaves in the first place.

Everyone should read this man’s account of his own experiences in slavery. That he was able to escape is a miracle, that he found his way to people who encouraged him to tell of his life is another. We should be careful to see that his words continue to be read--there are so few first hand accounts by those who lived in and escaped this system.
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 7 books2,027 followers
May 18, 2009
Very short & to the point, Douglass paints the picture of being a slave better than any other book I've read on the subject. His first hand account blows away 'Roots' or even the 'Confessions of Nat Turner' with its simple, understated prose. Huge thanks to Nancy, a friend here on GR, that recommended & gave me the book.

Why would a man remain in slavery when there was any chance of escape? This is a question I've always wondered about. He tells us. The courage & determination that it took him to make that leap was incredible. His simple account of what people can endure is heart wrenching.

The only reason this book didn't get 5 stars was the editor. I can't recall his name, but he is a professor at Columbia University & must think his audience is a bunch of idiots. His long winded introduction basically tells Douglass' entire story. It was a spoiler & redundant. The original publication had another introduction that is also included. This was doubly redundant due to the first, but would have been far better if just it was included.

The editor's constant footnotes, defining well known words that are well used in context, were distracting & occasionally incorrect. The end notes were better, but should have been footnotes instead. I was left with the impression that the editor was trying to impress me rather than help me understand Douglass' story. Blech!

Douglass has written his autobiography in several versions. This was his first. I'd be interested in finding a later one, especially with a different editor. In any case, for all the faults of the editor, the basic story is something that I recommend everyone read.
Profile Image for Craig Johnson.
26 reviews3 followers
January 30, 2008
Not bad for a guy who taught himself to write while his masters weren't looking. Even the smallest knowledge of Douglass' post-slave life makes you wonder at the title: Who would have the gall to chain him up, of all men? The facts of slavery are still frightening after all this time. What makes it scarier is that Douglass was in Maryland, the Northernmost of southern states. Evidentally, the farther south you were the worse it was, so if this happened in Maryland, I don't like to think about Louisiana. Also, FD exposes the fact that the worst sins can be done if you're hiding behind a cross.
Profile Image for Noula.
258 reviews14 followers
June 28, 2021
This is a book every American must read. If you want to know the true mindset of slavery and the intentions on its cruelty this book will shine a light. I would like to write more in this review but to be honest I cannot. The book is very enlightening and Frederick really exposed the whites tremendously for their acts of cruelty in the name of Christianity.
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