Melissa Rudder's Reviews > Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
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's review
Jan 24, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: master-s-exam
Read in June, 2008

I don't know why I hadn't read this complete text sooner. Very much like Elie Wiesel's Night, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, renders an embarrassing and tragic epoch in human history personal and gives a human face and heart to the mind-numbing statistics of a painful past. Much like Wiesel, Douglass does so with eloquence, precision, introspection, and feeling. I feel strange comparing Douglass, who wrote over a hundred years before Wiesel, to Wiesel, as if Wiesel were the precursor. But this is the order in which I've been introduced to them. I find it strange, as well, that Night is constantly read in American high school classrooms while, to my knowledge, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is not. Are events that took place two hundred years ago and subsequently (in part) shaped American race relations today less important than events that took place seventy years ago? Or is it just that educators don't want to ask students to plod through yet another nineteenth century text? Interesting.

Douglass is an articulate writer (which is in and of itself impressive, and even more so considering the manner in which he learned to read and write) and a brilliant rhetorician. The strength of Narrative, as a rhetorical work, is Douglass' ability to vividly and graphically show the dehumanizing effects of slavery while, at the same time, offering a testament to the humanity, intellect, agency, and potential of the heretofore stunted Black community. He shows himself hungering for pigs food and white-haired men kneeling submissively to be beaten, but he also shows his earnest attempts to learn to read, the sacrifices his friends made to be educated, and his constant and overwhelming awareness—even as a child—that his position as a slave was unfair and unnatural.

I also admire the way in which Douglass focuses on the institution of slavery as the problem. He does not shy away from condemning white slave owners or overseers as malicious, sadistic, or wrong; however, he focuses his attack on the institution of slavery. Slavery, he shows, makes monsters out of masters and brutes out of slaves. His story shows that the slaves, at the very least, can find redemption.

Coolest fact about Frederick Douglass: Slave narratives were very, very popular in antebellum America. However, most fugitive slaves wrote them anonymously; having escaped to the North, they changed names and locations to keep their identity safe and avoid recapture. To lend legitimacy to his story, Douglass did not change any names and made a point to name names often. And then--and then!--he mailed a copy of his manuscript to his old master, Thomas Auld, challenging him to refute it. So bad ass.


From introduction, quoted from New England Magazine in 1834: we "know our enemies better than ourselves, because we judge them with more severity; we can write better lives of them than memoirs of ourselves."

"I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence."

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