Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave

  • Author: Frederick Douglas
  • Published: 1845

Frederick Douglas was never a man to mince words. His many speeches, articles and books have always possessed the unmistakable ring of truth. It’s something about his style. Direct, plain, unforgiving, and unequivocal. A swift punch in the gut. A thunderbolt of ruthless righteousness. It is a style that could only have been born out of blood and pain. It is a lack of style. It is a corpse laid bare. It is the way a man talks when there is nothing else to lose, and everything to gain.

After all, Frederick Douglass could not afford the luxury of languid language. First there was the fact that any embellishment, vagueness or error would be seized upon by his enemies and used as a cudgel to discredit and disgrace him. Then there’s the professorial realization that his story was powerful enough without decoration or indulgent literary technique, which would only have distracted or detracted. Additionally, this was no casual walk down memory lane. This was an unflinching account of a slave’s life 15 years before the start of the civil war. This was a fugitive taunting his captors. A revolutionary in open rebellion. It was told to spark a firestorm. Finally, there’s the most simple of reasons. It seems the man himself was unfalteringly honest. When you examine his life, it’s what seems the mostly likely. It was this honesty, with his tormentors, his fellow slaves, and most importantly with himself, that turned him from a nameless victim into an American icon. His prose was the truth, and his truth was darkly beautiful. 

A synopsis of his life here serves no purpose. After all, his memoir is a mere 100 pages, and remains as potent today as it was when it first appeared over 170 years ago. If you haven’t already, read it. 

Suffice to say, Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818, on a plantation in Maryland. He was the result of a white master’s liaison with one of his slaves. The next 20 years of his life were an exercise in survival, self-discipline and courage in the face of back-breaking labor, torture, hunger and fear. His escape from bondage still seems miraculous. His bravery in fighting his masters, staggering. In many ways his story begins where his brief memoir ends. Once a free man, Douglass went on to become a tireless abolitionist and a staunch activist of civil rights and women’s rights. His life spanned the Civil War, the end of slavery, Reconstruction, and the rise of segregation and the white power movement. His commitment to the cause of his countrymen in chains, both physically and metaphorically, never wavered. 

It would be easy to go on about his experiences, accomplishments and influence on history’s events. But no act of reiteration could ever replace the words of the man himself. They are words that will forever echo down the halls of history. I myself, found none more arresting, than when he explained what was essentially, the birth of the blues. Slave songs, sung by slaves, on their way to the great House Farm:

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 - then 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… They would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves….

Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If anyone wishes to be impressed with the soul killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul - and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an American classic. It provides the tonic that only true comprehension can produce. It is the wounded remains of a system of inconceivable oppression. It is a call to arms for lovers of freedom everywhere. It is a badass book, written by a badass man, that will never fade away, and never should.