I reached for this book because I realized that although I had read several fictional accounts of slavery, I had not read any first-person accounts. I thought Frederick Douglas’s autobiography might be the perfect place to start.
It is the first of three autobiographies that Frederick Douglass wrote in his own lifetime. It covers only the years of his enslavement, up to the point of his escape, and was published in 1845. It was an instant bestseller, and probably the most popular of the three. In retrospect, I probably would have gone for an edition that includes at least fragments of the other autobiographies, such as Penguin’s The Portable Frederick Douglass… Or I might have even gone for My Bondage and My Freedom as that includes details of Douglass’s travels in the United Kingdom. But in my ignorance, I had not realized there were so many different options of reading something by Frederick Douglass! These are the pains of being something of an autodidact…
First of all, an introduction – if you have not heard of him before, Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Bailey) was something of a remarkable man. He was an escaped slave, an abolitionist, a writer and an active campaigner for women’s rights.
After his escape from bondage, he spoke at anti-slavery rallies and was so successful that rumours were spread that no former slave would ever be able to make such eloquent arguments. The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass was written in response to those accusations, giving details of Douglass’s former owners – a risky decision to take, given that he was still a runaway and his former master could try and retrieve him. It is because Douglass’s friends feared such a fate for him that they persuaded him to later take his trip to Ireland (which is not included in this version of his autobiography – grumble, grumble).
Unsurprisingly, slavery advocates chose to dispute the authenticity of an autobiography too – they found it hard to believe that a former slave could quote Shakespeare and Cowper.
The autobiography – the whippings, the hunger and the sheer misery of enslavement, are not in themselves different than those described in Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. But in this case these experiences are related by someone who actually experienced them – and not only experienced them passively – Frederick Douglass actually fought back against one of his masters who tried to whip him. The introduction dwells on the literary qualities of the book, but for me what makes it truly an extraordinary reading is that it is an autobiography.
The book is short, and it will only take you an afternoon to read – definitely worth reading if you’re interested in African-American history.