Book Review: Frederick Douglass the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
Widely recognized as the premier African American leader of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass was a tireless abolitionist, reformer, author, and orator who devoted his life to combating the evils of slavery and championing the cause of his people. Born a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1818, Douglass was an implacable enemy of oppression throughout his life, fighting against slavery until Emancipation and in favor of women's rights and black suffrage in the decades that followed.
Douglas strongly condemns the institution of slavery because he feels that it is a dehumanizing institution, which converts even a fair minded white man into a cruel tyrant. In the absence of laws and restraints of society, even an honorable man is tempted to treat his slaves like chattel and forget that they are human beings. All the laws favored the white man and disregarded the slave’s right to even possess a name, right to have a family, right to read and write and the right to protect himself. The law was also against the slaves, supporting the white man’s oppression by providing him the freedom to do what he will with his slaves and supporting him through punishment by hanging for any slave who dares to resist his master. Douglass also feels that slavery strips away and crushes the spirit of the Negro, plunging him into an abyss of pain and suffering from which there is no respite until death. The institution of slavery is such there exists a hierarchy of power even among the Negroes which renders them powerless to jointly fight the white man’s oppression and pushes them into submission. Douglass also opposes the accounts of those slaves who have publicly revealed the details of their escape routes, as only aiding the slave holder in a knowledge of the routes open to the slaves for escape. In crossing over the Mason Dixie line, the vehicle most often employed was the railroad from Baltimore to Philadelphia which became known as the underground railroad, because it was a network of anti slavery proponents among the whites and free colored people who helped other slaves to escape and make it north of the Mason Dixie line where they could live as free men.
Sekora’s argument continues to say that slave narratives aren’t examples of an autobiography because “the stated purpose of the slave narrative is far different from the creation of a self, and the overarching shape of that story is mandated by persons other than the subject,” (Sekora 509). His argument is that these prefaces and appendices are evidence of the voice of African American authors being taken over and imposed upon by their white publishers and sponsors. He isn’t entirely wrong in this assertion, either. The narratives take their form in the prose and voice of traditional white authors, which is attributed to white publishers. Sekora argues “the introductory letters can be seen as causal to the narratives they precede. The slave is the primitive other whose silence allows white sponsors to describe the grace, the beauty of their own civilized voices” (Sekora 510). On the other hand, though, we might argue that these are just some of the earliest examples of the African American voice. In Douglass’s Narrative, the struggle to attain literacy is an issue represented that is unique to African Americans. His desire to learn is matched by his master, Master Hugh’s refusal to let him learn. Douglass eventually learns how to write through Hugh’s son’s old copybooks and through the poor white children that lived in the same neighborhood—essentially appropriating the white voice and language, making it his own. These types of stories regarding the attainment of literacy show up in multiple other narratives, with over thirty listed on the website published by Documenting the American South (“Guide”).
As can be seen, being a former slave, he had a very good reason to participate in the antislavery movement. He wrote three significant autobiographies that helped define the way literature developed during the Civil War time period. These three autobiographies: Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; My Bondage And My Freedom; and Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass, are the works that are seen to express a nations disappointment for the treatment of slaves in the south. The works document the rise of a slave to a free man, to a respected speaker, to a famous writer and politician.
Douglass, Fredrick. Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. 2012. Kindle AZW file.
“Guide to Religious Content in Slave Narratives.” North American Slave Narratives. Ed. Grendler Marcella, Leiter Andrew, and Sexton Jill. Documenting the American South, 2004. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.
Levine, Robert S. “The Slave Narrative and the Revolutionary Tradition of American Autobiography.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 23 Jan. 2014. PDF.
Sekora, John. “Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative.” Callaloo 32 (1987): 482-515. JSTOR. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.
Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig, Or; Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North Showing that slavery’s shadows fall even there. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. 2011. Kindle AZW file.