on January 13, 2003
As the title implies, this short work is the narrative of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave. He wrote it by himself, a significant fact in that his prose is so eloquent and his pathos so powerful that it seems impossible for a former slave to have composed it. In this short autobiography, Douglass recounts his life as a slave, and details some of the horrors and atrocities perpetuated on slaves by their fiendish overseers, most of whom Douglass portrays as downright evil. More than just a narrative of his life, Douglass also gives an account of how the desire to be free grew and began to burn within his bosom, and how he grew to hate that horrible institution. Above all, this is a story of a slave learning that he is, in fact, a human being.
The significance of this book cannot be overestimated. In it, Douglass effectively dispels a number of popular myths about slaves and slaveholders, and forever changes the way the reader (especially one who lived while slavery still existed) looks at slavery. The theme of this book is very simple: slavery is wrong. It is evil, it is cruel, and, despite what many people thought at the time, the slaves know how cruel it is. Douglass cites several examples of the horrible treatment slaves received, one of them being separation of families. "It is a common custom...to part children from their mothers at a very early age" So it was with Douglass and his own mother.
Douglass writes in a very eloquent style, and this contributes to the power of this work. Many people who thought blacks were inferior in intelligence were shown to be sadly mistaken with the coming of Frederick Douglass, a man both educated and refined. It may be said that the book is not entirely fair, for it is decidedly anti-slavery, but it is undoubtedly true for most cases nonetheless. Most of the overseers in Douglass's narrative are demonic and sadistic, but when a good overseer comes along (such as Freeland), he is fair in his treatment of him.
One can imagine the fuel this book gave to the abolitionist fire, and it is not difficult to see why Douglass had such an impact on both North and South. This is, in my opinion, a definitive work, in that it shows the horrible institution of slavery in all its barbaric nature, and does it from a firsthand point of view, that of a former slave. This book was a tremendous contribution, both for the light it shed on slavery in general, and for proving that blacks were not intellectually inferior by nature, but instead were "transformed into...brute[s]" at the hands of their overseers.
This is a great book, essential for anyone wanting to study the Civil War era or wanting to gain a firmer understanding of slavery.
on March 14, 2002
"Keep the black man away from the books, keep us ignorant, and we would always be his slaves... Come hell or high water - even if it cost me my life - I was determined to read," wrote Frederick Douglass.
This fiery autobiography, written as anti-slavery propaganda, told of his struggle to gain freedom, identified his "owner", and became a 19th century antional bestseller. Long before Uncle Tom's Cabin opened the eyes of sentimental Northerners to the evils of slavery, Douglass' chronicle inspired the small abolitionist movement and challenged the conscience of the United States to live up to the heroic ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence... "all men are created equal."
The publication of this masterpiece also forced Douglass into exile in England for two years to avoid capture by slave traders. British supporters eventually "purchased" Douglass allowing this great American to return to the United States and live in freedom.
While the battle against slavery was won almost 150 years ago, this autobiography's remains a very powerful tool against racism, ignorance, and historical amnesia. This book should be required reading, for all American schoolchildren, in the middle school and excerpts should be constantly used in high school and college courses. Adult literacy centers should find this story a powerful inspiration too.
on March 5, 2002
I often believe it is easy to criticize nineteenth century Americans for not stepping up to the plate regarding the issue of slavery and race in America. Jefferson may well have agonized over the issue he called the "death knell of the nation" and which he labeled a "neccessary evil." Certainly he benefitted by the ownership of nearly 300 slaves, but he grew up in a world in which slavery was the norm. It takes a revoutionary and remarkable man to truly stand against the only world he knows and move to create a different world, so I usually defend Jefferson and his political vision which clearly transcended that world.
Reading Frederick Douglass, however, makes me wonder how anyone with firsthand knowledge of the institution could not see the obvious pain and cruelty which existed right in front of his or her eyes. Douglass's narrative, and particularly his descriptions of the slave trade in Baltimore and the obvious place of the whip (whether used or not) as the principal vehicle of social control argues most eloquently that though the slave system may have been a social norm, the blinders had to be unbelievably thick not to see the horrors that the institution wrought. The relationship of slave and master perpetuated a most un-American (at least in terms of our professed values--cf. Douglass's later antislavery orations) tyranny and oppression. Douglass's narrative testifies that our ancestors could have seen much more and done much more and that 600,000 lives and a subsequent 120 years of racial schism and pain was too much a price to bear for the peculiar institution.
on February 20, 2002
In his work Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass outlines his purpose in writing the piece:
"Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds - faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts - and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause."
Certainly Douglass' "little" book shed tremendous light on the slave system that existed in early American history and he successfully accomplished his purpose. The description of how slaves were treated was interesting and enlightening, and provokes compassion in the reader. Additionally, Douglass wonderfully explores the issue of knowledge and power, as he describes the many occasions in which slaveholders tried to keep slaves from learning to read. Finally, Douglass raises a concern about the hypocrisy among southern Christians based on the way that they treat slaves. True Christians treat all humans with love, respect, compassion, and indiscriminately. This final point raises a relevant issue in today's society - does this hypocrisy still exist?
Several statistics indicate that although the problem that Douglass addresses is not as drastic, it still remains a serious challenge that the United States must wrestle: 16.2 percent of American children are living in poverty (United States Census); 54 percent of African American families say underachievement among black students represents a "crisis," 33 percent of white parents agree (Public Agenda); 10.8 million children in the United States have no health insurance; 1 in 4 Hispanic children are uninsured; 1 in 11 Caucasian children are uninsured (Children's Defense Fund); 3/4 of teachers in public schools do not believe that schools should expect the same from students in low-income areas as students in high-income areas (Education Watch); in recent years income has decreased in the bottom, second, and middle 20% sectors, while increasing slightly in the fourth sector and substantially in the top sector (United States Census). . If American Christians were truly loving and sharing like Jesus teaches, the social stratification that is prevalent in the United States would not be nearly as extreme. The Christian Church should not allow such tremendous economic and educational differences. Although this is not nearly as glaring a problem as slavery, Douglass' narrative is applicable even to today's social problems and is well worth the read for that and many other reasons.
on January 16, 2002
As soon as I began reading this book, I knew it would have an effect on me. I found it captivating and disturbing from the beginning, allowing me a direct insight on slavery. By the second chapter, I became emotionally engulfed in the novel, feeling pain, frustration and anger as I read on. <i>Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass</i> really fills in the gaps in African American education. Where statistics were once offered, this first hand account is much more believable, personalized, and very heartfelt.
There are many valuable lessons to be learned from this book. The power of education and Douglass's determination to rise from being a slave made me very appreciative of what today's world offers, education wise and otherwise. After reading it, I felt a real need to grasp life and take every oppurtunity that comes along, really utilizing everything that I have been given. It also serves as a reminder of the horrific effects of discrimination, and the hideous nature of racism.
It is also written very eloquently, so much so that if it were not for the subject matter, it would be easy to forget that this book was written by a man who had spent much of his life as a slave, deprived of an education.
Overall an excellent book that provokes a very powerful emotional response. I reccomend it for anyone to read.
on December 14, 2001
Anyone who wishes to be considered at all educated in the history of the United States MUST read this book. The period of this history is absolutely critical to an understanding of the country both before and after that time, as well, obviously, as during that time. And without reading the account of this great American of his experiences, one can not, truly, understand that time period.
Granted, there will be those who will argue, "But why should we need to read an anti-slavery tract; there's no one alive now who would argue in favor of slavery, or deny that it was a great evil. To read a book whose primary purpose was to convince people of what is now considered obvious is pointless." But the same argument could be used to apply to reading a biography of George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson. Most of the issues that were important to them are currently decided, and decided in their favor. Yet it is still considered neccessary for an educated American to have at least a passing idea of the history of their lives.
The same is true of Frederick Douglass. The man risked his life for freedom, just as surely as did Patrick Henry, or any of the founding fathers, and his history is just as much a part of this country as theirs is; further, it is worth seeing just how literate a man born in slavery, not only self-taught, but self-taught on the sly, against every effort of his oppressors to stifle his education, can be. His facility for language is frankly better than 90% of modern Americans of any color, in spite of virtually universal education. He was a great man, and deserves to be recognized as such.
on September 6, 2001
This is an excellent narrative from a slave of the highest acumen. This books details the oppression that Douglass went through before he finally escaped to freedom.
Douglass wrote several autobiographies, but this is the most read. This narrative is in a genre that was popular with abolitionists in the pre-war north. The reader should note that most of the narratives written at that time had a rigid caste, so Douglass' narrative is not as original as it might seem. In his later autobiographies he contradicts some important events in this narrative. However, with that said, it is still a book of the highest order. I gave the book 5 stars because it is truly a masterpiece, in both writing and theme, and therefore should be read by all who can. I've recommended this book to my friends and they all agree. The Dover edition is only about 80 pages long, so it can easily be read in one or two sittings.
One more caveat; if you are interested in learning about how Douglass escaped to freedom, this is not the book. I was a little disappointed because Douglass did not give any details about his escape to New York. The book was published in pre-war America, and he could not risk exposing those who had helped him to the general public. Nevertheless, this book is gripping and will hold you till the very end.
on July 16, 2001
This is a horrific piece of history. Mr Frederick Douglass (1818-95) was the foremost African-American Ablitionist of the Antebellum period. Born a slave-for-life, he nonetheless, devised ingenious methods of learning to read. "From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom" Mrs Auld had begun teaching him to read until Mr Auld forcefully explained the danger of teaching Douglass. Douglass continued unabated in his single-minded desire, unassisted. "Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read." Once his mind was freed, he set himself to free his physical body, escaping to Massachusetts where he became a dominant force in the abolitionists' crusade. This narrative was very popular. Within three years of its release in 1845, it had sold 11,000 copies, gone through nine English editions and had been translated into both French and Dutch. Not only was it a popular success, but critical response was overwhelmingly enthuastic, as well. Douglass went on to launch a journalistic career that would occupy the rest of his life. This is truly a great story about a great man who influenced the course of history. Furthermore, his words have caused me to reëxamine my own behaviours and dispositions. This is the part of this book which I find so horrific. Some may not find it inconsistent and politically unjustifiable that this institutionalised genocide was accepted practice in the "land of free, the home of the brave." That the same men who signed a "Declaration of Independence" purgered themselves because they had no serious intention that "all men were created equal" or "granted inalienable rights" when many were slaveholders of the type and variety of those described in this narrative. How could it happen that otherwise law-abiding men and women (yes, Douglass tells us that the "fairer" sex was handy with whip and rod) murder, rape, and mutilate with impunity? Further that these same people considered themselves morally righteous, god-fearing and faithful to the teachings of the Christ, Jesus. Even more inconceivable is that their ministers were, not only supportive of this heinous crime, but also were participants as they themselves were slaveholders. These were not obscure local ministers, either, but organizations whose influence was national, both South and North. After describing these experiences, I cannot find fault in what Mr Douglass writes, "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 religious 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." Finally, what is most amazing to me in all of this is that Mr Douglass still holds to his faith, "I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ." he proclaims. If Mr Douglass can live through slavery and still hold to his spiritual convictions, I am strengthed in my own spiritual relationship. His example has inspired me, and I hope that reading his book will inspire you. PEACE
on December 4, 2000
I don't think that any review could truly do justice to
"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American
Slave." The true story of a 19th century African-American slave
who, against all odds, gained an education and sought his freedom,
this book is one of the great human testaments of all time.
Douglass' narrative is a lean and
vivid piece of writing. Every chapter is full of compelling portraits
and memorable insights. He portrays the acts of violence committed
against the slave population with graphic brutality; this is an
unflinching record of human rights abuse.
"Narrative" is more than just a cry against injustice. It is
also the story of an indomitable young man who defies a corrupt system
that was meant to break his spirit. Douglass tells how he gains both
literacy and the desire for freedom. This is an unforgettable story of
both intellectual and political awakening. It is also a devastating
critique of those who used the Bible and the Southern church as tools
for the psychological terrorization of the slave population.
college teacher, I have often used this book in American literature
classes. It is truly a story which is relevant for students today. But
this is not just a book for academic circles; this is book for all who
seek to understand the potential of the human spirit.
on October 26, 2000
In Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, the author states: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." Frederick Douglass is a thoughtful man of great integrity, who through his soul-wrenching writing, details the story of his life as a slave. As we read the story, we witness horrendous actions that contribute to the building up of a slave; actions that literally define who a slave is. Douglass has a strong ability to transfer the reader to the very place and time of each event he lives. Throughout the book he shares his most personal thoughts on religion, family, music, education, and more. Some of his words are harsh, yet they are reflections of truth - a testimony of America at its worst. Narrative of the life Of Frederick Douglass is a wonderful educational and historical work that enables people to witness this time in history. The writing style is simple and beautiful. I feel it could be read to children on about a 6th grade reading level for an initial introduction to slavery, or could be studied by one with the highest intellect. I am confident that those who experience this story will have a deeper understanding of what it meant to be and American slave in the eary 1800's, and a newfound respect for today's African American families, for surviving, and thriving in America.