Review of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave
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In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Frederick Douglass recounts his life of slavery and his eventual flight to freedom. He grew up as a child who barely knew his mother and knew his father was a white man, likely his early master (17). He was born into a life of hunger and deprivation. Like many slaves of the era he was passed about from slave-owner to slave-owner with the desired effect of breaking any family ties. The horrors of the starvation, deadly exposure to the elements and senseless brutality left a profound impression on young Douglass. Fortunately the great turning point in his young life occurred when he was placed in a household in which the naïve mistress started to teach him to read. Her efforts were halted by her husband and young Douglass recalled his lecture on the reasons slaves should not be educated. However the brief lessons placed within Douglass the desire to continue to learn, by whatever means possible, to read and to write. He had discovered that education and literacy was to be his “pathway from slavery to freedom” (41). Douglass illustrates that literacy is the most important asset a man can acquire if he is to achieve life-changing goals, and became the most important facet of his life.
Douglass’ new ambition to become literate fueled his desire for freedom. His new desire filled him “high hope and a fixed purpose” and his life was fundamentally changed from that early time in life (41). His quest for literacy was fueled with confidence that his future life would be radically different and he would not rest until he gained his freedom. It was not an easy path, and his first attempt at escaping slavery resulted in imprisonment (83). Miraculously he was retrieved by his master and ultimately returned to his earlier home in Baltimore. There he learns a trade; caulking seams in ships, and continues to plot for his eventual freedom.
Douglass was methodical in his planning. His trade allowed him to find work on his own, and he was always well-employed in the Baltimore shipyards, to the delight of his Master Hugh. Douglass was required to turn his earnings to his master, but managed to accumulate enough to assist in his escape to the sympathetic north. He describes the tension and emotions that he faced prior to, during, and after his escape. Although he claims “it is impossible to describe my feelings” he successfully conveys the thoughts of loosing close friends, the fear of discovery, and the loneliness of being “in the midst of thousands and yet a perfect stranger” (92-93).
Douglass is successful in his flight to freedom in New York and is assisted by David Ruggles, an African American born free in Connecticut who was instrumental in assisting runaway slaves (94). With the help of Ruggles and other abolitionists Douglass is able to have his soon-to-be wife join him, and they are married while in New York (94-95). However, it was unsafe for Douglass and his wife to remain in New York, and plans were made for them to continue their journey to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Douglass is completely unprepared for what awaits him in New Bedford. Obviously he had no idea what he would find, but expected “to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp, and grandeur of southern slaveholders” (96). Instead he was amazed to find “the condition of the colored people…who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, that the average of slaveholders in Maryland” (97).
Unfortunately Douglass would find that his escape from slavery was just the beginning of his lifelong battle against segregation and discrimination. He was forced to abandon his trade and took any kind of work available, since “the strength of prejudice against color, among the white caulkers, (who) refused to work with me and of course I could get no employment” (98). Soon Douglass would embark on a much more profound “trade” of speaking and writing in support of abolition and exposing the horrors of slavery. From his first speech to a white audience in 1841 he was “engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren” up to his death in 1895. During his distinguished life he served in a variety of public service positions at the appointment of numerous Presidents and was the author of numerous books (x-xii).
Perhaps Douglass’ greatest legacy is his devotion to literacy. Douglass shows literacy as being the true bond between free men and the method to unite against slavery and oppression. Literacy unites man while ignorance and illiteracy keeps man isolated from the rest of the world. Although Narrative was written over one hundred and sixty years ago it still serves as a valid reminder of the power of literacy, which remains the most important asset a man can acquire. With literacy all things are possible, and without it the illiterate become slaves to ignorance.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.