The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Other Writings Breaking the Bonds of Oppression

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Born a slave Frederick Douglass emerged as one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery within the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War. From his early life unto his death in 1895 this great man was concerned with the universal struggle for freedom of people everywhere. For as he  once observed as his belief; ” Under the skin, we are all the same and every one of us must join in the fight to further human brotherhood.” He, by his own efforts, lifted himself up from bondage, taught himself to read  and write, developed a great talent as a lecturer, editor, and organizer, became a noted figure in American life and gained an international reputation as the spokesman for his people. 

Douglass’ best-known work is his first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. Told in 125 pages, the story of Douglas’s life is from early childhood until he escaped from bondage and changed his last name from Bailey to Douglas in 1838. The vivid detail, the dignity of tone, and the sincerity of the writing itself left no doubt in the minds of all those who read it that Douglass had indeed suffered the horrors he had been describing in powerful lectures for several years. It powerfully brings out in details the struggle for identity of a black man who in the mid-nineteenth century came to realize his own exclusion from the American myth of liberty and justice for all. His autobiographical record epitomizes the experience of many pre-Civil War slaves, but in its narrative skill, it also suggests how the writer’s effort to achieve selfhood and freedom partakes of a more nearly universal pattern, particular to men and women of whatever colour.

The book is the most important resource available on Douglass. For virtually everything that is known of his early life comes from the Narrative itself  even though it ends half a century before his death.

The book received generally positive reviews and became an immediate bestseller. Within three years of its publication, it had been reprinted nine times with 11,000 copies circulating in the United States; and already translated into French and Dutch. At the time, some skeptics were questioning whether a black man could have produced such an eloquent piece of literature. A man who claimed to have known Douglass as a slave even said that he was incapable of writing such a book.

The book’s success made Douglass’ friends and mentors to fear that the resulting publicity would draw the attention of his ex-owner to him and who might thus try to get his “property” back. To steer their minds away from him and forestall the possibility of being caught, they encouraged him to tour Ireland, as many other former slaves had done. Douglass therefore set sail on the Cambria for Liverpool on August 16, 1845, and arrived in Ireland as the Irish Potato Famine was beginning. He was in Great Britain for two years making highly successful lecture appearances.

Douglas gradually enlarged and elaborated his Narrative into three subsequent versions: My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and two different editions of Life and Times of Frederick Douglas (1881,1882)

Douglass published three versions of his autobiography during his lifetime (and revised the third ), each time expanding on the previous one.

The 1845 Narrative, which was his biggest seller, was followed by My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855. In 1881, after the Civil War, Douglass brought out Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which he revised in 1892.

The first two accounts of his experiences belong to the tradition of fugitive-slave narratives which were popular in the North before the Civil War. The final volume, published when Douglas was in his mid-sixties, reveals one of the most remarkable and successful lives of the nineteenth century. The first version balanced a more detailed account of his life as a slave with the impressive record of his intellectual growth and personal achievement since he had joined forces with the abolitionists in 1841. It told of his intimacy with the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement, of his successful speaking tour of the British Isles, the purchase of his freedom for $700 by a group of his admirers, two Englishwomen, and his moving over to Rochester, New York, where he brought out the first issue of the increasingly outspoken weekly newspaper he published for the thirteen years in December 1847 first as The North Star later as Frederick Douglas’s Weekly and Monthly.

The third of Douglas’ autobiographies subsumed the first two adding to them the events of his career just before, during and after the Civil War and traces the rising area of his fame and influence and ultimately honored recognition of his countrymen, black and white alike.

Douglass’s autobiography is cast like an account of self-discovery, starting off by reporting what he does not know of himself. He must guess his age, he doesn’t know much of himself. He doesn’t  know his birthday. Only through rumor could he tell his identity. Although he knows his mother, he spends virtually no time with her. She comes to him in the dark and leaves before dawn, so he had little idea of her face as he would be sound asleep on her arrival.So all Douglass is left with as an identity is a generic identity: slave. His appearance too is spare and non-descript. Like other slave children, he wears nothing but a shirt – not rhe trousers that would symbolize his manhood, no shoes whatsoever to protect his feet from the bare earth, nothing whatsoever to differentiate him from others of his kind. Like the other slave children, he eats corn meal mush from a tray placed on the floor thus being treated like a pig or a dog being reduced to the level of animals. Everything in Douglass’s experience denies him his individuality and declares his lack of particularized identity..

The narrative constructed by one who has finally but arduously discovered his selfhood, his identity, recalls the process he went through with language at the heart of his search for this self-discovery.  The book ends with Douglass claiming his name: “I subscribe myself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS.” The name itself is a triumph of the freshly bestowed status of his freedom. The author has won with difficulty the power to subscribe himself, to sign his name, for it involves the capacity to read and write, as well as the claim to a name. Each step of the winning – learning to read, learning to write, acquiring a name – involves painful self-testing, but the word proves for Douglass literally a means to salvation.

Douglass’s development of identity, his ultimate subscription of his new name as the sign of his self, leads to no claim of being unique. On the contrary the identity he claims is partly communal:  “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, – I subscribe myself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS.”

The “Little Book” Douglass refers to above is not to establish his difference but to declare his unity. Though he now possesses his own name, his own differentiating clothes,his own wife, his own self-defined occupation; but as much as when he was a half-naked child gobbling mush with the others he feels as part of a group. For his love for his fellow slaves, which remains a recurring theme of his story, provides the foundation for his identity – not emotionally isolated, but part of a sustaining community.

His language throughout suggests that he partakes also of an even wider community. He evokes “truth” and “justice” which are the proclaimed ideals of the American nation. He quotes John Greenleaf Whittier who is generally regarded as “the slaves’ poet”‘ to express feelings that he finds hard to state for himself. Everywhere his prose rings with Biblical rhythms and allusions. Frederick Douglass is not only a slave, not only an ex-slave: he is a literary man, an American, a Christian, claiming relying on and valuing these larger forms of communion as well as his union with his race – and implicitly demanding that others who call themselves Americans or Christians acknowledge his participation with them and accept the responsibility such acknowledgment implies.

write by Piper

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