Thursday, January 4, 2024

On the Coffee Table: Frederick Douglass

Title: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Author: Frederick Douglass

via Amazon

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in either 1817 or 1818, official birth record non-existent.  More confirmable is the fact that he escaped to the North in 1838 and eventually became the most important writer and orator in the abolitionist movement.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is one of three autobiographies he wrote and an essential vehicle for his long-term legacy, often assigned reading in American high schools.  

Douglass published the work in 1845 in response to white abolitionists who doubted his claims to a modest, self-educated past.  He pulled no punches in describing the horrors of slavery, including particularly graphic accounts of whippings he suffered and witnessed.  He deliberately left out details of his escape, not wanting to compromise the opportunities for other slaves to free themselves from bondage.

I first learned about Douglass in the second grade as part of our Maryland history unit which included several famous Black historical figures born in the state.  The only other two I'm sure were on the list were Harriett Tubman and Benjamin Banneker, though I can't imagine Thurgood Marshall wasn't included.  Medical pioneer Charles R. Drew was claimed though technically he was born in DC.  40 years on, I'm now struck by the fact that the two most famous escaped slaves - Douglass and Tubman - were both born on Maryland plantations.  Maryland - or at least Montgomery County, where I grew up - lives in denial of the fact that it is part of the American South.  Undeniably, it was both a slave state and a Jim Crow state.  So at least in terms of racial history, Maryland qualifies as southern.

With the American radical right eager to whitewash our nation's deeply racist history, it's more important than ever that books like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass are read, especially in schools.


  1. Since I am in Canada we never went too deep into your civil war but we did still study it and recall Douglas. We never had the requirement to read his autobiography. I always thought he was a great man and read what I could find on him. I don't think there has been a film about his life and wonder why

    1. That's an interesting question regarding films. I've seen him turn up as a character in movies. He's in Glory, I think. However, I have no doubt that his writing had an impact on such works as Roots and 12 Years a Slave.

  2. I read the autobiography in a survey of American literature class in college. It's powerful and should be required reading. Although I know Maryland qualifies as a Southern state, I lived there for 15 years and never thought of it as part of the South.


    1. I never thought of it as the South, either, though the sweltering summers probably should have been a big clue.

      I think it also depends what part of the state you're in. The Eastern Shore is like a different world and that's where a lot of the big tobacco plantations were.