Frederick Douglass practiced what he preached. Through his seminal work Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave he shows that he is a true American hero/badass. He is a fighter and he portrays himself as such. He cultivates this image through the pictures he chooses for his book cover and how he recants his life in text. In his pictures, Douglass looks severe and brazen, and that’s because he is. He is unabashed and fearless. His purpose is to highlight the evils of slavery and how he manages to escape them. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything.
Throughout his life, Douglass rejects the lot he is given and pushes boundaries well past the limit. He learns to read and teaches others, doesn’t back down from overseers and slave owners, and plans escapes. There are several passages that show his fighting spirit.
“I succeeded in learning to read and write. In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems. I had no regular teacher.” (p. 115)
“he ordered me to take off my clothes. I made him no answer, but stood with my clothes on. He repeated his order. I still made him no answer, nor did I move to strip myself” (pp. 129-30)
“He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer.”(p. 137)
“In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.” (p. 146)
He’s includes these stories because he’s writing about his life and these things happen, but also to give examples of his tenacity, his fervor, his relentless drive to be autonomous and to be a person. People love a good story, so it’s easy to see how those who read his narrative were sympathetic to his cause. In his speech, “Slavery and the Annexation of Texas to the United States,” he writes that his story was so moving that “the simple reading of my narrative by a minister in your town, was the cause of his preaching last Sabbath an able anti-slavery discourse.” (p. 228).
In this speech, he evokes the visual by using such descriptive language as “human flesh and bones” (p. 230) when referring to enslaved people. This sort of writing is so much more effective than just calling them slaves. It’s quite powerful.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Other Writings. Edited by Celeste Marie Bernier, Broadview Press, 2018.
I love that you recognize Douglass’ characteristics of intensity and devotion because these are the forces behind how he attained his freedom. It’s imnportant for readers to see the intrinsic features about him that pushed him forward in his success.
Very interesting post and follow-up comment. On the subject of Douglass’s international and timeless “relatability”, here’s a true tale. When we put up a plaque commemorating Douglass’s links to Newcastle in February 2018, a local primary school (grades 1-5 roughly) did group projects on Douglass, who none of them had heard of…Then they gave public presentations to the community on what they had learned and why his life and messages were still relevant. As they spoke, they started off very deferentially calling him Frederick Douglass, moved through calling him Frederick, and by the end of the event were referring to him as Fred, like he was one of their best mates…