Self-Possession in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass crafts a harrowing and intense account of his journey out of slavery and into freedom. The entirety of his story boils down to a concept explored in “History, Photography, and Race in the South: From the Civil War to Now Part 4—Pictures and Progress: Frederick Douglass on Photography” — self-possession.

Douglass’ devotion to escaping the clutches of cruel enslavers becomes an escapade in building an image for himself that develops in both obvious and latent ways. Readers encounter Mr. Covey, against whom Douglass physically defends himself, presenting a very forward example of the fortitude and reputation Douglass creates for himself. However, Douglass establishes his reputation and self-possession in more subtle ways, primarily through education, which his former master Mr. Auld claimed was the way a man becomes un-enslavable. Douglass muses after hearing Auld’s comment:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. 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. (113)

Douglass here realizes that the only way through which he could truly free himself was if he obtained an education, beginning with the “fixed purpose” of the ability to read (113). His prioritization of education appeals to an audience that is presumably mostly white. Education acts as an agent to engage transatlantic audiences because, as it stands, outsider nations appear to have a negative image of America as a debased and uneducated nation. Douglass’ devotion to education, therefore, elevates him above the inherently negative foreign reception of Americans. This perception pervades not only the text he sets forth but furthermore manifests in the portraits that exist of him. His authentic daguerreotypes are described as being of “heroic caricature,” asserting an image of himself that is authoritative and resilient, setting aside the stereotypes of an acquiescent enslaved person (“History…”). In this way, Douglass reflects that these efforts to educate and craft a positive self-image is “the way to accumulate characteristics of self-possession” (“History…”). The story he presents and the portraits that exist of him work in conjunction to create a sophisticated and educated profile of Douglass that promotes transatlantic engagement and support for his abolitionist endeavors.

In Douglass’ letter to Richard D. Webb in April of 1846, Douglass asserts his distaste for the engraving of him that appears on an edition of his book. He addresses Webb “not without due deference to yourself and those who think with you…the engraving is not as good as the original portrait. I don[‘]t like it, and I have said so without heat or thunder” (196). Douglass here makes clear to those responsible for disseminating the works that he has standards for his visual representation, as it holds vast importance for his conceptual representation. He again writes to Webb in January of 1846, demanding that “when the next edition is published, I wish you have it bound up at once, so that I may not have to wait” (192). Douglass once more asserts his air of authority and authorial expectations for his work. His position as an educated man gives him the agency and the ability to identify the vitality of creating a cohesive self-image as a segue for true self-possession. During his antislavery tour abroad, Douglass was received positively by pro-abolitionist crowds in Ireland and England. His reception abroad highlighted the potent hypocrisy and tyranny that America inflicted by perpetuating slavery.

The featured image of Frederick Douglass was taken in April of 1870 by George Francis Schreiber. Schreiber was born in Germany, but moved to the United States and worked there for the remainder of his life. He was more commonly known for his work in horse racing photography but has this picture of Douglass in his portfolio. Schreiber is credited with “being the first American photographer to use glass as a negative, from which he developed the hyalotype, or crushed glass negative” (“George Francis Schreiber”). The way Schreiber frames Douglass in this portrait is a testament to the image of strength and freedom he valiantly worked to create for himself.


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Edited by Celeste-Marie Bernier, Broadview Press, 2018.

“George Francis Schreiber.” Harness Museum, Harness Racing Museum,

Schreiber, George Francis, photographer. Frederick Douglass, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right. [26 April] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Smith, Shawn Michelle. “History, Photography, and Race in the South: From the Civil War to Now Part 4—Pictures and Progress: Frederick Douglass on Photography.” National Gallery of Art, 12 June 2018.

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