Born a slave in 1818 on a plantation in Maryland, Douglass taught himself to read and write. In 1845, seven years after escaping to the North, he published Narrative, the first of three autobiographies. This book calmly but dramatically recounts the horrors and the accomplishments of his early years—the daily, casual brutality of the white masters; his painful efforts to educate himself; his decision to find freedom or die; and his harrowing but successful escape.
An astonishing orator and a skillful writer, Douglass became a newspaper editor, a political activist, and an eloquent spokesperson for the civil rights of African Americans. He lived through the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the beginning of segregation. He was celebrated internationally as the leading black intellectual of his day, and his story still resonates in ours.
Robert O’Meally is Zora Neale Hurston Professor of Literature at Columbia University and the Director of Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies. He wrote the introduction and notes to the Barnes & Noble classics edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Crossing Over: Frederick Douglass’s Run for Freedom
The very first time I assigned Frederick Douglass’s Narrative was in the fall of 1972, in Boston, Massachusetts, when I was teaching a high school equivalency night-course for working adults. I remember the occasion well because one of the students complained to the school director that I was teaching hate. The class had met only once, and we had not yet discussed the book at all, so this student, a white nurse’s aide in her late twenties, directed her protest against the fiery book itself, which she took to be an attack upon her and all white people in America.
In a peculiarly American turn of events, the director, who like me was an African American, happened also to be one of my friends and hallmates at Harvard, where we both were working on our doctorates. In the night-school’s hallway, he told me about the complaint with a long, stern face, and then closed his office door so we could laugh until we nearly fell to the floor. “Ole Brother Douglass is still working them roots,” he said, sliding into the vernacular once we could speak in private. “Go easy on the lady,” he went on. “Gentle her into the twentieth century.”
At that time Douglass was not considered a canonical American author, though he did sometimes turn up in surveys of nineteenth-century writing and in courses with titles like “The Negro in American Literature.” The revolution in black literary studies was just beginning to catch fire; but still at Harvard, for example, there was no course in black literature offered at the graduate level, and the one such undergraduate course, in which I was a teaching assistant, was offered by a linguist through the Afro-American Studies Department. (It was an excellent course.) So it was not a shock that this young woman, a few years older than I and not yet a high school graduate, had never heard of Frederick Douglass. What was surprising was that this slender volume, with its antique figures of speech and rhetorical strategies (as well as literary structures that were so modern they seem to have influenced such creators of modern writing as Hemingway eighty years later) would strike her as so current in its potency that she wanted to swing back at it.
Part of the answer to the mystery of her response is that many of white Boston’s citizenry in the early seventies were literally up in arms against the “forced bussing” to and from schools and neighborhoods that had been as firmly closed to blacks and members of other groups considered unwelcome as were their counterparts in Mississippi or Alabama. No doubt my student was as unaccustomed to a black teacher as she was to a black author. (What on earth went through her mind when she discovered that the program director was black, too?!)
Does not this woman’s bewildered anger indicate that although the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave existed as a mightily effective political weapon, it is much more than a political weapon, which might have dulled over time? That it is also a work of art whose sentences, with their careful twists and balances and their high-speed locomotive drive, continue to evoke a direct, visceral response? Doubtless she felt the power of the book’s stark, biblical last-first/first-last language: the reverse-English of a man belonging to the group counted last in the American social hierarchy but who nonetheless became a leader of his people—meaning (though clearly my student did not realize it) not just blacks but all Americans and indeed all who love freedom.
With his Narrative, Douglass succeeded in offering his readers, and eventually also historians of American life, an unassailably reliable record of slavery from the viewpoint of one who had been enslaved. (It is important to realize that Douglass could not afford to exaggerate or get any name or detail wrong lest the proponents of slavery leap to declare him a fraud, as they were eager to do in the case of such an accomplished former slave.) But the book also brilliantly performed the aesthetic task of a work of art in depicting how it feels to be a human locked in a struggle against tyrannical odds for freedom and culture; a man seeking a place in a world where no place looks like home. In other words, yes, Douglass was still working those roots.
Douglass’s book lures its reader through the unrelenting power of its narrative line—perhaps literature’s most irresistible force. It is driven by impulses evidently built into the reflex and bone structure of Homo sapiens, the animal that wants a story. Douglass shapes his story to resonate with certain mythic patterns in the modern world. The Douglass of this narrative is a poor lost boy a long way from home, one who has no home to miss or to which he can return. With no place and nothing to call his own, no name, no birthday, no mother to whom he feels closely attached, no father to nurture or even to acknowledge him, this scarred and battered slave boy is an exile in the land of his birth. What Douglass the hero does not invoke is a sense of special honor or privilege based on lineage. He knows little about his past—either of his unknown white father’s side or his mother’s—and, even if he did, could make no claim to either side. This aligns him with many of America’s dispossessed immigrants, black and nonblack, who either were brought to the New World as slaves or who came here under dire economic distress. Having virtually nothing more than his own health, strength, will, and a strong sense that God’s mysterious power is on his side, Douglass’s task in the new land will be to improvise—that is, not just to find but to help create—a new way of life, a home at last.