Frederick Douglass: Narrative and Style Video

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  • 0:03 The Voice of a Slave
  • 1:04 The Slave Life
  • 2:49 An Abolitionist's Voice
  • 4:22 The Narrative
  • 7:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Godin

Katherine is a teacher of middle and high school English and has an M.A. in English Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Administration.

In this lesson, we will learn about Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became one of the most powerful voices in the abolitionist movement in the United States. In addition, we will examine his written work, most notably his first autobiography - ''Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.''

The Voice of a Slave

Frederick Douglass was one of the most powerful voices in the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century. After spending much of his early years in slavery, Douglass was able to escape north where he created a life for himself by sharing his experiences with those anti-slavery groups that would listen. The fact that Douglass was intelligent and eloquent amazed his audiences - remember, it was expected that most slaves did not know how to read at the time. But Douglass, who saw his audiences grow, understood that he was in a position of power. He could work to make change.

A former slave, Douglass became a powerful abolitionist voice.
Frederick Douglass

He decided it was necessary to risk his freedom by writing three different autobiographical accounts of his experiences. He continued on speaking circuits and worked tirelessly with politicians (most notably Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson) to find an end to slavery altogether and champion the rights of free minorities. Douglass was, without a doubt, one of the most politically influential, inspiring and recognizable figures of the anti-slavery movement.

The Slave Life

Frederick Douglass was born around February of 1818, although, sadly, he never knew his exact birth date. Raised by his grandparents in Maryland, Douglass was the son of a black mother and a white father. He saw his mother infrequently before she died when he was around seven. Sadly, his father he never knew. Douglass became a part of plantation life early on and was eventually sent to work for a shipbuilder named Hugh Auld in Baltimore.

It was here with the Aulds that Douglass would learn the most important of skills - he learned to read. Despite it being illegal, Hugh's wife, Sophia, began to teach Douglass the alphabet. After Hugh discouraged it, Douglass found that he could learn from kids in the neighborhood. He read whatever he could get his hands on, including newspapers. This is where he learned about abolitionism and the anti-slavery movement.

A few years later, Douglass was sent to a man named Edward Covey - a notorious slave-breaker, which was as bad as it sounds. Covey worked hard to break Douglass of physical, psychological and emotional strength through whippings and withholding food. It was a life he couldn't bear. Ultimately, feeling that it was worth the risk, Douglass decided to try to find his way north.

Douglass worked with presidents Johnson and Lincoln on finding a way to end slavery.
Presidents Johnson Lincoln

At the age of 20, after two failed attempts, Douglass escaped successfully by donning a sailor's uniform and using an ID from a free black man, all thanks to a free black woman named Anna Murray, a woman with whom he'd fallen in love. Once he arrived, Douglass met up with Murray in New York, and the two were married. They eventually settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they adopted the last name Douglass (Frederick was born with the last name Bailey but knew he needed to change it once he escaped slavery). They immersed themselves in the thriving black religious and activist communities.

An Abolitionist's Voice

Now this is where the limelight found Douglass. Because he became so connected in the community, he was often asked to speak at local anti-slavery meetings and tell his story. People were in awe of his speaking ability. His story was one that left many very emotional. William Lloyd Garrison, the very famous abolitionist writer, took note.

In one very pivotal situation, Douglass was asked to give a speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's Annual Convention. The audience was moved by Douglass. He was asked to become a lecturer for the society for a number of years. He traveled the country, stood before audiences both friendly and hostile and told his story to support the anti-slavery movement.

It was during this time that Douglass wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. What made the work so incredible was the author's writing - it was well-written, incredibly moving and read by many. Douglass knew that this would draw attention to himself, risking his freedom and his life. He worried about it and attempted to evade recapture. But he continued to work, producing several anti-slavery newspapers, the most famous of which was The North Star.

Murray became the wife of Douglass following his escape from slavery.
Anna Murray

He published two more autobiographies in his lifetime, covering different periods in his life and expanding on previous publications. He continued to travel and lecture, expanding his focus to women's rights, minority suffrage rights and also treatment of blacks in the armed forces. He used his clout and political power to influence lawmakers and to work to end slavery and create positive change.

The Narrative

Frederick Douglass wrote and published three slave narratives: A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). The slave narrative is, essentially, a form of writing that grew out of a written recreation of the personal accounts and events of a slave over their lifetime. Much like a memoir, these narratives served to inform the public and often sway public opinion. Abolitionists helped to edit these and get them published.

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was by far his most notable work and arguably the most recognizable and politically-influential slave account ever written. While the accounts of his life are recreated in a factual manner, a few other things made this such an extraordinary work.

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