Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass. Kindle Edition. Original work published in 1845. Paperback edition, 82 pages.
I hadn’t planned to re-read this autobiographical work by the famed orator, abolitionist and escaped Frederick Douglass. It wasn’t in my queue for the fall. However our kids were assigned excerpts from it in a lesson on persuasive literary techniques and in the 20 years since my first reading, there were large portions I’d forgotten.
When unforeseen events found us on a road trip this weekend, I purchased the Kindle version of The Narrative for 0.99, using the travel time to reintroduce myself to Frederick Douglass’ brief but passionate recounting of his life in slavery, from his early years to his eventual escape and rise to prominence as a free man and respected abolitionist speaker and writer. I’m glad I reacquainted myself with it.
For myriad reasons, I long ago made the decision not to expend significant time reexamining nor ruminating on the history of slavery in America. To the extent that we want our children to understand the fruit of human sin as well as the blessings they now enjoy, we teach them the history of their ancestors, including those ancestors still among us who haven’t always shared the freedom they enjoy.
It means teaching the good as well as the bad. Those lessons however, are always balanced with the truth that they have enormous amounts of opportunities available to them as a result of earnest attempts at redress, no matter how imperfect. Their mission, should they choose to rise to the challenge of morality, industry, and integrity, is to seize it.
Frederick Douglass, with no opportunity, and only bitter yokes of oppression somehow seized the reins of his destiny and emerged not only successfully, but triumphantly. He wasn’t content with the achievement of his own freedom. He had a deep Christian faith which sparked in him the desire to see all men be free.
That is the moral of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, alongside his fervent abolitionist message. And his narrative is indeed an excellent example to use as a tool to teach the principles of persuasive writing. To that end, I will keep this short and sweet by ending with a few persuasive and eloquent quotes from Douglass’ narrative.
On how his master unwittingly sparked his passionate desire for knowledge and freedom when he was a young boy between 8 and 10 (Douglass never knew his exact age or birth date). His master discovered that his mistress was teaching him to read:
Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”
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.
On the importance of keeping the mind of the slave in captivity. This quote feels especially apt in our current cultural climate, regardless of race:
“To make a contented slave, you must make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate his power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery. The man that takes his earnings, must be able to convince him that he has a perfect right to do so. It must not depend upon mere force; the slave must know no Higher Law than his master’s will. The whole relationship must not only demonstrate, to his mind, its necessity, but its absolute rightfulness.”
On the unprecedented and unparalleled cruelty of those oppressors who claim to be Christians:
“For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”
“We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”
None of this spoiled Douglass’ fervor for and belief in Christ and the Christian faith:
“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate thecorrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocriticalChristianity of this land.”
This indeed is an excellent piece for exploring the power of persuasive rhetoric, and a powerful narrative of an important period in American history. I could go on, but the only other option is to paste the whole narrative here, which I don’t think is feasible.
It’s worth a read.