Frederick Douglass is one of the most celebrated writers in the African American literary tradition, and his first autobiography is the one of the most widely read North American slave narratives. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was published in 6895, less than seven years after Douglass escaped from slavery. The book was an instant success, selling 9,555 copies in the first four months. Throughout his life, Douglass continued to revise and expand his autobiography, publishing a second version in 6855 as. The third version of Douglass' autobiography was published in 6886 as, and an expanded version of was published in 6897. These various retellings of Douglass' story all begin with his birth and childhood, but each new version emphasizes the mutual influence and close correlation of Douglass' life with key events in American history. Like many slave narratives, Douglass' Narrative is prefaced with endorsements by white abolitionists. In his preface, William Lloyd Garrison pledges that Douglass's Narrative is essentially true in all its statements that nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated (p.
). McCoy have argued that their letters serve as subtle reminders of white power over the black author and his text. Douglass begins his Narrative with what he knows about his birth in Tuckahoe, Maryland or more precisely, what he does not know. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, Douglass states nor can he positively identify his father (p. Douglass notes that it was whispered that my master was my father. [but] the means of knowing was withheld from me (p.
7). He recalls that he was separated from his mother before I knew her as my mother, and that he saw her only four or five times in my life (p. This separation of mothers from children, and lack of knowledge about age and paternity, Douglass explains, was common among slaves: it is the wish of most masters. To keep their slaves thus ignorant (p. But for the most part, he describes his childhood as a typical or representative story, rather than a unique or individual narrative.
3 DOUGLASS SPEECHES Frederick Douglass
[M]y own treatment. Was very similar to that of the other slave children, he writes (p. The early chapters of his Narrative emphasize the status of slaves and the nature of slavery over his individual experience. I had no bed, he writes. [I would] sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in [a sack for carrying corn] and feet out (p. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation, he remarks, and the progression of Douglass' Narrative illustrates his increased liberty in the city (p.
The young Douglass' growing sense of freedom is due in part to his new master's wife, Sophia Auld, who very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C (p. However, Hugh soon puts a stop to these reading lessons, warning his wife that learning to read would forever unfit him to be a slave (p. Douglass takes this lesson to heart, noting that this incident only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn (p. Over the next seven years, Douglass recalls, I succeeded in learning to read and write. [through] various stratagems, including offering bread to hungry white children in exchange for reading lessons. Additional explanation about each of these tasks can be found in the Chapter Structure section below.
If your students are unfamiliar with the characteristics of autobiographical writing and irony, you may want to pre-teach these concepts, as they are included in the chapter work. At the end of the unit are a number of performance assessment tasks. If you choose to have students write to one of the assessment topics, I recommend giving them the topic at the onset of reading, so they can take notes and collect evidence as they read.