Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
What makes this autobiography so odd?
- Douglass doesn’t just focus on his own life. He uses it as a tool to talk about the
institution of slavery.
- Douglass was an autodidact, which means he was self-educated. He found and used
primers (books meant for elementary school students to learn). In the 19th century,
these primers consisted of Greek orators’ essays. This is why Douglass’s writing
has so much rhetoric.
Who is the target audience?
- People stuck in the middle (undecided on the “question of slavery”)
Important Quotes and Explanations:
“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record
containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses
know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their
slaves this ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his
birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time,
spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of
unhappiness to me even during childhood” (1171).
●Douglass seems to say that he’s not special at all and that his experience is really
just typical for a slave.
●Biographies are usually written to describe special or extraordinary lives, but in
this piece, Douglass is depicting himself as the opposite.
●Douglass calls much attention to the fact that all slaves live in this manner.
●Why did the whites withhold the slaves’ ages? To deny them of their humanity.
“I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were
separated when I was but an infant- before I knew her as my mother. It is a common
custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their
mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its
mother is taken from it… For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to
hinfer to development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy
the natural affection of the mother for the child” (1171).
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