The Slave Narrative Pt. 1: Frederick Douglass

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Southern Gothic literature is loaded with content, and even though it is a plentiful genre, there is another genre within this genre that helped make it the powerhouse that it is today.

The Slave Narrative

The slave narrative is one of my favorite sub-genres of Southern literature, and it was the driving force behind my first book. The purpose of slave narratives was to make the readers realize the evils of slavery, but in order to do this, the writers not only had to provide graphic and horrific depictions of their experiences, but they also had to argue their merits and prove to readers that they were worthy of being free human beings. It sounds crazy now, but keep in mind that these authors were writing in a time when they were considered subhuman. At that time, this seemed to be an insurmountable task, but out of it, the slave narrative was born, and it changed the American literary scene forever.

The slave narrator was supposed to be courageous, independent, and intelligent. The narrator was supposed to use their talents in writing to show how much they struggled for freedom and how ruthless the journey was. The design of a slave narrative had to be like a casual conservation, yet intriguing enough to keep the reader’s attention for many pages.

There were certain things that a successful slave narrative needed to prove. The narrator needed to prove that the slave was equal to whites in terms of moral, spiritual, and intellectual strength, but they also had to prove that they could be trusted. Frederick Douglass was the first to successfully achieve all of these points. In his work, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, he argues the intellectual capacity of African-Americans so poignantly that readers find the argument almost as heart-wrenching as his tales of the whipping of slaves on the plantation.

One of the first ways that Douglass shows the slaves’ intellectual fitness, as well as one of the most impressive aspects of the narrative, is how he became educated. He was being taught to read by Mrs. Auld. Just as he was progressing, her husband told her that teaching a slave to read was dumb and dangerous. Douglass quotes Mr. Auld to give readers a glimpse into his narrow state of mind.

Mr. Auld told his wife that:

“if you give a n***** an inch, he will take an ell” (945).

Mr. Auld believed that allowing a slave to become educated would make him want more and he would eventually become disobedient. When Douglass heard this, he realized that this was his ticket to freedom. He became obsessed with the idea of getting educated and he tells readers about the lengths he went to in order to learn.

What’s even more impressive than the fact that he learned to read and write is his drive and perseverance to do so. Douglass writes that even though he knew it would be difficult to learn without having someone to teach him, he states that “at whatever cost of trouble” (946) he would educate himself, and he did so in quite a few different ways.

One of his smartest and most successful ways of learning was by befriending white boys that played on the street near where he lived. He writes

“as many of these as I could, I converted into teachers” (948).

He never reveals the names of the boys because he didn’t want to humiliate them or get them into trouble. By doing this he shows that he’s a good person, but he also shows that he was clever because he never let the boys know that they were teaching him. Therefore, the boys never committed a crime in teaching a slave and Douglass got exactly what he wanted.

While going out to run errands, Douglass would stop by with a book and ask the white boys a few questions in exchange for food. Douglass describes this ritual by saying that

“this bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins,

who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge” (948).

The mere fact that he recognizes how valuable education is despite the fact that his master said otherwise shows that he had a deep understanding of the world around him, far beyond his years.

In order for him to learn to write, he took his master’s copy book and copied the way his master wrote his words. Douglass notes that it took years for him to write, but eventually he learned.

He displays his intelligence by telling a story about how he learned the definition of abolition. To begin with, the fact that he set out to learn the meaning of the word because he had heard it being used so much by the slave masters show his thirst for learning as well as his ability to pick up information contextually. He first looked it up in the dictionary but it offered no help at all. He wanted to know what it was, but he was smart in not asking anyone because it was obvious to him that he wasn’t supposed to know what it meant. After some time, he saw the word being used in the newspaper and he learned the meaning by reading it in context. Learning what words mean by seeing the context it is being used in is something that children learn to do in schools today. Douglass wasn’t taught this but he was smart enough to know that he could learn definitions by using this tactic.

Reading brings along knowledge. At the time, slaves weren’t seen as humans, much less humans who had the ability to attain knowledge. Frederick Douglass proves this idea wrong when he discusses how enraged he became at his masters after he read. Douglass writes that the more he read and the more he learned, the more he detested the people who enslaved him. He writes that reading had given him a view of his wretched condition (949).

He also writes that he realized his curse, but he also realized that there was no remedy for this curse. Between his realizations and the knowledge of society that he attained, Douglass proved the capabilities that slaves had. Douglass also shows his wit by powerfully using the master’s own words and twisting them around to prove his own point. Mr. Auld had given a speech about giving slaves an inch and them taking the ell. After Douglas discusses the desire he had to learn, he takes Mr. Auld’s words and says,

“Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet,

had given me the inch,

and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” (948).

We know this use of words wasn’t an accident because the master’s words are italicized, meaning Douglas meant to twist Mr. Auld’s words around.

Expanding on Douglas’ witty use of words, the quality of his language in his narrative is remarkable. Much like Mark Twain, Frederick Douglas is very detailed and descriptive when it comes to depicting the way a person looked or the way a certain situation felt. When describing Mrs. Auld's appearance, he compares her to something celestial. He writes about each feature of her body and gives a metaphoric description of each part. He describes her transition from a kind-hearted woman to a cold woman by saying

“that angelic face gave place to that of a demon” (945),

and her “tender heart became stone” (947).

Without being gruesome or grotesque, he still manages to make you see his aunt being whipped and the blood streaming down her spine. Readers are able to hear the shrieks and the cries and are able to feel Douglass’ fear without having to go through much gory detail.

He uses repetition many times throughout his narrative. When discussing his realization of the importance of education, he repeats the word struggle twice; once by ending a thought and then the second time by beginning a new one. He writes

“It was a new and special revelation,

explaining dark and mysterious things,

with which my youthful understanding had struggled,

but struggled in vain” (946).

Later on in that same paragraph, rather than simply saying his master didn’t want him to learn, he points out the desires of the two of them. He writes

“What he most dreaded, that I most desired.

What he most loved, that I most hated” (946).

This not only sounds poetic, but he’s also showing readers the contrast in ideas. Similarly, when describing the slaves owned by Thomas Hamilton, all of whom were badly abused, he writes

“his heart must be harder than stone,

that could look upon these unmoved” (946).

Douglass has another spat of wit and a hint of sarcasm when he writes about his mistress. He writes that she was kind to him because she tried to

“treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another” (947).

Douglass is overtly stating that slaves are human beings and at the same time he's throwing a jab at those who thought otherwise. You can sense the cynicism in that statement because he’s writing it as if it’s some huge innovative concept to treat all human beings equally.

Douglass also recognizes the irony in him becoming educated and describes in such a painfully beautiful way. Instead of just saying that he was cursed for being black, he writes that reading

“opened my eyes to the horrible pit,

but to no ladder upon which to get out” (949).

His use of repetition is almost Dickens-esque. His literary prowess is powerfully displayed in the moment where he writes,

“Freedom now appeared,

to disappear no more forever.

It was heard in every sound,

and seen in everything.

It was ever present to torment me

with a sense of my wretched condition” (949).

Douglass' language throughout this narrative is astonishing. One of my professors from undergrad, Dr. Johnson, who had a profound impact on me and my career, once said "argument provokes argument, and the narratives of slaves go right to the heart of men." As I revisit Douglass' beloved narrative, a work that single-handedly changed the course of my life, I am still floored by not only the power in Douglass' argument, but in the exquisiteness of his words. Centuries later, he continues to be a titan of literature and example of eloquence. He set out to show that slaves were intellectually fit, but he did it in a way that fed the minds of readers, and also fed their hearts. What a gift he gave us, a soul in the form of the written word; words that will resonate through the course of this month as we continue our journey down this profound genre of literature.