REVIEW: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

A review by Dwight A. Moody

 

Why have I waited until I am sixty-nine years old to read this book?

 

It should have been required reading in high school, or college, or seminary. How is I that I pretend to be an educated man without having read this book?

 

It is not long—172 pages in my paperback edition, complete with preface, appendix, and two other small additions. Physically, it is a small book and does not take long to read; likewise, it does not take long to be so utterly impressed: the language, the frankness, the vividness of his descriptions of these first twenty years of living.

 

In that sense, it hardly qualifies as a narrative of “the life of Frederick Douglass” as it covers only the first 20 of his 77 years spent on planet earth.

 

He was born a slave in Maryland and lived a slave until he escaped in 1838. He doesn’t tell us, in this narrative, how he escaped (to avoid endangering those who helped him, he explains); but he does tell us how he lived. And his descriptions of his living leave two things on my mind.

 

First, he asserts more than once how “getting religion” made a slaveholder so much worse. In chapter IX, he writes:

 

“In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, not to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before.”

 

This perspective was consistent throughout the narrative, so much so that he felt impressed to write an appendix explaining his judgment about religion:

 

“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible different—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

 

The Narrative describes: the place of his birth, how he never saw his mother in daylight, when he first witnessed a slave whipping, the differences in slave masters, how he learned to read, and the day he stood on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay and first imagined his free future. It is all riveting and powerful and altogether the most compelling description of slavery I have every read.

 

Somewhere and everywhere he eased from his head into mine this thought: how slavery transformed the white culture of the South as much or more than the black culture and left on both a character that remains until this day (and perhaps explains so very much about attitudes and actions of both that puzzle us today).

 

Second, his writing raises this question: how did this man, forbidden to study and learn for the first 20 years of his life, acquire the intelligence, the skill, and the vocabulary to write like he does? The Preface is an introduction written by the equally famous and talented William Lloyd Garrison a mere seven years after Douglass escaped to freedom in which Garrison describes hearing for the first time Frederick Douglass speak in public.

 

You can re-create the same experience by reading his justly famous 1852 oration entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

 

Both the Narrative (and two subsequent auto-biographies) and this speech press home this question: how did one so marginalized, so denigrated, so denied opportunity develop a mind, a spirit, and a voice so compelling, so learned, so brilliant as to earn the unending admiration of his contemporaries and also of those who, at the age of sixty-nine discover Frederick Douglass for the first time, a mere 124 years after his passing.

 

I am in awe and full of gratitude; and I give thanks to God, adopting the language Douglass used at the conclusion of chapter V to describe how the idea of being a freed man first took hold of his imagination: “This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.”

 

 

copyright 2019 Dwight A. Moody