Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass – Life of an American Slave (1845)

Frederick Douglass was born in slavery in 1818–less than 65 miles from Washington DC. After his escape from slavery, his power as an orator made him perhaps the most significant weapon American abolitionism had in the years before the Civil War. Pro-slavery forces challenged him on the grounds that no real slave could possibly so articulate and knowledgeable. (They also argued that slaves and ex-slaves could not be trusted to tell the truth about slavery: they would obviously be prejudiced against the institution–as slave-holders of course would not.)

Douglass’ autobiography (now often referred to as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave) is the definitive instance of the key American genre of the slave narrative. In this first section, he establishes something that many white Americans had never considered: to be a slave means never to know when you were born, who your father was–to have no identity, no tie to others but the condition of bondage. He exposes the worst scandal of slavery, still generally suppressed in American consciousness: that slaves were frequently the biological children of the masters they served.

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