Brian Timar


Excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Oct 6, 2019

In this book you can find just about every principle required to live honourably. Here are some of the parts I underlined.

On the importance of absolute freedom:

I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.

For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.

A staggering act of education: teaching oneself to write (brilliantly!) while enslaved:

I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man … I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.

… when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.” … In this way I got a good many lessons in writing …

Perhaps the most terrible and dismaying paragraph I’ve ever read — the cowing of the human soul:

I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute! … My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.

Its restoration — I’m really glad to know this is in principle possible, and grateful to Douglass for describing his return.

It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

[In planning escape] The importance of timing and decisiveness —

I was very active in explaining every difficulty … assuring them that half was gained the instant we made the move … if we did not intend to move now, we had as well fold our arms, sit down, and acknowledge ourselves fit only to be slaves. This, none of us were prepared to acknowledge.

— and companionship:

Our greatest concern was about separation. We dreaded that more than any thing this side of death.

On moral and mental vision as first-order requirements:

… whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free … to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.

The Narrative is perhaps unique among narratives in leaving out its climax, Douglass’s permanent escape from slavery to the north — he feared inadvertently identifying those who helped him if he described his escape in any detail. This actually makes for powerful reading, lending a sort of otherworldly, dreamlike glow to the richer and more humane world Douglass finds himself tranported to within the space of a paragraph. Is this really possible?

It is possible, as Douglass describes beautifully in the final pages of his tale. People can be rich without taking slaves. It is one thing to understand this on economic grounds; quite another to see it through the eyes of an ex-slave:

I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement.

At the wharves in New Bedford:

Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange.

I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland.

Finally, the joy of finding a Purpose (Douglass reading the paper which prompted him to start writing):

The paper came, and I read it from week to week with such feelings as it would be quite idle for me to attempt to describe. The paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire.