Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself: A New Critical Edition by Angela Y. Davis

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself: A New Critical Edition by Angela Y. Davis

by Frederick Douglass, Angela Y. Davis

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A masterpiece of African American literature, Frederick Douglass's Narrative is the powerful story of an enslaved youth coming into social and moral consciousness by disobeying his white slavemasters and secretly teaching himself to read. Achieving literacy emboldens Douglass to resist, escape, and ultimately achieve his freedom. After escaping slavery,


A masterpiece of African American literature, Frederick Douglass's Narrative is the powerful story of an enslaved youth coming into social and moral consciousness by disobeying his white slavemasters and secretly teaching himself to read. Achieving literacy emboldens Douglass to resist, escape, and ultimately achieve his freedom. After escaping slavery, Douglass became a leader in the anti-slavery and women's rights movements, a bestselling author, and U.S. diplomat.

In this new critical edition, legendary activist and feminist scholar Angela Davis sheds new light on the legacy of Frederick Douglass. In two philosophical lectures originally delivered at UCLA in autumn 1969, Davis focuses on Douglass's intellectual and spiritual awakening, and the importance of self-knowledge in achieving freedom from all forms of oppression. With detailed attention to Douglass's text, she interrogates the legacy of slavery and shares timeless lessons about oppression, resistance, and freedom. And in an extended introductory essay written for this edition, Davis comments on previous editions of the Narrative and re-examines Douglass through a contemporary feminist perspective. An important new edition of an American classic.

Angela Y. Davis presents a long overdue examination of Douglass' work not just from the perspective of a woman but one of the most provocative and profound minds of the last half century. It is my sincere hope that this City Lights edition of The Narrative will inspire researchers and individuals to take a closer look at the tremendous degree of influence Anna Murray Douglass had in the life and the career of her husband and my great-great-great grandfather."—Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., Great-great-great grandson, Frederick Douglass & Great-great grandson, Booker T. Washington

Editorial Reviews

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries
“This edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass contains two previously unpublished ‘Lectures on Liberation’ by Angela Davis, delivered at the start of her controversial appointment at UCLA in 1969… An introduction Davis wrote in 2009 adds a look back at the lectures and speculates about the continuing relevance of Douglass’ text. Davis’ lectures apply methods from Hegelian and Marxist philosophy to an analysis of alienation, freedom, resistance, and liberation in the life of the slave, while her introduction focuses more on recent feminist readings critiquing Douglass… [providing] an interesting window onto the intellectual landscape of the 1960s. . . .Recommended. All levels/Libraries.” --(G. Jay)
From the Publisher
"Just as Douglass was dedicated to abolishing the institution that imprisoned him and his people, Davis is dedicated to abolishing the institution that imprisoned her and still imprisons millions of Americans, mostly people of color: the modern American prison system."—H. Bruce Franklin, African American Review

"Davis's work deserves a wide readership … She has compiled much useful information not easily obtained elsewhere."—Toni Morrison

"Davis' arguments for justice are formidable — The power of her historical insights and the sweetness of her dream cannot be denied."
New York Times Book Review

"Long before 'race/gender' became the obligatory injunction it is now, Angela Davis was developing an analytical framework that brought all of these factors into play. For readers who only see Angela Davis as a public icon … meet the real Angela Davis: perhaps the leading public intellectual of our era."—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

"One of America's last truly fearless public intellectuals."—Cynthia McKinney, U.S. Democratic Congresswoman

"Angela Davis's revolutionary spirit is still strong. Still with us, thank goodness!"—Virginian-Pilot

"There was a time in America when to call a person an 'abolitionist' was the ultimate epithet. It evoked scorn in the North and outrage in the South. Yet they were the harbingers of things to come. They were on the right side of history. Prof. Angela Y. Davis stands in that proud, radical tradition."—Mumia Abu-Jamal, author of Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A.

"Behold the heart and mind of Angela Davis, open, relentless, and on time!"—June Jordan

"Angela Davis has stood as a courageous voice of conscience on matters of race, class, and gender in America."—David Theo Goldberg, Arizona State University

"Angela Davis offers a cartography of engagement in oppositional social movements and unwavering commitment to justice."—Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Women's Studies, Hamilton College

"The breadth of Davis's work in the past two decades is an inspiring example of bridge-building across causes and generations. That her contemporary activism can be coupled so flawlessly with Douglass’s historic writings and powerful legacy speaks to the importance of their combined influence spanning centuries. … At a time when the freedoms once granted by the Fourteenth Amendment are now being applied to corporate entities, cannabilizing the legacy of freed slaves in the United States, this book— Davis’s call for a more engaged electorate—is wonderfully timely and deeply engaging."—Colorlines
A century and a half after its first publication, Frederick Douglass's Narrative retains its hold on us, capturing us with its first-person story of the abolitionist's passage from bondage to freedom.
Sacred Life

When it was first published, many critics doubted that The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass had even been written by Frederick Douglass. As odd as it may seem now, that criticism was not completely unfounded: In the mid-nineteenth century, the antislavery movement produced hundreds of slave narratives, many of them ghostwritten by white abolitionists and tailored to create sympathy for their movement. But this book, by this remarkable man, was different. The tag line at the end of the book's subtitle—Written by Himself —was vitally important. Although clearly written with the abolitionist cause in mind, this book is not merely a political tract. True, its dispassionate prose brought to light the "injustice, exposure to outrage, and savage barbarity" of slavery as Douglass observed and experienced But also brought to life an uncommon man and the particular concerns seared into him during his experience of bondage. Douglass recounts that during slavery, he and his people were denied life's fundamentals: faith, family, education, the capacity for bold action, a sense of community, and personal identity. Douglass saw reclamation of these things as the key to his and his people's survival, redemption, and salvation.

The autobiography opens with a description of the aspects of his own life that Douglass was never allowed to know: the identity of his father, the warmth and care of his mother (who was a stranger to him), and even the fact of his own date of birth. As a child, he suffered from and observed savage beatings firsthand, including the fierce beating of his Aunt Hester at the hands of their master, Captain Aaron Anthony. As he grew older, Douglass liberated himself in stages: mentally, spiritually, and, eventually, physically. His mental freedom began when he was taught to read and write and realized the power of literacy; his spiritual freedom came when he discovered the grace of Christianity and the will to resist his beatings; his physical freedom arrived when he finally escaped to the North.

After escaping, Douglass was committed to telling the world about the condition of the brothers and sisters he left behind. Aside from telling Douglass's personal story, his autobiography takes us to the fields and the cabins and the lives of many slaves to reveal the real human cost of slavery. Douglass focused on the dehumanizing aspects of slavery: not just the beatings, but the parting of children from their mothers, the denial of education, and the sexual abuses of slave masters. He ends the book with this statement: "Sincerely and earnestly hoping that his little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds—faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts—and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause, I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass."

The book was an incredible success: It sold over thirty thousand copies and was an international bestseller. It was the first, and most successful, of three autobiographies that Douglass was to write. The other two, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, update the story of his life and revise some of the facts of his earlier autobiography.

Judith Brown
In her most diplomatic method, Davis proves what I never realized until now: The Black American slave era was not so much about Blacks and slavery as it was about the state of all humanity. . . . Davis shows in this very compelling volume that Frederick Douglass was simply a man. And what all men and women were meant to be . . . free.
Regal Magazine
Rick Ayers
Douglass' description of his life in slavery, his resistance, and his flight to freedom could not be more timely or more meaningful to students. At a time when education officials are wringing their hands about how difficult it is to teach black students literacy, Douglass demonstrates how the struggle for literacy has always been a part of the struggle for liberation. . . . This is where Angela Davis injects her considerable insight. Her introduction connects Douglass' critique to the struggles for liberation in the 60's and 70's, demonstrating the same courage, audacity, and clarity of vision that was required to see through and defy the slave system.
Huffington Post
Brittany Shoot
. . . the newly released Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself: A New Critical Edition (City Lights Books) brings together two of the great philosophical writers and racial justice activists of the last two centuries and combines the deeply personal writings of Frederick Douglass with several politically charged lectures given by Angela Y. Davis in the early 1970s.... Even for those who have never studied either writer in depth, Davis explores the many ways we can interpret Douglass's anti-slavery writing today and draws parallels between the continued oppression of women and prisoners.... The breadth of Davis's work in the past two decades is an inspiring example of bridge-building across causes and generations. That her contemporary activism can be coupled so flawlessly with Douglass's historic writings and powerful legacy speaks to the importance of their combined influence spanning centuries.... At a time when the freedoms once granted by the Fourteenth Amendment are now being applied to corporate entities, cannabilizing the legacy of freed slaves in the United States, this book — Davis's call for a more engaged electorate — is wonderfully timely and deeply engaging.

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Introduction to the City Lights edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederic Douglass, An American Slave

It has been more than a century and a half since Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was first published. The text garnered a broad readership among Douglass's abolitionist contemporaries in the United States and Britain and later came to be regarded as the paradigmatic American Slave Narrative.

It is well known that Frederick Douglass wrote his first autobiography in 1845 in part to dispel doubts about his status as a fugitive slave. In the abolitionist circuit, white audiences were often so impressed by his literacy and eloquence as a speaker that they assumed he must have been a free black person who was formally educated. According to an article in the Liberator, the most important abolitionist journal of that period,

Many persons in the audience seemed unable to credit the statements which he gave of himself, and could not believe that he was actually a slave. How a man, only six years out of bondage, and who had never gone to school a day in his life, could speak with such eloquence—with such precision of language and power of thought—they were utterly at a loss to devise.14

Some scholars have also argued that William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders expected Douglass to confine his remarks to his own experience as a slave, leaving the analytical dimension to white speakers. By writing his autobiography, Douglass felt that he would not only be able to present irrefutable evidence of his background, but he would also be able to focus more freely on analyses of slavery and the abolitionist cause in his speeches and articles.15

H. Bruce Franklin has called the slave narrative the first distinctively American literary genre.16 Several dozen slave narratives had been published in North America before the appearance of Douglass's first autobiography, and altogether two hundred have been identified as having been issued and reissued during and after the period of legal slavery in the United States. This includes two more autobiographies by Frederick Douglass—My Bondage and My Freedom and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass—as well as multiple autobiographies by other authors.

The earliest example of the genre is Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Others include Nat Turner's Confessions, Moses Grandy's Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America, Henry Box Brown's Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide, and Booker T. Washington's well-known Up From Slavery. As many feminist scholars have remarked, the slave narrative as genre is thoroughly gendered. Not only were few narratives produced by women—one thinks of Sojourner's Truth's Narrative, but most important Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—they also disclosed the way gender structured the telling of stories about slavery. Jacobs' Incidents, for example, reveals that she both sustained and worked against the influence of the sentimental novel of the era. She closed her book with an address to her readership that reminded them that her objective was liberation and therefore did not conform to the conventional denouement of sentimental novels and the anticipated aspirations of white women: "Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way with marriage."17

Of the countless editions of Douglass's Narrative that have been published over the last fifty years, some have attempted to help us grasp the gendered framework of his story—and, by extension, of the genre itself. Random House published Douglass's Narrative and Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl together in a Modern Library Classic edition in 2000 with an introduction by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Highlighting the role Douglass's violated masculinity plays in shaping his conceptualization of freedom, Appiah points out that "the driving energy of the book is Douglass's need to live not just as a free person, but as a free man. And he becomes a man . . . in part by besting another white man—Covey the slave-breaker—in a fight."18 What is not so clear in Appiah's claim that for Harriet Jacobs, the author of the narrative accompanying Douglass's, "the escape from slavery was a search for life not just as a free person, but as a free woman,"19 is that lurking within the definition of black freedom as the reclamation of black manhood is the obligatory suppression of black womanhood.

Deborah McDowell provided an insightful introduction to the Oxford University Press's 1999 edition of Douglass's Narrative in which she called attention to the patriarchal assumptions in the text. Any reader of Douglass's autobiographies—whether the Narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom, or The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass—is familiar with the gripping scene of Douglass battling the slave—breaker Covey. Douglass wrote that in the period preceding the battle,

Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. 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 above my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!20

His later description of the fight with Covey is prefaced by this message to the reader: "You have seen how a man was made a slave: you shall now see how a slave was made a man."21 According to McDowell, the aim of this passage is:

. . . to underscore that "slave" and "man" are as mutually contradictory as "American" and "slave" . . . Douglass . . . leaves untouched the structuring opposition: male and female, for subject and object are thoroughly and conventionally gendered throughout the Narrative. In other words, inasmuch as "manhood" and "freedom" function throughout Douglass's discourse on slavery as coincident terms, his journey from slavery to freedom leaves women in the logical position of representing the condition of slavery. Douglass's refusal to be whipped represents not only an assertion of manhood but the transcendence of slavery, an option his Narrative denies to women.22

One of the implications of the definition of "freedom" in terms of "manhood" is that the closest black women can come to freedom is to achieve the status not of a free man, but rather the unliberated status of the white woman. Harriet Jacobs may well have been intentionally troubling this idea when she decided to draw attention to the fact that her book closes with the attainment of "freedom" rather than "marriage."

McDowell makes the point that in Douglass's Narrative, maimed, flogged, abused black female bodies are the anchors of his description of slavery.23 "The Narrative," she writes, "is literally populated with the whipped bodies of slave women."24 One of McDowell's references is to the beating of Aunt Hester, which Douglass describes at the very beginning of his book. ("I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he [the overseer] used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood.")25 This was what Douglass referred to as "the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery."26

Of course Frederick Douglass was not alone in his evocation of women's bodies as objects of slavery's appalling violence, and it would be unfair to single him out individually for using this convention or for failing to apprehend how literary representions of black women's bodies as targets of slavery's most horrific forms of violence might also tend to objectify slave women and discursively deprive them of the capacity to strike out for their own freedom. Abolitionists—both black and white—were well aware of the way audiences could be expected to respond to evocations of slavery's violences against women and thus frequently used examples similar to those in the Narrative. They also assumed that emancipation from slavery would entail in the first place, freedom for black men. Moreover, they assumed that the violent repression of black women was indirectly an attack on black men, who were not allowed to protect "their" women in the way white men might be expected to protect "theirs."

As twenty-first-century readers, our historical vantage point can be more complex and our reading can be more nuanced. Just as we know and applaud the accomplishments of the nineteenth-century Women's Rights movement, while recognizing that despite the best intentions of its participants, the movement was thoroughly saturated with racism, we are also able to hold Frederick Douglass in the highest regard, while also acknowledging his and his era's inability to imagine the full equality of women—especially those women who were subjugated by virtue of race and gender.

McDowell's analysis does not in any sense diminish the significance of Frederick Douglass's work. Indeed, even though he, like all of his contemporaries, was a product of his times, and was shaped by many of the prevailing ideological assumptions, he was able, more than most, to critically apprehend the fallacious ideologies justifying black inferiority and women's inferiority. As McDowell emphatically points out, Douglass played the most prominent role among all the men present at the first women's rights conference in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 and chose as a slogan for his newspaper "Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color."27 Yet, it could not be expected of him to recognize all of the ramifications of the male supremacist ideas that permeated the institutional and ideological landscapes of his time. Thus, even as McDowell critiques what she perceives to be a rhetorical exploitation of the black female body, she also highlights the important role Douglass played in the nascent Women's Rights movement. The edition of the Narrative for which McDowell provides an introduction also includes several articles from Douglass's newspaper urging the public to support women's rights, including woman suffrage.

When I first read Douglass's Narrative, I had not yet learned how to recognize the extent to which the equivalence of "freedom" and "manhood" meant that women were excluded by definition from enjoying the full benefits of freedom. In fact, today I find it simultaneously somewhat embarrassing to realize that my UCLA lectures on Douglass rely on an implicitly masculinist notion of freedom, and exciting to realize how much we have matured with respect to feminist analysis since that period. Thanks to my training in German philosophy, I had acquired conceptual tools that allowed me to analyze the complex trajectories from bondage to freedom (using, for example Hegel's approach to the relationship between master and slave in The Phenomenology of Mind,), but it was not until I began to work on "The Black Women's Role in the Community of Slaves" (a year later during the time I was imprisoned) that I began to recognize the fundamental importance of developing gender analyses.

As I revisit the lectures that accompany this current edition of Frederick Douglass's Narrative, I am surprised by how much I did not know at the beginning of an era that witnessed the rise of Black Studies and Women's/Feminist Studies. In 1969, when I was hired by UCLA's Department of Philosophy to teach courses in Continental Philosophy, I welcomed the opportunity to teach courses in the tradition forged by Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Such courses would allow me to put to good use my training as a student of Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno. But I was also deeply interested in the emergence of Black Studies—at UCLA, the Center for Afro-American Studies was founded shortly before I joined the Philosophy faculty—and wanted my teaching to incorporate these new developments. At that time there was no available body of literature on black philosophy, nor was there a significant group of philosophy scholars who worked on issues of race and ethnicity. Consequently I decided to design a course that I called "Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature" that would entail examining black literary texts with the aim of identifying the major philosophical questions they posed.

The overarching question I considered in the course was that of liberation. I intended to think about liberation both in broad philosophical terms and in the way the theme of liberation is embedded in the literary history of black people in North America. Although current events were beyond the scope of the course, I expected the students to take note of the wide-ranging engagements with theories and practices of liberation in movement circles. After all, it was 1969, barely a year and a half since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, which had rekindled popular discussion and organizing around strategies of liberation. Internecine strife within the black youth movement pitted cultural nationalists against socialists and internationalists, and it had been a little less than a year since Black Panther leaders John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were killed by members of the cultural nationalist association known as US Organization during a Black Student Union meeting on the UCLA campus. Moreover, I, myself, had been under intense political pressure since California Governor Ronald Reagan and the Regents of the University of California had announced shortly before I began to teach that they were firing me because of my membership in the Communist Party USA. I taught this course on philosophy and black literature while seeking and eventually receiving a court ruling enjoining the Regents from firing me based on my political affiliation.

I should point out that even though there was no formal incorporation of gender analyses into my first courses, my activist experiences involved intense battles over the role of women in such black community organizations as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party. The patriarchal structure of the cultural nationalist US Organization left no space for contestation. Moreover, I had personally come under attack by some members of the community who did not think that I deserved to take a leadership position given the fact that I was a woman.

The approach to the question of liberation I pursued in "Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature" linked philosophical understandings of freedom with histories of black political struggle and cultural production as they resonated with contemporary efforts to extend and enlarge the meaning of freedom. What better text to begin with than Frederick Douglass's autobiography? Students would follow a trajectory from bondage to liberty that would help them to better apprehend the nature of freedom as forged by those who have had most at stake in the struggle for liberation. The first two lectures—based on rough transcripts of my remarks, which referred to the later autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass—accompany this edition of Frederick Douglass's Narrative. They are published here in the form in which they were circulated in 1970 after I was arrested on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, which included a strong letter of support from faculty members at UCLA. When I taught this course, I did not realize that less than a year later, I would be in jail awaiting trial on what were initially three capital charges.

In the 1960s and '70s, the perceived urgency of the political moment led many readers of Douglass's narrative to reflect on the prospects of liberation in the twentieth century as they read about his quest for freedom in the nineteenth. Douglass's status as the preeminent voice of the black anti-slavery movement led many people to search his writings for clues about how to conduct twentieth-century liberation struggles. One of the most recognizable passages from his writings, which continues to be frequently quoted today, comes from a speech he delivered in August 1857 on the occasion of West India Emancipation Day, marking the twenty-third anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.28

This message resonated with activists and supporters of the various liberation movements of the 1960s—from the African, Asian, and Latin American liberation movements to the movements inside the United States that called for a definitive end to racism.

Given that Douglass's insistence that progress always requires struggle and that freedom must be fought for and won, not offered as a gift, has, in fact, been repeated often by movements since the 1960s, it should be possible to make fresh connections with Douglass's life and works today.

What, then, might be the resonance of Douglass's writings—and the Narrative, in particular—as we experience the first administration of the first African American president of the United States? Barack Obama certainly posited a connection between Douglass's political quest and his own. In a number of campaign speeches, he made implicit references to Douglass's words, often emphasizing that "power concedes nothing without a fight," and, referring in his victory speech, for example, to "struggles and progress" over the last decades.

Intriguingly, I write this introduction as President Obama returns from his first official trip to Ghana, during which he and the First Family visited Cape Coast Castle. The media coverage of his family's encounter with the historical African slave trade—including a walk through the tunnel at the end of which was the door of no return—has spun multiple ruminations on slavery, including an inquiry into Michelle Obama's slave past. Coincidentally, shortly before the Obamas traveled to Ghana, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution delivering an official apology for slavery, concurring with House resolution of 2008. (At the same time, the U.S. government—along with other Western governments—boycotted the 2009 World Conference Against Racism, thus failing to recognize the links between slavery, colonization and the current sitution of the Palestinians.)

How then do we read Douglass's narrative today? How do we think about slavery's inheritances that continue to shape contemporary institutions and practices? What have we learned in the many years since the first publication of the Narrative that might assist us in developing richer, more layered, more complicated readings of this text on slavery, resistance, and liberation? What, for example can we say about the obsession with black women as objects of the most unspeakable forms of violence? In assenting to the critiques proposed by feminist scholars, we also recognize that portrayals of suffering black women were widely used to convey the horrors of slavery. Because of prevailing hierarchies of gender—which also influenced black people—the suffering woman was interpreted as an implicit assault on the black man. The instrumentality of violence against enslaved women was such that it could be materially effective in maintaining the system, but it was also ideologically effective in sustaining gendered hierarchies of power even in black abolitionist circles.

Thus, in criticizing the text's abundance of images of enslaved, thrashed, and battered black women, we should not read these images as needing to be excised from the Narrative, but rather we should try to develop a framework that foregrounds both the complexities of gendered violence under slavery and possible gendered strategies for freedom. We might begin by examining the instrumentality of slavery's gendered violences, which were not the product of inherently evil individual actors, but rather were designed to further the system of slavery itself. In numerous slave narratives, we discover descriptions of special forms of punishment relegated to pregnant women, who could be compelled to lie down over a hole in the ground designed to "protect" the pregnancy as the slave-owner's future property, while an overseer flogged them. Moses Grandy's words indicate that the violence was such that it sometimes exceeded its own purpose and led to the death of both mother and fetus.

A woman who gives offense in the field, and is large in a family way, is compelled to lie down over a hole made to receive her corpulency, and is flogged with the whip or beat with a paddle, which has holes in it; at ever stroke comes a blister. One of my sisters was so severely punished in this way that labor was brought on, and the child was born in the field. This very overseer, Mr. Brooks, killed in this manner a girl named Mary. 29

At the same time we should not be so overwhelmed by the enormity of this violence that we forget that its target is a subject who deserves to be free. In other words, we should not allow such emotions as pity to foreclose possibilities of solidarity. Real stories today of the sexual coercion and abuse of women prisoners reveal the inheritances of slavery and our responses often recapitulate those of nineteenth-century abolitionists.

How, then, can we read Douglass's Narrative in a way that will help us to understand slavery as Douglass experienced it and to understand the legacies of slavery as they are crystallized today in multiple regimes of violence against women and men? Moreover, what are the links between modes of institutional violence—such as that inflicted on women in prison—and the pandemic of intimate, domestic, individual violence against women? Understanding the inheritances of slavery helps us to better grasp the complex challenges of the present.

Theories of liberation during the 1960s and '70s, as important as they were at the time, failed to grasp the extent to which slavery left indelible marks on both institutional and individual practices. Many of us thought that liberation was simply a question of organizing to leverage power from the hands of those we deemed to be the oppressors. Frederick Douglass certainly helped us to conceptualize this, but this was not, by far, the complete story. Today readers of Douglass, scholars and activists alike, do his text justice by bringing a much more expansive sense of what it means to struggle for liberation, one that embraces not only women of color, but also sexually marginalized communities as well as those subject to modes of containment and repression by virtue of their resident status as immigrants. Equally important, as we recognize the extent to which Douglass sustained the influence of the ideologies of his era, we might better learn how to identify and struggle with those that limit our imagination of liberation today.
—Angela Y. Davis
July 2009


In the month of August, 1841, I attended an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket, at which it was my happiness to become acquainted with Frederick Douglass, the writer of the following Narrative. He was a stranger to nearly every member of that body; but, having recently made his escape from the southern prison-house of bondage, and feeling his curiosity excited to ascertain the principles and measures of the abolitionists,—of whom he had heard a somewhat vague description while he was a slave,—he was induced to give his attendance, on the occasion alluded to, though at that time a resident in New Bedford.

Fortunate, most fortunate occurrence!—fortunate for the millions of his manacled brethren, yet panting for deliverance from their awful thraldom!—fortunate for the cause of negro emancipation, and of universal liberty!—fortunate for the land of his birth, which he has already done so much to save and bless!—fortunate for a large circle of friends and acquaintances, whose sympathy and affection he has strongly secured by the many sufferings he has endured, by his virtuous traits of character, by his ever-abiding remembrance of those who are in bonds, as being bound with them!—fortunate for the multitudes, in various parts of our republic, whose minds he has enlightened on the subject of slavery, and who have been melted to tears by his pathos, or roused to virtuous indignation by his stirring eloquence against the enslavers of men!—fortunate for himself, as it at once brought him into the field of public usefulness, "gave the world assurance of a MAN," quickened the slumbering energies of his soul, and consecrated him to the great work of breaking the rod of the oppressor, and letting the oppressed go free!

I shall never forget his first speech at the convention—the extraordinary emotion it excited in my own mind—the powerful impression it created upon a crowded auditory, completely taken by surprise—the applause which followed from the beginning to the end of his felicitous remarks. I think I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment; certainly, my perception of the enormous outrage which is inflicted by it, on the godlike nature of its victims, was rendered far more clear than ever. There stood one, in physical proportion and stature commanding and exact—in intellect richly endowed—in natural eloquence a prodigy—in soul manifestly "created but a little lower than the angels"—yet a slave, ay, a fugitive slave,—trembling for his safety, hardly daring to believe that on the American soil, a single white person could be found who would befriend him at all hazards, for the love of God and humanity! Capable of high attainments as an intellectual and moral being—needing nothing but a comparatively small amount of cultivation to make him an ornament to society and a blessing to his race—by the law of the land, by the voice of the people, by the terms of the slave code, he was only a piece of property, a beast of burden, a chattel personal, nevertheless!

A beloved friend from New Bedford prevailed on Mr. Douglass to address the convention. He came forward to the platform with a hesitancy and embarrassment, necessarily the attendants of a sensitive mind in such a novel position. After apologizing for his ignorance, and reminding the audience that slavery was a poor school for the human intellect and heart, he proceeded to narrate some of the facts in his own history as a slave, and in the course of his speech gave utterance to many noble thoughts and thrilling reflections. As soon as he had taken his seat, filled with hope and admiration, I rose, and declared that Patrick Henry, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty, than the one we had just listened to from the lips of that hunted fugitive. So I believed at that time,—such is my belief now. I reminded the audience of the peril which surrounded this self-emancipated young man at the North,—even in Massachusetts, on the soil of the Pilgrim Fathers, among the descendants of revolutionary sires; and I appealed to them, whether they would ever allow him to be carried back into slavery,—law or no law, constitution or no constitution. The response was unanimous and in thunder-tones—"NO!" "Will you succor and protect him as a brother-man—a resident of the old Bay State?" "YES!" shouted the whole mass, with an energy so startling, that the ruthless tyrants south of Mason and Dixon's line might almost have heard the mighty burst of feeling, and recognized it as the pledge of an invincible determination, on the part of those who gave it, never to betray him that wanders, but to hide the outcast, and firmly to abide the consequences.

It was at once deeply impressed upon my mind, that, if Mr. Douglass could be persuaded to consecrate his time and talents to the promotion of the anti-slavery enterprise, a powerful impetus would be given to it, and a stunning blow at the same time inflicted on northern prejudice against a colored complexion. I therefore endeavored to instil hope and courage into his mind, in order that he might dare to engage in a vocation so anomalous and responsible for a person in his situation; and I was seconded in this effort by warm-hearted friends, especially by the late General Agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Mr. John A. Collins, whose judgment in this instance entirely coincided with my own. At first, he could give no encouragement; with unfeigned diffidence, he expressed his conviction that he was not adequate to the performance of so great a task; the path marked out was wholly an untrodden one; he was sincerely apprehensive that he should do more harm than good. After much deliberation, however, he consented to make a trial; and ever since that period, he has acted as a lecturing agent, under the auspices either of the American or the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In labors he has been most abundant; and his success in combating prejudice, in gaining proselytes, in agitating the public mind, has far surpassed the most sanguine expectations that were raised at the commencement of his brilliant career. He has borne himself with gentleness and meekness, yet with true manliness of character. As a public speaker, he excels in pathos, wit, comparison, imitation, strength of reasoning, and fluency of language. There is in him that union of head and heart, which is indispensable to an enlightenment of the heads and a winning of the hearts of others. May his strength continue to be equal to his day! May he continue to "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of God," that he may be increasingly serviceable in the cause of bleeding humanity, whether at home or abroad!

It is certainly a very remarkable fact, that one of the most efficient advocates of the slave population, now before the public, is a fugitive slave, in the person of Frederick Douglass; and that the free colored population of the United States are as ably represented by one of their own number, in the person of Charles Lenox Remond, whose eloquent appeals have extorted the highest applause of multitudes on both sides of the Atlantic. Let the calumniators of the colored race despise themselves for their baseness and illiberality of spirit, and henceforth cease to talk of the natural inferiority of those who require nothing but time and opportunity to attain to the highest point of human excellence.

It may, perhaps, be fairly questioned, whether any other portion of the population of the earth could have endured the privations, sufferings and horrors of slavery, without having become more degraded in the scale of humanity than the slaves of African descent. Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind; and yet how wonderfully they have sustained the mighty load of a most frightful bondage, under which they have been groaning for centuries! To illustrate the effect of slavery on the white man,—to show that he has no powers of endurance, in such a condition, superior to those of his black brother,—Daniel O'Connell, the distinguished advocate of universal emancipation, and the mightiest champion of prostrate but not conquered Ireland, relates the following anecdote in a speech delivered by him in the Conciliation Hall, Dublin, before the Loyal National Repeal Association, March 31, 1845. "No matter," said Mr. O'Connell, "under what specious term it may disguise itself, slavery is still hideous. It has a natural, an inevitable tendency to brutalize every noble faculty of man. An American sailor, who was cast away on the shore of Africa, where he was kept in slavery for three years, was, at the expiration of that period, found to be imbruted and stultified—he had lost all reasoning power; and having forgotten his native language, could only utter some savage gibberish between Arabic and English, which nobody could understand, and which even he himself found difficulty in pronouncing. So much for the humanizing influence of the domestic institution!" Admitting this to have been an extraordinary case of mental deterioration, it proves at least that the white slave can sink as low in the scale of humanity as the black one.

Mr. Douglass has very properly chosen to write his own Narrative, in his own style, and according to the best of his ability, rather than to employ some one else. It is, therefore, entirely his own production; and, considering how long and dark was the career he had to run as a slave,—how few have been his opportunities to improve his mind since he broke his iron fetters—it is, in my judgment, highly creditable to his head and heart. He who can peruse it without a tearful eye, a heaving breast, an afflicted spirit,—without being filled with an unutterable abhorrence of slavery and all its abettors, and animated with a determination to seek the immediate overthrow of that execrable system,—without trembling for the fate of this country in the hands of a righteous God, who is ever on the side of the oppressed, and whose arm is not shortened that it cannot save,—must have a flinty heart, and be qualified to act the part of a trafficker "in slaves and the souls of men." I am confident that it is essentially true in all its statements; that nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination; that it comes short of the reality, rather than overstates a single fact in regard to slavery as it is. The experience of Frederick Douglass, as a slave, was not a peculiar one; his lot was not especially a hard one; his case may be regarded as a very fair specimen of the treatment of slaves in Maryland, in which State it is conceded that they are better fed and less cruelly treated than in Georgia, Alabama, or Louisiana. Many have suffered incomparably more, while very few on the plantations have suffered less, than himself. Yet how deplorable was his situation! what terrible chastisements were inflicted upon his person! what still more shocking outrages were perpetrated upon his mind! with all his noble powers and sublime aspirations, how like a brute was he treated, even by those professing to have the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus! to what dreadful liabilities was he continually subjected! how destitute of friendly counsel and aid, even in his greatest extremities! how heavy was the midnight of woe which shrouded in blackness the last ray of hope, and filled the future with terror and gloom! what longings after freedom took possession of his breast, and how his misery augmented, in proportion as he grew reflective and intelligent,—thus demonstrating that a happy slave is an extinct man! how he thought, reasoned, felt, under the lash of the driver, with the chains upon his limbs! what perils he encountered in his endeavors to escape from his horrible doom! and how signal have been his deliverance and preservation in the midst of a nation of pitiless enemies!

This Narrative contains many affecting incidents, many passages of great eloquence and power; but I think the most thrilling one of them all is the description Douglass gives of his feelings, as he stood soliloquizing respecting his fate, and the chances of his one day being a freeman, on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay—viewing the receding vessels as they flew with their white wings before the breeze, and apostrophizing them as animated by the living spirit of freedom. Who can read that passage, and be insensible to its pathos and sublimity? Compressed into it is a whole Alexandrian library of thought, feeling, and sentiment—all that can, all that need be urged, in the form of expostulation, entreaty, rebuke, against that crime of crimes,—making man the property of his fellow-man! O, how accursed is that system, which entombs the godlike mind of man, defaces the divine image, reduces those who by creation were crowned with glory and honor to a level with four-footed beasts, and exalts the dealer in human flesh above all that is called God! Why should its existence be prolonged one hour? Is it not evil, only evil, and that continually? What does its presence imply but the absence of all fear of God, all regard for man, on the part of the people of the United States? Heaven speed its eternal overthrow!

So profoundly ignorant of the nature of slavery are many persons, that they are stubbornly incredulous whenever they read or listen to any recital of the cruelties which are daily inflicted on its victims. They do not deny that the slaves are held as property; but that terrible fact seems to convey to their minds no idea of injustice, exposure to outrage, or savage barbarity. Tell them of cruel scourgings, of mutilations and brandings, of scenes of pollution and blood, of the banishment of all light and knowledge, and they affect to be greatly indignant at such enormous exaggerations, such wholesale misstatements, such abominable libels on the character of the southern planters! As if all these direful outrages were not the natural results of slavery! As if it were less cruel to reduce a human being to the condition of a thing, than to give him a severe flagellation, or to deprive him of necessary food and clothing! As if whips, chains, thumb-screws, paddles, bloodhounds, overseers, drivers, patrols, were not all indispensable to keep the slaves down, and to give protection to their ruthless oppressors! As if, when the marriage institution is abolished, concubinage, adultery, and incest, must not necessarily abound; when all the rights of humanity are annihilated, any barrier remains to protect the victim from the fury of the spoiler; when absolute power is assumed over life and liberty, it will not be wielded with destructive sway! Skeptics of this character abound in society. In some few instances, their incredulity arises from a want of reflection; but, generally, it indicates a hatred of the light, a desire to shield slavery from the assaults of its foes, a contempt of the colored race, whether bond or free. Such will try to discredit the shocking tales of slaveholding cruelty which are recorded in this truthful Narrative; but they will labor in vain. Mr. Douglass has frankly disclosed the place of his birth, the names of those who claimed ownership in his body and soul, and the names also of those who committed the crimes which he has alleged against them. His statements, therefore, may easily be disproved, if they are untrue.

In the course of his Narrative, he relates two instances of murderous cruelty,—in one of which a planter deliberately shot a slave belonging to a neighboring plantation, who had unintentionally gotten within his lordly domain in quest of fish; and in the other, an overseer blew out the brains of a slave who had fled to a stream of water to escape a bloody scourging. Mr. Douglass states that in neither of these instances was any thing done by way of legal arrest or judicial investigation. The Baltimore American, of March 17, 1845, relates a similar case of atrocity, perpetrated with similar impunity—as follows:—"Shooting a Slave.—We learn, upon the authority of a letter from Charles county, Maryland, received by a gentleman of this city, that a young man, named Matthews, a nephew of General Matthews, and whose father, it is believed, holds an office at Washington, killed one of the slaves upon his father's farm by shooting him. The letter states that young Matthews had been left in charge of the farm; that he gave an order to the servant, which was disobeyed, when he proceeded to the house, obtained a gun, and, returning, shot the servant. He immediately, the letter continues, fled to his father's residence, where he still remains unmolested."—Let it never be forgotten, that no slaveholder or overseer can be convicted of any outrage perpetrated on the person of a slave, however diabolical it may be, on the testimony of colored witnesses, whether bond or free. By the slave code, they are adjudged to be as incompetent to testify against a white man, as though they were indeed a part of the brute creation. Hence, there is no legal protection in fact, whatever there may be in form, for the slave population; and any amount of cruelty may be inflicted on them with impunity. Is it possible for the human mind to conceive of a more horrible state of society?

The effect of a religious profession on the conduct of southern masters is vividly described in the following Narrative, and shown to be any thing but salutary. In the nature of the case, it must be in the highest degree pernicious. The testimony of Mr. Douglass, on this point, is sustained by a cloud of witnesses, whose veracity is unimpeachable. "A slaveholder's profession of Christianity is a palpable imposture. He is a felon of the highest grade. He is a man-stealer. It is of no importance what you put in the other scale."

Reader! are you with the man-stealers in sympathy and purpose, or on the side of their down-trodden victims? If with the former, then are you the foe of God and man. If with the latter, what are you prepared to do and dare in their behalf? Be faithful, be vigilant, be untiring in your efforts to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free. Come what may—cost what it may—inscribe on the banner which you unfurl to the breeze, as your religious and political motto—"No Compromise with Slavery! No Union with Slaveholders!"

Boston, May 1, 1845.


From Wendell Phillips, Esq.

Boston, April 22, 1845.

My Dear Friend:

You remember the old fable of "The Man and the Lion," where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented "when the lions write history."

I am glad the time has come when the "lions write history." We have been left long enough to gather the character of slavery from the involuntary evidence of the masters. One might, indeed, rest sufficiently satisfied with what, it is evident, must be, in general the results of such a relation, without seeking farther to find whether they have followed in every instance. Indeed, those who stare at the half-peck of corn a week, and love to count the lashes on the slave's back, are seldom the "stuff" out of which reformers and abolitionists are to be made. I remember that, in 1838, many were waiting for the results of the West India experiment, before they could come into our ranks. Those "results" have come long ago; but, alas! few of that number have come with them, as converts. A man must be disposed to judge of emancipation by other tests than whether it has increased the produce of sugar,—and to hate slavery for other reasons than because it starves men and whips women,—before he is ready to lay the first stone of his anti-slavery life.

I was glad to learn, in your story, how early the most neglected of God's children waken to a sense of their rights, and of the injustice done them. Experience is a keen teacher; and long before you had mastered your A B C, or knew where the "white sails" of the Chesapeake were bound, you began, I see, to gauge the wretchedness of the slave, not by his hunger and want, not by his lashes and toil, but by the cruel and blighting death which gathers over his soul.

In connection with this, there is one circumstance which makes your recollections peculiarly valuable, and renders your early insight the more remarkable. You come from that part of the country where we are told slavery appears with its fairest features. Let us hear, then, what it is at its best estate—gaze on its bright side, if it has one; and then imagination may task her powers to add dark lines to the picture, as she travels southward to that (for the colored man) Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the Mississippi sweeps along.

Again, we have known you long, and can put the most entire confidence in your truth, candor, and sincerity. Every one who has heard you speak has felt, and, I am confident, every one who reads your book will feel, persuaded that you give them a fair specimen of the whole truth. No one-sided portrait,—no wholesale complaints,—but strict justice done, whenever individual kindliness has neutralized, for a moment, the deadly system with which it was strangely allied. You have been with us, too, some years, and can fairly compare the twilight of rights, which your race enjoy at the North, with that "noon of night" under which they labor south of Mason and Dixon's line. Tell us whether, after all, the half-free colored man of Massachusetts is worse off than the pampered slave of the rice swamps!

In reading your life, no one can say that we have unfairly picked out some rare specimens of cruelty. We know that the bitter drops, which even you have drained from the cup, are no incidental aggravations, no individual ills, but such as must mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every slave. They are the essential ingredients, not the occasional results, of the system.

After all, I shall read your book with trembling for you. Some years ago, when you were beginning to tell me your real name and birthplace, you may remember I stopped you, and preferred to remain ignorant of all. With the exception of a vague description, so I continued, till the other day, when you read me your memoirs. I hardly knew, at the time, whether to thank you or not for the sight of them, when I reflected that it was still dangerous, in Massachusetts, for honest men to tell their names! They say the fathers, in 1776, signed the Declaration of Independence with the halter about their necks. You, too, publish your declaration of freedom with danger compassing you around. In all the broad lands which the Constitution of the United States overshadows, there is no single spot,—however narrow or desolate,—where a fugitive slave can plant himself and say, "I am safe." The whole armory of Northern Law has no shield for you. I am free to say that, in your place, I should throw the MS. into the fire.

You, perhaps, may tell your story in safety, endeared as you are to so many warm hearts by rare gifts, and a still rarer devotion of them to the service of others. But it will be owing only to your labors, and the fearless efforts of those who, trampling the laws and Constitution of the country under their feet, are determined that they will "hide the outcast," and that their hearths shall be, spite of the law, an asylum for the oppressed, if, some time or other, the humblest may stand in our streets, and bear witness in safety against the cruelties of which he has been the victim.

Yet it is sad to think, that these very throbbing hearts which welcome your story, and form your best safeguard in telling it, are all beating contrary to the "statute in such case made and provided." Go on, my dear friend, till you, and those who, like you, have been saved, so as by fire, from the dark prison-house, shall stereotype these free, illegal pulses into statutes; and New England, cutting loose from a blood-stained Union, shall glory in being the house of refuge for the oppressed;—till we no longer merely "hide the outcast," or make a merit of standing idly by while he is hunted in our midst; but, consecrating anew the soil of the Pilgrims as an asylum for the oppressed, proclaim our welcome to the slave so loudly, that the tones shall reach every hut in the Carolinas, and make the broken-hearted bondman leap up at the thought of old Massachusetts.

God speed the day!
Till then, and ever,
Yours truly,
Frederick Douglass.

What People are saying about this

Todd Steven Burroughs
[Davis] uses Douglass to examine the philosophy of freedom.... [She] dissects Douglass' strengths and pitfalls of how he defined freedom — a definition that, Davis explains, leaves enslaved women behind as symbols of oppression, unable to achieve the "manhood" Douglass equates with his liberation.... The two pioneering feminists merge together, in theory and in practice, on the nature(s) of liberation. In this book of merged centuries, freedom travels from idea to action (creating resistance) to finally, negotiating a complex reality. (Todd Steven Burroughs, Drums In The Global Village)
From the Publisher
"Just as Douglass was dedicated to abolishing the institution that imprisoned him and his people, Davis is dedicated to abolishing the institution that imprisoned her and still imprisons millions of Americans, mostly people of color: the modern American prison system." — H. Bruce Franklin, African American Review

On Angela Davis's Blues Legacies: "Angela Davis's book is a complete revelation and a serious re-education." - Toni Morrison On Angela Davis's Women, Race and Class: "Davis's work deserves a wide readership... She has compiled much useful information not easily obtained elsewhere."

Rebecca Hensley
"The bottom line is that Frederick Douglass' narrative should be required reading for every person in the United States. But more to the point, it should be on the bookshelf in every home in America. The passion, the beauty, and the truth of Douglass' work is such that it calls into question not only the peculiar institution of slavery, but the ongoing acceptance of White Supremacy as the default position in this nation today." -- (Rebecca Hensley, Changeseeker )

Meet the Author

American abolitionist, women's suffragist, author, statesman and reformer, Douglass is one of the most prominent figures in African-American history and U.S. history. His Narrative is a cornerstone of African-American literature. Internationally renowned public speaker, author, activist, scholar and symbol of 1970s black power, Davis was the third woman to appear on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list and has authored eight books.

Brief Biography

Tuckahoe, Maryland
Date of Birth:
Date of Death:
February 20, 1895
Place of Death:
Washington, D.C.

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