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Unleashing Freedom Through Words: Douglass’ Literary Journey to Liberation


Frederick Douglass’ journey to liberation began with his escape from Maryland, the state where he was born and had been kept in bondage ever since, to seek refuge in the free northern states where slavery had been abolished. Even after purchasing his legal freedom in 1846, Douglass’ quest for true emancipation never actually ceased. On the contrary, his arrival in the North marked only the beginning of his relentless fight for Black liberation, to which his extraordinary literary works are a living testament. This article aims to honor the invaluable contributions of a universal hero who sought freedom through words, inspiring many generations of Black creators to do the same. For this purpose, two of his most-studied works will be introduced to investigate the ways in which the author asserts his emancipation: his first autobiographical act, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself (1845), and the 1855 revised edition, My Bondage and My Freedom.



The Narrative

In 1845, Frederick Douglass published his ground-breaking autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which quickly gained recognition as the most influential slave narrative of pre-Civil War America (Sekora, 1994). Despite its eminent success, it is crucial to shed light on the limitations that surrounded the slave narrative genre, so as to better appreciate Douglass’ effort in asserting his authorial voice and thus, achieving his own liberation.


Figure 1: The 1847 edition of the Narrative.

Slave narratives were first-hand accounts of the lives in bondage of former slaves, and were heavily sought out by wealthy white abolitionists to advance their own political interests. The preface of such literary works were usually letters written by the former who intended to validate the authorship of Black people to a predominantly White readership, so as to frame these autobiographies to fit their abolitionist agenda. Consequently, it is reasonable to question whether these 19th-century slave narratives truly reflected the complexity of Bblack people's experiences. In his Phylon, eminent scholar James Matlack (1979) argues that, although it is true that these narratives played a significant role in exposing the atrocities of slavery and advocating for its abolition, they were often tailored to meet the expectations and biases of the White audience, and they also, very frequently, perpetuated stereotypes and limited the portrayal of Black people to mere victims (17).


Douglass himself recognized the limitations of the slave narrative genre and sought to challenge its conventions. He understood that it often reduced black people to passive victims or objects of sympathy, enforcing the idea that they were inherently inferior. As a result, he strived to present a more nuanced and empowered image of black individuals, especially within such a heavily controlled genre.


As per convention, the Narrative was authenticated by two letters included in the preface and written by eminent abolitionists and friends of Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. In particular, Garrison’s letter appropriates the entire work to advance his own antislavery agenda, by compelling the readers to make a decision between supporting the oppressors, whom he refers to as "the man-stealers," or standing up for the oppressed, the "down-trodden victims" (Douglass, 1945, p. xiv). At the end of his discourse, the leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts encourages the readers to adopt his powerful motto: "NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO UNION WITH SLAVE-HOLDER!" (Douglass, 1945, p. xiv). These last statements clearly highlight the recurring pattern of white abolitionists portraying Black individuals primarily as victims, with the purpose of diminishing Black people’s authorial agency in telling their life stories, while simultaneously framing their work to profit White Americans’ political interests (Blumenthal, 2013).


Figure 2: Frederick Douglass Series, panel no. 10 by Jacob Lawrence (1938).

Garrison as the founder of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, supported “moral suasion” as the only way to oppose slavery. In the words of Bernard R. Boxill (1995), distinguished American philosopher and professor at the University of North Carolina, “Moral suasion was an attempt to reach the conscience of the nation and the slaveholders and to persuade them that they ought to abolish slavery because it was morally wrong” (731). Despite this belief, a significant moment in the slave narrative occurs when Douglass engages in a physical fight with his master, Covey, which he interprets as a symbolic resurrection “from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom” (1845, p. 63). In light of his deeds, the following extract of the Narrative in which Douglass (1845) physically fights Covey, is to be read as the most extreme act of independence in the entire work:

"Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose." (62)

In this remarkable moment, Douglass asserts his independence from the mental, physical, and political constraints of slavery but it also represents his attempt to emancipate himself from the Garrisonian ideals of moral persuasion. While Frederick Douglass did not explicitly endorse violence in his Narrative, this “accident” exposes his belief that violence could be necessary for effecting change.


Figure 3: Frederick Douglass’ fight against Covey. Frederick Douglass Series, panel no. 18 by Jacob Lawrence (1938).

In her essay “Necessary Violence in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative”, Maria Choi (2019-2020) reflects on this act of rebellion, justified as an act of self-defense, and argues that it may hold a deeper meaning. It signifies the way in which Douglass asserts his position and his views on righteous violence and foreshadows his true (literary) emancipation (Choi, 2019-2020). A few moments after the physical rebellion against his master, the author recalls:

"We were at it for nearly two hours. Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him." (1945, p. 62)

The raw language and the images this passage evokes already hint at an emerging sense of independence. Considering the nature of the slave narrative genre, and the influence of Garrisonians on the publication of his autobiography, it is impressive what Douglass’ was already able to say and achieve. Moreover, at the time Douglass was still legally a slave and had all the reasons to tame a recapture since his fame and his genius were progressively putting him in danger by exposing him to the masters of the South. Nevertheless, he rebelled and he, in a sense, did it for the following generations of Black creators. As James Matlack (1979) beautifully summarizes:

"It was an attempt to throw off patronizing manipulation by white Abolitionists. The act of putting his life in print must be seen as an assertion of independence from the prescribed routines of his white sponsors." (17)

The publication of the 1845 Narrative sparked a transformative shift in the landscape of African American literature. It served as a catalyst, paving the way for more genuine conversations about the Black experience—a change that would fully blossom in Douglass's subsequent autobiography.


My Bondage, and My Freedom

In his revised autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Frederick Douglass provides a more detailed account of his life as a slave, encompassing not only his experiences in bondage but also his escape journey and his role as a spokesman for the abolitionist movement. The peculiarity of this expanded narrative surrounds the time of its publication: Douglass had finally achieved legal freedom and departed from the Garrisonians, becoming a much more independent and mature man.


Figure 4: Frontispiece and title page of the 1856 version of My Bondage and My Freedom.

While the overall structure of the second account follows a similar pattern as the Narrative and other slave narratives, with two letters framing the preface and the book centered around his journey toward emancipation, the inherent differences are so striking that critics like Brent Edwards have suggested that one could almost consider them the works of separate writers (Noguchi, 2012).


Douglass’ truest “declaration of independence” (Noguchi, 2012, p. 2), My Bondage and My Freedom, carries a possessive tone in its title that suggests his ownership and control over the narrative, implying that the author is not only a passive subject of his own narrative but also an active agent in shaping and editing his life story (Noguchi, 2012). While the use of "my" indicates that Douglass is both the subject and the author of the story, highlighting his personal thoughts and perspectives on both bondage and freedom, the juxtaposition of the latter terms in the title reflects the central theme of his autobiography, which is focused on his journey from enslavement to liberation. Not only that but, as John Sekora (1994) points out in his "'Mr. Editor, If You Please': Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, and the End of the Abolitionist Imprint”, the author of the autobiography gives even more prominence to the word “Freedom”, to “suggest his wish to include [Douglass] the thinker, writer, traveler, and go beyond the simple bondsman” (614). By asserting his authorship and editorship through the title, then, Douglass was finally able to voice out his own story.


Douglass' declaration of liberation is evident in two specific instances that prove his (literary) emancipation. Firstly, he demonstrates he is emancipated by adding a new preface completely written by him, which signifies his active role in shaping and presenting his narrative. In this regard, in his essay, “Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom: Americanization and Novelization of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” brilliant writer Noguchi (2012) explains:

"Douglass, from the beginning, makes the reader conscious of the differences between the 1845 and the 1855 autobiography. The opening “Editor’s Preface,” for example, is nothing more than a preface written by himself, since the anonymous editor quickly gives way to “Douglass’s letter,” by saying that “the best Preface to this volume” is perhaps provided by the author’s letter (Douglass 7), and thus leaves Douglass to authenticate his own story." (2)

Similarly, in contrast to the second introductory letter in the Narrative written by white authority, Wendel Phillips, the second letter in My Bondage is penned by James McCune Smith, a free black man. Like Douglass, Smith faced immense racial prejudice but managed to overcome it and accomplish the remarkable feat of becoming a doctor at a time when the number of Black doctors in the United States was extremely limited. This change in the authorship of the second introductory letter represents a shift towards amplifying the voices and experiences of Black individuals, highlighting their resilience and achievements in the face of adversity (Noguchi, 2012).


Figure 5: “Harriet Tubman Series”, panel no. 9 by Jacob Lawrence (1940).

Secondly, Douglass's pursuit of literary emancipation is evident in his deep introspection as he explores the racist dynamics within the abolitionist movement. Through this introspection, he demonstrates his ability to critically analyze and express his own thoughts and experiences, showcasing his assertiveness and autonomy within his autobiography. Chapter XXIII provides a significant example of this when Douglass embodies the problematic nature of "authority" in his recollection of his first public speech at an antislavery convention in Nantucket. He openly condemns the exploitation of his narrative by the Garrisonians, who aim to utilize his story as a tool to recruit supporters for their cause. Douglass's portrayal as a mere "chattel" or piece of property by his northern acquaintances, who demand the presentation of facts without acknowledging his philosophical insights, reveals their patronizing control over his narrative and their disregard for his subjective voice. Douglass (1855) expresses his disgust at being reduced to repeating a simplistic story and being denied the opportunity to share his deeper perspectives:

I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. […] “Let us have the facts,” said the people. So also said Friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative. “Give us the facts,” said Collins, “we will take care of the philosophy.” (361-362)

Another example of his analytical approach can be found in Chapter XVII, where Douglass clearly changes in tone after the confrontation with Covey. While in the Narrative, he concealed his act of resistance behind the notion of self-defense, in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) he openly acknowledges that:

"A man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, though it can pity him, and even this it cannot do long if signs of power do not arise" (246-247).

Finally, the author is able to voice his opinion and his analysis of what he believes is the best path toward the abolition of the unlawful institution. According to him, pity, victimization, and paternalism are not sources of strength within the Black liberation movement. On the contrary, he now firmly states that only through displays of power, resistance, and the assertion of independence can change be truly achieved. This instance serves as a powerful example of Douglass's unwavering determination to assert his own voice and resist being manipulated for other people’s political agendas.


Figure 6: “Frederick Douglass Series”, panel no. 22 by Jacob Lawrence (1938).

Conclusions

Frederick Douglass fearlessly challenged the prevailing narratives surrounding slavery and did so by deviating from the established abolitionist rhetoric. In his initial Narrative, still a fugitive slave and heavily influenced by the political ideas of his associates in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass found himself framed within their abolitionist agendas. Nevertheless, he manages to assert his independence by writing about physically confronting his former master, Covey, in a powerful moment within his slave narrative—an act that stands as his most extreme rebellion against Garrisonian ideas of moral suasion. In his 1855 revised autobiography, instead, he goes on to expose the paternalistic and racist behaviors of members within the abolitionist movement who purport to be his friends and colleagues, while forcing their own authorial agency onto his life story. My Bondage and My Freedom, then, has to be read as Douglass' most genuine manifestation of emancipation, evident in his decision to personally frame the preface and have a respected Black colleague, James McCune Smith, introduce this authentic work to readers. Through the revised account of his fight with Mr. Covey, it becomes clear that Douglass is an independent man who achieved his utmost liberation precisely by means of his literary work.



Bibliography

Blumenthal, R. A. (2013). Canonicity, Genre, and the Politics of Editing: How We Read Frederick Douglass. Callaloo, 36(1), 178–190. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24264795.


Boxill, B. R. (1995). Fear and Shame as Forms of Moral Suasion in the Thought of Frederick Douglass. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 31(4), 713–744. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40320570.


Choi, M. (2019-2020). Necessary Violence in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creativity 6, 5-10. Retrieved from: https://www.methodist.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/mr2020_choi.pdf


Douglass, F. (1845). Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office. Retrieved from: https://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Douglass/Narrative/Douglass_Narrative.pdf


Douglass, F. (1855). My Bondage and My Freedom. Miller, Orton & Mulligan. Retrieved from: https://ia800302.us.archive.org/5/items/mybondagemyfree00doug/mybondagemyfree00doug.pdf


Matlack, J. (1979). The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass. Phylon (1960-), 40(1), 15–28. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.2307/274419


Noguchi, Keiko. (2012). "Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom: Americanization and Novelization of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave." Tsuda Review: The Journal of the Department of English Literature, Culture, Language, and Communication 56. 1- 21. Retrieved from: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/235074683.pdf https://ia800302.us.archive.org/


Sekora, J. (1994). “Mr. Editor, If You Please”: Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, and the End of the Abolitionist Imprint. Callaloo, 17(2), 608–626. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.2307/2931791


Visual Sources

Cover image: pict rider (n.d). [image of Frederick Douglass] - Blog entry "Frederick Douglass Facts" by Kaira on 2023 (username) - stock.adobe.com - Copyright: ©pict rider. Retrieved from: https://facts.net/frederick-douglass-facts/


Figure 1: Ramirez, S. (n.d). [Frontispiece of the 1847 Narrative; image]. Retrieved from https://library.princeton.edu/news/general/2020-02-28/pul-builds-special-collection-early-editions-frederick-douglass


Figure 2 Lawrence, J. (1939). The Frederick Douglass Series, panel no. 10. [painting]. Retrieved from: https://blackandbluespeople.blogspot.com/2011/10/more-images-by-jacob-lawrence-on-life.html


Figure 3: Lawrence, J. (1939). The Frederick Douglass Series, panel no. 18 [painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.ozarktigers.org/cms/lib07/MO01910080/Centricity/Domain/546/doc04462120160128132949.pdf


Figure 4: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1856). Frontispiece and title page of "My Bondage and My Freedom" Retrieved from: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/ea626bd0-2189-0132-2764-58d385a7bbd0


Figure 5: Lawrence, J. (1940). The Harriet Tubman Series, panel no 9. [painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2015/onewayticket/jacob-lawrence/13/


Figure 6: Lawrence, J. (1939). The Frederick Douglass Series, panel no 22 [painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/jacob-lawrence-douglass



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