Frederick Douglass at 200: A Reading List of American Slave Narratives
“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
- Frederick Douglass
Orator and statesman, Frederick Douglass, is generally considered the most influential African American of the nineteenth century. Following his escape from slavery, he became a national leader for the abolitionist movement. He amazed audiences with his skills as an orator, and stood as a living testament against the prejudices at the time that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to be citizens. Douglass’ importance in the movement to abolish slavery cannot be understated. It is unsurprising that even the origin of Black History Month in the U.S. can be traced back to him, as it started as a week’s celebration around the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12th, and Douglass on February 14th. This is all the more significant as this year marks the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass.
Early in life, he was taught to read and write, skills which Douglass saw as vital on his path to freedom. He frequently commented that "knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom."
Indeed, it was this knowledge that led him to one of the most powerful tools in the fight for abolitionism, that of the slave narrative. Douglass' written accounts of his experience of slavery were tremendously successful. His first, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published on May 1st, 1845, received enormous attention. Within four months over five thousand copies had been sold, and this rose to almost 30,000 by 1860. Douglass followed this up with several other published accounts, including My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
His first book is often categorised with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the roles they played in instigating change. However, while the importance of Beecher Stowe’s novel is undeniable, Douglass’ work represents African Americans speaking for themselves and telling their own stories and experiences. His was not the earliest of these written accounts, but it was one of the most influential. Yet, all of the accounts written by former slaves have an important place in history and so in commemorating the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass we’re going to take a look at a few other stories as well.
For this list we have focused on individual books in order to highlight the writers and give some background and context to their writing. However, it is worth noting that there are many great anthologies, that collect many of these stories together. Some of our favourites include:
Slave Narratives - This compendium includes many of the narratives found above, along with several other important examples of the genre.
Women’s Slave Narratives - While we have looked at a few accounts from women in the above list, there are certainly more to be read, and this collection gives an opportunity to explore the testimonies of these often forgotten women.
- Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember: An Oral History - Slavery denied many African Americans an education, and many of them were never granted the opportunity to learn to read and write. This does not make their experiences unimportant however, and in the 1930s the Works Progress Administration commissioned an oral history of the remaining former slaves. They so preserved their stories, which might otherwise have been lost.