Instead of just thinking about the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass AS a narrative, it is also important to think about how Douglass's writing is part of a "long conversation" that has been going on among Americans since the beginning of our history. In the course of this "conversation" we have used a variety of texts to debate who we are, what we believe in, what goals we should pursue, and how we should behave. In order to understand the role that Frederick Douglass's writing and speeches have played in the national conversation, we should explore answers to some of the questions below.
1) Who is Douglass's audience and what is his purpose in writing?
Study the text to find passages that allow you to develop and support your response to this question. You may also want to look at the quotes collected at Frederick Douglass--The Man and the "Character" Created in the Autobiography--as an Argument Against Slavery.
Read the Narrative of Sojurner Truth and consider the ways in which it is like and/or unlike Douglass's Narrative. Truth was also a former slave when her narrative was published and knew Frederic Douglass personally. Do not assume, however, that she is "just another Douglass." She was a woman, she never fully learned to read or write, and she was very devout in her religous beliefs.
Read some of Frederick Douglass's speeches and other writings and try to compose e a summary of some of the points he seemed to be trying to communicate to his audiences. How did his ideas change over the course of time and what do those suggest about how America--and the movement to obtain full rights for African-American--was (or wasn't) changing during those years? Selections of Douglass's works can be found at most libraries, as well as at the The Douglass Archives of Public Address, at the African American Pamphlets Home Page, and at the Modern English Collection -- Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia.
Write a brief summary of the abolition movement and include a discussion of the main ideas which were championed by Frederick Douglass as part of that movement. You will find useful background material at the African-American Mosaic Exhibition sponsored by the Library of Congress. You should probably also read some of the lectures offered by Douglass and others on this issue; one collection can be found at the Douglass Project's Controversy/Movement List of Speeches and Documents.
2) Since Douglass wrote about slavery, we need to ask ourselves "What was the nature of the nineteenth century American conversation on the subject of slavery?"
In other words, what kinds of arguments did people make to attack or support slavery? What kind of role do Frederick Douglass's writings play in this conversation; in what ways is he echoing or responding to arguments which have been put forth by others? How do his arguments connect to concerns, beliefs, and values we have encountered in other American works? What "voice" does Douglass use when contributing to this discussion, and why does he choose to express his ideas in that particular voice? If you want to analyze the way Douglass supports or attacks some of the most popular arguments made regarding slavery in his time, you might want to begin by "eavesdropping" on that conversation by reading some of the excerpts you can find below.
Arguments in Support of Slavery
Arguments Against Slavery
Frederick Douglass: Autobiography as Argument
Read one or more of the narratives written by nineteenth century slave-owners; you can find a selection at Documenting the American South. How do these descriptions of slavery differ from the one offered by Douglass?
3) How did Douglass use traditional notions of what it means to be an American in order to build a characterization of himself that showed slaves could be "real" Americans?
Begin by thinking once again about how Douglass depicts himself in his writing, and then consider the ways in which other texts written by, for, or about "self-made" men provide a context for understanding Frederick Douglass's representation of his own life and ideas. You'll find the necessary resources at:
Frederick Douglass: Autobiography as Argument
Responses to Frederick Douglass--the Man and the "Character"--as Arguments For and Against Slavery
Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography
Nineteenth Century Conduct Books
A Popular Nineteenth Century Book for Boys: The Bobbin Boy or How Nat Got an Education
For a different but thought-provoking way of inquiring into Douglass's representation of himself as an American, think about the kinds of pictures he uses in his autobiography and the way they parallel the images used in other popular publications. You can find some examples at Douglass's use of the conventions of American iconography. You can find other information about American iconography at the E Pluribus Unum Project's The Search for a National Symbol or Ways of Envisioning the American Identity. If you want to compare/contrast the pictures and icons we associate with Douglass to those images that 19th century American abolitionists used in their fight against slavery, see Representations of African-Americans and African-American Culture in Late 19th and Early 20th Century America (construction in progress).
4) How did people use their responses to Douglass as a writer, speaker, and individual, to advance their own arguments about slavery?
For information on this subject, see Responses to Frederick Douglass.
5) Did Douglass's work represent a unique response to the debate over slavery, or is it part of a larger body (or sub-genre) of writing?
Frederick Douglass was not the only former slave to publish the story of his life. In fact, a great many autobiographies of former slaves were published in the antebellum period. If you want to analyze what these stories contribute to the American conversation, then you might want to read some samples from the collections of slave autobiographies listed below.
As you read, think about whether you can recognize any elements that come up in more than jut one narrative? Can you offer any explanation for why those elements might have been included in the stories? In other words, what emotions and/or ideas might they provoke in nineteenth century readers? How might these conventions function as an argument in the debate over slavery?
Is Frederick Douglass's narrative different in any respects? Why do you think his autobiography was widely recognized in the time in which it was written? Why do you think this narrative has become part of the American literary and historical canon? (Are the reasons the same?)
You can explore the following sites to find resources for your work:
- North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920,
- Slave Narratives,
- Narratives of the Lives of Former Slaves at The University of South Carolina's Documenting the African American Experience Collection,
- and Texts by and About African Americans at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center.
For a different way of pursuing this question you want to go further into these ideas, you might want to look at how the slave narratives agree with or differ from the stories written by plantation owners available at Documenting the American South.
6) In addition to contributing to the American discussion of slavery, does Douglass's Narrative contribute to discussion of other themes in the long conversation about the American identity?
To think about how Douglass has contributed to the discussion of major issues in American thought and life, you could identify passages in his work that relate to issues such as the
The Value of Work, the Meaning of the Marketplace
Manners, Morality, and Christianity
Reading, Education, and Self-Cultivation
Social Reform, American Perfectionism and Exceptionalism
The Good Death
7) How can we use Douglass's speeches as a way of understanding the themes, rhetorical techniques, and message of his writing?
Although best remembered today for his autobiographical writing, Douglass was best known in his own time as an orator, as well as an activist and journalist. One of the best ways to understand the nature of his arguments and how he communicated them to audiences is to examine his speeches. For links to a large number of Douglass orations, see The Lyceum: Frederick Douglass, Orator
8) Does Douglass continue to have a value for the conversation on American beliefs, behavior, and identity that continues to take place today? Should he be included in the canon?
Whether or not you know what a "canon" is, it has probably determined a great deal about what you have read in the course of your education and has probably contributed in some way to the way you think about American history, culture, literature, and life. To learn more about what a canon is, why it matters, and how certain texts are chosen to be part of canon, see What is This American Canon? And Whose American Literature is This? Then contribute your own thoughts to the ongoing debate about what belongs in the American canon.
Additional Resources on Douglass and the American Conversation on Race
You can find the speeches and publications that helped make Douglass famous at The Douglass Archives of Public Address, at the African American Pamphlets Home Page, and at the Modern English Collection -- Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia.
To learn more about abolitionism, you can visit the African-American Mosaic Exhibition sponsored by the Library of Congress. You can read find pro and anti abolitionist speeches online at The Douglass Archives of Public Address; go to the section arranged by Controversies and Movements.
Read one or more of the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King and consider whether King borrows any of Douglass's ideas or rhetorical strategies. King's speeches are widely anthologized and can be found at the library and in many collections of essays. One of King's most famous essays is his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and that would be a good work to consider if you wish to compare and/or contrast the writing of these two important men. You can find King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the Douglass Archives of Public Address, where you can also find some biographical information about Douglass. Pay particular attention to his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Back to List of Professor Knoles's Sites
Back to the Lyceum
Back to the Syllabus