An excerpt from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, with an introduction by Anika Prather, Ph.D.
Frederick Douglass was thirsty. His soul craved freedom and a desire to be seen as equal. In fact, if we trace his life path—from slavery to freedom—a strong connection can be seen between his obtaining The Columbian Orator and his decision to pursue freedom. As we can see in this excerpt from his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the dialogue between a master and slave made Douglass certain that he could convince masters to free their slaves. As he puts it: “The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.” Through reading his book, he developed the rhetorical skills needed to fight for the abolition of slavery.
When Douglass became free, instead of choosing to escape all the way to Canada and live life happily ever after, he chose to remain in America and join the effort to end slavery. Douglass was not pursuing a fight necessarily, but he looked at classics as a way to guide him into having a conversation with his oppressors, with the hopes that freedom and unity could be born from that conversation. Speaking from both his experience and his education, he was able to reach Abraham Lincoln, and to play an important role in influencing Lincoln to emancipate the slaves.
I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book entitled “The Columbian Orator.” Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book. Among much of other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master–things which had the desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master.
In the same book, I met with one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in everything. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.
Anika Prather teaches English at Howard University, and is the founder of The Living Water School, located in Southern Maryland.
Image: Portrait of Frederick Douglass, 1877, Brady-Handy photograph collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, colorized by Julius Jääskeäinen