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Thankfully, the kind of chattel slavery experienced by Douglass is no longer legal in the United States. But Douglass's book remains relevant as a study of how an institution like slavery, which vests nearly absolute power in the slaveholding class, corrupts everyone it touches. The book also emphasizes the importance of education (reading) in allowing people to overcome their surroundings. Douglass views the moment he learned to read as a seminal moment in his life. Finally, the book is also powerful evidence of how even people in terribly degrading circumstances still retain agency to shape their own lives. Before his fight with Covey, described in Chapter X, Douglass tells the reader: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." After describing the fight, Douglass informs the reader that it had truly represented a turning point for him, because it demonstrated that slavery had not deprived him of his spirit:
It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free...My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.
Of course, Douglass's Narrative also remains an important source for the abolitionist movement and, perhaps more importantly, as a window into the psychological effects of slavery on enslaved people. So while slavery is a dead institution, this book remains relevant and important. The issues of inequality, oppression, and basic humanity it raises transcend slavery.
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