Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself are landmark publications, yet they are not the earliest African American autobiographies. African American prose and more specifically, African American autobiography begin with A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammond, a Negro Man (1760). Hammond’s fourteen-page memoir is the first published slave narrative, and other slave narratives that predate Douglass’s three autobiographies include A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself (1772) and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789). Frances Smith Foster, in Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives (1979), states that the total number of slave narratives written or dictated in formats ranging from interviews of a single page to books is at least six thousand. However, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is considered the preeminent slave narrative and a classic in American literature. Douglass’s two additional autobiographies are expansions of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Douglass’s autobiographical trilogy documents his journey from slavery to freedom. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass recounts his life from birth to his arrival in New Bedford in 1838 as a fugitive slave and a married man. My Bondage and My Freedom, published eight years after Douglass’s British friends purchased his freedom, reveals more details about his escape from Maryland and his activities as an abolitionist; Douglass, who also discusses his twenty-one-month stay in Great Britain, ends his second autobiography with his return to the United States and his founding of North Star. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass covers the same information contained in the first two autobiographies and highlights Douglass’s activities leading up to the Civil War, during the war, and after the war. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, as Douglass states in chapter 10, shows how as a boy, he becomes a slave and how as a seventeen-year-old slave, he becomes a man. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass becomes an abolitionist, and in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he becomes a statesman. Thus, in each autobiography, Douglass expands his persona. Douglass, as well as other slave narrators, were the first African American authors who seized the opportunities to write extended accounts of African American life. Prior to the slave narrators, most published prose images of African Americans were created by non-African Americans who usually portrayed African Americans in a false and unflattering manner. Douglass and his contemporaries were the first to offer self-definitions of the African American experience.
Douglass’s first-person narratives offer his accounts of slave life, yet the three autobiographies are more than his story; the subtitle of his first autobiography identifies him as an American slave. Thus, he writes for the multitude of enslaved men and women who were unable to write or tell their own stories. The subtitle is also Douglass’s audacious indictment: How could America, the land of the free, permit slavery to exist and thrive on its very...
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