How does Frederick Douglass establish his identity in the book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave?
One might argue that Douglass asserted his identity just by writing the book. By doing so, he brought the evils of slavery into sharp relief and cemented his position as an abolitionist leader.
In the Narrative, there are really two incidents in which the young Douglass establishes his identity as a man. The first is when he becomes literate, having been exposed to reading by Sophia Auld. Ironically, it is Mr. Auld's opposition to teaching him to read that awakens him to the power of literacy, which he describes as "the pathway from slavery to freedom." The second incident is his fight with the harsh "slave-breaker" Mr. Covey, an incident which Douglass says allows the reader to see how "the slave became a man." Tired of being whipped by Covey, Douglass grabs him and throws him to the ground. They fight for nearly two hours, and Douglass comes out on top. Douglass says that the incident "rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood." By standing up to Covey, Douglass resisted slavery's dehumanization, and he understandably remembers it as a seminal event in his life as a slave.
One key but subtle way in which Douglass establishes his identity is by giving himself a history and a lineage. He starts Chapter I with the following:
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.
This seems rather mundane, but, given that we are reading about the life of someone enslaved—someone robbed of a sense of identity, as well as a sense of place—the vague recollection is important. Like many slaves, Douglass does not know his true age. Also, due to his past illiteracy, he had little sense of time and, thus, chronicles his life according to major events, such as his experiences under the overseers Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Gore, and leaving Colonel Lloyd's plantation for that of the Aulds. It is not until Chapter IX that he can give dates, starting in March 1832.
Douglass's commitment to offering dates, as soon as his memory and education allow, is a way to contextualize himself in the course of human events.
I think that one way in which Douglass establishes his identity is through his staunch opposition to slavery. As the book opens, the reader is made aware of a life in bondage as one that demands outcry and the highest form of resistance. Through this, Douglass' identity emerges. The narrative is one of resistance, active and thorough. The events depicted are meant to arouse the anger of the reader, as it awakened consciousness in him. The thoughts present and thoroughly detailed are ones where Douglass understands the evil nature of slavery and progresses through different levels of deconstructing it. In terms of personal identity, Douglass' depiction is one where there is a genuine outrage at why human beings treat others in such a despicable manner. In terms of political identity, Douglass is open about how the presence of slavery constitutes America's "original sin," one where the promises and hopes of a nation collide with its reality.