Black and white illustration of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, how does Douglass depict the life of slaves? How does his abolitionism begin and develop? How important was the ability to read and write in his experience?

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass depicts the lives of slaves as dependent upon their age, location, and their master. The ability to read and write was important to Douglass, and his growing literacy is tied to his increased support for abolition.

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In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass depicts the lives of slaves in divergent ways. The varying portrayals demonstrate that the level of cruelty, brutality, or kindness in their lives was often tied to their particular situation.

Aunt Hester is treated horrifically by her master: she is beaten and degraded by him. But as a child slave, Douglass’s life was quite different than that of his aunt’s. He was “seldom whipped” and retained lots of leisure time in which he helped Master Daniel locate birds that he had shot

As for slaves who worked in the fields, Douglass depicts their lives as exhausting and burdensome. They have no beds and get little rest. If they do not wake up and go to the field when the horn sounds, they will likely be assaulted. When it comes to the slaves who work in the fields, life is harsh and merciless.

A slave’s life is also linked to their geographical location. Douglass transitions from a slave on a farm to a slave in Baltimore. “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation,” notes Douglass. While in Baltimore, due to a mistress who “lacked the depravity” to keep him in “mental darkness,” Douglass learns how to read and write. As his literacy develops, his hatred of slavery grows with it. “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers,” states Douglass. With quotes like this, it’s possible to argue that his abolitionist ideals developed alongside his ability to read and write. Thus, it’s safe to say that reading and writing were fundamental to Douglass’s experience.

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