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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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What would you say freedom means to Frederick Douglass?

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For Frederick Douglass the personal was very much political. It wasn't enough for him that he should be free; everyone must be. Once he finally achieved freedom for himself, therefore, he didn't simply get on with the business of living his own life; he devoted himself to helping others, tirelessly...

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For Frederick Douglass the personal was very much political. It wasn't enough for him that he should be free; everyone must be. Once he finally achieved freedom for himself, therefore, he didn't simply get on with the business of living his own life; he devoted himself to helping others, tirelessly campaigning on behalf of those still compelled to endure the degradation of forced servitude.

With remarkable prescience, Douglass understood that the cause of abolition was indissolubly linked to other emancipatory movements, such as the women's rights movement. It says a lot about Douglass' commitment to freedom that he was one of the few men to attend the 1848 Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, an event that has gone down in history as the formal beginning of organized efforts to achieve female equality in the United States.

Above all, freedom for Douglass meant freedom from fear, which would become the fourth of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms in the following century. Douglass understood that the institution of slavery was founded on fear and that it was impossible to keep slaves in their place without employing cruel methods of control. Only once the slaves had been freed, and therefore had also been freed from fear at the same time, could they hope to gain the dignity to which they were entitled by virtue of their humanity.

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Throughout Frederick Douglass's narrative, he describes the numerous struggles of slavery and the significant events that motivated him to gain his freedom. After Douglass realizes the nature of his slavery through reading powerful documents arguing against the horrible practice, he begins to detest his unfortunate condition and vows to one day be free. To Douglass, freedom is not only the ability to be physically granted the opportunity to do as one pleases, it is also psychologically and spiritually liberating. As a slave, Douglass was forbidden from reading, writing, and learning, which only increased his desire to engage in those activities. While enslaved, Douglass routinely expressed his soul's anguish, crying out to God for a chance to one day be free. Douglass recalls looking out at the Chesapeake Bay and describes his feelings by writing,

Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it (74).

Douglass is essentially willing to die for his freedom. He believes that man was created to be free and utterly detests his condition as a slave. Freedom is the ultimate gift in Douglass's opinion, and he suffers through extraordinary obstacles to gain his independence.

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To Frederick Douglass, freedom is not just physical freedom but also intellectual and emotional freedom. When his slave mistress, Sophia Auld, is reprimanded severely by her husband, Hugh Auld, for teaching the young Douglass to read, Douglass understands that true freedom comes from the ability to read and think. He knows that the slave owners are afraid of having their slaves read because the ability to read and think for themselves will make them unfit to be slaves. He writes, "from that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom," and he finds ways to learn to read so he can have intellectual freedom.

Douglass also knows freedom is the ability to resist one's oppressors. When he takes on his cruel overseer, he feels that the moment is vital to his path to freedom. He says, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." When Mr. Covey attacks him, he decides to fight back, and it is his self-confidence and belief that he has the right to resist that help him achieve freedom. He writes,

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.

After he resists Mr. Covey, Douglass has the confidence and determination to escape to the north and become free in mind and body.

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Through his actions and ideas brought out in his Autobiography, I would say that Douglass defines freedom as "positive liberty", the ability to be an active agent of his own destiny.  Throughout the work, I think we see Douglass seeking to utilize his freedom in a manner that enhances his autonomy.  This desire for control of self leads to his desire to seek a life outside of slavery and define freedom in this "positive" manner.  I think that the challenge will be to find examples of Douglass using his freedom to be a more active agent of his own sense of consciousness.  His gain in literacy skills could be one such example, while another one could be the entire concept of his escape.  We can even extrapolate this to after his life as a slave in examining the elements of his life that show his desire to actively seek to change the circumstances around him.  In seeking to define this notion of freedom with examples from the text, I think we have moved Douglass' work from merely a sample of great writing, but rather a transformative piece of art that can allow us to see what can be from what is as we inherit Douglass' legacy of being our own authors of autobiographies and active agents of the world in which we inhabit.

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