Free at Last Critical Essays

Arna Bontemps


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Bontemps’ portrait of Douglass is that of a heroic figure who occupies a place in the folklore of the nineteenth century United States. Bontemps depicts Douglass as a champion of freedom, and there are many examples presented in this biography that support this perspective.

When young Fred Bailey (Douglass’ slave name) overheard his master forbidding his wife to teach the young slave the alphabet, he understood the importance of knowing how to read and write. “I now understood the white man’s power to enslave the black man,” wrote Douglass. “From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom, and I set out with high hope and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.” This is but one example of the risks that Douglass was to take in his life’s quest for freedom.

At the age of twenty, Douglass risked his life and escaped from slavery, making his way to the North. When he reached New York, Douglass was taken in and helped in his new life of freedom by abolitionists in New York and later in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Three years after his daring escape, Douglass joined the abolitionist movement. For years, he devoted his life to the movement as he traveled and lectured extensively for the cause. Although formally uneducated, his “diploma written on his back,” Douglass proved to be a dramatic, entertaining, and commanding speaker. The vivid examples of the horrors of slavery with which he roused his audiences fill the biography with an interesting and firsthand account of this period in American history from the perspective of a...

(The entire section is 657 words.)