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February

2018

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“An American Slave:” The Narrative of Frederick Douglass on the 200th Anniversary of his Birth

by Julia Blakely

February 14th, 2018 marks the 200th birthday (observed) of Frederick Douglass. Interested in contributing to his legacy? Join the Transcribe-a-thon organized by Colored Conventions and the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

Autobiographies of antebellum slaves, fugitive or former, are an extensive and influential tradition in American culture and a distinctive contribution to world literature. They speak to the country’s founding identity, giving voice to those in bondage and their search for freedom. They provide testament to individual slaves’ experiences, preserving their memory. The publications are historical records of enslaved peoples’ working lives, foodways, music, folklore, accounts of abuse, of runaways, their experiences on the Underground Railway and in the Civil War, and their dangerous efforts at gaining literacy.

 

“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”

 

The most famous contribution to the slave narrative genre is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (link here). The publishing history of this title, an evolving record of the abolitionist as one of America’s great thinkers, can largely be traced in the holdings of the Smithsonian Libraries. This widely-read, slim volume was first published in 1845, at the Anti-slavery Office in Boston. There are two variant copies in the Dibner Library, both in their original brown publisher’s cloth bindings and retaining their frontispiece portrait of the author. Within four months of its May 1st publication, 5,000 copies had been sold. The Libraries has an edition of the following year—another indication that the narrative was a powerful force and best-seller. Douglass’ My Bondage, and My Freedom came out in 1855. There are also two copies of this work, one in the object collections and the other in the library of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The autobiography was expanded further in 1881, finally revealing the details of his escape to freedom, as The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (the Libraries has the edition of the following year). Three years before his death, the author revised the title, continually updating with events of the era.

Slave writings of the 18th and 19th centuries are an integral part of the American story and their enormous significance was recognized early. In “Narratives of Fugitive Slaves,” an article for the Christian Examiner in 1849, a minister in Boston, Ephraim Peabody, wrote:

Among the most remarkable productions of the age,— remarkable as being pictures of slavery by the slave, remarkable as disclosing under a new light the mixed elements of American civilization, and not less remarkable as a vivid exhibition of the force and working of the native love of freedom in the individual mind.

This psychology of a slave and reaction to violence was expressed in Biblical terms by Frederick Douglass in all three of his autobiographies. He delineates the decisive moment in his life when he fought against a brutal slave-breaker on a Maryland plantation: “I felt as I never felt before. It was glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.”

“The 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. It inspired me again with a determination to be free … I now resolved that however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed when I could be a slave in fact.”

Slave narratives have immense value not only in the study of history but in their literary merits and in the understanding of the failings of moral and political institutions.

Douglass became the most prominent African American in the 19th century through his writings, oratory, and diplomacy. He first moved to Washington, D.C. in the early 1870s after his home in Rochester, New York burnt to the ground. In the Federal City, he published The New National Era, one of the five newspapers he founded over the course of his career. From 1877 until his death in 1895, Douglass lived on his estate Cedar Hill, in the charming gingerbread Victorian house overlooking the Anacostia River. He had a separate room for his library of thousands of books but also a small stone cabin which he called his “Growley,” where he retreated to “growl,” read, think, and write. This estate with its contents is preserved and maintained by the National Park Service.

 

Frederick Douglass’ beloved Cedar Hill in Washington, D. C. (image from the Historic American Buildings Survey in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Douglass died at his home in Washington, D.C. on February 20th, 1895, never certain of the date of his birth. He wrote in his first narrative, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.” Only later were archivists and historians available to verify the year but not the day. Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (his mother’s last name), choose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th.  The Smithsonian Libraries commemorates this day by highlighting the books of this immensely and prodigiously gifted writer. The publications are permanent records of the inhumanity and immorality of the power that a master held over a slave. Douglass’ eloquent advocacy in all his writings—including for the rights of all, not only of those discriminated by their skin color but also by their gender as well as for Native Americans and immigrants—are important cultural artifacts, essential for telling the American story.

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