The Narrative of the Life
of Frederick Douglass,
an American Slave,
Written by Himself (1845)
line decor
  HOME  || Learning Activity #1| Learning Activity #2 | Learning Activity #3 with PowerPoint
line decor

Dalia Zutic-Brecher and Marcelo Saenz-Valiente
Candidates, Master of Arts in English Education
Department of English & Theatre
University of North Carolina, Pembroke


This section contains information you as a teacher may want to share with your students before teaching the Narrative. It covers Douglass’s brief biography, directs you to the discussion of the time period, explores slave narratives and their potential benefits in a classroom, and lists some literary devices which can be taught with the Narrative.

Douglass's Biography

Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895) was born as a slave in Talbot County, Maryland. He escaped slavery in 1838 and went to New England to work and gain more education. There he was taken under the wing of an influential abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and then began writing for newspaper and speaking to the abolitionist cause. In 1845 he went to England where his friends raised enough money to buy his freedom from his Maryland owner. He published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave, Written by Himself, the same year, upon his return to the United States. In 1847 he started The North Star, an antislavery paper that rose to circulation of about 3,000 (an impressive number at the time) and was read in the United States and abroad (Emery and Emery 129). The masthead of the paper proclaimed, “‘The Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren’” (qtd. in Emery and Emery 129). He had a long career as a public servant and diplomat; one of his public positions was U.S. minister and consul general to the Republic of Haiti from 1889 to 1891 (Douglass and Jacobs v). An early civil rights figure, he was the most renowned African American in the Republican party during and after Reconstruction. . He died at the age of 78 in 1895.

This brief biography can inform students’ reading of The Narrative as it is a fully autobiographical work of literature. Furthermore, seeing these facts in one place might introduce the idea of self-improvement through knowledge and education—a concept that was very important for Douglass and should be important for our students too.

The Slave Narrative

Milton Polsky writes, “Slave narratives are biographical and autobiographical tales of bondage and freedom either written or told by former slaves” (166). Most narratives were written as propaganda and their purpose was to eventually lead to complete abolition of slavery as an institution (Polsky). In addition to folk songs, slave narratives are considered to be the most important contribution of African Americans to American literature. Slave narratives are a good educational choice because of several reasons. First, they offer a unique perspective of American slavery as told from the viewpoint of the victim. They afford our students an opportunity to make connections between the past and their lives. Polsky supports this contention when he says, “[t]he educational content found in the genre affords many insights into the workings of slavery in this country – common ordeals, living conditions, workloads and punishments, feelings of fear and expectation of freedom” (167). A major theme of most narratives, including Douglass’s, is the slave’s heroic resistance to a “system of brutalizing dehumanization” (Polsky 167). This theme can improve the sense of pride in black students, and also help white students understand the contributions of black men and women to our country. In addition to this, most narratives have exciting plots many times featuring daring escapes. These features get students interested in reading and keep them motivated as they want to know what happens next.

Introducing general slave narrative information to students before reading Douglass’s narrative is beneficial for several reasons. First, just like with the biographical information, students know what to expect. Furthermore, knowing that what they are about to read is a true account should help students be motivated to read, as truth is often more exciting than fiction.

Author's Purpose

As mentioned in the section above, most narratives were written with a very specific purpose of abolishing slavery. Because of this it may be beneficial to introduce students to the notion of an author’s purpose. Students should know that in any work of literature an author may want to either (1) persuade, (2) inform or (3) entertain. The acronym “PIE” seems to work the best for memorization purposes. It should also be beneficial to tell the students that Douglass’s main purpose in writing his narrative was to inform the audience about slavery and then persuade them that it should be abolished. Then students’ energy and efforts can be directed towards finding out devices and tools Douglass used to achieve this purpose. The narrative is an insightful first-hand account and primary source to comprehend the abomination of an institution such as slavery in the United States. By reading Douglass’s narrative students will gain an in-depth knowledge of the feelings aroused by this dramatic situation, in which a human being is allowed to keep another human being as a chattel. At this point and before starting with the text, it may be beneficial to revisit definitions of theme, point-of-view, symbolism, imagery and metaphor with students as these are the elements they will most likely find Douglass uses to achieve his purpose.


This section is an extension of the previous one, and it is more related to the text of the Narrative and the reasoning behind some of the activities and teaching approaches. In it, Douglass’s purpose in the Narrative is discussed along with the literary devices he used to achieve that purpose. Furthermore the idea of literacy and education as tools for self-improvement and change is introduced as well as the idea of the relationship between good literature and social trends.

Douglass's Purpose

Douglass’s main purpose in his narrative was to inform his audience about the truth of slavery and then to persuade them that such an awful institution should be abolished. The first part of his purpose Douglass achieves by simply narrating his life circumstances and experiences as a slave. His narration is detailed for this purpose. Douglass persuades his audience to reject and abolish slavery mostly through development of two themes in his narrative. The first is the theme of inequality. Douglass goes into great detail to show the reader that slaves are treated as livestock and property and that they have no rights. One of the best examples of this is in Chapter 8 when Douglass says:

We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination…At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder. (56)

The second important theme that helps Douglass achieve his purpose is the theme of hypocrisy of some Christians. Douglass exposes the hypocrisy of Christian slave owners who treat their slaves in cruel and inhumane ways, but he also exposes hypocrisy of Christian religion at large as it openly supported slavery. In the appendix to the narrative Douglass explains that he himself is condemning not Christianity, but Christianity as practiced by slave-owners. It would be beneficial to introduce these two themes to students even before they begin reading the text. Students could then be encouraged to be on the lookout for passages and quotes that support each of these themes. This is best done by means of dialectical journaling in which students write down the quote on the left side and their comments about the quote on the right side of paper. Perhaps students could be instructed to write down and comment about all passages and quotes they think develop one of the mentioned themes. By doing this students will not only be able to understand the themes better but also understand the ways an author conveys his/her message and understand Douglass’s purpose.

In addition to using themes to convey his message, Douglass uses symbolism for the same purpose. The Prestwick House edition lists the following as some of the symbols that stand out in the narrative: the white-sailed ships of the Chesapeake Bay as symbols of freedom and spirituality; cities (both New York and Baltimore) as contrasts to rural life and to showcase the difference in treatment of the slaves; and The Columbian Orator as a symbol of the power of the written and spoken word to change and influence human rights (Douglass 7).

Education as a Tool for Achieving Freedom

The power of the Narrative lies not only in its being a historical primary source, but also its being a successful account on how to defy fate and overcome adversity. Douglass defies fate and overcomes adversity by using learning and education as tools to break the shackles of his slavery. Perhaps it takes someone who was denied the right of freedom to help teach today’s generations who seem to take this right for granted. This is another crucial point Douglass makes in his narrative. One of the themes he develops here is that the best way to keep people enslaved is by preventing them from learning. The quotation that speaks best to the development of this theme is in Chapter 6 when Douglass says: “From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. … Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read” (Douglass and Jacobs 46). This motivation is a particularly important theme for students to grasp as it directly applies to their lives. There are many activities that can help students make this connection. They can write a journal entry answering the question, “What role does education play in my life?” or “What do I hope to achieve with my education?”

Connection between Literature and Social Issues

Finally, teaching Douglass’s narrative should address the connection between literature and social issues. After gaining his freedom Douglass considered himself an advocate for everybody’s rights, especially for the rights of slaves. For this purpose he published his narrative and started an antislavery paper, The North Star. While neither the Narrative nor The North Star abolished slavery overnight and on their own, they contributed significantly to the movement and consequential abolishment of slavery. Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Classics edition of the Narrative suggests students should answer the following question either while or after reading the narrative: “The American Anti-Slavery Society originally published The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. In what ways might publication of the work have worked as catalyst for the society’s cause of abolition?” (Douglass 6). Furthermore students should be encouraged to see the mutual relationship between any art, especially literature, and social issues. They should be asked the following questions: How did the slave narrative reflect social issues in the US in 1800s? How does some of the modern art, literature, music, poetry, etc., reflect our social issues?


This section addresses what we want students to retain years after reading the Narrative. Years after reading the Narrative, students should still know the way social/historical events helped shape the Narrative and the ways the Narrative helped shape the events. Furthermore, students should be able to recognize the purpose of any work of literature and perhaps detect the tools an author uses to achieve that purpose. Finally, students should be able to appreciate the value of literacy and education as tools for change and self-improvement.

Through learning about Douglass’s life, students will be able to understand that the fact that Douglass was a slave in America in 1800s shaped him into the person and author he was. His story would have been completely different had he been a slave in Haiti, for example, or had he lived earlier. The Abolitionist movement, set in motion while Douglass was but a boy, also completely influenced him, motivated him to become literate, and eventually provided an avenue of escape and reform that he so desperately sought after. Through studying the plot of the narrative, students will understand this, and while the details of where he went and the names of his masters may escape them years after reading the Narrative, the fact that the historical moment in which Douglass lived shaped him into who he was should remain with them forever. Through class discussion and activities related to author’s purpose, students should be able to retain the understanding of the other side of history/literature coin: namely that really good literature helps shape history. With the help and guidance of the teacher, students will understand that Douglass combines all three purposes of an author – he informs, he entertains, and persuades--but that the heavy emphasis in the Narrative is on persuasion. Douglass is making a case against slavery and for the Abolitionist movement and equality of all people. Through analyzing the author’s point of view, themes, and symbolism students should be able to grasp that. This understanding of Douglass’s main purpose should then help students internalize the concept that good literature can influence history. And, even though Douglass was only a part of a larger movement to abolish slavery, he was one of its most prominent members, and his narrative helped open many eyes to the cruelty and travesty of slavery. In this way the Narrative helped shape history. This kind of thinking follows a school of thought called New Historicism. Unlike “old historicism” which tended to “present the background information you needed to know before you could fully appreciate the separate world of art” (Murfin 268), New Historicism believed that “works of literature are simultaneously influenced by and influencing reality” and that “literature refers to and is referred to by things outside itself” (Murfin 266).

Students should also be able to remember the most common tools available to any author for achieving his/her purpose. Years after reading The Narrative, students should still have a solid understanding of theme, symbolism, point of view and various literary devices such as metaphor and irony.

In closing, literacy and the drive for self-improvement are at the heart of Douglass’s Narrative. Those were his motivators and his tools for change. We hope that students will retain this knowledge and will be able to connect it with their own ideas about education and the role education plays in their lives. Perhaps they will have made and retained the connection between Douglass setting himself free through literacy and self-improvement and them being able to keep certain people out of their lives (and thus not being “slaves” to them) through education and their own self-improvement.

Note: The framework that structures this conceptual overview -- "Worth being familiar with," "Important to know and do," and "Enduring understandings" -- comes from Understanding by Design, expanded 2d. ed., by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD. © 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more about ASCD at


Casmier-Paz, Lynn. "Slave Narratives and the Rhetoric of Author Portraiture." New Literary History 34:1 (2003): 91-116.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845. Clayton: Prestwick House, 2004.

---. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.

Emery, Edwin, and Michael Emery. The Press and America. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Murfin, C. Ross. "The New Historicism and The Awakening." In Walker, Nancy A., ed. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Bedford: MacMillan P, 2000. 257-269.

Polsky, Milton. "The American Slave Narrative: Dramatic Resource Material for the Classroom." The Journal of Negro Education 45:2 (1976): 166-178.

Dalija Zutic-Brecher is ... Marcelo Saenz-Valiente is ...

© 2008 | Last rev. April 13, 2009