Frederick Douglass's Narrative is basically an autobiography. It's the story of his life from the time he was born a slave to the time of his escape to freedom in the North. But it's also a piece with a strong political message. When Douglass wrote this book in 1845, slavery was still legal in much of the United States. He became a public speaker and writer to try to stop it. He believed that if he showed people what slavery was really like, they would understand why it needed to be abolished. And who better than a former slave to tell the truth about slavery? So even though he wants to tell us his personal story, he never forgets the larger goal of abolishing slavery.
Douglass's Narrative was an instant success, selling over 35 thousand copies in the U.S. and Europe, and was quickly translated into both French and German. But can a piece with a political agenda also be great art? Douglass's book isn't a novel or a poem, and he tries to keep the language simple and clear (at least by the standards of his day), so it can seem like there isn't much to it.
But Douglass would eventually become the best-known abolitionist in the country (and the most famous black American of his era) because he managed to do so much more than just write a description of slavery. Instead of just arguing against slavery, Douglass asks some hard philosophical questions about what freedom really is.
Frederick Douglass's Narrative is not just about slavery. It is about that, of course; as a historical document, it paints a powerful picture of what it was like to be a slave, how the world looked from the bottom, and what kind of place America was when "the land of the free" was only free for white people. But while a lot of books were written by ex-slaves in the 1840s and 1850s, a lot of slave narratives read like documentaries, or worse, like Public Service Announcements. Frederick Douglass's narrative is by far the most important one, because he wants us to think about more than just the legal, historical, and political issues of slavery and freedom. He wants us to think about it as a philosophical question: what does it take for the human spirit to be free?
Douglass wants to show us that he made himself free. Freedom isn't something that's given to us; it's something we each have to find for ourselves. And although Douglass had it a lot harder than most of us ever will, we each have something to learn from his perseverance and courage in search of his own freedom, and his refusal to rest before finding it. One of the hardest lessons Douglass has to learn is that this battle never really stops. As long as anyone is a slave, Douglass knows he himself is not fully free. This is something that we can think about with regard to justice anywhere and anytime: can any of us be fully free if the least of us is oppressed?