Slavery in Context
One potential pitfall of teaching Frederick Douglass’s Narrative lies in the fact that today’s students – exposed to many depictions of the horrors and brutality of US antebellum slavery on television, film, and in a host of historical novels – will not recognize just how revolutionary the book was when it appeared in 1845. Teachers might find it useful to linger on seemingly small details like the subtitle “Written by Himself” to point out that, at the time, not only was it illegal to teach a slave to read or write, but many Americans, North and South, seriously questioned whether black people had the intelligence to do so, or whether they felt the same emotions as white people. (See Shmoop's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass What's Up with the Title? for more on this topic.) With this context in mind, Douglass’s famed eloquence and emotional pleas do not just add sparkle to his arguments – they sharply rebuke those who would doubt the moral or intellectual capacity of black people.
The same goes for violence: it can be taken for granted by contemporary readers well acquainted with slavery’s horrors. Painful though it can be to dwell on the narrative’s scenes of the whipping and beating of slaves, teachers may find it worthwhile to do so, to fully capture Douglass’s depiction of how brutal and savage the institution of slavery actually was. Moreover, the episodes in which Douglass fights back against Covey, his moments of near-suicidal despair, and his expressions of his deeply felt desire to be free, can be shown as refutations of the ideas – popular at that time – that slaves enjoyed their enslavement and were capable of desiring nothing more.