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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

By Frederick Douglass

Teacher Guide by Bridget Baudinet

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Student Activities for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Include:

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was written, as the title page announces, by Frederick Douglass himself and published in 1845. More than 250 years later, the narrative still remains a powerful work, both for the vivid window it provides on the practice of slavery in the American South and for its eloquent defense of human rights. The narrative recounts Douglass’s life story from his birth to his escape from slavery around the age of 20. It reads both as a personal testimony and a carefully crafted argument against slavery. As such, Douglass's autobiography makes a strong supplement to both history and literature classes.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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Douglass’s narrative is an example of a captivity narrative, a common literary genre in the 18th and 19th centuries. Captivity narratives were generally written in first person and included accounts of abduction by slave catchers, pirates, Native Americans, and others. Beginning in the 18th century with accounts like Olaudah Equiano’s well-known 1789 autobiography, the slave narrative became the largest sub-genre of captivity narratives. Many slave narratives were criticized by white readers at the time of their publication as unrealistic fabrications. Some readers found the abuses described too horrifying to believe. Others insisted that former slaves could not be trusted to tell the truth about slavery. Frederick Douglass, writing largely for a white audience, does his very best to establish the legitimacy of his story by using, as far as possible, actual dates, names, and locations. Douglass’s narrative became the most widely read slave narrative in the antebellum United States and contributed to the momentum of the abolitionist movement in America. For more information about slave narratives, see gilderlehrman.org.

An essential component for most slave narratives was the slave’s freedom. Few slaves had the education, leisure time, and permission necessary to craft lengthy autobiographies. Though Douglass’s narrative builds to his escape from very early on, it does not provide details of the escape. While this omission deprives the reader of an exciting conclusion to the story, it was necessary for the safety of Douglass’s helpers and future runaway slaves. Douglass’s refusal to reveal his method of escape is a powerful reminder of the climate in which Douglass wrote in 1845. Even revealing as much as he did (his own name and the name of his master) forced Douglass to relocate to Britain for two years following the publication of his narrative. The details of his escape remained secret to the public until the publication of his updated autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881. For students interested in these details, a summary of his escape can be obtained at history.com.

Following his escape, Douglass went on to career as an abolitionist writer and orator, founding his own newspaper, The North Star. After the Civil War, he continued to fight for justice as a public servant. Many of Douglass’s other writings, including letters and speeches, can be found here.


Essential Questions for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  1. What role does education play in Frederick’s quest for freedom?
  2. To what extent is freedom of the mind distinct from freedom of the body?
  3. What arguments does Douglass use to persuade his readers that slavery is wrong?
  4. How can literature affect social justice?
  5. Why is Douglass’s story still important today?

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Douglass’s narrative is more than an interesting account of his difficult life. Written two decades before slavery was outlawed, the narrative was intended as a powerful argument against slavery. In making this argument, Douglass employs a number of effective rhetorical devices, including the appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos. Storyboarding can help students concretely identify examples of these and demonstrate understanding not only of Douglass’s argument, but also of the craftsmanship behind the argument. For this three-square storyboard, have students identify and depict an example of each of the three Aristotelian components of rhetoric. Below each depiction, they should explain their reasoning and/or include other written examples as space allows.


Ethos, Pathos, Logos in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

LOGOS

Douglass makes a convincing argument due to his well-written, logical account. He uses sophisticated vocabulary along with specific, verifiable names and geographic locations. He writes fairly and gives credit where it is due in order to avoid accusations of unjust bias.


PATHOS

Douglass describes the cruel beatings slaves received in vivid detail. His eloquent language inspires pity in the reader. His accounts are most powerful when he describes witnessing the abuse of others as a terrified child. He writes, "No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose...I was quite a child, but I remember it. I shall never forget it whilst I remember anything."


ETHOS

Douglass's narrative begins with a preface by well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and a letter from abolitionist Wendell Phillips. These respected men act as witnesses, testifying to Douglass's good character. Douglass also builds his credibility by refusing to believe in superstitions and depicting himself as a hard-working, intelligent, church-going Christian.


A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Rhetorical Devices
Create your own at Storyboard That LOGOS PATHOS ETHOS Douglass makes a convincing argument due to his well-written, logical account. He uses sophisticated vocabulary along with specific, verifiable names and geographic locations. He writes fairly and gives credit where it is due in order to avoid accusations of unjust bias. Douglass describes the cruel beatings slaves received in vivid detail. His eloquent language inspires pity in the reader. His accounts are most powerful when he describes witnessing the abuse of others as a terrified child. He writes, "No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose...I was quite a child, but I remember it. I shall never forget it whilst I remember anything." Douglass's narrative begins with a preface by well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and a letter from abolitionist Wendell Phillips. These respected men act as witnesses, testifying to Douglass's good character. Douglass also builds his credibility by refusing to believe in superstitions and depicting himself as a hard-working, intelligent, church-going Christian. I stake my reputation on this man! Douglass's account rings true and fair. Mr. William Freeland, like Mr. Edward Covey, gave us enough to eat; but, unlike Mr. Covey, he also gave us sufficient time to take our meals. He worked us hard, but always between sunrise and sunset. He required a good deal of work to be done, but gave us good tools with which to work. His farm was large, but he employed hands enough to work it, and with ease, compared with many of his neighbors.

Example

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The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Mythbusters

One of Douglass’s main goals throughout his narrative is to debunk a number of claims slavery supporters commonly used to justify slavery. Douglass chooses his topics carefully in order to respond to popular misconceptions. Storyboards can help students identify and share these disproven myths that Douglass uses to strengthen his abolitionist argument. To do this, students will make a T-chart storyboard depicting the pro-slavery myths Douglass attacks in the lefthand column, contrasted by depictions of the reality Douglass explains in the righthand columns. Students can accompany the storyboards with explanations in their own words or specific quotations from the narrative.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Mythbusters

MYTHREALITY
  • Slaves' frequent singing means they are happy and content.
"The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears."
  • Most slaves don't mind slavery. They report that their masters are kind and living conditions are good.
"The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition...[slaves] suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it."
  • Slaves cannot handle freedom. They spend their few vacations in foolishness and dissipation.
Over the Christmas holidays, "the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess."

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Mythbusters
Create your own at Storyboard That Slaves' frequent singing means they are happy and content. "The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears." Most slaves don't mind slavery. They report that their masters are kind and living conditions are good. "The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition...[slaves] suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it." Slaves cannot handle freedom. They spend their few vacations in foolishness and dissipation. Over the Christmas holidays, "the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess." MYTH REALITY Too much free time is bad for us! Captain Reynolds, sir. Hoy there, who's your master? Yes, sir.