*Content warning suggestion: this text features scenes of intense violence as well as repeated uses of racial slurs. It is advisable to tell your students this early (before they complete the first reading assignment) and to explain how to negotiate this material in a safe, respectful way. Students at the ENGL 1200 level usually have a sense of the importance of Douglass’s Narrative. Students have likely heard of Frederick Douglass and perhaps have studied him in high school history courses. This sense of the importance of the text can be quite productive but can also present its own challenges.
The main challenges I’ve faced with the Narrative is getting students to grapple with its language as a constructed piece of prose—as anything other than an exact and true-to-life account of Douglass’s experiences. I believe this is partly due to the weightiness of the subject matter and partly due to young students’ inexperience with interpreting nonfiction as literature. A student’s first impulse is to repeat historical information as presented in the text (already a fine lesson, in fact), but the goal is to have them ask how the information is presented and why it is presented in that way.
I teach the Narrative over two weeks (six class sessions in a MWF section, four in a TTh or MW section). I tend to simply upload a PDF of the text to ICON to save students the expense of the text (it can be found here: https://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Douglass/Narrative/Douglass_Narrative.pdf).
For ENGL 1200 classes, I don’t tend to teach Garrison’s Preface or Phillips’s Letter, though you may want to point out how Douglass’s text had to be “authenticated” by white patrons via these paratexts. The reading schedule goes—M: Ch. 1-4, W: Ch. 5-7, F: Ch. 8-9 // M: first half of Ch. 10, W: finish Ch. 10, F: Ch. 11
T: Ch. 1-5, Th: Ch. 6-8 // T: Ch. 9-first half of Ch. 10, Th: finish Ch. 10-Ch. 11
First, I present a lecture about the history of slavery in the U.S. so that the chronology and geography is clear to everybody (feel free to email me for lecture slides). In particular, I note where Talbot County, Maryland is in relation to Baltimore and then in relation to Philadelphia, the nearest large cities (slave and free, respectively). This already inculcates close-reading practices from the first sentence of the text: if students don’t already know where Talbot County, Maryland is, they should be looking it up on a map and thinking about why it might be the first thing that Douglass mentions.
12 Common Attributes of a Slave Narrative
In a longer class, I will then go over James Olney’s 12 Common Attributes of Slave Narratives. In a shorter class, this can be done in the next session. They are as follows:
1. a first sentence beginning, "I was born ... ," then specifying a place but not a date of birth;
2. a sketchy account of parentage, often involving a white father;
3. description of a cruel master, mistress, or overseer, details of first observed whipping and numerous subsequent whippings, with women very frequently the victims;
4. an account of one extraordinarily strong, hardworking slave- often "pure African"-who, because there is no reason for it, refuses to be whipped;
5. record of the barriers raised against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write;
6. description of a "Christian" slaveholder (often of one such dying in terror) and the accompanying claim that "Christian" slaveholders are invariably worse than those professing no religion;
7. description of the amounts and kinds of food and clothing given to slaves, the work required of them, the pattern of a day, a week, a year;
8. account of a slave auction, of families being separated and destroyed, of distraught mothers clinging to their children as they are torn from them, of slave coffles being driven South;
9. description of patrols, of failed attempt(s) to escape, of pursuit by men and dogs;
10. description of successful attempt(s) to escape, lying by during the day, travelling by night guided by the North Star, reception in a free state by Quakers who offer a lavish breakfast and much genial thee/thou conversation;
11. taking of a new last name (frequently one suggested by a white abolitionist) to accord with new social identity as a free man, but retention of first name as a mark of continuity of individual identity;
12. reflections on slavery.
(from Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” Callaloo, no. 20, 1984, pp. 46–73, https://doi.org/10.2307/2930678).
Following this is a class discussion that centers on these attributes—which have we encountered thus far? Why are they important to our understanding of slavery today? Why might this information have been important to impart to (white, Northern) readers in 1845?
The Columbian Orator
In Chapter 7, Douglass teaches himself to read with a popular primer of the era, The Columbian Orator. I start this session with a general discussion about slave literacy—the prohibitive social structures that forbade it (going back to the Nat Turner rebellion), the risks Douglass took in learning to read and teaching others, etc. Then I explain a bit about the publication history of The Columbian Orator and show the students what it actually looks like: https://archive.org/details/columbianoratorc00bing. If you like, you can have your students look over the table of contents and speculate as to the book’s use. It was not only a way to teach literacy and rhetoric, but a way to teach ethics and good citizenship—ironic in the case of the slaveholding Aulds.
Douglass mentions two texts in particular: a dialogue between a master and slave and Sheridan’s speeches on Catholic emancipation. The “Dialogue between a Master and Slave,” by [John] Aiken, is on pages 240-243. I point this out to the students, turn to those pages, and have them look over them briefly. Then, I pass out printed copies of the piece to read (copy/paste from the Archive’s full text version or email me for handout). I give them about 10 minutes to read the complete “Dialogue.” [An easy but useful piece on the “Dialogue” and Aiken can be found here: https://blogs.princeton.edu/cotsen/2020/06/the-fanaticism-frederick-douglass-found-in-the-columbian-orator/]
We then discuss the arguments between the enslaver and enslaved in the text. What does the “Master” character argue and how does the “Slave” character rebut those claims? It’s useful at this point to remind the class that this text is, in large part, what brought about Douglass’s political awakening. What key terms from the text would have been particularly important to Douglass as a young man? (“Liberty” and the distinction between “power” and “right” are important to point out if the students do not do so themselves).
If, at the end of class, you have time (or want a good vocabulary word for an upcoming quiz or exam), you can introduce the students to the term “intertextuality” and explain how the Narrative and the Columbian Orator have an intertextual relationship. This relationship can be expanded outside of this mention in Chapter 7 to include Douglass’s larger set of rhetorical strategies and ethical positions throughout the Narrative, which you can explain to a greater or lesser extent based on time constraints and course goals.
The Fight with Covey
In Chapter 10 (on page 61-63 in the PDF linked above), Douglass recounts his fight with the “slave-breaker” Covey in a famous passage. This passage is notable as one of the rare times that Douglass acts violently in the Narrative (the other instance being a fight at the shipyards later on). Douglass declares that this fight with Covey was instrumental in restoring his manhood and his determination to escape. There is thus a lot to unpack with regard to Douglass’s views on violence, masculinity, and the definition of freedom.
Ten years later, Douglass re-wrote this passage in My Bondage and My Freedom, going into more detail about the fight, using quite different language, and even introducing new characters. This passage appears in Chapter 17, “The Last Flogging.” I print copies of this passage (excising portions to make it short enough for students to read in class). I hand them out and tell the class to read the later version and compare with that in the Narrative: what are some differences between the two accounts? Why might have Douglass made these changes to the story? (Give the students 10-15 minutes to read and take notes; I tend to call time when about half the class is done to prevent attention from flagging.)
Differences that the class usually points out (and that you should add if they are missing by the end of the discussion):
-In the 1855 My Bondage version, Douglass repeatedly insists he is acting in his own defense.
-Twice in the ’55 version, Douglass uses the word “equal” to describe his relationship with Covey.
-In the ’55, Covey is described as “cowardly” and “snake-like,” while in the Narrative he is simply “Mr. Covey.”
-In addition to Bill the hiredman, we get a new character in the ’55 version—Caroline, who is enslaved by Covey. She refuses to help Covey fight Douglass just as Bill had done, but at greater risk to herself.
-In My Bondage, Douglass emphasizes his masculinity to a greater extent by saying “I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW” (italics and caps in original).
We can then say that in the decade between the Narrative’s publication in 1845 and My Bondage’s publication in 1855, Douglass has thought out an ethics of violence. It is acceptable in self-defense, it can be used to assert one’s equality, it should be undertaken with the cooperation of the community (Bill and Caroline), it is integral to one’s manhood.
The purpose of this exercise is two-fold: first, to demonstrate that nonfiction texts are constructed in much the same way as fictional texts. In the later version, we get a scene that includes very different material from the earlier version—the inclusion of Caroline is the example that students tend to understand best in this regard. Second, it demonstrates Douglass’s changing rhetorical purpose. As a famous abolitionist in 1855, he is likely keenly aware that this key scene needs to justify his actions to a white, Northern audience (in addition to repeating that he was acting in his own defense, he apologizes for the account of the fight being “undignified”). He also may be thinking about how to safely assert the importance of violence to the anti-slavery cause (his fight, in the second version, is only successful because multiple people passively resist Covey’s instructions to intervene).
If you have some background on Douglass’s changing views on violence throughout his life, you can end with a mini-lecture about how these changes between the 1845/1855 accounts map onto his biography—his falling-out with William Lloyd Garrison and his later acquaintance with John Brown are both relevant here.
Douglass’s Failed Escape / Successful Escape
I usually devote one class period to Douglass’s failed escape attempt and then to his successful escape attempt. For the failed attempt, recounted in the second half of Ch. 10, I first make sure that everyone understands the basic plot points that lead to Douglass and his friends getting caught. Then, I draw attention to the pass that Douglass wrote for himself:
“THIS is to certify that I, the undersigned, have given the bearer, my servant, full liberty to go to Baltimore, and spend the Easter holidays. Written with mine own hand, &c., 1835.
“Near St. Michael’s, in Talbot county, Maryland.”
I ask what the class notices about the language in this passage. Usually the answer is that the language is “fancier” or more “legal-sounding” than the rest of the text, which gives me an opportunity to tie this passage back to The Columbian Orator—Douglass has mastered the legalistic (white) discourse that is used to police Black people and is using it against the slave system. The pass only works because of the presumption that Black people could not create it. “Written with mine own hand” is thus an incredibly ironic statement; I like to say that Douglass is showing off or mocking the imagined slave patrol, as of course it is really his hand that is writing the pass.
We then move on to the successful escape attempt, recounted at the beginning of Ch. 11. Douglass goes out of his way to avoid telling us how he escaped—surely a disappointment to readers looking for an exciting and redemptive end to his story. First, I ask why Douglass refuses to publish this portion of his story. He wants others to be able to escape in the same way that he did, and he criticizes operatives on the Underground Railroad for sometimes going public with their stories. I like to tell the story of Henry “Box” Brown as an example of someone who went public with an innovative mode of escape.
Depending on time, I then either hand out or project a copy of Douglass’s article “My Escape from Slavery” (Century Magazine, November 1881, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR/douglas.html). I explain how free papers worked and how Douglass used his friend’s sailor’s protection in a similar way. This article can be used as a close-reading exercise, as material for a future exam question, or just as the basis for a mini-lecture. I like to pare down this article considerably so that it can be read aloud/skimmed in just a few minutes in class.
Depending on whether you are teaching short or long classes, either one full class period or a portion of one can be used to wrap up the text and review key passages. I go back to Olney’s 12 Characteristics of a Slave Narrative and ask the students to identify a passage from the Narrative that corresponds to one (now that we’ve finished reading, all twelve characteristics should be identifiable in the text). To ensure that students don’t all point to the same ones (as Characteristic #1, for example, is obvious), I create a game—the student(s) who choose the characteristic that the fewest other students choose gets some sort of prize (bonus points, candy). You can also explain that students might want to double-bluff by choosing an obvious characteristic in the hopes that others will forego it. Students write down the number of the characteristic they identified a passage for, you take up those slips of paper, then you can count up the results as you go through those passages chosen by the students, discussing why they are important, what role they play in the text, close-reading certain sentences or phrases, etc. If your exam features a type of question that maps onto this exercise well (interpret a given passage, etc), you can also ask your students which of their chosen passages they think might be likely to go on the upcoming exam.
(Content from Matthew Blackwell)