The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is a 1845 narrative written by Frederick Douglass about his struggles under, and eventual freedom from slavery in the South. Writing at a time when slavery was still alive in many parts of the United States, Douglass chose to hide various details about his life; at the time showing any compassion towards slaves such as Douglass was viewed with much distain and could prove dangerous. Douglass masks the identities of several characters in the name of protecting them and on a grander scale, the effort to free black slaves in the United States. Though Douglass points to preventing retaliation towards those still in slavery through his omissions, the details he chooses to leave out suggest that he is only protecting those who he personally cares about, and these redactions are not due to a “higher purpose” of aiding all slaves.
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It’s Not the Truth
Douglass’s primary goal of bringing a better life for the slaves in America sometimes proves to be the greatest obstacle in his writing. While Douglass uses the real names of those who oppressed him during his slavery, he takes care to avoid referencing specific details of the people who helped him during his youth. His friends in Baltimore are never mentioned by name, only by their neighborhoods. Of them, Douglass writes “I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids; – not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country. It is enough to say of the dear little fellows, that they lived on Philpot Street, very near Durgin and Bailey’s ship-yard.” (35) Even though Douglass is extremely grateful to the little boys who helped him on the streets of Baltimore, he cannot bring himself to recognize them for their good deeds due to the obstacles of anti-abolitionist sentiment and prejudice.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle against Douglass telling the truth about his life comes from his own caring for those still in slavery. Douglass believes that concealing the details of his escape will hinder the slave holders’ attempts at stoping other slaves “I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey.” (82) While Douglass is forced to dance around the truth at times, he shows great bravery in how much of the truth he does tell in the narrative.