Book Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
By Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs

Near the end of African American history month, February, I took a look around my library and found many posters of great African Americans. The library did a great job and it inspired me to read a few books about the African American experience. At that time, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the narrative turned movie 12 Years a Slave. I decided it was time to finally read Frederick Douglass's narrative. While there was a second narrative in all the copies at the library, I didn't start the book expecting to read Harriet Jacobs's story. Yet, both of these narratives were so compelling, so shocking, that I knew I had to finish both.

It was very clear very early in the book that this would be one of the most important historical books I'd ever read. Slavery has so many tragic and horrifying layers, but I think that sometimes the broad view of this period loses some of the mundane details of a slave's life - things we take for granted. As a slave, there was a chance your mother never really knew if you survived beyond a year old because of the systematic separation of slave families. Children born into slavery wouldn't know when their birth dates actually were. Most of the time they only had a ballpark number.

In the past, I've touched on how grateful I am to be able to read. These two narratives really reinvigorated that gratitude. Not only were all odds against these two people learning how to read and write, but their writing came to be spectacular. It just comes to show how great writing survives through the decades for us to learn from.

In Douglass's narrative, something reminded me of that Duck Dynasty creep, who said that when he was a kid, black people in the South were happy and singing all the time. Slaves didn't sing because they were happy, Douglass said. Oftentimes slave owners mistook their singing for joy and would spread propaganda that slaves LOVED slavery. Douglas wrote, "Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. 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. At least, such is my experience."

There were two other quotes in the Douglass narrative that really spoke to me:
"I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence." (42)
"The silver trumpet of freedom had aroused my soul to the eternal wakefulness." (50)
Also learned that a dearborn was a vehicle, a kind of light four-wheeled wagon used in country district parts of the United States. Who knew? Not I.

I didn't take any notes on the Jacobs because I hadn't expected to read it. Yet once I did, I read it quickly and in pretty big chunks. My reading slowed a bit toward the end, but I powered through it. The struggle for freedom and equality is one with incredible people woven into it. These are both very important narratives. All Americans should read this part of our country's history. It wasn't that long ago.

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