Frederick Douglass

Photo ca. 1879. National Archives, Frank W. Legg Photographic Collection of Portraits of Nineteenth-Century Notables, 1862–1884. NAID: 558770, War and Conflict Number 113.

African American, Autoethnography

Frederick Douglass


Enslaved from birth, Frederick Douglass, neé Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was born in Talbot County, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1818 to an enslaved mother and presumably her white plantation owner. Separated from his mother Harriet Bailey at birth, he was raised by his enslaved maternal grandmother, Betsy Bailey, on a different plantation with his siblings and cousins. He was only allowed to see his mother four or five times before her death in 1825. As a child, he was loaned out to work at another plantation where the plantation mistress began teaching him to read and write until her husband forced her to stop because slave literacy was prohibited by law. However, the young Bailey had learned enough to continue to develop his reading and writing skills through his own efforts and as a result, began to understand the connection of his literacy to American conceptions of freedom and human rights, which led to his later career as an abolitionist. 

When he was 16, he was loaned to Edward Covey, who severely punished him for teaching other enslaved people to read. After several beatings by Covey, Bailey fought back and won. After an initial unsuccessful attempt, Bailey escaped slavery in 1838 and changed his name to Frederick Douglass. Living in freedom until his death, Douglass earned international acclaim for advocating for the abolition of slavery, civil rights, and Black and women’s suffrage through his speeches and writings based on his personal experience narratives.

He is best known for his three autobiographies, which reflect on his experiences during slavery, Reconstruction, and early segregation. In these books, he presents a rich and detailed personal narrative that illuminates slavery’s cruelties and harms, asserts recognition of his full humanity, and provides powerful insights into the worldview of a literate African American man in the 19th century. As one of the earliest self-authored slave narratives, Narrative in the Life (1845), lays the groundwork for the African American autobiographical literary tradition. In My Bondage, My Freedom (1855), Douglass provides one of the first written expressions of an African American epistemology of embodied, participatory listening, and affective performance. He calls for readers to understand African American humanity and the tolls of slavery through experiential listening to the embodied sounds of soul-crushing pain, sorrow, and grief expressed in counternarrative slave songs sung in the nocturnal privacy of the woods near plantations. He contended that experiencing the spiritual and affective power of this expressive behavior would provide irrefutable evidence of the inhumanity of slavery and move participants toward support for abolition and Black freedom.  

Among his publications of interest to folklorists are:

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)

My Bondage, My Freedom (1855)

Life and Times of Frederick Douglas (1881/1892 rev.)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)