Frederick Douglass Explorations


  1. Douglass’s powerful narrative describing his education is, in some ways, the opposite of our educational experience: our family, teachers, and culture were heavily invested in supporting and rewarding our learning and progress. For Douglass, all of the power structures—from the Aulds to the slave culture of the American South—were powerfully arrayed against his learning to read and write. Look up the etymology of the word “education.” How does the word apply to Douglass’s experiences in the Auld household?
  2. There are two overlapping narratives portrayed in our selection from Douglass: the education of young Frederick Douglass, and the education of Mrs. Auld, a Northerner by birth, into the beliefs and actions expected of the wife of a slave-owner. Why does Douglass document Mrs. Auld’s narrative in addition to his own?
  3. Use Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” as a lens to analyze Douglass. Plato discusses slavery, freedom, and enlightenment. How does Douglass embody some of Plato’s ideas? Does Douglass’s experiences contradict any of Plato’s ideas? In the later part of the “Allegory,” Plato discusses the ethical duties of enlightened philosophers. What are the ethics portrayed by Douglass? Do they conform to or differ from Plato? You might consider Douglass’s life after he escaped from slavery.
  4. Use ideas drawn from the foundation of American democracy (Jefferson, the Federalist Papers, Paine, etc.) to analyze Douglass’s Narrative. During his years of slavery, Douglass is not socially or legally “equal” to free Americans, nor is he able to engage in the pursuit of happiness. How can we reconcile his experience with the promises of our Founding Fathers?
  5. Douglass is writing at a particular time (his first edition of the Narrative was published in 1845), place (the slave state of Maryland), and culture (slavery). In 1841 the New England writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, published Essays, first series, which included the essay, “Self-Reliance”. Emerson takes this most American of concepts, the idea that each individual can improve or even transform his or her own life. Like his fellow Transcendentalist, Henry Thoreau, Emerson favors non-conformity, individuality, and resistance to received ideas. He transforms ideas exemplified in the 18th Century by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography. Who is more self-reliant or non-conforming than Frederick Douglass? Read “Self-Reliance” and use Emerson to analyze how Douglass exemplifies and challenges Emerson’s ideas.