University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Self-identity under slavery: Frederick Douglass narrates his story

Joshua Bown, a first year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, for the Fragments module, which looks at the possibilities and challenges of using primary sources for historical study. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Katy Gibbons, Senior Lecturer in History at Portsmouth.

The use of egodocuments as a primary source for historians has provided both significant and controversial contributions to the field. As Laura Sangha puts it, the potential advantages of studying these personal documents seem obvious, in that they may ‘reveal what an individual actually thought and felt about the times they lived through’.  However egodocuments do not ‘give us unmediated access to the private thoughts of contemporaries, despite their look and feel’.[1] Even though they are a form of personal writing, egodocuments are still written in a certain way, whereby the individual constructs an image of themselves shaped by the historical context of when it was written, alongside their own intentions which may be hidden to the reader. This blog will focus on a particular type of egodocument, the autobiography, specifically the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave and how through examining it we can determine its significance to the historical context it was produced in, alongside broader historiographical discussions which continue into the present day.

Douglass’s autobiography which was written and first published in 1845. Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 and later went on to escape in 1838 to the North, where he became an orator and key figure of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York.  Whilst Douglass went on to write other autobiographies following him becoming a free man, his first piece of published work was arguably his most significant, and undoubtedly his most successful, as it immediately went on to become a bestseller both in the US and Europe. The motivations as to why Douglass wrote and published his autobiography are various, but it is quite clear that through highlighting the oppression slaves faced as well as humanising them in a way which would have been unheard of at the time, Douglass could have used his autobiography not just as a personal account, but as a way to build support for the Abolitionist movement he would go on to become such an integral part of.

Before going on to discuss the significance of his autobiography in terms of a historiographical context, it is perhaps more useful to firstly look at its significance in terms of the historical context it was produced in. As Robert Levine puts it, the autobiography ‘draws considerably on the conventions of the slave narrative’ which traditionally involved ‘describing in documentary fashion the journey from slavery to freedom’. However, as Levine goes on to say, Douglass’s work is essentially unique as it strays from what would traditionally be seen as a slave narrative, and through his style of writing instead provides historians with useful knowledge on ‘slavery, abolitionism and the politics of race in nineteenth-century American culture’.[2]

Perhaps also worth considering is the position Douglass found himself within society at that time, and therefore how significant it was that he managed to produce such a successful and, in a sense, inspiring piece of work, which not only created an identity for himself, but for the unrepresented minority group of slaves as a whole. In the chapter where Douglass is introduced to the alphabet by Mrs. Auld he first begins to understand the concept of reading and writing.[3] Shortly after this, Douglass writes how Mr. Auld forbids him for learning any further, stating that ‘Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world’.  This is significant as it essentially acts as a turning point for Douglass, who through the harsh words of Auld begins to understand ‘the pathway from slavery to freedom’and set the foundations for his newfound motivation to learn to read and ultimately escape to tell his experience and again create a new identity for slaves, which would break the traditional way in which they were portrayed at the time.[4]

Identity, and the construction of one’s selfhood through personal writing, is arguably the most significant debate amongst historians in a historiographical context, when looking at Douglass’s autobiography. As Mary Fullbrook and Ulinka Rublack put it, on first glance ego-documents seem like they can ‘provide privileged access to the inner workings of an authentic self’.[5] On further investigation however, it seems the idea of selfhood itself is much more complex than it seems. Douglass, throughout his autobiography and again in his further works, seems to struggle with the idea of selfhood, and who he actually wants to portray himself as.[6] Celeste-Marie Bernier, whose work looks at the idea of selfhood in Douglass’s later works, makes a point which can also be related to his first autobiography, in that through his use of literature to express his experience, he seems conflicted on the representation of self he wants to emit, leading ultimately to ‘multifaceted constructions of self’.[7] Alongside this viewpoint, Levine also studies the idea of identity in the autobiographies and comes to a similar conclusion in that Douglass ‘reveals his confusions about personal identity’.[8] Regardless of the historiographical debate surrounding Douglass’s idea of identity and selfhood, it is clear in his autobiography that he successfully created a form of identity for himself which went against the notions of what a slave was deemed to be represented as within the historical context – he was an intellectual human being, capable of being a full-fledged American citizen and far from the animal he was conceived as being when compared alongside livestock whilst still in chains.[9]

To conclude, it is important to round up on the significance of Douglass’s autobiography, both in terms of the historical context it was written in, as well as in a broader historiographical context. Without a doubt, what Douglass accomplished during his lifetime was extraordinary – he escaped slavery, learned to read and write and published an autobiography which went on to change the way slaves were represented and viewed, as well as building considerable support for the Abolitionist movement. On the other hand, the historiographical debates about his work continue into the present day – Douglass struggled with the idea of selfhood and seemed conflicted on the type of identity he wanted to present within his works.[10] Nevertheless, Douglass and his works provide historians with many new ways of exploring ego-documents and allow many new conclusions to be drawn on their usefulness as a primary source.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass. By Mike Alewitz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80805570,

Detail from “The City at the Crossroads of History,” a mural series commissioned in 2014 to be displayed in the Museum of the City of New York, but never installed. The four panels chart the history of worker’s struggles in America. This panel, “We Follow the Path Less Traveled” depicts twenty-five historically important leaders of civil rights causes.


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Minneapolis, Lerner Publishing Group, 1976)

Sangha, Laura. Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources, Routledge, 2016.

Fullbrook, Mary & Rublack, Ulinka. In “Relation: The ‘Social Self’ and Ego-Documents”, Ger Hist, Volume 28, no.3 (2010): 263–272.

Levine, Robert S. “Identity in the Autobiographies”, in The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglas, ed.  Maurice S. Lee (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009), 31-45

Bernier, C-M. (2011). “’His Complete History’? Revisioning, Recreating and Reimagining Multiple Lives in Frederick Douglass’s Life and Times” Slavery & Abolition, Vol. 33, no. 4 (2011): 595-610.

[1] Laura Sangha,. Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources, (Routledge, 2016), 107.

[2] Robert S. Levine, “Identity in the Autobiographies” in The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglas, ed. Maurice S. Lee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 31.

[3] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. (Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, 1976), 31.

[4] Douglass, Narrative, 31.

[5] Mary Fullbrook, & Ulinka Rublack,  “Relation: The ‘Social Self’ and Ego-Documents”, Ger Hist, 28, no. 3 (2010): 264.

[6] C.-M. Bernier, “’His Complete History’? Revisioning, Recreating and Reimagining Multiple Lives in Frederick Douglass’s Life and Times” (1881, 1892), Slavery & Abolition, 33, no. 4 (2011): 595-610.

[7] Bernier, “’Complete History’?”, 596.

[8] Levine, “Identity”, 32.

[9] Douglass, Narrative, 37.

[10] Bernier, “’His Complete History’?”: 595-596.

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