Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more. Not my words, but the words of the current President of the US, obviously a bit of an expert in the revered abolitionist.

This book is an account of Douglass’s life as a slave, and then as a free man, written by Douglass himself. As you’d expect for a book written around 1850, it reads a bit old-fashioned today, but it’s no chore to get through. It’s fairly short and to the point and is written quite fluently.

It describes a life that it is barely imaginable: twenty-plus years a slave, most of it fairly lucky by slavery standards, but he still had his fair share of physical abuse as well as the constant mental torture of being the property of another with no choice about his own life, and no hope for emancipation.


The most annoying aspect of the book was that he left out some key bits, like his wife who suddenly popped up out of nowhere (she was not a slave, her free status strengthening Douglass’s determination to free himself), and most importantly he left out all description of his escape! I understand why he omitted this at the time, he explains this: had he written this part, he would only be pointing out a loophole to the slave owners (they would be the only ones to read it, fellow slaves would not be able to get hold of a copy) and so be making it harder for future slaves to exploit it. OK, but I think that danger has passed and I’m sure we could add in something now*.

The edition I read left in his mistakes, so it would say something like “originlly (sic)” – I mean for goodness sake. The guy taught himself to read and write whilst he was a slave, and then wrote out his story with a quill without spellcheck functionality … give the guy a break!

We can learn a lot from Douglass; a slave who became on of the most influential people of his age – how did he achieve this?

Three things we can learn from Douglass about being influential

First, influence is based on credibility – a word that comes from the Latin credibilitas meaning we can believe what you say. Douglass had lived the life of a slave, and so was a credible voice.

We are fortunate not to have such a dramatic backstory, but if we want to be influential, we first must build a reputation for knowing what we’re talking about †.

Second, influence takes time. Douglass was not an overnight sensation the second he popped up in the north, it took years of work for people to start to listen to him and take him seriously: years of writing and speaking and growing his reputation and network.

Influence grows like a weed. I tended mine patiently

(Lord Varys, from Game of Thrones)

Third, influence is also about who you know. Not only can a good network add to your credibility by association, it becomes your channel of communication. Douglass began writing for newspapers and building his network slowly (although not in the book, he eventually was invited to the White House to meet President Lincoln).

It’s an important book because Frederick Douglass is important and his story is important, more than because it’s a good book. It’s actually a fairly flat description, it doesn’t conjure up an atmosphere, and I failed to feel part of the story … a bit like a text book coolly describing the conditions rather than an emotional story of human suffering and courage.


* According to Wikipedia’s page on Frederick Douglass:

On September 3, 1838, Douglass successfully escaped by boarding a northbound train of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad.[38] The area where he boarded was a short distance east of the train depot, in a recently developed neighborhood between the modern neighborhoods of Harbor East and Little Italy. The depot was located at President and Fleet streets, east of “The Basin” of the Baltimore harbor, on the northwest branch of the Patapsco River.

† This also means we cannot just be generally influential, we can only be influential where we have established credibility.

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