My Bondage and My Freedom

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Frederick Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, published by the New York commercial publishers Miller, Orton, and Mulligan in 1855, is larger, more self-consciously literary, and more self-analytical than the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). From its opening pages, where the African American abolitionist James McCune Smith, known for his vehement criticism of William Lloyd Garrison, supplants Douglass's former mentor as prefacer of the memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom shows that it is more than a mere updated installment of the Narrative. The second autobiography offers a thoughtful revision of the meaning and goals of Douglass's life.

My Bondage and My Freedom introduces few incidents or figures from Douglass's past that do not appear in the Narrative. But the second autobiography says more about Douglass's complex relationship to his environment, particularly in the South, than emerges in the more famous fugitive slave narrative. Douglass's grandmother, who appears in the Narrative only in the throes of a pathetic death, becomes the able and self-sufficient Betsey Bailey in the opening chapters of My Bondage and My Freedom, respectfully portrayed as the creator of the only real home young Frederick ever knew as a slave. Douglass's master, Aaron Anthony, tersely indicted in the Narrative as “a cruel man,” is rehabilitated in My Bondage and My Freedom into “a wretched man” who could be “almost fatherly” toward Frederick when not tormented by his passions and bad temper. The slave youth engaged in a lonely struggle for direction and dignity in the Narrative finds much inspiration and support within the southern African American community as depicted in My Bondage and My Freedom and epitomized in Charles Lawson, unmentioned in the Narrative but dubbed by Douglass in 1855 his “spiritual father.” The high seriousness of the Narrative’s rendition of Douglass's climactic hand-to-hand struggle with the satanic Maryland slave-breaker Edward Covey is tempered comically in My Bondage and My Freedom so as to emphasize Douglass's common humanity rather than his outsized heroism.

In 1845, Douglass brought his life story to a glorious culmination with an image of himself proclaiming the antislavery gospel from the lecture platform, a fugitive slave fully enlisted in the abolitionist crusade. Ten years later a chastened Douglass testified to the prejudice and paternalism among the Garrisonian abolitionists that caused him eventually to break from their ranks. Whereas the Narrative says almost nothing about northern racism, the better to draw a diametric opposition between the “free” North and the slave South, My Bondage and My Freedom catalogs the many forms of segregation that Douglass encountered after his escape from slavery. Realizing the subtle bondage of racist paternalism in the North as well as the South, Douglass announces at the end of My Bondage and My Freedom his conviction that the best way to attack slavery in the South is to immerse himself in the cause of the quasi-free African Americans of the North. Thus Douglass moves away from the individualism of the Narrative and toward a greater communal identification in My Bondage and My Freedom.


Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Frederick Douglass (1818—1895)

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