In this excerpt from his autobiography, “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” Douglass chronicles the most crucial turning point in his adult life, his escape from slavery. While working as a dockworker in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland, a young Frederick Douglass meditates on his indignant situation as a slave afforded a, relatively speaking, privileged position, with the luxury of “hiring out his time,” but with no legal entitlement to the wages earned from his labor. In this excerpt, Douglas analyzes the thought process that leads him to the conclusion that freedom, true economic freedom, is worth any price. This piece fits neatly into the “slave narrative” genre, and would provide an excellent introductory lesson on the genre’s conventions. Furthermore, unlike many other slave histories, Frederick Douglass’ account is a primary source document. For this reason, his account is valuable for the insight it can shed on life in the mid 19th century, particularly the life of a slave, unfiltered by the varying agendas of historians. By portraying the bleak realities of slavery, this piece could also be incorporated into a lesson about the rise of abolitionism in the United States. Finally, although unconventional, this piece could also be paired with a lesson on Enlightenment political ideology. Many of Douglass’ astute observations regarding the relationship between labor and compensation are central to John Locke’s ideas of Natural Rights.


Before Reading

Based on what you already know about the the pre-civil war south, what might have made escaping from slavery to the north so difficult? 

Research Homework: Using the quickwrite question above as a guide, find at least 3 sources that answer it. Summarize your findings in one page and include the sources in a bibliography below the summary.


During Reading

Despite his privileged position as a well-cared for slave entitled to “hire out” his hours for compensation, why does Douglass choose the risk of capture and certain death over a life of economic security?


After Reading

At the time Douglass was writing, many of those who advocated for the dying institution of slavery maintained that a slave’s ignorance and illiteracy were the marks of their inferior nature. Few thought it was worth taking the time to consider that maybe the conditions of slavery actually resulted in the ignorance slaveowners disdained. In groups, think about a time when you misattributed someone’s mistake/mistakes to personal attributes, rather than situational factors that could have provided an alternative explanation.

For Example: Just because someone slips and falls doesn’t mean they’re clumsy. Maybe you just failed to notice that the floor they were walking on was wet. 


Connections in Text

Compare Frederick Douglass’ “My Escape From Slavery” to the Books That Grow piece “Harriet Tubman: The Line to Freedom.” How do the adversities faced by Tubman and Douglass differ? In addition, think critically about the genre of writing. While Douglass’ story is a primary source document, told by Douglass himself, Tubman’s story is a history composed of multiple sources. What are the strengths and limitations of each form of writing?


Further Readings

For Teachers:

Provides supplemental information about teaching slave narratives in conjunction with the film “Unchained Memories.” The film is composed of a collection of slave narratives where images and voice-overs are used to recreate the lives of slaves who lived in the pre Civil War South.

For Students:

This link provides a mini-lesson on the history of Africans, and the slave trade, in the United States. This piece allows students to familiarize themselves with the history of slavery as an institution before class, this way they can assimilate what they learn in class into existing schemas. 



G8 Challenging Vocabulary: abhor (7), beset (8), contrary (7), coveted (8), ingenuity (8), pernicious (8), repose(8), stringent (8), stratagem (8), vexed (8), vigilant (8) 

G6 Challenging Vocabulary: bear (6), dread (6), eloquent (6), fatal (6), fret (6), jeopardy (6), magnitude (6) probability (6), prowl(6), scrutiny (6), soothe (6), stagger (6), supreme (6)

G4 Challenging Vocabulary: address (4), arrest (4), furious (4), hardship (4), permit (4), practice (4), request (4)

G2 Challenging Vocabulary: aware (2), bravery (2), calm (2), finally(2), nervous(2), worry (2)