Frederick Douglass recounts his experiences as a slave in Maryland, and his treatment at the hands of slave masters and overseers, before managing to escape to freedom in the north of the United States.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
This biography of Frederick Douglass provides an overview of his life and work as an abolitionist.
Have students read this text before they begin reading the novel in order to provide students with an overview of Douglass’s life and the accomplishments he went on to achieve after slavery. Pair Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with “Frederick Douglass: A Biography” and ask students to identify the contributions Douglass made to social change during his lifetime.
In “Learning to Read,” a former slave describes what it was like to be prevented from obtaining an education and learning to read as an adult.
Pair Chapter VII with “Learning to Read” and ask students to draw parallels between Douglass’s experience with Mrs. Auld, and what he learned from the Sheridan texts, to the speaker in Watkins Harper’s poem. Have students consider the importance of education, both past and present, particularly in the lives of African Americans and the discrimination they face. How did the value of education began to shape Frederick Douglass’s thoughts? How does Harper use the poem to emphasize the importance of reading?
Abraham Lincoln was well known for his opposition to slavery, believing that it went against the core principles of the nation’s Founding Fathers. In this text, Lincoln contrasts slavery with its better counterpart, free labor, and aligns it with the necessity of equality in society.
Introduce "Speech on Slavery" to students after they have read Chapter VII and learned about Frederick Douglass’s growing sense of his wretched condition as an enslaved person. Ask students to compare Douglass’s developing thoughts and argument with the case that Lincoln makes. Ask them to outline both the similarities and differences in order to gain a broader sense of the different arguments against slavery.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a piece of philosophy explaining the importance of knowledge in society and for the human soul.
Have students read "Allegory of the Cave" after they have finished reading Chapter VII and learned how Mr. Auld stopped his wife from teaching Douglass to read. Ask students to apply the allegory to Douglass’s awakening, the revelation that Mr. and Mrs. Auld provide, and how he is forever changed thereafter. How has Douglass recognized what the light is in his life? How has Douglass been previously kept in a cave?
The Fugitive Slave Act was enacted by the United States Congress in 1793, and then later renewed in 1850. This act guaranteed slave owners the right to recover run-away slaves. When the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act lost its power.
Introduce the "Fugitive Slave Act of 1793" before students read Chapter X and learn about Douglass’s plot to escape with other enslaved people. Use the text to help ground students with a sense of the risk faced by those enslaved people who desired to escape to the North. What kind of legislation was Douglass, and other enslaved people who wanted to escape, up against? Ask students to use the Fugitive Slave Act as a tool to discuss what considerations Douglass might have taken into account, had he managed to make his escape.
Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897), who wrote under the pseudonym Linda Brendt, was an American slave who eventually escaped and became an abolitionist. “What Slaves are Taught to Think of the North” is a chapter from Brent’s memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861. In it, Jacobs provides a true account of her experience as a slave, and writes about the lies slaveholders told their slaves to keep them from running away to the North.
Have students read "What Slaves are Taught to Think of the North" after they have read Chapter X and digested Douglass’s comments on religious slaveholders like Reverend Weeden and Reverend Hopkins. Have students analyze the different ways that both Douglass and Jacobs highlight the hypocrisy of southern slaveholders. How do both Jacobs and Douglass make a case against slavery and slaveholders?
In this article, McLeod discusses classical conditioning, a way of changing a person’s behavior by exposing them to different experiences, and experiments carried out using this method. One 1920 experiment showed that classical conditioning can be used to create a phobia, not only in animals but potentially in humans as well.
Introduce "Classical Conditioning" after students have read Chapter X and learned about the way Mr. Covey was able to break Douglass’s spirit. Have students apply the theory of classical conditioning to Douglass's treatment and consider the ways that brutality and dehumanization might have led to conditioning the thinking and behavior of enslaved people.
In “Causes of the American Civil War,” the informational text explores the causes of the American Civil War and the growing hostility between the Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders.
Have students read "Causes of the American Civil War." after they have completed the book. This text can be used to help students identify and understand the political tensions between the North and the South that marred the United States at the time of Douglass’s writing, and the subsequent war that followed. Ask students to consider the issues that divided the country at the time, and the issues that divide the country today. How did different groups of people respond to the issues during the time leading up to the Civil War? How do different groups of people respond to divisive issues today?
In this “Letter from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman,” Douglass praises Tubman for her work in the abolitionist movement as a biography about her life is being prepared.
Introduce "Letter from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman" after students have read Chapter XI, after Douglass informs the reader why he has decided to not include details of his escape and criticizes the public nature of the Underground Railroad. Consider informing students that Tubman was an abolitionist who was a key member of the Underground Railroad movement, and that the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was written before Douglass’s correspondence with Tubman. Ask students to consider his earlier criticism. Have students contrast this criticism with his letter, the references to his subsequent public work, and Tubman’s private profile. In retrospect, what kind of irony does the letter present? How has the public profile of Frederick Douglass caused his attitude to differ from his attitude as a newly-escaped, formerly-enslaved person?
In “Abolishing Slavery: The Efforts of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” Mike Kubic discusses how two historic men worked to end slavery in the United States.
Introduce "Abolishing Slavery: The Efforts of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln" after students have completed reading the book. Ask students to consider how Douglass’s narrative later influenced him as an abolitionist. What were some of the key moments in Douglass’s early life that helped shape his attitudes? How does Douglass’s narrative help make a case for abolition?
The informational text “The Revolutionary Rise of Abolitionists” discusses the various degrees of support the anti-slavery movement received between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
Pair Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with “The Revolutionary Rise of Abolitionists.” Consider using this text after students have completed the book, as a useful source to provide historical context on the period preceding Frederick Douglass’s narrative. Ask students to draw on both the text and the book in order to discuss the climate of the times, the view of the abolitionists, and the entrenched idea of slavery in the southern region of the United States. How does the text help support Douglass’s narrative? What are the different kinds of context it provides that are not explicitly expressed by Douglass?