Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass begins his 1845 memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, with a surprising admission: how little he knows about himself. Even basic biographical details that most take for granted—his birthday and his father’s identity—were kept from him. He writes, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.”[1]

Such self-ignorance was by design, a strategy of slaveholders for dehumanizing the people they enslaved. Douglass explains that “slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.”[2] Why would masters care whether enslaved folks know something as simple as their own birthdays? Because ignorance enslaves and knowledge is power.

Douglass knows his mother’s name, Harriet Bailey, but they were separated when he was an infant, he recounts, “before I knew her as my mother.”[3] He’d heard his father was a white man, possibly his master, “but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me.”[4] Many people, including orphans and adopted children, may not know about their own parents. But for Douglass and his fellow enslaved, family knowledge was intentionally hidden as a method for keeping them powerless.

Douglass’ lack of self-knowledge made him an unhappy child, yet he gradually realized a truth that would set him free: if masters enslaved people not just with physical violence but also by keeping them ignorant of themselves, then self-knowledge could be a key to freedom.

Douglass becomes famous as an author of written testimony as well as a powerful orator who could move an audience to feel—and act—for the cause of freedom.[5] Yet before he put pen to paper he read hungrily, and before he addressed international crowds he listened carefully to others. In his words, “I was a ready listener.”[6]

For example, when the wife of one of his masters begins teaching Douglass the alphabet, the master forbids the lessons from continuing because, he says, if an enslaved person learns “how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.’”[7] Ironically, the master’s attempt to withhold knowledge teaches Douglass a lesson more valuable than the alphabet itself, which is now quoted everywhere: knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.


While Douglass regrets the “difficulty of learning without a teacher,” he realizes that experience and observation are themselves teachers. He learns that one can gain knowledge in surprising ways and places, even from a master determined to keep him ignorant and enslaved. “From that moment,” Douglass reflects, “I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”[8]

After reading Narrative of the Life, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips writes to Douglass on April 22, 1845: “I was glad to learn, in your story, how early the most neglected of God’s children waken to a sense of their rights, and of the injustice done them. Experience is a keen teacher; and long before you had mastered your A B C…you began, I see, to gauge the wretchedness of the slave….”[9]

Experience is a keen teacher only if we are paying attention, participating not as passive students of life but rather as active witnesses. Because Douglass remains self-possessed with an instinct for self-knowledge—even as he is dispossessed of his liberty, his time, his body, his life itself—he learns from experience to communicate his experience to teach others.


What Douglass witnesses inspires him to write, speak, and act, not just on his own behalf but for countless enslaved persons robbed of their voices and their lives. In horrible detail, he recalls the sadistic pleasure a master took in whipping his aunt, “the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant… I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.”[10]

As a witness, Douglass is not a passive spectator but an active participant. To witness is more than to observe: it is to testify, speak truth, and act. While language may always fall short in representing the emotional depth of experience, Douglass’ instinct to commit his feelings to paper testifies to his faith in the power of words.

Readers of the Narrative, or of any autobiography, cannot totally access the author’s personal experience; however, they come far closer to the truth of that experience than they could without witness testimony. Further, the gap between passively observing and actively witnessing, between experience and expression, between life and life writing, is where freedom lives. Douglass’ will to commit his feelings to paper makes him free to succeed or to fail in doing so. If everyone knew everything in advance, if all was predictable and guaranteed, how could freedom exist? The desire not just to know ourselves but to know and be known by others, not just to live but to share our lives with others, is a hallmark of humanity.

Becoming a man and feeling the weight of passing years in chains, Douglass “resolved that 1835 should not pass without witnessing an attempt, on my part, to secure my liberty. But I was not willing to cherish this determination alone. My fellow-slaves were dear to me. I was anxious to have them participate with me in this, my life-giving determination.”[11] Sensing that history itself is witnessing his life, Douglass transcends his own personal story, inspiring others to participate as active witnesses of slavery and emancipation.

As the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison writes in the preface to Douglass’ memoir, “The testimony of Mr. DOUGLASS…is sustained by a cloud of witnesses, whose veracity is unimpeachable.”[12] It’s one thing to lead an extraordinary life and find freedom; it’s another to tell the story of that life in such a way that leads others to be extraordinary and find their own freedom.


Long before the phrase became common, Douglass understood that silence is violence. Knowing the power of words to enslave or liberate, Douglass champions free speech. In December 1860, a few days after a mob silenced him at a public meeting in Boston where he was to discuss abolition, Douglass gives “A Plea for Freedom of Speech,” including the following truths: “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist… Slavery cannot tolerate free speech… To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”[13]

Coming from one who knows what it means and how it feels to be enslaved, Douglass’ plea should convince skeptics who underestimate freedom of speech as a secondary human right, somehow less important than physical freedom. Just as Douglass knew that listening and speaking were two sides of the same coin, he also understood the bond between an individual’s life story and the collective story of a people: humankind’s shared knowledge and experience is impoverished when even one person’s story is silenced.

According to Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, “the very essence of modern life is the opportunity for people everywhere to speak, hear, persuade, change their minds, know what others are thinking, and think for themselves.”[14] One who muzzles an opponent’s speech may seem to triumph in the moment, but ultimately both parties suffer. Censors undermine their own authority and deprive themselves the chance to truly prove their point—as they could by legitimately out-debating the opposition. And they’ll never know: maybe the silenced one meant to deliver some life-saving knowledge that would have saved the censor’s own skin.


Once experience taught Douglass the power of words to communicate and act, there was no stopping him. As Celeste-Marie Bernier, Professor of Black Studies in the English Department at the University of Edinburgh, describes, “For Douglass, words were power, oratory was power. And so he wrote 7,000 items. He was the most photographed American, black or white, but he was also a virtuosic writer. He wrote not only autobiographies; he wrote novels, he wrote performance pieces, he wrote essays, he wrote history.”[15] To explore some of Douglass’ writings, check out The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress.

Douglass “was such a good orator,” Melvyn Bragg notes, that “his opponents doubted his story.”[16] Even among his supporters, critics deemed him “better fitted to speak than to write.”[17] Why would supporters discourage Douglass from publishing his spoken words in writing, and prefer him to remain an orator but not an author? Maybe because at the time, before recording technology enabled the mass reproduction and dissemination of the human voice, Douglass’ spoken words could be predictably contained within the audiences he addressed directly.

By contrast, as soon as Douglass becomes a published author, his words can travel everywhere, reaching hundreds of thousands at once. This may have worried white abolitionists who, as much as they valued Douglass’ first-person testimony, wished to keep control of the narrative about slavery and abolition.

During a speech in New York on August 3, 1857, Douglass asserts his right to tell his own story in the first person, declaring independence from any abolitionists who might prefer to tell the story in the third person on his behalf: “Your humble speaker has been branded as an ingrate, because he has ventured to stand up on his own and to plead our common cause as a colored man, rather than as a Garrisonian. I hold it to be no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats.”[18] Remark Douglass’ rhetorical shift from third person (“Your humble speaker… he has ventured to stand up on his own…”) to the first person (“our common cause…. I hold…”).

The rightful owner of his own experience and his own story, Douglass would not allow others, even friends, to dispossess him of the right to speak and write for himself as the author of his own life. As Harari argues, “The only place rights exist is in the stories humans invent and tell one another.”[19] So Douglass tells his own story not just to recount the rights he already has, but rather to author a future in which he will have such rights. Beyond a personal matter, Douglass’ declaration of the right to represent himself changes the entire course and record of history.

Published in the front of the Narrative is a letter sent by Wendell Phillips to Douglass on April 22, 1845. “My Dear Friend,” he writes: “You remember the old fable of “The Man and the Lion,” where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented ‘when the lions write history.’  I am glad the time has come when the ‘lions write history.’”[20] In other words, Douglass understands that we must tell our own stories, in our own words, or else others, even with good intentions, will inevitably fail to do us justice.


One benefit of telling your own story is controlling what to reveal—and what to protect as private, proprietary, or confidential. Privacy is sometimes pitted against free speech: shouldn’t the right to speak be absolute? Absolutely not. Douglass understands that free speech should restrain itself where speaking would endanger others or otherwise infringe on their rights to life and liberty.

Navigating between publication and privacy, Douglass writes in the Narrative,

I deeply regret the necessity that impels me to suppress any thing of importance connected with my experience in slavery. It would afford me great pleasure indeed, as well as materially add to the interest of my narrative, were I at liberty to gratify a curiosity, which I know exists in the minds of many, by an accurate statement of all the facts pertaining to my most fortunate escape. But I must deprive myself of this pleasure, and the curious of the gratification which such a statement would afford. I would allow myself to suffer under the greatest imputations which evil-minded men might suggest, rather than exculpate myself, and thereby run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery.[21]

Telling one’s own story inevitably involves telling parts of the stories of others, and with the right to do so comes responsibility to protect their privacy. You may be comfortable sharing the most intimate details of your life, but what of a friend’s personal revelation or a cousin’s trade secrets entrusted to you in confidence? These are not yours to share.

Knowledge gained through storytelling is empowering, but to ensure that it empowers the right people—that is, not slaveholders and bounty hunters—you must know your story’s intention and its audience. If you try speaking to everyone, you’ll end up speaking to nobody, or to the wrong person. Because Douglass knew the intention of his narrative—to gain freedom for others as he had gained for himself—it was obvious to him that the risk of revealing secrets about how to escape did not justify the potential payoffs (like gratifying curiosity) of speaking freely to an unknown audience.

Recalling his journey to freedom, Douglass describes the fear of not knowing his audience:

There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends…and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition. I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey.[22]

Feel familiar? We don’t equate Douglass’ dilemma as a fugitive enslaved person with the pitfalls of Old Social Media users who cannot possibly know their audiences well enough to speak freely without fear. However, as we come to terms with the ways that Old Social Media shackles us—for example, by invading our privacy, barring us from self-knowledge, and manipulating then selling our experience to others without any profit to ourselves—Douglass’s experience can teach us the meaning of freedom.

Old Social Media makes privacy and publication mutually exclusive. Sure, if you can locate and decipher the confusing privacy settings on Facebook, you can share a post with “Friends” or “Custom” groups instead of “Public”—but this façade of privacy neglects to mention that Facebook’s entire business model is based on a pre-mediated wholesale invasion of your privacy to extract your experience for sale to advertisers and third parties.

Even if you could be sure, when you select “Friends” on your Facebook privacy settings, that only your Facebook friends would see your stuff, even that might be too much for comfort. As Harari remarks, “the average Homo sapiens is probably incapable of intimately knowing more than 150 individuals… Beyond a certain point, the time and energy you spent on getting to know your online friends from Iran or Nigeria will come at the expense of your ability to know your next-door neighbors.”[23] Not only are we incapable of truly befriending our thousands of “friends” and followers on Facebook and Instagram; worse, the attempt to do so will prevent us from knowing those who might otherwise be true friends.

On the Biograph app, you know exactly where you stand: when you’re speaking before the public, and when you’re collaborating privately with those you entrust as friends and co-authors. We defend the private sanctuary of home as well as the right to free speech in public. And we empower you to know the difference, unlike Old Social Media behemoths who intentionally create a confusing user experience to lead you right where they want you. We believe there should never be any doubt as to whether your words are private or public. Nobody should ever again feel the fear Douglass felt at not being able to speak to anyone for fear of speaking to the wrong person.


Again, one way Douglass expresses freedom is by wishing he “could commit to paper the feelings with which” he witnessed slavery’s horrors, including the whipping of his aunt.[24] While Douglass seems to regret the inability to adequately represent his feelings in writing, his wish represents freedom in the form of a promise to continue telling his story.

As Zuboff asserts, the creation of meaning from experience is “the foundation of personal freedom.”[25] If experience were immediately meaningful, and if this meaning were instantly known to ourselves and others, Douglass would not “wish [he] could commit [his feelings] to paper” and we would have nowhere to exercise our freedom, nor any space to desire freedom in the first place.

Speaking of the harmful model of Old Social Media—which intends to flatten the space between what we think, feel, say, and do by extracting our present experience to predict our future actions—Zuboff declares, “Our freedom flourishes only as we steadily will ourselves to close the gap between making promises and keeping them.”[26] If Old Social Media preemptively closes this gap before we have a chance to make, keep, or break promises, then we will not be free.

Zuboff writes, “the assertion of freedom of will also asserts the right to the future tense as a condition of a fully human life.”[27] Beyond physical chains and threats of violence, Douglass depicts various techniques which masters used to enslave him, including withholding self-knowledge and denying what Zuboff calls “the right to the future tense.”

For example, Douglass recounts, “[Master Thomas] exhorted me to content myself, and be obedient. He told me, if I would be happy, I must lay out no plans for the future. He said, if I behaved myself properly, he would take care of me. Indeed, he advised me to complete thoughtlessness of the future, and taught me to depend solely upon him for happiness.”[28] To speak in the future tense is to challenge the status quo and exercise free will by making promises about what will be true, even if that truth is yet unrealized (e.g. We will be free).

Alongside the right to speak in the future tense, Zuboff cites the right to speak in the first person as essential to freedom. As noted earlier, this is why Douglass rejects the abolitionists who would prefer to tell his story for him in the third person. However, in the passage above, Douglass strategically uses the third person (e.g. “He told me… He said… he advised me…) to show that the advice not to think of the future rests with Master Thomas alone, and that Douglass himself will not own it by speaking it in the first person.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a triumph of freedom expressed in the first person. And the abundance of memoirs and autobiographies narrated in the succeeding centuries suggests that many people exercise the freedom to tell their own stories in the first person. However, despite the illusion that Old Social Media has empowered more people to speak in the first person, in fact the opposite is true. Zuboff asks, “What happens to the right to speak in the first person from and as my self when the swelling frenzy…set into motion by the prediction imperative is trained on cornering my sighs, blinks, and utterances on the way to my very thoughts as a means to others’ ends?”[29]

Old Social Media’s “prediction imperative” to know what we’re going to do before we know what we’re going to do is not about seeing our future—it’s about confining our possible thoughts and actions to a future pre-determined by others. Though Douglass ultimately liberated himself from his master’s predictions—for example, that learning to read would only bring him anguish, and that his happiness depended on forgetting the future—he still experienced the harm caused by the prediction imperative: “As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish.”[30]

Would learning to read have been agonizing for Douglass if Master Hugh had not predicted it would be so? As literacy gradually increased Douglass’ self-knowledge, and with it his desire for freedom, the pain of his frustrated desire yielded to the power of a fulfilled promise to be free. Master Hugh may have been right that self-knowledge can be agonizing, but he was wrong to withhold the full truth from Douglass: that self-knowledge, though sometimes painful, ultimately leads to freedom.

To be sure, the institution of chattel slavery which Douglass and countless Black Americans experienced is not the same as the mental slavery which Old Social Media inflicts on us today. However, there are striking similarities indicating universal features of oppression, which can enlighten us about our situation before we descend further into bondage. These include, first, asymmetries of knowledge and asymmetries of power.

Recall that Douglass opens his Narrative not with graphic depictions of slavery’s violence but with an account of what he does not know, including his own birthday, because masters have withheld this knowledge from him. Likewise, today Old Social Media companies and those to whom they sell our data, “know everything about us,” according to Zuboff, “whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us.”[31]

As Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, testified before the United States Senate on June 25, 2019,

Essentially what we’re experiencing with technology is an increasing asymmetry of power that’s been masquerading itself as an equal or contractual relationship… The race for attention [causes companies like Facebook] to get more and more aggressive and so it’s not enough just to get your behavior and predict what will take your behavior—[they] have to predict how to keep you hooked in a different way. And so [Old Social Media] crawled deeper down the brainstem into our social validation, so that was the introduction of likes and followers… It was much cheaper, instead of getting your attention, to get you addicted to getting attention from other people…[32]

Old Social Media steals our attention then sells it to advertisers and other third parties without our knowledge or informed consent. Without compensating us, Old Social Media profits by dispossessing us of our most precious resources: our time, experience, and self-knowledge. Is this not a form of slavery?

There is still time, though it is running out, to know ourselves before we surrender our freedom to Old Social Media. Harari warns that “the coming technological revolution might establish the authority of Big Data algorithms, while undermining the very idea of individual freedom.”[33] We don’t claim that data algorithms are inherently bad. Indeed, they can empower us with new ways of knowing ourselves, others, and the world. Still, so long as algorithms serve only a few Old Social Media companies and their clients while keeping the rest of us in the dark, we risk losing our freedom.

The path forward seems daunting, as if we are David and Old Social Media is Goliath. Yet when the struggle feels hopeless, Douglass assures us, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”[34] Born into slavery, Douglass knows the effort necessary to achieve freedom from those whose power depends on our enslavement. His voice still resounds from his speech on August 3, 1857, with an insight we would do well to heed:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.[35]

We will demand our freedom by speaking in the first person, in the future tense, and by telling our own stories. Douglass observes, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”[36] So, we who know a world before Old Social Media, let’s create a better future while we still have our freedom.


[1] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (Electronic Edition published by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Willard B. Gatewood, “Frederick Douglass and the Building of a ‘Wall of Anti-Slavery Fire,’ 1845-1846. An Essay Review,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 59, no. 3 (1981): 340-44. Accessed August 3, 2021.

[6] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (Electronic Edition published by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Frederick Douglass’s ‘Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston,” Law & Liberty (August 21, 2019),

[14] Lee C. Bollinger, “Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age.” Foreign Policy, no. 197 (2012): 52-53. Accessed August 6, 2021.

[15] Melvyn Bragg, “In Our Time,” BBC Radio 4

[16] Ibid.

[17] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855; rpt. New York: Dover, 1969), 393. Quoted in Stepto, Robert B. “Storytelling in Early Afro-American Fiction: Frederick Douglass’ “The Heroic Slave”.” The Georgia Review 36, no. 2 (1982): 355-68. Accessed August 4, 2021.

[18] “Frederick Douglass, ‘If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress (1857),’” BlackPast, August 8 2019.

[19] Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (New York: Random House, 2018), 218.

[20] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (Electronic Edition published by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Harari, 21 Lessons, 90-91.

[24]  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (Electronic Edition published by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999).

[25] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), 289.

[26] Ibid. 331.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (Electronic Edition published by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999).

[29] Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 290.

[30] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (Electronic Edition published by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999).

[31] Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 11.

[32] Tristan Harris, United States Senate, June 25, 2019.

[33] Harari, 21 Lessons, 47.

[34] Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857. BlackPast:

[35] Ibid.

[36] S. Mapp and S.G. Gabel, “It Is Easier to Build Strong Children than to Repair Broken Men.” J. Hum. Rights Soc. Work 4, 145–146 (2019).

Aaron Lee Greenberg, PhD is co-founder of Biograph and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Aaron’s publications include “Reviving Vitalism in King Lear” and Recorded Time: How to Write the Future.

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