Book Review: My Bondage And My Freedom

My Bondage And My Freedom, by Frederick Douglass

If this book is better than the third autobiography by the author, it is not quite as good as the second. If the first autobiography found him firmly in the orbit of William Lloyd Garrison, and the third autobiography had baffling forewords, this one finds the author aligned with Garrit and James Smith and inclined to wax a bit prolix on the difference between Douglass’ bondage and freedom. Ultimately, though, the most dramatic and exciting parts of this story remain what was compelling about Douglass’ first narrative about his escape from slavery, which was told better in the first autobiography because it is more taut and less flabby with speculations and meditations. What is added in this book is the author’s thoughts about slavery and especially about whites in slave societies, and what the author has to say about this is not particularly insightful because it is a hostile outside perspective. Moreover, what the author includes about his own freedom does not reflect well on his character in that instead of being someone who was able to work in his freedom in some sort of productive labor, instead became a parasitic activist dependent on handouts and then government largess later in life.

This book is a hefty one at more than 400 pages, and although there is more material about Douglass’ life in and reflections on slavery than on his life in freedom, both elements are roughly equal rhetorically speaking, and that is likely for the best. The author’s insights from the point of view of the slave are often very interesting, including his thoughts about how his reading and a native degree of self-pride helped him to avoid the worst of the degrading tendencies of slavery as far as self-image is concerned. There is also a vivid picture presented about the free and slave black population as well as the tensions existing between black and white in Maryland and the importance of reputation or notoriety. The least compelling part of the book is the discussion of the author’s work as an activist speaking and promoting radical politics, although there are certainly people who will enjoy this.

Overall, this book is a bit disappointing. A lot of the disappointment comes in the framing of the story. There is no doubt that the author is sincere in his efforts to understand slavery as it affected him–horribly as is completely unsurprising. Yet the author remains an honest and somewhat unrepentant and also somewhat unaware hypocrite. This is a common problem among radicals and activists, so it is worthwhile to ponder exactly how the author’s activism and radicalism harmed his efforts at being the moral prophetic voice against American slavery that he wanted to be. Specifically, the author’s strenuous desire to justify his own conduct from the questioning and disagreement that people would have with the way that he lived his life and the choice he made, specifically, to raise money to pay for his freedom so that he would be able to escape the threat of being re-enslaved due to the Fugitive Slave Act. And yet the fact that the author finds it necessary to defend himself and his own life choices does not make him any more empathetic to those whose life choices–including owning slaves–he himself differs with. The recognition of the need for justification and that one is better than what others may think ought to make us more sensitive to the justifications that others can bring forward for their own behavior that we may abhor, prompting us to realize that others are not so wicked as we are likely to think. Alas, radicals are disinclined to recognize this insight and that keeps this book from being as good as it could have been in less arrogant and self-unaware hands.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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