Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 26, 2016

The Education of Frederick Douglass (1845), by Frederick Douglass

The Education of Frederick DouglassThis is such a tiny little book, it almost fits in the palm of my hand, but it certainly ‘packs a punch’.  It’s one of the Penguin 60s (Black) Classics series, published in 1995 to celebrate Penguin’s 60th anniversary.   These little books are extracts from the Penguin Classics series, and this one comes from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, first published in 1845.

Reading about American slavery is, for me, a bit like reading about the Holocaust.  I just don’t understand how such evil could have been accepted as it obviously was.  I can understand individual acts of cruelty and wickedness as a result of some malfunction in an individual’s development, but how whole societies could have endorsed the institutionalisation of man’s inhumanity to man is a horrible mystery to me.

The Education of Frederick Douglass describes two kinds of education.  The first is when the boy Frederick is socialised into the world of slavery and learns the rules of the plantation, and the second is when it dawns on him that literacy is the key to freedom and he sets about learning to read and write, even though he is forbidden to do so by law and by custom.

His initiation into the laws and customs of the plantation begins early.  He learns that he will never know the date of his birth because there is no authentic record of it and he learns that while he knows the name of his mother Harriet Bailey, he will never know the identity of his father:

My father was a white man.  He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage.  The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me.  My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant – before I knew her as my mother.  It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.  (p.2)

He soon learns also that ultimate power rests in the overseers who manage the slaves, and that it is their character which determines the extent of the misery which slaves must suffer.  He learns that slaves must not answer questions, explain, complain or argue:

To all these complaints, no matter how unjust, the slave must never answer a word. Colonel Lloyd could not brook any contradiction from a slave.  When he spoke, a slave must stand, listen and tremble; and such was literally the case.  I have seen Colonel Lloyd make old Barney, a man between fifty and sixty years of age, uncover his bald head, kneel down upon the cold, damp ground, and receive upon his naked and toil-worn shoulders more than thirty lashes at the time.  (p.21)

Worse even than the savagery of beatings and whippings is the threat of being moved arbitrarily elsewhere, sold off  at some market without even the opportunity to answer a charge or bid friends or family farewell.

Frederick learns before he reaches his teens that the killing of slaves involves no investigation, no court interference, no penalty.  Mr Gore’s murder of a slave is justified on the grounds that a slave’s defiance required setting an example to terrorise the other slaves into submission:

His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation.  It was committed in the presence of slaves, and they of course would neither institute a suit, not testify against him; and thus the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and foul murders goes un-whipped of justice, and uncensured by the community in which he lives.  (p.30)

Frederick has one stroke of fortune.  Sold off to a kindly new mistress, he is taught to read his letters.  And even though the lessons are soon stopped, and the fatal poison of irresponsible power soon teaches her the cruelty she is expected to inflict, the spark has been lit.  Frederick finds ingenious ways to learn to read, and then to write… and it is literacy that sets him on the path to become a national leader of the Abolitionist Movement, going on to become a social reformer, writer, and statesman.

These 55 pages trace a triumph of the human spirit that remains inspirational even today.

Author: Frederick Douglass
Title: The Education of Frederick Douglass
Publisher: Penguin 60s Classics, 1995
ISBN: 9780146001833
This copy courtesy of Readings, a free gift with a recent order.


Out of print.



  1. I don’t understand how at 65 I’m still hearing about important books for the first time


    • LOL I feel like that all the time! I used to think I was quite well-read, but not any more!


      • I’ve made up a file of your post and Sonia’s list and SilverSeason’s hint about Project Gutenberg, so now I guess I’ve got some reading to do. It seems The Invention of Wings (Sarah Grimke’s life) which I read last year is just the beginning of a whole new reading path.


        • Another one to add is 12 Years a Slave, which was made into a film not so long ago.
          Now, I’m off to bed. I’m up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to fly up to Qld for my father’s birthday!


  2. The entire narrative from which the excerpt Lisa read was taken is available free on Project Gutenberg. I read it a few years ago and was very moved by it. I started it as a history document and finished feeling great respect for an intelligent and honest man.

    I can’t explain or justify slavery, but I look now at long prison terms imposed for relatively minor offenses and believe we still condone great cruelty when it is socially convenient for us.


    • Hi Nancy, I thought this probably would be free at Gutenberg, the copyright must be lapsed long ago. Still, there is something about this format which made it so easily readable, I probably would have put it aside for later if I hadn’t had it in this form.


  3. Frederick Douglass’ writings continue to inspire readers alike. His life embodies courage, perseverance, faith, activism, humanity, and pride. Douglass’ abolitionist work, life writings, and journalism has had an impact on my work as an educator, writer, and literary researcher. Not only has Douglass empowered himself through education but through having a strong work ethic, social and political reform activism (ending of slavery and colonialism, women’s rights, civil war efforts), African American cultural knowledge, and the power of the written word. I would encourage readers to read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as well as other compilations of his work that are currently available in the United States and possibly overseas. They are the following:
    My Bondage and My Freedom
    The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
    Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings
    The Heroic Slave (novella)

    I would also like to recommend other texts by African Americans activists who were former slaves or born free-
    Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
    The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader
    Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader
    Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
    Narrative of Sojourner Truth
    Blake: or; The Huts of America by Martin R. Delany (novel)
    Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

    Here are some recommended biographies of African American slaves
    Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter
    Harriet Jacobs: A Life by Jean Yellin


    • Goodness, Sonia, that’s a comprehensive list. It might be worth adding it to Goodreads Listopia so that people can refer to it. Are you a member there? (I can do it for you, if not).


      • Lisa, I have a goodreads account but I don’t know how to create the list.


        • Ok, go to Browse/Lists. AT the top on the RHS click Create New List, Give your list a title, a description and some tags, and then save. You can then add the books to your list!


  4. Very important novel. I must give this a re-read soon.


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