I grouped these two together not just because they were so similar in theme, but because they were both so short, that they wouldn’t even make a standard length novel if put together. They were both very interesting reads, and though I had learned a lot about slavery during my elementary and middle school years, I found myself being amazed by what these authors had to say, as well as the eloquence in which they say it.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) is certainly a mouthful, but is short and sweet compared to Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-story House, North, Showing that Slavery’s Shadows Fall even There (1859), so I will just shorten them to Narrative and Our Nig.
I had heard of Frederick Douglass before. Every February, we would celebrate Black History Month in our schools by learning all about slavery, the ensuing Civil War, the resulting emancipation, and of course all the Civil Rights, segregation, and racism that followed over the next 100+ years. I knew he was one of many who had escaped slavery and helped others to do the same. But what I never learned was how he did it, and the amazing way he learned to read and write to assist in that escape.
In Douglass’ Narrative, he describes briefly his time in captivity, from being born a slave to the time he escapes. He describes in fairly graphic detail some beatings – which were more like tortures – that he and other slaves endured, and even alludes to the raping of female slaves. He also describes the nature of his slave owners, and never fails to mention that they are all devout Christians. But what I found most fascinating was how he taught himself to read and write by tricking and bribing the white school children in the neighborhood. At first, he would brag that he could write better than them, and they would prove him wrong by showing him all the letters they knew, which he would then memorize. After that, he would steal bread from his masters and pay the poorer and hungrier kids to teach him more about reading and writing. From then on, he taught himself the rest, and by the time he escaped to freedom, he could write better than most people could after years of proper education.
I had also heard a lot of horror stories from slavery in the south. But, growing up in the Midwest, we didn’t learn much about what was hidden in the shadows of New England, where life was supposed to be free for all. Harriet Wilson, the first published black woman, tells us how it really was in Our Nig. She was the child of a white woman and a free black man, and was abandoned at a neighbors house when they could no longer support her. Unlike Douglass, she got a proper education, but at her new home in New Hampshire – where the motto is “Live Free or Die” – she was treated more like a slave and less like a person. She didn’t live free, and though she wanted to die many times, she survived through many physical and verbal whippings. Most of the new family she lived with was supportive of her, but the mother of the household and one of her daughters were more evil than Cinderella’s step-family. It is quite an interesting read.
Before I give too much away for each story, I will end with that, and urge you to read them for yourself. Both delve into secrets that are wont to be continuously shoved under the rug or into the closet under the stairs, and both are deserving of a good 4 out of 5 stars.