Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: From Courage to Freedom: The Reality behind the Song


The Lesson


Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass.

Credit: Portrait courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

One myth that Southern slave owners and proponents were happy to perpetuate was that of the slave happily singing from dawn to dusk as he worked in the fields, prepared meals in the kitchen, or maintained the upkeep of the plantation. (Interesting case in point from more recent times: Disney's 1946 Song of the South).

In his autobiography, Douglass is quick to distinguish the myth from the reality. He uses incidents of cruelty that he witnessed along with songs of the slaves themselves—spirituals—to emphasize this distinction.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Frederick Douglass's skilled use of language paint a realistic portrait of slavery?
  • According to Douglass, what were some common misconceptions about slaves and their situation?

Learning Objectives

In the process of completing this curriculum unit, students will be able to:

  • Analyze and understand a specific type of historical and literary primary document, the slave narrative/autobiography.
  • Recognize and explain the use and effectiveness of precise word choice, imagery, irony, and rhetorical appeals.
  • Learn to look for and contrast instances of reality and romanticized myth by using the slave narrative as a source for historical study.
  • Examine Douglass's exploration of the multiple meanings behind slave spirituals

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the Introduction and the Preparing sections of the Curriculum Unit Overview Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. If necessary, download and print out any documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • This lesson plan covers Chapter One and Chapter Two of Douglass's Narrative.
  • Review persuasive appeals, imagery, irony, repetition, and connotative and denotative language (see Curriculum Unit Overview for more information).
  • Download, duplicate, and pass out copies of the worksheet Reading Douglass's Rhetoric, available as a PDF document. Alternatively, have students copy the text from Douglass's narrative and paste it into a word processing document, where they can underline or highlight important words and write notes on Douglass's rhetorical appeals.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Douglass's Rhetoric

To prepare the students for reading an autobiography, ask them to think about their own growth and development up to their current age. Have them consider what have been the formative moments of their experience, at what age these moments occurred to them, and what the result of these moments have been. Also ask them to think about the ways in which they reflect upon their life histories: do any of them keep a journal or a blog? Do any write poems or songs that capture important times in their lives? If so, why do they feel a need to record their lives?

Then hand out copies of the timeline of Douglass's life found at the link below. Ask the students to pencil in Douglass's age at each key moment and consider his life experiences in terms of their own thus far.

To introduce them to the slave narrative, have the students read Andrews' introduction to the narrative. Have them state the characteristics of the slave narrative, the audience for which the narrative was intended, and the influence of the narratives.

Alert students to the fact that Douglass is a great master of words; he'll never use a word or a phrase without having a persuasive intent. Ask students to list things that help convince them to try something, buy something, or believe something. You might ask students to think about commercials that they find persuasive. After they brainstorm, use the examples to explain that there are three kinds of proof for convincing arguments (described in the Persuasive Appeals overview via EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae):

  • Logos: appeal to reason
  • Ethos: appeal to one's own character
  • Pathos: appeal to emotion

As explained in Silva Rhetoricae's overview of Persuasive Appeals, Aristotle called such proof "intrinsic," meaning that it is rhetorically supported, as opposed to "extrinsic" proof, such as witnesses.

Also review the terms imagery, irony, repetition, and connotative and denotative language with students.

Activity 2. Chapter One: The Reality of Slave Life

Read this chapter aloud in class and allow as many students as possible to have a paragraph to read. While the chapter is being read aloud, students should listen and concentrate not only on Douglass's voice, but also on what aspects of slave life he is trying to convey. As they listen, each student should write down what aspects of slave life shocked them, surprised them, pained them. The students should try to put themselves in Douglass's place and imagine what he might have felt.

Ask students to share their reactions. During class discussion, students might point out

  • the fact that Douglass knew neither his birth date nor the name of his father
  • the fact that Douglass, as was typical of many slave children, was separated from his mother shortly after birth and never really knew her
  • the fact that many slave children were products of liaisons between the master and one of his female slaves; how this relationship often produced antagonism between the master's wife and the slave children as well as between the master's "legitimate" children and his slave children; how the master/father would even sell his slave children
  • the fact that at any time, for any particular reason (or not) slaves could be subject to brutal violence.

Discuss the following passages in which the master Captain Anthony whips and beats Douglass's Aunt Hester. Either have the students consider the emotional, visual, auditory, and tactile impact on the reader of the underlined words OR give the students the passage WITHOUT the underlining and have them choose the words that create an impact on them.

Questions to ask the students include:
  • What effect does the repetition of certain words have on the reader?
  • Which words serve as strong images?
  • Which verbs seem particularly strong?
  • What rhetorical appeals—logos, ethos, pathos—is Douglass using? Is he effective? Why?

He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an old aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped the longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it."

What do all of the details add up to? Students might highlight the failure of slave owners to recognize slaves as human beings with human feelings and attachments, which has a dehumanizing effect not only on the slave but also the slave owner (an important theme for Douglass that is discussed in more detail in Lesson Two of the Curriculum Unit).

Activity 3. Chapter Two: Spirituals, Myth, and the Reality Behind the Song

In chapter two of his narrative, Douglass notes the many deprivations slaves experienced, including lack of sufficient food, bedding, rest, and clothing. He also describes the home plantation of Captain Lloyd, his master's employer. Captain Lloyd's plantation was called the "Great House Farm" by all of the slaves, and the slaves viewed the Great House Farm as the most desirable place to live, work, or visit:

Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm. It was associated in their minds with greatness. A representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm."

Think about the comparison Douglass makes between being elected to Congress and being chosen to run an errand at the Great House Farm. What is Douglass's tone? What is the point he is trying to make?

The class should then read aloud the next paragraph in which Douglass introduces the spirituals, or songs, that the slaves would sing on their way to the Great House:

The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out-if not in the word, in the sound;--and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home. They would then sing most exultingly the following words: "I am going away to the Great House Farm!
O, yea! O, yea! O!"This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject would do."
  • As a class determine how Douglass describes the songs or spirituals that the slaves would sing.
  • What seems to be the tone of the spiritual "Great House Farm"? Why?
  • For what might the phrase "Great House" be a metaphor? Consider the context of the song and evaluate the denotation and connotation of "Great House."
  • Have the class read the lyrics to another spiritual, "I Want to Go Home," as found in Thomas Wentworth Higginson's June 1867 Atlantic Monthly essay "Negro Spirituals" in comparison to the "Great House Farm." What is the tone of these lyrics? What might "home" denote and connote in this song?

    "I Want to Go Home"

    Dere's no rain to wet you,
    O, yes, I want to go home.
    Dere's no sun to burn you,
    O, yes, I want to go home;

    O, push along, believers,
    O, yes, I want to go home.
    Dere's no hard trials,
    O, yes, I want to go home.

    Dere's no whips on de wayside,
    O, yes, I want to go home.
    O, push along, my brudder,
    O, yes, I want to go home.

    Where dere's no stormy weather,
    O, yes, I want to go home.
    Dere's no tribulation,
    O, yes, I want to go home."

The class should then focus on the next passage in chapter two in which Douglass plumbs the meaning and feeling behind the slaves' singing of spirituals.

  • Have a student read aloud the passage; afterwards have the class state what the spirituals represent to Douglass. The class should consider the following questions:
    • Upon reflection, what does Douglass realize about why slaves sang spirituals and about the basic purpose of the spirituals?
    • Which of Douglass's descriptive words or phrases in the passage show the extent to which he deplores slavery? Which rhetorical appeals does Douglass use and to what effect?
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. . . To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd's plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,—and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because 'there is no flesh in his obdurate heart."

Finally, read aloud the last paragraph of chapter two which deals with the false romantic view of the spirituals and of the slaves singing them.

  • How does Douglass dismiss the misconception that a singing slave is necessarily a content and happy slave? What analogy does he use? Is this analogy effective?
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion."


Students should choose one passage or paragraph from the first two chapters of Douglass's Narrative. Ask students to locate uses of ethos, pathos, or logos within the passage and write a brief response reviewing the effect of the persuasive appeal. Is it persuasive and why?

Extending The Lesson

Interested in teaching more about spirituals? Use the EDSITEment lesson plan Spirituals, which explores how spirituals play a role in African-American history, from the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement.

Have the class read the lyrics to "Many Thousand Go" as found in Thomas Wentworth Higginson's June 1867 Atlantic Monthly essay "Negro Spirituals," via EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at UVA. Those familiar with Bob Dylan's "No More Auction Block for Me" will recognize the tune of "Many Thousand Go." The class may also like to listen to spirituals found at www.negrospirituals.com ; for example, "Heaven" or "Old Time Religion" in particular has the apparent joyousness that may have led some to believe that "singing, among slaves" was "evidence of their contentment and happiness."

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Essay
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Writing skills
  • Mary Edmonds (AL)


Activity Worksheets