Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative:” Myth of the Happy Slave

In 1845 the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and Written by Himself was published. In it, Douglass criticizes directly—often with withering irony—those who defend slavery and those who prefer a romanticized version of it. Pitilessly, he offers the reader a first-hand account of the pain, humiliation, and brutality of the South's "peculiar institution.”

One myth that Southern slave owners and proponents perpetuated was that of the slave happily singing from dawn to dusk as he or she worked in the fields, prepared meals in the kitchen, or maintained the upkeep of the plantation. In his Narrative—particularly chapters 1 and 2— Douglass quickly distinguishes 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.

In this lesson, students analyze Douglass's first-hand account to see how he successfully contrasts myths with the reality of life under slavery.

Note: Students are expected to have some knowledge of slavery in U.S. history in the pre- Civil War period.

College and Career Readiness Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.1 Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Guiding Questions

How does Frederick Douglass's skilled use of rhetoric craft a narrative that is also a compelling argument against slavery?

According to Douglass, what were some common misconceptions or myths about slaves and their situation?

Learning Objectives

In the process of completing this lesson, students will be able to explain the use and effectiveness of precise word choice, imagery, irony, and rhetorical appeals in a persuasive text that deliberately contrasts reality with myth.

Explain Douglass’s exploration of the multiple meanings behind slave spirituals as a way of understanding slave life.