Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

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

Created October 8, 2014


The Lesson


Frontispiece of original edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frontispiece of original edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845

Credit: Documenting the American South

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.

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.

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.


Slave narratives were first-hand accounts that exposed the evils of the system in the pre-Civil War period. These works were an important part of the abolitionist movement’s strategy of appealing to the conscience of Northerners. After escaping from slavery, Frederick Douglass published his own Narrative (1845) to argue against slavery and for emancipation.

A great master of rhetoric, Douglass used traditional persuasive appeals to sway the audience into adopting his point of view. There are three elements that go into making a convincing appeal:

  • ethos: appeal to the speaker’s good character and moral values
  • pathos: appeal to emotion of the audience
  • logos: appeal to reason/truth of the argument

Douglas uses his own experience to convince his readers that slaves are equal in their humanity to white people. He does this by writing about subjects typical of the human experience— knowledge of one's birthday, one's parents, and family life—thus demonstrating his own humanity.

Douglass is at pains to present himself as a “reliable truth teller of his own experience.” By emphasizing that despite his inquires he has “no accurate knowledge” of his heritage because of his master’s desire to keep him ignorant—and of which he keenly feels this lack—Douglass encourages the reader to see him as a rational human being rather than as a piece of property or chattel (ethos).

Although Douglass scorned pity, his pages are evocative of sympathy, as he meant them to be. Deeply affecting is the paragraph on his nearest of kin, creating its mood with the opening sentence: “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.” He writes as a partisan of abolition, but his indignation is always under control (pathos).

Perhaps the most striking quality of the Narrative is Douglass’ ability to mingle incident with argument (logos). One of the most moving passages in the book and the subject of Activity 2, is that in which he talks about the slaves who were selected to go to the home plantation to get the monthly food allowance for the slaves on their farm. Douglass describes the manner in which these black journeyers sang on the way, and tells us what those “rude and incoherent” songs really meant.

He concludes, “If anyone 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.’”

In other words, the whole point of the narrative under discussion is to argue against or “deconstruct” the myth of the happy slave. The slave’s song, Douglass shows, is the artistic expression of a human soul’s profound suffering.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introducing Young Frederick Douglass

Pass out Rhetorical Terms and go over it with the whole class. Share with students the three types of rhetorical appeals that authors typically make to persuade readers. Tell them that Douglass, like any good author, is going to make use of each of these appeals: as they read, they will be looking for the way in which Douglass uses these three appeals in his narrative. In chapter 1 of the Narrative, Douglass is introducing his younger self to the reader.

Pass out the worksheet to the whole class Introducing Young Frederick Douglass. Beginning with section 1 in the worksheet, have students read aloud and examine the underlined phrases and sentences. Ask them to identify the kind of appeal each of the underlined phrases makes. The underlined words are especially important to help establish his character as a rational human being (ethos and logos working together) who is being treated as an animal (pathos). The questions are designed to help them engage with the text.

After going over the first paragraph, ask the class to place themselves in Douglass's shoes as they read the next section in the worksheet about his mother. Have them work in groups to answer the questions. These questions are designed to highlight Douglass's sense of injustice (logos), his desire to be viewed as a rational human being (ethos), and his appeal to their compassion for his plight and for that of all slaves (pathos). Explain to them that that sometimes all three appeals may be combined.

Note to teachers: Douglass deliberately downplays his relationship with his mother, which increases his ethos with his audience. Example: "I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger." The technical name for this is litotes—where downplaying circumstances gains favor with the audience. In this case, we see that Douglass does, in fact, care for his mother (as he describes with great care her midnight visits), so her loss actually seems more dramatic rather than less (had he, for example, been more melodramatic). In spite of this understatement, this is an appeal to pathos.

Reflection/Response Paragraphs on the above readings for entire class:

  • How does Douglass want to be viewed by the reader? Refer to specific parts of the text.
  • What the reality of a slave’s life is as described in the above paragraphs? Be specific.

Formative assessment

Using a whiteboard, ask students to volunteer their observations about what they have learned about Douglass and slavery by reading this passage. What would he have known or believed to be true about slavery before this reading?

Activity 2. Beatings and the Myth of the Happy Slave

In chapter 2 of his Narrative, Douglass notes the maniacal violence perpetrated upon slaves by their masters as well as the many deprivations experienced by the slaves, including lack of sufficient food, bedding, rest, and clothing. In this activity, students will focus first on the reality of slave life and then consider the meaning of the spirituals slaves sang. The overall goal of the exercise is to see the whole passage as culminating in an argument that the fact of slaves singing is evidence that they are unhappy.

In Section 1 in the worksheet, Douglass highlights a terrifying fact of slave life: whippings or beatings. As you read the passage aloud, have the students work independently to circle the images that stand out and the words that cause the greatest discomfort. What effect do these images and words have upon the reader? Why? Does Douglass successfully convey the slave plight in this passage?

After highlighting the images and specific words they found most affecting, the students should then switch gears and read Section 2 about Captain Lloyd's Great House Farm, a place akin to heaven in many slaves' minds. Questions in the worksheet will help them understand the significance of the plantation farm as a kind of “heaven” for the slaves.

Now have students read Section 3 about the spirituals that Douglass remembers the slaves singing. Continue to have students answer the questions in the worksheet.

Read Section 4. Then ask what revelation Douglass has about the power of slave songs that he missed when he was still a slave? Then, as a class, compare Douglass's feelings towards the spirituals to what he has heard white Americans say about the songs. Why there is a difference in feeling, understanding, and perception? What appeals does Douglass make to the reader in his vivid description of the sound of the songs?

Finally, ask for volunteers to explain the following comparison or analogy with which Douglass concludes: “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.”

Explain to students that Douglass is making an analogy here and ask whether this is an this effective and convincing way of proving his point?


Students should now be in a position to write about the overall rhetorical strategy of Douglass in the first two chapters. He not only presents his younger self as a slave but he also makes a compelling case for the injustice and inhumanity of the whole system. Ask students to write a short essay about how Douglass employs the different rhetorical elements to narrate his story and at the same time make his argument. Let them know they be able to come up with a thesis, marshal and interpret evidence from the text to support their assertions, and have a strong conclusion. In short, they need to write a well-organized essay demonstrating their knowledge of the reading. Consult the final assessment rubric.

Extending The Lesson

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." They can listen the audio here. Working in groups, the students should evaluate the ways in which the spiritual conveys the reality of slave life as described in Douglass’ narrative. 

  • Conveys the reality of slave life as described in Douglass's narrative,
  • Asks the reader/listener to consider what the word home denotes and what it connotes,
  • Appeals to the reader/listener's pathos. 

 One student should serve as note-taker as the group answers each question.

"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 Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Literary analysis
  • Mary Edmonds (AL)


Activity Worksheets