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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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Activities: Author Activities

Frederick Douglass - Teaching Tips

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  • Douglass represents his violent physical encounter with Covey, the "slave breaker," as a crucial turning point in his journey toward independence and freedom--in his words, it is the moment "a slave was made a man." Ask students to analyze the importance of this passage. What are the implications of Douglass's physical assertion of strength and its resulting empowerment? You might ask them to consider how the episode compares to Tom's passive capitulation to Simon Legree (another "slave breaker") in Uncle Tom's Cabin, to Lorenzo Asisara's account of his participation in an Indian revolt, and to Harriet Jacobs's account of the very different strategies she used to assert her independence.

  • As the Narrative makes clear, Douglass's achievement of literacy is a crucial step in his struggle for freedom. One of the texts he uses to learn to read is The Columbian Orator, a compendium of texts chosen for their evocation of American values. First published in 1797, The Columbian Orator was a mainstay of the American schoolroom through the nineteenth century. In it, Douglass would have encountered arguments for natural rights, human freedom, and even for emancipation (in this case, of Catholics). Ask students to consider the role of literacy in the Narrative. They might analyze Sophia Auld's dramatic shift in attitude toward teaching Douglass to read, Douglass's covert strategies for teaching himself, and his attempts to instruct other slaves in reading and writing. They might also look at the specific books Douglass mentions reading, such as The Columbian Orator and Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, to explore how these texts might have influenced Douglass's values and beliefs.

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