Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of Childhood

*This post is part of the online forum on The Futures of Frederick Douglass. The contributions in this forum each highlight innovative approaches to the study of Douglass’s life and works.

An 1850 copy of daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass from 1847 (Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Wikimediia Commons).

At the time of his self-emancipation, Frederick Douglass was only twenty years old. His 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave remains a narrative not only of slavery or emancipation, but of childhood. While scholars have written about Douglass’s childhood experiences of slavery’s violence, labor, familial relations, and trauma, “childhood” has largely been discussed as a metaphor, theme, or historical detail within Douglass’s narrative, rather than a defining category for understanding the text. Too often, even the fact of Douglass’s childhood throughout the narrative is buried in attending to the adult narrator, sometimes construed not even as the twenty-year-old authorial Douglass, but as the historical figure bearing all of the weight of Douglass’s later life and career.

What does it mean to truly consider Douglass’s iconic narrative—foremost—as a narrative of enslaved childhood? Attending to Douglass-as-child calls us to take seriously the centrality of childhood to his prominent voice. Framing the relationship between childhood and slavery in literal terms, we might also consider childhood within intersectional experiences of slavery and other racialized violence.

Wilma King, in her study of enslaved children, provides evidence for the centrality of childhood to antebellum slavery. By 1860, King writes, 56 percent of enslaved people in the United States were under twenty years old. In this moment of late antebellum slavery, the majority of enslaved experience was childhood experience. Despite this fact, King laments that “children have received little attention because they, more than other enslaved persons, were ‘silent and invisible.’” Douglass’s narrative of enslaved childhood is, however, the most prominent of its genre. While many have noted the centrality of children to sentimental literature, including antislavery literature, Caroline Levander writes that Douglass “devote[s] relatively little attention on the page to the child.” But the fact of Douglass’s age throughout the narrative calls us to rethink this reading. Reaching beyond the more prominent sentimental figure of the child, Douglass narrates childhood throughout his autobiography, which is quite literally the narrative of the life of a young person.

What does it mean to take childhood as literal, rather than metaphor? To read Douglass specifically as an enslaved child, addressing age among the complexities of embodied Black experience? To attend to Douglass’s Black boyhood not only where he references childhood directly, but also where he does not? To what extent might we separate the free man who narrates his early life from the enslaved child he depicts? What radical allowance of childhood is necessary and possible when Douglass’s childhood becomes recognized and recognizable as such? (How) can we look beyond the iconic Douglass to see the child Frederick?

The relationship between childhood and slavery is entangled with the irony of simultaneous disassociation and conflation. Enslaved Black children were variously treated “like adults.” Regarding childhood itself as one of many things enslavers stole from enslaved people, we can also trace the historical thread of this iteration of anti-Black racism to our present, twenty-first-century moment. In the wake of slavery as we all remain, Blackness has been constructed, in part, by figuring childhood as the property of whiteness. The trajectory that interpolates Black children outside of childhood “innocence” can be traced from Douglass himself to Emmett Till to Tamir Rice and onward. This theft of childhood is complicated by the contradictory paternalism that framed Black people as perpetual children in a system of white patriarchy. As Black people worked not only for emancipation but also for citizenship and suffrage, Black adulthood and its attending competencies often took center stage.

Black childhood is therefore inherently radical in this context of childhood denial or perpetuation. Constructed though it may be, childhood is a real, material, and developmental state of vulnerability. As we acknowledge children’s suffering, trauma, and even despair (as in Douglass’s childhood contemplation of suicide) we must take seriously enslaved children not only as deserving of freedom but as active agents in its enactment and theorization. Childhood’s boundaries are overwhelmingly defined from adult perspectives and positions of power. Amid changing notions of how childhood is demarcated, childhood studies scholars have cited longstanding assumptions that childhood is measurable in years. By providing the dates that reveal his age, Douglass authenticates his own childhood, calling readers to recognize Black childhood despite the conditions of its denial. Douglass’s narrative can hardly escape notions of childhood lost, stolen, or escaped. The autobiography follows parallel arcs, from childhood to manhood and from slavery to freedom. In this dual progression, Douglass’s childhood is seemingly conflated with his enslavement. However, Douglass himself works against this conflation as he constructs his own childhood by figuring his age. Douglass’s struggle to provide this data illustrates the difficult conditions of slavery for producing autobiography. In his attention to these historical details, Douglass defines his own childhood.

Childhood thereby refuses foreclosure in Douglass’s narrative. Moreover, Douglass represents Black boyhood not only under threat, but in active opposition to white supremacist denials of Black childhood. In his biography of Douglass, Charles Chesnutt recognizes this, writing of the “childish” and “childlike” as points of resistance. It is via “the bribes of childhood” that Douglass takes his spelling lessons, as “Douglass had learned to read, partly from childish curiosity and the desire to be able to do what others around him did.” Although Douglass ultimately escapes these “scenes of his childhood” into freedom, childhood is also the position from which he forms the means for his escape. If childhood holds emancipatory potential, no wonder white supremacy endeavors to keep Black childhood contained, confounded, denied, and replaced with metaphorical renderings that overshadow its intersectionally embodied complexity. Douglass is sixteen years old at the time of his iconic fight with Covey. In this scene, Douglass is one year younger than two prominent Black boy victims of twenty-first century anti-Black violence, Trayvon Martin and Laquan McDonald. Black childhood threatens white supremacy.

Chesnutt also imagines faith’s defiance of reason as childlike, a form of radical hope in its emancipatory potential. Recognizing the efficacy of childlike faith is similar to understanding the child as someone who Terry Eagleton calls the ideal theorist, and as bell hooks imagines her own young self, making sense of the world’s injustices much as Douglass did. Children are not merely theorized, but become theorizers, interpreting themselves and their historical context in sometimes radical ways. It is as a child theorist that Douglass recognizes his own right to freedom. Must we imbue this enslaved child with adulthood in order to grant him these powers of self-assessment, articulation, interpretation, and theorization? Do we not do Douglass some disservice if we neglect to acknowledge the childhood he has so carefully delimited and represented for his readers, and within which he assesses his own worth?

In conclusion, I turn to ongoing resonances of childhood surrounding Douglass’s narrative. Douglass becomes not simply a figure of childhood, but a figure for childhood, as an iconic figure of African American history and literature for child readers. Anecdotally (though I suspect not exceptionally) my undergraduate students can name few Black people who lived before 1900 at the outset of my courses in early African American literature. Without exception, however, Frederick Douglass tops their list. Their primary knowledge about him concerns his enslavement. What they know of Douglass, they know about his childhood. What does it mean for childhood images of Black people (and particularly of enslavement) to be so saturated with Douglass’s exceptionality? And further, what does it mean to perpetually frame Douglass’s iconic Black childhood for children?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 13 percent of the US population was African American or Black in 2017 .1 According to the Cooperative Children’s Books Center in Madison, Wisconsin, only about 9 percent of children’s books published in the United States in 2017 featured Black characters, with only 3 percent written by African American authors. Of these few children’s books, scholars have shown that historical fiction continues to dominate children’s literature genres depicting Black characters. Slavery and abolitionism are prominent themes within this children’s genre. 2 And (unsurprisingly) Douglass figures prominently in children’s books about slavery. In children’s books about Douglass we see a glimpse of childhood’s centrality for thinking of this figure. Reading the child Frederick through these children’s views of Douglass we might begin to grasp the significance of childhood for his iconic narrative.

  1.  The Kids Count Data Center estimated African American children as 14 percent of US children in 2016.
  2.  On the difficulties of children’s literature about slavery, see Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Debbie Reese, and Kathleen T. Horning, “Much Ado about A Fine Dessert: The Cultural Politics of Representing Slavery in Children’s Literature,” Journal of Children’s Literature 42, no. 2 (2016): 6-17.
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Brigitte Fielder

Brigitte Fielder is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also affiliated with the departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies. Her forthcoming book is entitled 'Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America' (Duke University Press). Follow her on Twitter @BrigField.