Frederick Douglass's Narrative is not just about slavery. It is about that, of course; as a historical document, it paints a powerful picture of what it was like to be a slave, how the world looked from the bottom, and what kind of place America was when "the land of the free" was only free for white people. But while a lot of books were written by ex-slaves in the 1840s and 1850s, a lot of slave narratives read like documentaries, or worse, like Public Service Announcements. Frederick Douglass's narrative is by far the most important one, because he wants us to think about more than just the legal, historical, and political issues of slavery and freedom. He wants us to think about it as a philosophical question: what does it take for the human spirit to be free?
Douglass wants to show us that he made himself free. Freedom isn't something that's given to us; it's something we each have to find for ourselves. And although Douglass had it a lot harder than most of us ever will, we each have something to learn from his perseverance and courage in search of his own freedom, and his refusal to rest before finding it. One of the hardest lessons Douglass has to learn is that this battle never really stops. As long as anyone is a slave, Douglass knows he himself is not fully free. This is something that we can think about with regard to justice anywhere and anytime: can any of us be fully free if the least of us is oppressed?