What kind of imagery is present in Douglass's speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Through the use of vivid imagery, Frederick Douglass paints a picture of the disparity between the circumstances of whites and African-Americans in his speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

Douglass points out the bitter irony of the enjoyment of Fourth of July revels in pre-Civil...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Through the use of vivid imagery, Frederick Douglass paints a picture of the disparity between the circumstances of whites and African-Americans in his speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

Douglass points out the bitter irony of the enjoyment of Fourth of July revels in pre-Civil War America. The jubilant white celebration of liberty is cruel ridicule to those still in the chains of slavery.

The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.

To Douglass, this holiday is a slap in the face to millions of people whose humanity is not recognized. As a former slave, he recognizes the similarities between slave auctions and the sale of farm animals.

I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see the bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity, on the way to the slave-markets, where the victims are to be sold like horses, sheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder.

Like farm animals they are chained, and their value is only the price they will bring at market. And like many of these animals, their sale will ultimately result in their death.

Douglass expands on this image by likening slave hunters to game hunters.

Where these go, may also go the merciless slave-hunter. Where these are, man is not sacred. He is a bird for the sportsman’s gun ... Your broad republican domain is hunting ground for men ... Your lawmakers have commanded all good citizens to engage in this hellish sport .... The right of the hunter to his prey stands superior to the right of marriage, and to all rights in this republic.

Not only do the owners treat slaves like commodities instead of humans, they mercilessly hunt them down as though hunting humans is a sport.

A final animal image is found in the way Douglass equates the institution of slavery with a venomous snake.

Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster.

The viper of slavery is obviously deadly to the slaves, but this verbal picture makes it clear that it is dangerous to the nation as a whole. The image of a poisonous snake curled up near the heart of the young country, nursing with its lethal jaws, makes it clear that slavery will destroy the nation that nurtures it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this powerful speech, Douglass uses suitably striking imagery to hold his audience's attention. It's often the case that an audience will respond more readily to vivid imagery than well thought-out, rational arguments. Douglass instinctively understands this point and draws upon a number of memorable images to persuade his audience of the truth of what he's saying.

One could argue that Douglass' most striking image is conjured up by his reference to the "remorseless jaws of slavery." This presents us with an image of slavery as a large, slavering monster whose gargantuan appetite can never truly be satisfied. It's as if this monster, having been created by man, has now taken on a life of its own and is completely out of control, just like Frankenstein's monster. Slavery consumes everyone with whom it comes into contact, especially the slaves themselves, who are chewed up and spat out by a cruel system that keeps them in a state of permanent subjection.

The purpose of Douglass' using such a stark image is to emphasize the nature of what abolitionists are struggling against. Just like a monster, slavery cannot be reasoned with, cannot be persuaded, and cannot be diverted from its remorseless past. It can only be destroyed.

Douglass was doubtless aware that there were many people in the North who, although they hated slavery, were prepared to advocate some kind of political compromise to allow the practice to continue for the sake of the nation's peace. But Douglass wants to disabuse these people of such a misguided notion. If one is against slavery—this evil, relentless monster—then one must be committed to its utter destruction once and for all.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Imagery is description that appeals to the five sense of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

In this essay, Douglass uses imagery of youth to picture a young nation only 76 years old. He compares the United States to a child and says that the length of its life is a "mere speck" compared to nations that go back thousands of years. He depicts the US as still in the early years of its formation, young and immature. Douglass praises this aspect of the United States, because it means there is still hope the country can change.

Douglass uses the imagery of "dark clouds" hovering at the horizon to describe the slavery still allowed in the United States, opposing those clouds to what he calls the "sheet anchor" that steeled the founding fathers to hold tightly to their faith in freedom when England tried to tyrannize them.

Douglass employs imagery to describe the fourth of July as the "ring bolt" to which white liberty is fastened. He compares the holiday to "sunlight" healing the white man of the hurts of tyranny. However, he notes that the fourth of July, in contrast, brought "stripes [whip marks] and death" to black slaves. He paints a picture of "drag[ging] a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty." He pictures a "bleeding" slave.

The imagery in the speech moves consistently back and forth to emphasize the contrast between what the fourth of July means to white and black people. To whites, the holiday represents sunshine, a firm anchor, and a great temple, all positive images. To the still-enslaved black people, the same holiday is compared to dark clouds, whip marks, bleeding, and chains—and will be until the slaves are freed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the most striking set of images that Douglass presents is to compare the historical condition of America to the present day condition of slaves.  Douglass understands the magnitude of the day.  The speech is filled with historical metaphors that detail the darkness of bondage and the light of freedom.  The images bring forth the idea that freedom for the individual is something sacred, brought forth by men and leaders who possessed the moral courage to make what can be from what is.  Douglass' speech employs imagery of "the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence," which drove America to declare freedom when it felt that its own being in the world was being trampled under foot.  

Through such imagery, Douglass is able to draw the parallel between the Colonial struggle for freedom and the modern condition of the slave in America.  Douglass's imagery is powerful enough so that if one accepts its premise, then it becomes an almost absolute that one argues for the freedom of the slave.  The use of historical imagery constructs a setting where it becomes understood that the next step in American historical progression is the abolition of slavery.  It is to this end in which Douglass' use of imagery helps to enhance the theme and purpose of the speech.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team