Frederick Douglass

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What is Douglass's perspective and purpose for speaking, and how do they align with his envisioned societal role?

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When considering Douglass’s purpose in writing, you must always consider his status in relation to his audience—he is a previously enslaved black man projecting to an audience that is primarily white. Being that Douglass was an avid abolitionist, it is generally agreed upon that he wrote and preached in an effort to persuade white people in power to eliminate the practice of slavery. To do so, he constructed his language in a way that appealed to the white majority, replicating a rhetorical double consciousness in which he envisioned himself through the eyes of the powerful and satisfied their norms in order to challenge them.

Douglass’s most direct presentation of his abolitionist agenda can be found in his powerful “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech delivered on July 5th, 1852. He writes,

I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!

Following his declaration is an argument overflowing with evidence against slavocratic practices, with sources such as the Bible and the US Constitution as primary references. Douglass’s greatest argument, however, lies in his accusations against American hypocrisy.

To be able to attack the institution of slavery in the way that he does, Douglass spends a significant amount of time first appealing to the white majority. In the first section of his speech, he praises the boldness and righteousness of the Founding Fathers, applauds the spirit of revolution, glorifies the solidarity of white humanity, and belittles his own ability to capture it all in the remainder of his speech. By the time he arrives at the second section, the white audience to whom he speaks is comfortable with Douglass’s tone and approving of his credibility, as he has done nothing but praise their national accomplishments.

It is precisely this level of affinity that Douglass builds with his audience that enables him to effectively criticize them. Now that Douglass has proven his understanding of white success, his understanding of white failure is less likely to be criticized, despite his status as a recently enslaved black man. Douglass turns to the very American aspects he praised—democracy, revolution, solidarity—and weaponizes them in an effort to prove that slavery is a practice that contradicts all of the values that America is built on. By acknowledging the pride of their origins and pointing to the norms that oppose them, Douglass effectively forces his white audience to reflect upon the hypocrisy they perpetuate and the American identity that they are destroying. Douglass’s argument against slavery is therefore primarily accomplished through his appeal to and affirmation of the expectations of his white audience, generating their trust, pride, and appreciation before proposing an argument that tears it all down.

Douglass employs similar tactics throughout the range of his works, though more subtly so. In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass depicts white Christian Southern women as surprisingly kind and caring, placing them in direct contrast with their overseer husbands. Identifying the women as a target audience, Douglass attempts to compliment their nurturing nature to prompt them to sympathize with the horrors undergone by helpless enslaved children. Throughout the book, he constantly reasserts the danger of not doing so, emphasizing the destructive effect of ignorance on the African American community.

Throughout his works, Douglass consistently grounds his abolitionist arguments in appeals to white superiority. Doing so allows him to establish himself as an articulate and empathetic equal and access the means and power of preaching against the institution of slavery.

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