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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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Critical Essay on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

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Although Frederick Douglass wrote several autobiographies during his lifetime, none continues to have the lasting literary impact of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. From its publication in 1845 to its present status in the American literary canon, the Narrative has become one of the most highly acclaimed American autobiographies ever written. Published seven years after Douglass' escape from his life as a slave in Maryland, the Narrative put into print circulation a critique of slavery that Douglass had been lecturing on around the country for many years. Yet while the Narrative describes in vivid detail his experiences of being a slave, it also reveals his psychological insights into the slave/master relationship.

What gives the book its complexity is Douglass' ability to incorporate a number of sophisticated literary devices that fashion a particular African-American identity. Literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his introduction to Classic Slave Narratives, claims that ‘‘Douglass' rhetorical power convinces us that he embodies the structures of thoughts and feelings of all black slaves, that he is the resplendent, articulate part that stands for the whole, for the collective black slave community.’’ Borrowing from a wide range of discourses that include slave narratives, autobiography, sentimental rhetoric, and religious and classical oratory, Douglass creates a testament not only to the horrors of slavery but to the power of the human spirit to transcend odds. The Narrative is a compelling document that shows Douglass' ability to transform himself from an illiterate, oppressed slave to an educated, liberated free man not only literally, by escaping slavery, but also figuratively, in language.

At the time that Douglass wrote his Narrative, most African Americans, especially in the South, had few opportunities to learn to read and write. Further, they also had little legal representation or standing that could protect them from physical harm or provide them access to legal action. Yet as a slave, Douglass manages both to teach himself to learn and to protect himself from harm, as in his showdown with Mr. Covey. The fight that erupts between Douglass and Covey is the turning point of the Narrative. It shows that Douglass' fight to gain freedom is also a fight to gain a selfhood, to be a man. His famous line, ''You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man,’’ counters the prevailing argument of the day that slaves were not humans. He illustrates in this line that slaves were perceived as non-humans because they were not treated or represented as such, not because they were biologically inferior, as many claimed.

Throughout the Narrative, Douglass reveals how slaves were denied basic concepts that would provide them with the means of constructing legitimate identities. For example, Douglass mentions at the beginning of the Narrative that slaves rarely knew when they were born, as ‘‘it is the wish of most masters ... to keep their slaves thus ignorant.’’ To know one's birth date, in a sense, provided one with a particularly human identity, a location in time and history. Slaveholders denied even this basic knowledge to keep slaves psychologically on the same level as animals. Throughout the narrative, Douglass brings to light a number of ways in which slaveholders withheld information from slaves in order to keep them from having a basic understanding of themselves as human beings. Such insights lend credibility and power to his narrative at the same time that they reveal his own coming into being as a person. As American Studies professor Albert...

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E. Stone claims, in ''Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass'Narrative,’’ "For the more clearly and fully we see the man and the writer... the more we acknowledge the force of his argument for an end to slavery's denial of individuality and creativity.’’

One of the difficulties in getting mid-nineteenth-century readers to believe that Douglass had written the Narrative was the pervasive stereotype that African Americans were incapable of learning. That a slave could write was unheard of, because it is through writing that one's identity is tangibly seen and affirmed; writing is a mark of one's capacity to think. In the introduction to I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, Volume One, 1772-1849, Yuval Taylor comments that slave narratives functioned to counter racist stereotypes perpetrated in popular culture, and for fugitive slaves such as Douglass, ''the mere act of writing was the ultimate act of self-affirmation, the ultimate denial of enslavement.’’

It is through the acquisition of reading and writing that Douglass not only fashions a sense of self but becomes conscious of his own oppression. Douglass' writing creates an undeniably African-American literary figure, one who has lived through a traumatic past and testifies to his experience through writing about it. As scholar Annette Niemtzow argues, in ''The Problematic of Self in Autobiography," "slave narratives had a deep social mission which would insure that the future would not repeat the past, and that was to establish the identity of each slave as slave no longer, but sentient, intelligent being.’’

Thus, Douglass' Narrative has a twofold action: it acts as a form of protest literature against slavery, yet at the same time it shows and persuades the reader that Douglass has been transformed and is no longer a slave. One way Douglass establishes this transformation is by creating a complex narrative structure with two narrating "I's" within the text. The first "I" narrator is Douglass as a slave, as found in the secondary title, An American Slave; the other "I" is Douglass as a free man and writer, as found in the last bit of the title, Written by Himself. It is the tension between these two narrators that gives the work its complexity by illustrating the change Douglass has undergone. For example, he describes his experiences of slavery in the past while interpreting that experience from his position as a free man.

One of the best examples of how these two narrators engage with each other is when Douglass combines them in a single sentence. For example, when describing the cold he felt as a child, Douglass claims that ''My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.’’ Thus, readers engage with both the experience of Douglass as a slave and the narrator who interprets those experiences. In this way, Douglass challenges the notion of African Americans as being incapable of acts of self-representation by writing his "educated" self into the narrative as proof.

Throughout the narrative, Douglass provides a number of striking examples of the ways he manages to acquire literacy skills, despite attempts by southern whites to deny him access. One of the most illuminating examples is when Douglass' mistress, Sophia Auld, is caught teaching Douglass the alphabet by her husband, Hugh. In witnessing Hugh's anger, Douglass understands that it is through illiteracy that white southerners maintain their power over African Americans: ‘‘From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I least expected it.’’ What Douglass realizes that day is that literacy is equated with not only individual consciousness but also freedom. From that day, Douglass makes it his goal to learn as much as he can, eventually learning how to write, a skill that would provide him with his passport to freedom.

Yet, despite its high literary acclaim as an exemplary autobiography similar to those written by Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau in its ability to fashion a truly American self-made identity, some critics have noted its limitations. For example, in "In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Tradition,’’ Deborah McDowell rereads Douglass' narrative in terms of its representations of African-American women and finds that they leave much to be desired. Many of the women in the Narrative are depicted as sexual victims of white men's pleasure and have little ability to transcend their circumstances as Douglass does. In fact, McDowell argues, Douglass' slave narrator witnesses the brutal whippings of African-American women so many times that it makes him ''enter into a symbolic complicity with the sexual crimes he witnesses.’’ In other words, by observing the constant repetition of these violent acts in the narrative, Douglass participates in the act of looking at women as objects.

Other critics, such as Wilson Moses, note that within the constraints of the slave narrative genre, Douglass had to write his narrative in a way that made it socially acceptable to white liberals by reproducing the myth of the successful individual. His rags-to-riches story ‘‘symbolized the myth of American individualism, but it also symbolized the ideals of American communalism, altruism, and self-sacrifice.’’ Yet despite some limitations, the overall power of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass even one hundred and fifty years after it was written cannot be denied. It has become one of the most important early African-American literary texts, one whose depiction of slavery cannot easily be forgotten. Yet at the same time the Narrative provides hope in the form of the courageous, self-made figure of Frederick Douglass.

Source: Doreen Piano, Critical Essay on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Piano is a Ph.D. candidate at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

The Dilemma of Frederick Douglass: The Slave Narrative as Literary Institution

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In the struggles of Frederick Douglass lies the intellectual history of nineteenth-century America. Douglass directly influenced much of that history and touched virtually every issue of consequence in black-white relations. Once he mounted an anti-slavery platform in the summer of 1841, neither abolition nor Afro-American writing were ever the same again. He was so prescient, his successes so many, the strength of his writing and speaking so great, we are inclined to pass quickly over many of his conflicts, confident that history has upheld the positions he took. In the best-known example of the pre-war period, later historians have indeed credited him with exposing the intellectual compromises and sheer blindness of the Garrisonian wing of the abolition movement. Yet not all features of even that quarrel have been explored, and on one aspect it is literary historians who must speak.

In the first of his life stories, the monumental Narrative of 1845, Douglass leads up to his rise to prominence in abolition circles, his association with Garrison and other leaders, and his stunning successes as lecturer and writer in the anti-slavery cause. His second narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom of 1855, appears well after the break with Garrison and the advent of his own, independent literary career. In a passage of arresting compression, he notes a personal dilemma—and thereby the constraint felt by a generation of slave lecturers and narrators.

‘‘Let us have the facts,’’ said the people. So also said Friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narratives. ‘‘Give us the facts,’’ said Collins, ‘‘we will take care of the philosophy.’’ ... ‘‘Tell your story, Frederick,’’ would whisper my then revered friend, William Lloyd Garrison.... I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. I could not always curb my moral indignation ... long enough for a circumstantial statement of the facts which I felt almost everybody must know. Besides, I was growing and needed room.

The distant occasion of this recollection is Douglass's experience as anti-slavery agent and lecturer. Blended with this is the later, more immediate memory of his trials as author and international representative of American anti-slavery societies. They are two sides of one coin. The literary history of the antebellum slave narrative is also put at issue in this passage. For we now know that other writers, before Douglass and during his lifetime, were equally distressed by the form they had unwittingly inherited. But it is he who poses the major questions—questions that American literary history has not yet addressed. What are the "facts" the people crave? Who are the "people" who crave them? Who are the "we" Collins refers to, and what is the ''philosophy'' ''we'' will take care of? Why are ‘‘the facts’’ equivalent to Douglass's whole ‘‘story’’? Why is that story pinned down to narratives that are merely ‘‘simple’’? Why does he choose the word "obey" to describe his relations with fellow abolitionists? Why is he asked to limit himself to narrating the wrongs of slavery? Was he not already denouncing them, exercising his moral indignation? why did he feel constrained to ‘‘a circumstantial statement of the facts''? Why did he feel ‘‘almost everybody must know’’ those facts already? Why did not the form of the slave narrative provide him with room to grow and flourish?

Although the questions Douglass raises are intertwined, they cannot be answered fully in an essay. Why for instance does he challenge the form of the slave narrative in a slave narrative? So each question subdivides itself interminably. Yet tentative answers are possible if one permits a summary convergence. All of his misgivings imply that the narrative as a form has an existence prior to and beyond the narrator's control or possession. Is that implication valid? If so, who owns the slave narrative?

The question itself has a long history, extending to the very beginnings of the genre in the eighteenth century. As the earliest slave narrative in America, some historians cite the ten-page transcript of a trial held in Boston 3 August to 2 November 1703. Adam Negro's Tryall is in text and celebrity the quarrel between two very prominent men, Samuel Sewell and John Saffin, who battle one another in court over the terms of Adam's bondage. Adam is called upon to recount a small portion of his life in response to interrogation, but he is merely the proximate cause in a dispute between white figures. A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man, published in 1760, is an actual personal narrative and is told in the first person. Its title page joins it to earlier and highly popular stories of Indian captivity. It also indicates the heavy burden of "facts" the slave narrative will carry. For in fourteen pages we will be given a circumstantial statement of how in negligence Hammon fled from his owner, suffered daily hardships thereafter, went to sea and was captured, then tortured by Florida Indians, endured nearly five years of captivity, and by divine providence was reunited with his owner and returned to Boston. Although Hammon's life has been filled with wonders, his preface explains why the narrative will be limited to a circumstantial rehearsal of bare facts:

As my Capacities and Conditions of Life are very low, it cannot be expected that I should make those Remarks on the Sufferings I have met with, or the kind Providence of a good GOD for my Preservation, as one in a higher Station; but shall leave that to the Reader as he goes along, and so I shall only relate Matters of Fact as they occur to my Mind.

In this carefully wrought sentence we have the earliest instance of the distinction noted by Douglass between "facts" and "philosophy." The decisive error of Hammon's early life was his claim to too much freedom. Having endured uncommon sufferings as a result, he has learned better. He will disciple himself severely in the narrative, leaving all philosophy, all acts of interpretation to his betters. As William L. Andrews has observed, this is the first example of a black subject relinquishing all claim to the significance of his life. Because of his ‘‘very low’’ capacity, Hammon will be limited to mechanical recollection of ''Matters of Fact,'' leaving the moral and literary meaning of his life to be determined by others—of higher station.

Even without questioning how much of Hammon's narrative is edited or dictated, the intellectual hierarchy and division of labor is sufficiently clear. A white editor has determined that the bare incidents of an exciting Indian captivity will engage a white audience, who would not (needless to say) be concerned with Anglo-American captivity. Hammon's recollection of relevant facts will be given a proper context and a proper meaning by his audience. Hammon does seem to be left with a residue of freedom: to select from his memory the facts that are relevant and to order them as he wishes. But even that small exercise of selfhood is illusory.

Also published in Boston early in 1760 and in its third printing when Hammon's was printed was the captivity narrative of a young white man, Thomas Brown. The full title page of A Plain Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Remarkable Deliverance of Thomas Brown, names and dates aside, is virtually identical to Hammon's. So too is the narrative; its preface emphasizes age rather than status:

As I am but a Youth, I shall not make those Remarks on the Difficulties I have met with, or the kind Appearances of a good GOD for my Preservation, as one of riper Years might do; but shall leave that to the Reader as he goes long, and shall only beg his Prayers, that Mercies and Afflictions may be sanctified to me, and relate Matters of Fact as they occur to my Mind.

Brown's narrative was in all likelihood the immediate model for Hammon. If so, then the last vestige of Hammon's autonomy is exercised, for the facts of his story and their ordering are called up, not from the voluntary activity of his will, but from the involuntary pre-existence of a white model. The facts are the whole of his story. Neither Hammon nor Brown, it is true, is permitted to possess his own life story. One is disqualified by lowly status, the other by youth. Perhaps both are disqualified for reasons of class and education. Whatever the case, the conditions Douglass describes in 1855 are present a century earlier. And the slave narrative is born into a world of literary confinement: of simplicity, facticity, and submission to authority.

While we cannot know with conviction the overarching shape of Briton Hammon's historical life, we can doubt that it would easily fit the mold of a prodigal white apprentice. The black subject is held, as if in court, as witness to his own existence; what is to be made of that existence is left to a negotiation between sponsors and readers, who together determine the shape of the life story, its emphases and principles of ordering, and its language of expression. On the language of the narratives, the practice of interrogation, dictation, and revision became the norm for the remainder of the century and well into the next. Another captivity narrative, that of John Marrant in 1785, is ‘‘Taken down from His Own Relation, Arranged, Corrected, and Published By the Rev. Mr. Aldridge.’’ Marrant's life story is already announced to be a collective enterprise, before Aldridge reveals more in his preface: ‘‘I have always preserved Mr. Marrant's ideas, tho' I could not his language....’’ Moreover, the collective pattern present in such captivity tales is extended by the end of the century to all other forms of slave narrative, including those of religious conversion, criminal confession, and ministerial labor.

Whether one begins with Adam Negro's Tryall, the Narrative of Hammon, or a later narrative, the distinction persists between the "facts" provided by the nominal subject and the "philosophy" "we" as editors/sponsors/readers will supply. Precisely why this is true is not clear. Evangelical Protestantism was determined to record and inscribe the triumphal American errand into the wilderness. Fully to do so might require inclusion of at least a few examples drawn from the lowliest of the low. Perhaps the slave was for white sponsors necessarily Other. Perhaps the local treatment of (say) Hammon was later generalized into the treatment of all slave narratives. Whatever the motive, its consequence was to distance the narrative and its subject, to envelope both in the workings of institutional power. What is constant, moreover, is the institutional imperative. Here is Alridge's preface to the Narrative of Marrant:

The following Narrative is as plain and artless as it is surprising and extraordinary. Plausible reasonings may amuse and delight, but facts, and facts like these, strike, are felt, and go home to the heart. Were the power, grace and providence of God ever more eminently displayed, than in the conversion, success, and deliverance of John Marrant?

Alridge tells readers what not to expect—art, style, logic, amusement—as well as what they may look forward to—facts, extraordinary facts. He assures readers they will not be affronted by the life story of a former slave; rather they will be moved by a story of God's providential dealings. Besides constructing the ''philosophy'' for the narrative, he has turned Marrant inside out—from the subject of the narrative to the object. Thus while becoming the object of God's favor and the beneficence of religious institutions, the slave narrator is simultaneously the object of the sponsor and reader's condescension.

Although Foster, Collins, Garrison, and the other abolitionists of Douglass's circle did not invent the conditions of Douglass's dilemma, they did aggravate them. When he enlisted in the anti-slavery movement in 1841, five constitutive principles were already in place. First, for Garrison, Tappan, Weld and other white leaders, the goal of the crusade was action on the part of white northerners; white abolitionists would somehow compel the white majority to rise up and expunge slavery from the land. Whether of slave or freeman, black expectations were taken for granted and hence irrelevant. Second, former slaves were essential in one role—as witnesses, body witnesses to the horrors of bondage. Less articulate fugitives would, when identified, be interrogated, their stories transcribed and then verified and published. For articulate fugitives, the role was greater; like Douglass they would be encouraged to serve as full-time anti-slavery agents and lecturers. Speaking about their lives under slavery was their primary duty; writing was secondary, valuable insofar as it reached areas that lecturers could not and brought in funds otherwise untapped. By the late 1830s some eighty anti-slavery societies had been formed across the Northeast into the Mid-West. More than half were formed by white groups, and of these nearly thirty took part in the printing of slave narratives.

Third, the abolitionist design for lectures and narratives alike was a collective one: to describe slavery to an ignorant northern audience, not to describe an individual life. Reviews and announcements routinely stated that ‘‘former slaves have a simple, moving story to tell,’’ using the singular noun to suggest a collective account transcending personal variations. Titles, prefaces, introductory letters would be used to the same purpose. Fourth, all this emphasis upon facticity and collectivity converged in the demand for authenticity. Because white abolitionists sought to convert the ignorant and the indifferent, they scrutinized and investigated slave accounts with all the references available to them. Facts were useful—and verifiable. Personality and opinion—these were indispensable. Not literary authority but historical veracity was the quality demanded in a narrative.

Finally, black expression was expected to be collective in yet another sense. Each slave lecturer or narrator was normally preceded and followed by several white figures who supplied introductions, testimonials, affidavits, support, approval. When a narrative was published by an anti-slavery society, it must carry the nihil obstat as well as the imprimatur of the movement. In time white sponsors came to view their editing and introducing as causal to the narratives. In one sense they were entirely correct. For the language of the narratives—their social attitudes and philosophical presuppositions—had been formed in the 1820s and early 1830s, before blacks had been enlisted in the cause. Among other things this meant that moral indignation against the South was one thing, but against the North it was something else. Likewise the call for abolition was mandatory, the call for racial equality forbidden. Samuel May, Jr., said that William Wells Brown had no life apart from the movement and that he should be grateful for the reason for being that it gave him. Garrison of course was much more bitter toward Douglas.

Douglass came eventually to distrust all of these constraints upon black expression. Slavery is incidental to the narrative of Briton Hammon, but it is essential to the narrative of Frederick Douglass. Why cannot he and other authors be entrusted to provide the moral context for their own life stories? The short answer, Douglass came to believe, was that many of the white abolitionists he knew well did not understand blacks or black demands at all. These men and women regarded black life as little more than what was done to blacks; present and former slaves were basically passive victims. This false philosophy became the language of abolition, justifying a kind of cultural hegemony, and on so many issues of great moment to blacks anti-slavery societies could not reason without reasoning falsely. It is clear that the limitations of the abolitionists are inscribed upon the form of the slave narrative. It is equally true that much of the interest of the narrative derives from an author's attempts to evade or subvert white literary impositions.

After his break with Garrison, Douglass's black colleagues applauded a new stage in his struggle for black civil rights. James McCune Smith wrote of his decision to found his own newspaper: ''Only since his Editorial career has [Douglass] seen to become a colored man! I have read his paper very carefully and find phase after phase develop itself as in one newly born among us.’’ A final small portion of his dilemma can be sketched by noting a private side of Garrison certain to rankle. In his correspondence with white friends, Garrison's terms of praise for a white author are "magnificent," "powerful" and the like. When he is describing the work of a black author, however, his recognition is limited to ''useful," "agreeable," or ‘‘making a very favorable impression.’’ His abiding question is, how will a white audience respond?

For more than thirty arduous years Garrison worked at close hand with dozens of fugitives and freemen. Yet his voluminous correspondence is as silent in personal understanding of his black associates as it is effusive about his white. In his dealings with Douglass and Wells Brown, he required black leaders to be strong enough to control their followers, yet sufficiently weak not to challenge him. In his correspondence he treats black writers as though they exist in some distinct, segregated limbo, hardly in touch with the white world. On 30 July 1868 he writes to Tilton concerning a petition proposed by Horace Greeley:

Mr. Greeley suggests getting the names of ‘‘at least fifty leading, life-long Abolitionists’’ to the desired document. In the present divided state of feeling, I doubt whether half that number could be obtained of those who are well known to the country. Neither Phillips, nor Pillsbury, nor Foster, nor Whipple, nor any who affiliate with them, would join in any such movement. Probably Gerrit Smith, Samuel J. May, Samuel May, Jr., Samuel E. Sewall, and Edmund Quincy would sign the paper. Some colored names ought to be added—such as Douglass, Garnet, Nell, Wells, Brown, Langston, &c, &c. Perhaps these had better send an appeal of their own. Of course, Purvis and Remond would have nothing to do with the matter.

Structurally similar to several earlier ones, this letter separates his anti-slavery colleagues into white and black sentences, with the black names appended (‘‘colored names ought to be added'') as an afterthought. While most white figures are identified by full names, even initials, the blacks are referred to as examples (‘‘such as’’) by last names only, followed by a sign that Garrison will not try to be exhaustive (‘‘etc., etc.’’).

By way of explanation, he continues: ''There are so few of the freedmen who, in the nature of things, can know anything of the Abolitionists, that I am not quite sure it would amount to much if any number of names were appended to the paper proposed.’’ This is one of the most startling sentences, public or private, Garrison ever penned. The specific nature of Greeley' s petition is unknown; Garrison's editors guess it concerned amnesty or suffrage. In any case, Garrison is referring to black leaders who have known him for more than a generation, who were anti-slavery authors, lecturers, and international representatives. They include men who have been speaking and writing at length over many years about white abolitionists and the cause; Douglass alone delivered an estimated 1,000 lectures, Brown 2,000. They too called themselves Abolitionists, though now he would withhold the title. What is the mysterious ''nature of things'' that allows knowledge to flow but one way, to whites but not to blacks? His lament may be that the influence of freedmen, even of the stature of Douglass, would not amount to much. Yet the ignorance he finds may be his own. His final words on the subject reflect a familiar gambit—using the threat of southern retaliation to suppress black voices: ''Moreover, might not such names exasperate the rebel enemies of the freedmen, and stimulate them to the infliction of fresh outrages? It is worth considering whether a calm and simple statement per se, as to what is the political duty of the freedmen in the coming struggle, will not be sufficient.’’ Like Agassiz, Garrison seems preoccupied with the potential for ‘‘our detriment.’’ In earlier campaigns black voices were considered an essential chorus; now they are not. (Calm and simple statements per se, it should be remembered, are the raison d'être of the slave narrators.) What Garrison prefers is an unequivocal announcement of white hegemony: a statement drafted by men like himself to direct freedmen to their political duty. Blacks are not needed to frame the language of such a statement, merely to fulfill it. The dilemma faced by Douglass and other slave narrators is clearer. Garrison would have important decisions made by white people talking to white people.

When he set off on his own course, several of his former sponsors charged that Douglass had betrayed the cause, some said he secretly opposed emancipation, and one said he was no longer mentally fit. On 5 June 1958 Clennon King, a black professor at Alcorn A and M, attempted to register for doctoral courses at the then-all-white University of Mississippi. From the registration line, King was taken into custody by the Mississippi highway patrol and committed to a state mental hospital. Patrolmen explained to reporters: ‘‘A nigger has to be crazy to try to get into Ole Miss.’’ Douglass would have understood King's predicament. Sometimes it is as hard to break out of a white institution as to break in.

Source: John Sekora, ''The Dilemma of Frederick Douglass: The Slave Narrative as Literary Institution,’’ in Essays in Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall 1983, pp. 219-25.

Biblical Allusion and Imagery in Frederick Douglass' Narrative

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Frederick Douglass' Narrative, first published in 1845, has been described by a recent commentator as ''a consciously literary work, and one of the first order.’’ While I suspect that few readers would challenge this view, surprisingly few have sung the work's praises in the annals of literary criticism. Although pioneering discussions of Douglass' use of agrarian and animal imagery, nautical metaphors, ironic humour, and techniques which create verisimilitude have established a firm base upon which further studies may be built, there is one area of investigation in which the groundwork has yet to be laid. This is the whole subject of the role of religious language and Biblical allusion in the Narrative.

The use of Biblical references and imagery would not have seemed peculiarly "literary" or learned to men of Douglass' time. Knowledge of the Scriptures was ''general,'' and an author's allusions to Christian concepts would have bolstered his readers' understanding, not interfered with it. The white abolitionist audience for whom Douglass wrote the Narrative would certainly have responded to a language of religious reference, but Douglass was probably not consciously catering to their tastes. Jeanette Robinson Murphy, one of the first commentators on black spirituals, has pointed out that the slaves themselves recognized a parallel between their situation and that of the Israelites: ''One of the most persistent fancies that the old slaves cherished was that they were the oppressed Israelites ... and that Canaan was freedom.... In many of their songs they appropriate Bible prophecies and ideas to themselves.’’ One of the most familiar patterns in sermons delivered by black ministers was that of the linear Christian view of history: the sermon ''began with the Creation, went on to the fall of man, rambled through the trials and tribulations of the Hebrew children, came down to the redemption by Christ, and ended with the Judgment Day and a warning and an exhortation to sinners.'' The prophecy of a coming Judgment Day figures prominently in the Narrative's allusions, as I shall demonstrate; it seems likely that Douglass was inspired, at least in part, by the black homiletic tradition.

Douglass uses Biblical phrasing primarily to refute the claim that Christianity sanctions slavery. He makes this strategy clear when he explains that ‘‘of all slaveholders ... religious slaveholders are the worst.’’ The case of Captain Auld is the most telling: he ‘‘experiences religion,’’ and becomes a ‘‘much worse man after his conversion than before," having found ‘‘religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.’’ In fact, the religious sanction is founded on a misreading of Scripture, as Douglass' example of such a passage shows. His master quotes the following as justification for beating a slave: '‘‘He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.''' The verse quoted appears in Luke xii, a chapter which focuses on the responsibilities of a Christian disciple. The ‘‘Master,’’ Christ, exhorts his followers to seek the kingdom of heaven and to live in a state of constant readiness for that day when they will be judged, for they are ''like unto men that wait for their lord.’’ In the parable which follows, Christ develops this figure of man as servant; all who ‘‘wait for their lord’’ must be prepared to meet him at any time, ''for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not.’’ The servants of God may not postpone their preparations:

But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens ... [t]he Lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.

It is clear from an examination of the Scriptural context that the slaveholder's Biblical ‘‘justification'' for beating a slave is founded on a misreading of the Gospel. The slaveholder is exposed: he is the faithless servant who beats ''menservants and maidens,’’ and who, in turn, will be ‘‘beaten with many stripes'' for failing to follow the commandments of the Lord of all. The words of the slaveholder have been turned back upon his own head, and he need fear both the Day of Judgment which is the end of time, and the Day of Judgment which will herald the death of the institution of slavery.

In the appendix to the Narrative, Douglass quotes extensively from Matthew xxiii, identifying Christianity in America with the worst excesses of the ‘‘ancient scribes and Pharisees.’’ These quotations serve as excellent illustrations of the technique that identifies Biblical patterns operative in secular history. The passages selected emphasize the price to be paid by the oppressors: '‘‘They bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. . . . But woe unto you. . .ye shall receive the greater damnation.’’' The threatening voice of the prophet of social revolution is unmistakable.

The cursing of Ham, which some slaveholders insisted was proof of the justness of American slavery, is alluded to in the first chapter of the narrative. Douglass thus begins his account with a reference to that section of the Book of Genesis which was held by the enslavers to mark the beginning of black history. As Douglass proceeds to demonstrate, however, this ''justification'' of slavery is no longer "scriptural," for there are many slaves ‘‘who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters." "If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved,’’ Douglass argues, ''it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural.’’ The very existence of slaves with white fathers ''will do away the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right.’’ Douglass rejects the division of the human race into the enslaved (the descendants of Ham) and the enslavers, and advances, instead, the traditional Christian division of the race of man into the children of God and the children of the devil. In the lengthy quotation from Matthew xxiii in the appendix, that basic division appears in the explicit description of the Pharisees (whom Douglass has just identified with the "votaries" of ‘‘the Christianity of America’’) as ‘‘the child[ren] of hell.’’ Douglass' citing of the term, ‘‘child of hell,’’ is especially helpful in placing his prevalent use of such adjectives as ''fiendish’’ and "infernal" within a Biblical context.

From the start Douglass associates the slaveholders with the forces of evil through his choice of traditional Christian terms for the demonic: the deeds of the slaveholders are ‘‘most infernal’’; slavery itself is of an ‘‘infernal character"; "infernal purpose," "infernal work,’’ and ‘‘infernal grasp’’ all refer to the actions of the oppressors. "Fiendish" is another prevalent adjective, and, in what is perhaps the clearest illustration of Douglass' purpose in employing these traditional Christian terms for evil, the slave traders are described as ‘‘fiends from perdition’’ who ‘‘never looked more like their father, the devil.'' ''None of them is lost,’’ said Christ, ‘‘but the son of perdition." "He that commiteth sin is of the devil . . . Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin ... In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil.’’ Mr. Plummer, Mr. Severe, and a ‘‘swarm of slave traders’’ are described as profane swearers; their blasphemy is further evidence of their sinfulness. Like their association with things "infernal" and "fiendish," the slaveowners' ‘‘bitter curses and horrid oaths’’ mark them as ‘‘children of the devil.’’ It is these human demons who have brought about ‘‘the hottest hell of unending slavery.’’

Throughout the Narrative Douglass refers to his own brethren as ''souls''; an explicit contrast is thus made between the genealogy of the slaveholders and that of the slaves, ‘‘children of a common Father.’’ The scholars at Douglass' Sabbath school, for example, are ‘‘precious souls ... shut up in the prisonhouse of slavery; their songs are the ''prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.’’ The word "souls" emphasizes the slaves' humanity, their possession of that spark of divinity which animates an immortal being. The repetition of the term also draws attention to ''the soul-killing effects of slavery.'' In contrast with the "souls" of the slaves are the ‘‘hardened hearts’’ of the enslavers. If any man needs to be convinced of the spirit-destroying effects of slavery, he has only to listen to the songs of Colonel Lloyd's prisoners and ''analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,—and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because 'there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.'’’ The Biblical passage alluded to here is from the Book of Ezekiel; the destruction of the wicked and God's offer of a new spirit to those who will abide by His laws are prophesied: ''I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh.’’ As for those whose hearts remain obdurate, ‘‘I will recompense their way upon their own heads, saith the Lord GOD.’’ Douglass is connecting his voice with the voices of the Old Testament prophets when he promises the coming destruction of the wicked. This strategy is used frequently in the Narrative.

Another instance of it is found in Douglass' description of his friend Nathan Johnson, ''of whom I can say with a grateful heart, 'I was hungry, and he gave me meat; I was thirsty, and he gave me drink; I was a stranger and he took me in.'’’ The passage quoted is Matthew xxv, 35, and once more the allusion invokes the Second Coming. Christ welcomes those who cared for their fellow men, though strangers, for they will inherit His kingdom: ‘‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’’ Those who did not take in the needy stranger are cursed and sent into the ''everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.’’ As the gospel account alluded to makes clear, to reject the appeals of suffering humanity is to reject Christ Himself and, thus, Salvation. The passage provides further evidence of Douglass' use of Biblical allusion to strengthen his argument against the religious "sanctions" of slavery.

The association of suffering humanity with Christ is used most effectively in the description of Douglass' fight with Mr. Covey, though this is not the only place where such a parallel is drawn. In chapter eight, for example, Douglass describes his fellow-slaves as ''men and women of sorrow, and acquainted with grief"; in Isaiah the Lord is ''a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.’’ The slaves and their Lord are explicitly connected with each other. The same may be said of the description of the fight with Covey; Douglass is associated with Christ and Covey with Satan. The struggle thus stands representative of the perpetual battle between the children of God and the devil. Covey is called ''the snake'' by the slaves, and his defining characteristic is ‘‘his power to deceive,’’ exactly that ability which is always associated with Satan. Douglass remarks ironically, ''He seemed to think himself equal to deceiving the Almighty.’’ Covey succeeds in "breaking" Douglass, but only for a short time. Before describing the battle that he calls ‘‘the turning-point’’ however, Douglass presents his famous account of the sailing ships on the Chesapeake Bay.

This account might aptly be seen as a kind of emblem for the overall movement of the Narrative. Framed between the description of Covey and the actual fight, and placed in the centre of the central episode, its position indicates its importance. Initially, ‘‘freedom's swift-winged angels’’ evoke utter despair and the anguished cry, ‘‘Is there any God? Why am I a slave?'' But as Douglass thinks about the ''protecting wing'' of the sails, he vows that he will escape and that he will do so by water. We know from his later autobiographies that it was in the clothing of a sailor that he was delivered from bondage; his prophetic resolutions led him to freedom. The movement toward hope in the ship episode is emblematic of the movement of Douglass' life as it reaches its turning point: ''There is a better day coming.’’

The struggle with Covey begins when Douglass loses consciousness in the fields. The overseer refuses to believe that he is unable to rise and strikes him on the head, leaving a large wound. Douglass runs, pushing through bogs and briers,

barefooted and bareheaded, tearing my feet sometimes at nearly every step ... From the crown of my head to my feet, I was covered with blood... My legs and feet were torn in sundry places with briers and thorns, and were also covered with blood.

Douglass' resemblance to the crucified Christ is unmistakable. When he finally confronts Covey again, he resolves to fight: ''I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose.’’ His triumph is ''a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.’’ In 1841 Theodore Parker suggested that Christ must be seen as the ''paragon of humanity'': ''There was never an age,'' he said, ''when men did not crucify the Son of God afresh.'' Parker's remarks are especially illuminating when brought to bear on the parallel crucifixions and resurrections of the Narrative; so, too, are the words of St. Paul in the second epistle to the Corinthians: ''As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ." "As ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation.’’

For Douglass, consolation rests in the day of the destruction of slavery. Of Mr. Covey, the man who embodies the infernal, he says, ''His comings were like a thief in the night.’’ Once more, language turns back upon its surface meaning: In Paul's first epistle to the Thessalonians we find, ''The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night,'' and in the Second Epistle General of Peter, ''The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night.'' The day of the Lord is the Day of Judgment.

The voice that speaks to us through this fabric of Biblical allusion is a prophetic voice. After each of three narrow escapes Douglass alludes to the famous Old Testament prophet Daniel, who was protected by the God he served: ''I had escaped a worse than lion's jaws''; ‘‘I suppose I looked like a man who had escaped a den of wild beasts, and barely escaped them"; "I said I felt like one who escaped a den of hungry lions.’’ In the Biblical account not only is Daniel saved, but those who had condemned him are cast into the pit where ‘‘the lions had mastery of them, and brake all their bones in pieces.'' Again the promise of the punishment of the wicked is alluded to.

Douglass aligns himself with one more prophet: Jeremiah. In the only true ''vision'' of the Narrative, he imagines the condition of his aged grandmother. She lives in utter loneliness, having been turned out to die; the children, ''who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone,’’ and she suffers in ‘‘the darkness of age.’’ The vision concludes with the question, ''Will not a righteous God visit for these things?'' In the appendix to the Narrative, Douglass quotes the scriptural reference: '‘‘Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord. Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?'''

The voice of the Narrative is that of the prophets of all ages. The apocalypse heralded is a fire of the soul, a spiritual liberation and resurrection which will lead to the day of actual physical freedom from slavery's chains. Douglass' work is a plea for action, a challenge to his readers to take up ‘‘the sacred cause’’ that is truly sanctioned by Scripture, and hasten ‘‘the glad day of deliverance.’’ The prophet has spoken, and who are we to doubt that ‘‘this good spirit was from God’’?

Source: Lisa Margaret Zeitz, ‘‘Biblical Allusion and Imagery in Frederick Douglass' Narrative,’’ in CLA Journal, Vol. XXV, No. 1, September 1981, pp. 56-64.


Critical Overview


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, Frederick Douglass