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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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H. Bruce Franklin (essay date spring 1977)

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SOURCE: Franklin, H. Bruce. “Animal Farm Unbound Or, What the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Reveals about American Literature.” New Letters 43, no. 3 (spring 1977): 25-46.

[In the following essay, Franklin explores animal imagery in the Narrative and the role of Douglass's story in refuting the commonly held belief, particularly in the South, that slaves were incapable of producing literature.]

Prior to the Black urban rebellions of 1964-1968, what the academic establishment defined as American literature included about as many Afro-American achievements as major-league baseball did before 1947. The subsequent token integration of our anthologies, curricula, and departments has not fundamentally altered the canon of American literary masterpieces, nor the criteria for choosing that canon and the critical methodologies applied to it. By and large, we are still acting as though American literature were a mere colonial implantation, no doubt modified by local conditions but in essence an offshoot of European literature.

But insofar as American literature is a unique body of creative work, what defines its identity most unequivocally is the historical and cultural experience of the Afro-American people. At long last we have come to understand that this is obviously true for American music and dance, and we are on the verge of recovering our lost comprehension of the interrelations between music and poetry. When we grasp the significance of this truth for American literature as a whole, we will be forced radically to change our critical methodologies, our criteria for literary excellence, and our canon of great literature—or perhaps even the entire notion of a canon.

At least until the middle of the Civil War, the dominant American view of Blacks was that they were an inferior kind of being, perhaps even a sub-human species. This view was codified into law and the founding Constitution, implemented thoroughly in social practice, and deeply imbued in the outlook of most American writers. Here is one widely disseminated expression of that view:

The situation of the slave is, in every particular, incompatible with the cultivation of his mind. It would not only unfit him for his station in life, and prepare him for insurrection, but would be found wholly impracticable in the performance of the duties of a labourer. …

Inert and unintellectual, he exhibits no craving for knowledge; and prefers, in his hours of recreation, indulgence in his rustic pleasures to the pursuit of intellectual improvement … the negro never suffers from the thirst for knowledge. Voluptuous and indolent, he knows few but animal pleasures; is incapable of appreciating the pride and pleasure of conscious intellectual refinement. … The dance beneath the shade surpasses, for him, the groves of the academy.

The South Vindicated from the Treason and Fanaticism of the Northern Abolitionists (Philadelphia, 1836)

In the literature of the south, or rather in literature by white southerners, this view was virtually unanimous. William Gilmore Simms, still widely touted as the greatest writer produced by the “Old South,” argued in “The Morals of Slavery” (1837, 1852) that “there are few people so very well satisfied with their conditions as the negroes,—so happy of mood, so jocund, and so generally healthy and cheerful.” The most venerated writer of New England, Nathaniel Hawthorne, shared this view. In his fiction, Black people exist only as stereotyped faithful body servants, such as Caesar in “The White Old Maid,” Scipio in “Egotism,” or that other Scipio whose stock role provides comic relief in The House of the Seven Gables (just like Jupiter in Poe's “The Gold Bug,” Scipio is scared of a ghost that comes to...

(This entire section contains 7728 words.)

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“frighten a poor nigga”). The only distinct Black character is also a stereotype, the stock “nigger” of “Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe,” a mulatto who turns from “yellow” to a “ghastly white” when confronted with a crime he was too cowardly to commit. Twice Hawthorne explicitly stated his views on slavery. In “Old News” (1835), he characterizes “slave labor” in eighteenth-century New England as “a patriarchal, and almost a beautiful, peculiarity of the times.” “The slaves,” he thinks, “were the merriest part of the population,” and all runaway slaves “would have been better advised had they stayed at home, foddering the cattle, cleaning dishes,—in fine, performing their moderate shares of the labors of life, without being harassed by its cares.” And nine years before the Civil War, Hawthorne lashed out at all anti-slavery “agitation,” which, he asserted, threatened “the ruin of two races which now dwell together in greater peace and affection … than had ever elsewhere existed between the taskmaster and the serf.” (The Life of Franklin Pierce, 1852).

In response to this view and to the system it defended, there emerged a literary genre whose form and content is uniquely American—the narrative of the escaped slave. The slave narrative is the literary creation of those “inert and unintellectual” bodies without minds, those happy serfs, those “voluptuous and indolent” animals with no human aspirations. The racist mentality of William Gilmore Simms and Nathaniel Hawthorne, of Edgar Allan Poe and James Fenimore Cooper, is not unique to America; it was, and still is, generally characteristic of European societies and the colonialists exported from Europe to the Americas, Asia, and Africa. The slave narrative, however, is truly American. In fact, it was the first genre the United States of America contributed to the written literature of the world.

This event in literary history was recognized in print as early as 1849, by the Reverend Ephraim Peabody, who put it this way in his article “Narratives of Fugitive Slaves” in the Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany: “America has the mournful honor of adding a new department to the literature of civilization—the autobiographies of escaped slaves.” In Many Thousand Gone: The Ex-Slaves' Account of Their Bondage and Freedom, the pioneering twentieth-century history of the genre, Charles H. Nichols demonstrated the vast popularity and influence of these autobiographies by Black Americans. (This study was published in 1963, in Holland, revealingly enough; it was not until 1969 that it finally achieved publication in America.) The genre produced several of the greatest works of nineteenth-century American literature. In 1863 an escaped slave who had written one of these narratives, the man now once again being recognized as America's first Black novelist and playwright, William Wells Brown, included a history of the genre in his vanguard study, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements.

In less than a century, however, this literary achievement had been effectively expunged from the study of American literature. By the time of the 1954 Supreme Court decision against apartheid in education, as Arna Bontemps pointed out in Great Slave Narratives (1969), only one example of the slave narrative was in print. But since then our history has prepared us to understand both the social and the artistic significance of these works.

The slave narrative was usually told by a fugitive slave whose escape from slavery was perceived, quite accurately, as a threat to the entire system. Those who defended slavery argued, like Simms and Hawthorne, that Negroes were happy to be slaves. Every escaped slave was a living refutation of that argument. Another defense of slavery, one underlying the first, was that Negroes were not thinking human beings. Every author of a slave narrative was a refutation of that argument. And if the slave narrative could transcend the literature being published by the apologists for slavery, it would embody even more radical implications—about human potential, about the meaning of culture, about the relations among social classes.

The audience for the slave narrative was generally the reading public of the northern states, overwhelmingly white and relatively “cultured.” An odd relationship existed between the authors and the readers, one exacerbated by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The audience was part of the body of citizens whose lawful duty was to help ferret out the authors and return these runaway pieces of property to their rightful owners. The narratives were frankly polemical, and, whether actually written by the slaves themselves or, as in some cases, ghost-written by their abolitionist friends, generally used the polite literary language and style expected by their audience. But the experience being rendered was brutal and sordid beyond the imagination, not to mention the direct experience, of most of these readers.

From Ephraim Peabody and William Wells Brown to the present, all students of the slave narrative have agreed that the masterpiece of the form is Frederick Douglass' first autobiography, published in 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself. And even if the rest of the genre did not exist, the Narrative standing on its own is still, as Jean Fagan Yellin has called it, “a classic American autobiography.” Nevertheless, the book has received scandalously little critical attention as a work of literature, and Douglass himself, one of the most important authors in nineteenth-century America, has remained a virtual nonentity outside the academic ghetto of Afro-American studies.

Articles on American Literature, 1950-1967 (Duke University Press, 1970) includes not a single article on Frederick Douglass, though it lists over fifty articles on Jonathan Edwards, James Kirke Paulding, and William Wirt. The omission cannot be explained by the fact that Douglass' works are mostly essays and autobiographical narratives, for there are 459 articles listed on Henry David Thoreau. Douglass' books are not even included in the standard Bibliography of American Literature compiled by Jacob Blanck. The standard history of American literature is Literary History of the United States, by Robert Spiller, Willard Thorp, Thomas H. Johnson, Henry Seidel Canby, Richard Ludwig, and William M. Gibson. In 1974, a greatly revised fourth edition was published, with 1,555 pages of facts and analysis in small print. There are three chapters on the literature produced in the South through the Civil War; all this literature is by whites. The authors discussed include such eminent apologists for slavery and literary giants at Hugh Legaré, William Wirt, and George Fitzhugh, author of Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters. Nowhere is there any discussion of the slave narrative or slave poetry. Not even the name of Frederick Douglass appears, though Stephen A. Douglas is mentioned at least four times. The Bibliography Supplement (1972) has bibliographies for 218 individual authors, including John C. Calhoun, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, James Allen Lane, and Allen Tate—but not Frederick Douglass. In other words, the white academic establishment still pretends that Frederick Douglass does not exist as a literary artist or that, like Satchel Paige, he is not good enough to play outside the Negro leagues.

Douglass' Narrative has been discussed in book-length histories of Afro-American literature and the slave narrative; Benjamin Quarles did a valuable introduction, mostly historical, for his 1960 Harvard University Press edition of the book; in 1972, two extremely insightful brief analyses appeared in critical books, Jean Fagan Yellin's The Intricate Knot: Black Figures in American Literature, 1776-1863 (NYU Press) and Houston Baker's Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture (University of Virginia Press). There have been, to the best of my knowledge, prior to this only two published articles on the Narrative, and both appeared in CLAJ [College Language Association Journal], a publication devoted to Afro-American literature (Nancy T. Clasby, “Frederick Douglass' Narrative: A Content Analysis,” CLAJ, 14 [1971], 242-250, and Albert E. Stone, “Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass' Narrative,CLAJ, 17 [1973], 192-213).

I shall be exploring here the wider significance of one theme and set of images in the Narrative, using some methods we customarily deem appropriate to a short story by Poe or Hawthorne, a poem by Whitman or Dickinson, or an autobiographical narrative by Thoreau or Henry Adams. Frankly, a subsidiary part of my intention is to show that individual early Afro-American works of literature merit the kind of close attention we usually reserve for works of the canon. It is curious that such a demonstration should be necessary for the slave narrative, for it is, of all forms of early Afro-American literature, the one which most thoroughly accepts the dominant European literary conventions.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself is a book created by a being who was once considered an animal, even by himself, for an audience that remains unconvinced that he is in fact a fellow human being. So it should come as no surprise that animal imagery embodies Douglass' deepest meanings.

In Long Black Song, Houston Baker notes that animal metaphors “appear in most of the chapters of the Narrative.” Baker offers several explanations. He observes that “Douglass is aware of American slavery's chattel principle, which equated slaves with livestock, and he is not reluctant to employ animal metaphors to capture the general inhumanity of the system.” He makes an intriguing suggestion about overtones in the Narrative from the animal tales of Black slave culture. And he emphasizes the appropriateness of the animal imagery to “the agrarian settings and characters.” Albert Stone disagrees with Baker, arguing that Douglass' “images of ships and the sea” are far more central than animal imagery, forming a pattern which “connects and defines all stages of his personal history.” Stone's sensitive exploration of the nautical imagery is a valuable contribution to our appreciation of the artistic richness of this book. It is, however, the animal imagery that is crucial, and in ways far more significant than even Baker perceived.

These images not only structure the development of the Narrative, but also locate the book on the front lines of a major ideological battleground of the 1840's and 1850's. Douglass is asking, and answering, one central question in the Narrative: What is a human being? That is, within his historical context, how is a human being different from animals (or machines) that can perform labor? This was also the central philosophical and scientific question of his time, a question that all our subsequent history has been trying to resolve. While Douglass wrote, Darwin and Marx were both wrestling with precisely the same question. And in America, natural science and its definition of what was human was in the process of coming to focus most narrowly on “the Negro.”

Slavery, as we now recognize, went through a fundamental change around 1830, completing its evolution from a predominantly small-scale, quasi-domestic institution appended to hand-tool farming and manufacture into the productive base of an expanding agricultural economy, utilizing machinery to process the harvested crops and pouring vast quantities of agricultural raw materials, principally cotton, into developing capitalist industry in the northern states and England. Prior to the 1830's, as George Fredrickson documents in The Black Image in the White Mind (N.Y., 1971), open assertions of the “permanent inferiority” of Blacks “were exceedingly rare.” In fact, many eighteenth-century and earlier nineteenth-century apologists for slavery defended it as a means of “raising” and “civilizing” the poor, benighted, child-like Negro. But in the 1830's there emerged in America a world view based on the belief that Blacks were inherently a race inferior to whites, and as part of this world view there developed a scientific theory of Blacks as beings half way, or even less than half way, between animals and white people. This was part of the shift of Blacks from their role as children, appropriate to a professedly patriarchal society which offered them the means of eventual development into adulthood, into their role as subhuman beasts of burden, the permanent mainstay of the labor force of expanding agribusiness.

By 1833, this world view had been scientifically formulated in Richard Colfax's Evidence Against the Views of the Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs of the Natural Inferiority of the Negroes (New York, 1833). In his researches into the skulls and facial angles of Negroes, Colfax prefigured the developed science of the 1840's and 1850's known as the “American School of Ethnology.” He argued that “the acknowledged meanness of the Negro's intellect only coincides with the shape of his head.” This can be readily seen in the Negro's “facial angle,” which was “almost to a level with that of a brute.” Colfax concludes that Negroes are half way between animals and white people: “the Negroes, whether physically or morally considered, are so inferior as to resemble the brute creation as nearly as they do the white species.” (Fredrickson cites this and many other works prior to 1845 making the same biological case against the Negro.)

Colfax did not further develop the concept of Negroes as a distinct species, but by the late 1830's this next logical position was achieving its first systematic presentation in a body of scientific literature dedicated to demonstrating “that the black man was a member of a separate and permanently inferior species.” In the early 1840's came the theory of polygenesis. Dr. Samuel George Morton proved scientifically in Crania Americana (Philadelphia, 1839) and Crania Aegyptiaca (Philadelphia, 1844) that Negroes did not descend from Adam but were a distinct and subhuman species originating in southern Africa. (Frederickson, pp. 74-77. Carolyn Karcher has shown how Melville satirized this “science” in her “Melville's ‘The 'Gees’: A Forgotten Satire on Scientific Racism,” American Quarterly, 27 [1975], 421-442.)

Frederick Douglass had lived the social reality which these scientific theories were adduced to perpetuate. He had begun life as a farm animal. Looking back, he traces the course of his development into a conscious human being, threatened all along the way by the danger of being reduced once again to a beast. Using the most brilliant manipulation of his audience's literary conventions to display the particularities of his own experience, Douglass is able to show what it means to be a human being in an age and society dominated by racist ideology and maintaining its basic productive activities through the use of one class of human beings as work animals by another class of human beings. For Douglass, as for Karl Marx, writing the previous year in what we now call the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, human beings are distinguished as a species by a creative consciousness which derives from the circumstances of their existence; this consciousness gives us the potential freedom to change those circumstances to meet human needs and desires, and it is in the struggle for that freedom that this consciousness develops.

The first paragraph of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself is concerned with the basic circumstances of his birth—place and date. Douglass has no problem locating the place and he does so, in the first sentence, establishing at once the artfully restrained, almost unemotional, matter-of-fact style which is to be the underlying norm for the entire narrative: “I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland.” (P. 23 in the edition by Benjamin Quarles, Harvard University Press, 1960, which reproduces the text of the first edition, published in Boston, 1845; further references are indicated parenthetically by page number to this edition.) But the second sentence poses a problem for this precise, no-nonsense narrator: “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.” In dryly explaining his predicament to the reader, Douglass can only compare himself and his fellow slaves to other farm animals: “… slaves know as little of their age as horses know of theirs.” This is the starting point of his consciousness, something like a human, something like a beast.

Like most slaves, Douglass never knew his father. He learns, however, that his father was a white man, quite possibly his master, one of those who made the satisfaction of his “lusts” both “profitable as well as pleasurable” by increasing the number of his slaves (26). So Douglass himself apparently was created through the sexual union of the two “species” of beings defined by those scientists of the 1840's, and one of these—the loftier—would probably gain a profit from the transaction when the little suckling became marketable. Following the “common custom,” his mother is deliberately separated from him while he is a small baby: “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.” (24)

The little boy's first consciousness of the meaning of slavery comes through the spectacle of his beautiful aunt being whipped by his master, apparently because of sexual jealousy. The master “stripped her from neck to waist,” tied her hands to an overhead hook, and then proceeded to “whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood”:

The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing.


The words the master uses over and over again to define Douglass' aunt while he flagellates her cannot be repeated to the polite readers of the Narrative. Douglass has to record them as “‘you d—d b—h’” (29-30). But their meaning is clear enough, for they signify the essence of the slaveowners' views of their Black slaves. The human master is merely punishing a female animal.

As for the little boy, he was but “seldom whipped,” as Douglass tells us in a passage that I believe stands as one of the most brilliant achievements in style and content of nineteenth-century American prose:

I was seldom whipped by my old master, and suffered little from any thing else than hunger and cold. I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked—no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.


After the first two sentences, simple but meticulously balanced, the style becomes stripped and stark, almost as naked as the little boy it describes living, or rather existing, on the level of brute survival. On the surface almost laconic, the passage virtually explodes with artfully arranged, highly volatile tensions. The first great disparity is between the little boy and the man writing his story, who is the little boy grown up. The two worlds in which they live are brought into direct physical contact as the writer takes his pen and lays it in the frost-cracked gashes on the boy's feet. By using the tool with which he is communicating to his polite audience as the implement of yoking in these two worlds, he also forces that audience to join him in contacting the boy. And in that conjunction, he brings his readers face to face with the first of many moral inversions: to survive, the slave must violate the property rights defined by society; he must steal a bag intended to help produce profit. In all this, we are forced to sense a tremendous disparity between the emotional level of the prose, running on that matter-of-fact norm, and the potential rage and violence implicit in the slave's situation. This is all part of Douglass' patient preparation for the climax of his Narrative, and for his final warning to his audience.

Douglass next describes how he ate: “our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush. …” (52) In the very next paragraph, Douglass tells of his leaving this plantation. He thus establishes the juxtaposition which will provide one underlying dialectic for the rest of the narrative, the dialectic between rural and urban existence. Here we see most clearly an opposition of values between Douglass' vision, which is generally representative of his Black contemporaries, and the vision dominant in most of the white literature of the period.

The movement from country to city, and the conflict between the values of these two worlds, was of course a highly conventional literary theme in ante-bellum America, with its rapid industrialization and urbanization. This is, most typically, envisioned as a fall from rural innocence and natural freedom into the artificialities of the infernal city, as in Hawthorne's “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and Melville's Pierre; Or, The Ambiguities. Outside the city is the Eden to which the conscious person may wish to return, rarely with as much success as in the visions projected by Thoreau.

For Frederick Douglass, the movement primarily means the opposite. The city to him represents consciousness and the possibility of freedom; the country represents brutalization and the certainty of slavery. So the boy, now “probably between seven and eight years old,” spends almost three days “in the creek, washing off the plantation scruff,” “for the people in Baltimore were very cleanly, and would laugh at me if I looked dirty” (52-53). He is going to be given a pair of trousers; “The thought of owning a pair of trousers was great indeed!” (53) To merit the trousers and the city, he must no longer be a young pig: “It was almost a sufficient motive, not only to make me take off what would be called by pig-drovers the mange, but the skin itself.” (53)

In the city, Douglass becomes a house boy. His expectations about life in the city are not disappointed: “A city slave,” he discovers, “is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation.” (60) And there he encounters simultaneously two great sources of knowledge. The first, introduced by his mistress, is the alphabet. The second, confronting him in the form of his master's reactions, is that all the values of the slave must be the opposite of those of the slaveowner. The master forbids his wife from any further instruction of the boy because “it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read”:

To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”


So the master points to consciousness as the means to freedom, to the written language as a means to increase consciousness, and to himself as the negation of consciousness, the negation that must constantly be negated in order to achieve freedom:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. … I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. … The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.


This experience, which foreshadows the climax of the Narrative, defines for Douglass the path to consciousness and freedom, that is to humanity. Unlike Pinocchio, who can become human only by learning to be honest, Douglass can attain his humanity only by learning deceit and trickery. He reveals to us some of the wily and devious tricks he uses, still as a small boy, to gain from the hostile white world around him the ability to read and write. Frankness, trustfulness, humility, passivity are all for him just so many snares that would put him back in the barnyard with the horses and pigs.

Douglass succeeds in learning how to read, and the master's worst fears come true:

The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.


But as his eyes are opened, as he gains intensifying consciousness of his own condition, without seeing how to change it, his own transformation becomes the source of his greatest torment. He now sometimes yearns to be deprived of consciousness, to be, in fact, an unthinking animal: “I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!” (67)

In the following chapter his urban sanctuary is disrupted by a temporary fall back into the barnyard. The death of his legal owner forces him back to be present at the redivision of all the property. Although now only about ten or eleven years old, he understands the scene all too well. It is perhaps the most conventional scene in the slave narrative genre, undoubtedly because it was such a critical event in the actual lives of the slaves and one that displayed most dramatically the essence of chattel slavery. It is when the slaves are “divided, like so many sheep” (76). For Douglass the young city slave it is a revelation, which Douglass the author presents as the literal embodiment of his animal imagery:

We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination. Silvery-headed age and sprightly youth, maids and matrons, had to undergo the same indelicate inspection.


He concludes this paragraph by foreshadowing a reversal that will take place in the function of the animal imagery: “At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder.”

Earlier, Douglass had traced the degradation of his mistress, who “at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness.” In order to become “equal to the task of treating me as though I were a brute,” she must be transformed from being a “tender-hearted woman” to a creature of “tiger-like fierceness.” (63-64) As the Narrative progresses, Douglass makes us increasingly aware of this other kind of animal. Just as the slaves in the early part of the book are likened to barnyard animals, the slaveowners later are compared more and more to predatory beasts. So when Douglass is lucky enough to be returned temporarily to Baltimore, the fate he thus escapes is “worse than lion's jaws” (75). But at the age of about fourteen, this is just the fate he meets, as he is returned to the plantation.

His new country master cannot tame him, even with “a number of severe whippings” (87). So he decides to rent young Douglass out to Edward Covey, a farmer notorious as a “‘nigger-breaker’” (88). Douglass now finds himself, “for the first time in my life, a field hand” (89). It is now 1833, the very year in which Richard Colfax was publishing his evidence that “the Negroes, whether physically or morally considered, are so inferior as to resemble the brute creation as nearly as they do the white species.”

Edward Covey is known to his slaves, significantly enough, as “the snake” (92). Vicious as he is, Covey's main weapon in breaking slaves is not the whip but work. At the very moment that Colfax is propagandizing the concept that Negroes are inherently and permanently subhuman, Douglass is learning that through unending work a person can be transformed into a beast:

We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished.


This is the lowest point in Douglass' life, and its essential crisis. Reduced to animal existence, his human consciousness seems to serve only the function of self torture. But even this ultimate degradation contains the potential of human liberation.

Douglass' authorial strategy here is crucial. He is aware that his audience has been conditioned to think of him as half human. He does not protest by proclaiming that he is every bit as human as the reader. Instead, he takes the reader through his own experience of becoming, in fact, “beast-like,” and not through extraordinary or exceptional torture but through unremitting, mindless labor without end, the ordinary life of the slave. By conceding that he himself had become like an animal after attaining a much higher consciousness, Douglass forces the reader to recognize that he or she, merely by being cast down from his or her relatively comfortable social existence, could also be reduced to the semblance of an animal. This experience is quite different from the one in which Douglass the child had first awakened to find himself a slave. How could Douglass' readers possibly imagine themselves as beings who had never known any existence but that as a rural beast of burden? The Douglass who returns to the animal farm is much closer to the typical reader: he has lived in the city; he has thought philosophically about freedom and slavery; he can read and write; he has read books. Thus Douglass can serve as a surrogate for the reader, and the reader may be able to share a portion of Douglass' slave experience. The readers can discover that all their book knowledge and philosophical consciousness would not serve to distinguish them from animals if they were suddenly plunged into plantation slavery. The situation resembles those in many science fiction stories, from Gulliver's Travels and Voltaire's Micromegas to Planet of the Apes and James McConnell's “Learning Theory,” in which human beings find themselves incapable of demonstrating to alien creatures that they are part of an intelligent species.

Douglass, however, does find the way to demonstrate—to Covey, to himself, and thus to the readers—that he is a human being. This is the key event in his life, the climax of his narrative, and the core of his philosophical, historical, and practical message. Frederick Douglass now speaks in the second person, addressing the reader directly: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” (97)

Douglass discovers that it is not cranial capacity or facial angles or book knowledge or intelligence in the abstract that distinguishes the human species from brutes. It is the consciousness which allows people to alter the conditions of existence, a consciousness that develops in the struggle for freedom from brute necessity. Faced with slavery, that can mean only one thing before all: “I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat … I told him … that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer.” (103-104) They fight for what seems hours. Douglass overcomes Covey, “the snake.” Then comes the famous passage which all students of the Narrative have seen as its heart and climax:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.


This is a troublesome passage for many professors of literature, for it challenges their most fundamental assumptions about the relations between body and mind, and between life and art. I noted earlier that no journal except one devoted to Afro-American literature had ever found an article on the Narrative acceptable for publication. There may be many possible reasons for this, but one that is in hand reveals what is fundamentally at issue in the rejection of Douglass' art and vision. In recommending rejection of an article on the Narrative submitted to an academic journal, a referee insisted that the author made a serious error in not finding any “irony in the situation in which Douglass must reduce his conflict with the slaveholders to a question of brute strength and physical violence in order to assert his ‘manhood.’” This referee went on to explain the values the author of the article ought to have shared to have his view of the Narrative acceptable:

Does he [Douglass] learn that in matching the brute in himself against the animalism of his enslavery that he becomes the victor? If [the author of the article] is right about Douglass' genius, it would seem more convincing that Douglass recognized that his real victory over slavery and his most splendid assertion of his manhood was the Narrative itself: his triumph over language and his own rage.

Characteristic of his social class, this academic referee equates the body and physical violence, no matter how it is exerted, with “the brute,” and the mind, especially evidenced in its verbal products, with what is really human. This is based on the underlying academic dichotomy between mind and body, an expression of bourgeois ideology, which envisions workers as mindless bodies and intellectuals as pure minds whose bodily physical comforts have nothing to do with their thinking. In “On the Teaching of Literature in the Highest Academies of the Empire” (College English, 1970), I showed how this dichotomy structures the most fundamental unexamined assumptions governing the study and teaching of literature in America. The primary of these assumptions I caricatured in these terms:

First, there is the overall relationship between art and life. Great literary art transcends life. That is, literary achievements are more significant than social or political actions.

Or rather, I thought this was a caricature until I saw that statement by the anonymous referee about the climax of Douglass' Narrative.

Douglass' individual rebellion, his personal repelling “by force the bloody arm of slavery,” has tremendous importance for him, for the history of nineteenth-century America, for us. As Nancy T. Clasby has shown, “Douglass' act of violent resistance and the mysterious rebirth he experienced” are “crucial thematic elements” not just in this Narrative but in Black literature up through the present. As Clasby perceives:

The institutions under which Douglass had lived had failed to give him a viable identity—his manhood. The fight with Covey symbolically shattered the institutions and the old identity.

To be reborn as a human being, to shed his animal identity imposed upon him by the white man, this Black slave must commit the most forbidden crime of all: he must strike the white man who oppresses him.

Not to understand the meaning of this is to fail to comprehend not only Douglass' Narrative but the historical epoch we ourselves live in, an epoch characterized by the anti-colonial struggles of the non-white peoples of the world. Frantz Fanon, the Black psychiatrist and revolutionary theorist, has written several books unfolding the historical implications of the psychological truths Douglass was able to compress into a paragraph. As Fanon puts it, the act of violence against the oppressor, even on the individual level, is the primal event that “frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” (The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 1966, p. 27.) For Douglass, as for the peoples studied by Fanon, the initial act of violence is the premise of a new community for the oppressed. As Clasby argues, Douglass' entire subsequent life as a leader of his people flowed from this act:

From the time of his resolution that “the day had passed forever” when he could be “a slave in fact,” Douglass experienced his own integrity, a love for his brothers, and a relationship to spiritual realities which had been denied him by the conventional societal mechanisms. For the family which had been denied him by slavery he found a new brotherhood among his fellow rebels. He traded “slaveholding Christianity” for a closeknit and loving community of suffering slaves.

Douglass' creation of this Narrative is also a monumental act, but it was contingent upon what he did that day on the plantation. And the brilliant art of this narrative embodies in animal imagery his rebirth into a new identity. Unlike those professors who think a person becomes a “brute” when he or she fights back against oppression, Douglass has shown us that the brutes on the farm remain sheepish and that it is human beings who can learn how to resist and defeat slavery. Prior to this, as we have seen, Douglass compares himself and other slaves to those domesticated farm animals—horses, pigs, sheep—and compares the slaveowners and their accomplices to wild predators—lions, tigers, snakes. From this point on in the Narrative, Douglass never again likens himself or any slave to an animal. The animal imagery associated with the slaveholders, however, continues, actually building to a climax after his escape from both enslavement and the rural world. This climax takes place in the least agrarian setting—New York City. The main animal in this vision is a crocodile, not a mammal but a reptile, not American, but African. The jungle fantasies of the American ethnologists, facial angles and all, are brought back to their origin.

“Immediately after my arrival in New York,” he tells us, “I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions.” (143) But this feeling “very soon subsided,” as he realizes that this great metropolis of America is part of a “hunting-ground for slaveholders—whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers” (143-144). He becomes aware that he is “every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey!” (144) He is frighteningly alone in this urban jungle, “among fellow-men, yet feeling as if in the midst of wild beasts”: “I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey.” (143-144) So Douglass turns his readers' world upside down. They may still wonder if he is really a human being like themselves or just some lower species in human clothing. He knows that he is human, and he warns them of what they will be if they collaborate with the crocodiles and other beasts whose laws govern America.

Frederick Douglass was about twenty-seven years old when he published the Narrative, his first book, in 1845. The following year another twenty-seven-year-old American author, Herman Melville, published, in England, his first book, Narrative of a Four Months' Residence Among the Natives of a Valley of The Marquesas Islands; Or, A Peep at Polynesian Life. Douglass, writing as a non-white slave in white America, had to veil some of his message in imagery. Melville, writing as a white American who had lived in a non-white society under the shadow of imperialism, spoke more bluntly when he distinguished “the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth.” (London, 1846, P. 138) When Melville's Narrative was published in America as Typee, these words, along with many other crucial passages, were deleted. When Douglass' Narrative was published in America, he had to flee his native land. His owner, backed up by the laws of the United States of America, was seeking to hunt down and recapture his runaway beast of burden, the author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself.


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

The following entry presents criticism of Douglass's autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). See also Frederick Douglass Criticism.

The Narrative is the most famous of the more than one hundred American slave narratives written prior to the Civil War.

Biographical Information

Douglass, whose mother was a black slave and whose father was an unidentified white man, possibly his master, was born around 1817 in Tuckahoe, Maryland, as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was separated from his mother in infancy and raised by his maternal grandmother on the estate of his master, Captain Aaron Anthony. His childhood was relatively happy until he was transferred to the plantation of Anthony's employer, Colonel Edward Lloyd. In 1825 Douglass was again transferred, this time to the Baltimore household of Hugh Auld, whose wife began teaching Douglass to read until Auld insisted that she stop. Douglass became convinced that literacy provided an important key to achieving his freedom and secretly began learning to read on his own.

In 1838, Douglass escaped to New York where he became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. In the 1840s he began speaking publicly as a lecturer for William Lloyd Garrison's Massachusetts Antislavery Society, and wrote the Narrative, his account of his experiences as a slave, in response to those critics who doubted that such an eloquent orator had ever been in bondage. Concerned that he could be returned to captivity under the fugitive slave laws, Douglass traveled to England and Ireland, where he was well received by local social reformers. He returned to America in 1847 and bought his freedom from his former master.

In a break with Garrison and his abolitionist paper The Liberator, Douglass founded his own weekly paper, The North Star. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s he continued his work as a writer and speaker for the abolitionist movement, and in 1863 he served as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln on the use of black soldiers in the war effort. After the Civil War, Douglass became involved in diplomatic work, including an assignment as consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. He published two more versions of his life story, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). He died in 1895 at his home in Washington, D.C.

Plot and Major Characters

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a detailed, firsthand account of slave life and the process of self-discovery by which Douglass recognized the evils of slavery as an institution. Douglass began his story with his birth and immediately ran into a problem specific to the life of a slave. Although he knew where he was born, he had no exact knowledge of the date, a fact that set him apart from the white children of the plantation who knew their ages and could celebrate their birthdays. Slaves, according to Douglass, “know as little of their age as horses know of theirs.” His awareness of his status as a slave and of the meaning of slavery as an institution was furthered when he witnessed his aunt being stripped to the waist and savagely beaten. One of the more famous episodes in the book involves Douglass overhearing his master, Hugh Auld, rebuking his wife for her desire to teach the slave to read and declaring that literacy “would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass gleaned two valuable lessons from this experience. He first concluded that keeping slaves ignorant and illiterate was an important element in their subjugation, and resolved to teach himself to read. Second, by observing Mrs. Auld's transformation from a kindly woman with no previous experience as a slave-owner to a harsh mistress under her husband's tutelage, Douglass learned of the institution's effects on even well-intentioned whites.

Douglass's growing dissatisfaction with his condition led to the pivotal incident in which he was sent to Edward Covey, a notorious “slave-breaker,” to be disciplined. Initially reduced to little more than a brute by endless work, Douglass finally refused to submit to Covey's “discipline” any longer. The two engaged in a violent fight and Douglass, in the end, overcame his tormentor, resolving that “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” From that point, Douglass was firmly on the road to freedom although it would take him some time before he was able to accomplish that feat. He avoided going into detail on the specific means of his escape, because to do so would “run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery.”

Major Themes

One of the most prominent themes in the Narrative involves the association of literacy with freedom. The acquisition of the one precipitated the desire for the other, which was, for Douglass, a two-edged sword. He had occasional regrets about the knowledge that literacy afforded him because without the ability to change his status as slave, he was more miserable than ever. Nonetheless, Douglass's ability to tell his story in his own words firmly refuted the commonly held belief at the time that slaves were incapable of communicating through the standard conventions of American literature. Douglass not only displayed his facility with the dominant literary modes of his time, but he also incorporated folkloric elements from both black and white cultures into his text. Robert G. O'Meally points out that Douglass drew on the tradition of the African-American sermon, itself grounded in folklore, and that the Narrative was meant to be preached as well as read.

Douglass's ambivalent relationship to Christianity is another important theme of his story. The Narrative exposed the hypocrisy of individual Christians whose treatment of slaves was cruel and inhumane, and of organized Christianity as a whole which, with few exceptions, supported the institution of slavery and even claimed that it was sanctioned by God. Douglass believed that the more religious the master, the more cruel he would be, and claimed that “of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.” Douglass's harsh criticism of Christianity was tempered by his later writings, including the Appendix to the Narrative.

Critical Reception

Of the many slave narratives produced in the nineteenth century, Douglass's has received the most critical attention and is widely regarded as the best. H. Bruce Franklin notes that “from Ephraim Peabody and William Wells Brown to the present, all students of the slave narrative have agreed that the masterpiece of the form is Frederick Douglass' first autobiography.” David W. Blight claims that “what sets Douglass's work apart in the genre … is that he interrogated the moral conscience of his readers, at the same time that he transplanted them into his story, as few other fugitive slave writers did.” But despite the Narrative's preeminent position within the slave narrative genre, until the 1970s it received little attention as a literary work, and was out of print from the 1850s until 1960. Franklin complains that the work has been neglected by literary historians and that Douglass, “one of the most important authors in nineteenth-century America, has remained a virtual nonentity outside the academic ghetto of Afro-American studies.”

In the years since Franklin's essay, however, the text has received increasing scrutiny from a wide variety of perspectives. Scholars have focused on Douglass's participation in various discourses, both black and white, including those associated with folklore and with Christianity. Kelly Rothenberg discusses Douglass's use of elements from black folklore that warn against the dangers of resistance to slavery, although he himself rejected the advice those tales offered and tried to escape despite the risks. A. James Wohlpart explores Douglass's double challenge: to the institution of slavery and also to the institution of the Christian Church that supported slavery. Douglass, claims Wohlpart, operated within the discourse of white Christianity at the same time that he subverted it. John Carlos Rowe examines Douglass's text in economic and political terms, claiming that the author was “clearly developing his own understanding of the complicity of Northern capitalism and Southern slave-holding in the 1845 Narrative.” Lisa Yun Lee also explores the politics of language in the text, noting that in the first half of the narrative Douglass is silent and powerless, but as he acquires the ability to speak within the dominant discourse, he becomes increasingly powerful and increasingly vocal. According to Lee, “the delineation between the experience of silent marginalization and speaking presence is so thoroughly presented that the binary nature of the two halves of the Narrative must be purposefully drawn.” Winifred Morgan has examined Douglass's narrative in conjunction with Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, claiming that there are basic gender-related differences between the two texts. According to Morgan, what distinguishes Douglass's story from Jacobs's and indeed from most other slave narratives, is the author's emphasis on his existence as an individual who achieved both literacy and freedom almost entirely on his own. Morgan believes that Douglass “sets up two contrasting frames: he presents himself as someone who is ‘one of a kind’ and at the same time ‘representative.’” Gwen Bergner discusses Douglass's narrative as a tale of masculine subject formation with parallels to the theory of the Oedipus complex established by Freud. Bergner examines Douglass's description of the whipping of his Aunt Hester whereby he became painfully aware of slavery as an institution. Bergner explains that “while psychoanalytic theory explains—by way of the Oedipus complex—how the subject apprehends sexual difference, Douglass's whipping scene demonstrates how an individual also learns racial difference.” Michael Bennett explores the link between anti-pastoralism and African-American literature and culture beginning with Douglass's narrative. According to Bennett, the usual terms of the city/country dichotomy were reversed in the Narrative because urban spaces offered a certain amount of freedom from the worst abuses of plantation slavery practiced in isolated rural areas. “For Douglass,” Bennett reports, “the city is not just relatively more free than the country, it is also a place that offers hope of the ultimate freedom: escape.”

Robert B. Stepto (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Stepto, Robert B. “Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control.” In Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 45-57. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, Stepto examines the Narrative's various appended documents and revisions, noting how these authenticating texts seem to set up a dialogue with the narrative itself.]

The strident, moral voice of the former slave recounting, exposing, appealing, apostrophizing, and above all, remembering his ordeal in bondage is the single most impressive feature of a slave narrative. This voice is striking not only because of what it relates but because the slave's acquisition of that voice is quite possibly his only permanent achievement once he escapes and casts himself upon a new and larger landscape. In their most elementary form, slave narratives are, however, full of other voices that are frequently just as responsible for articulating a narrative's tale and strategy. These other voices may be those of various “characters” in the “story,” but mainly they are those found in the appended documents written by slaveholders and abolitionists alike. These documents—and voices—may not always be smoothly integrated with the former slave's tale, but they are nevertheless parts of the narrative. Their primary function is, of course, to authenticate the former slave's account; in doing so, they are at least partially responsible for the narratives being accepted as historical evidence. However, in literary terms, the documents collectively create something close to a dialogue—of forms as well as of voices—which suggests that in its primal state or first phase the slave narrative is an eclectic narrative form.

When the various forms (letters, prefaces, guarantees, tales) and their accompanying voices become integrated in the slave narrative text, we are presented with another type of basic narrative which I call an integrated narrative. This type of narrative represents the second phase of narration in the slave narrative and usually yields a more sophisticated text, wherein most of the literary and rhetorical functions previously performed by several texts and voices (the appended prefaces, letters, and documents as well as the tale) are now rendered by a loosely unified single text and voice. In this second phase, the authenticating documents “come alive” in the former slave's tale as speech and even action; and the former slave—often while assuming a deferential posture toward his white friends, editors, and guarantors—carries much of the burden of introducing and authenticating his own tale. In short, a second-phase narrative is a more sophisticated narrative because the former slave's voice assumes many more responsibilities than that of recounting the tale.

Because an integrated or second-phase narrative is less a collection of texts and more a unified narrative, we may say that, in terms of narration, the integrated narrative is in the process of becoming—irrespective of authorial intent—a generic narrative, by which I mean a narrative of discernible genre such as history, fiction, essay, or autobiography. This process is no simple “gourd vine” activity: An integrated narrative does not become a generic narrative “overnight,” and, indeed, there are no assurances that in becoming a new type of narrative it is transformed automatically into a distinctive generic text. What we discover, then, is a third phase to slave narrative narration wherein two developments may occur: The integrated narrative (Phase II) is dominated either by its tale or by its authenticating strategies. In the first instance, the narrative and moral energies of the former slave's voice and tale so resolutely dominate those of the narrative's authenticating machinery (voices, documents, rhetorical strategies) that the narrative becomes in thrust and purpose far more metaphorical than rhetorical. When the integrated narrative becomes in this way a figurative account of action, landscape, and heroic self-transformation, it is so close generically to history, fiction, and autobiography that I term it a generic narrative.

In the second instance, the authenticating machinery either remains as important as the tale or actually becomes, usually for some purpose residing outside the text, the dominant and motivating feature of the narrative. Since this is also a sophisticated narrative phase, figurative presentations of action, landscape, and self may also occur, but such developments are rare and always ancillary to the central thrust of the text. When the authenticating machinery is dominant in this fashion, the integrated narrative becomes an authenticating narrative.

As these remarks suggest, one reason for investigating the phases of slave narrative narration is to gain a clearer view of how some slave narrative types become generic narratives and how, in turn, generic narratives—once formed, shaped, and set in motion by certain distinctly Afro-American cultural imperatives—have roots in the slave narratives. This bears as well on our ability to distinguish between narrative modes and forms and to describe what we see. When, for example, a historian or literary critic calls a slave narrative an autobiography, what he sees is, most likely, a narrative told in the first person that possesses literary features distinguishing it from the ordinary documents providing historical and sociological data. But a slave narrative is not necessarily an autobiography. We need to know the finer shades between the more easily discernible categories of narration, and we must discover whether these stops arrange themselves in progressive, contrapuntal, or dialectic fashion—or whether they possess any arrangement at all. As the scheme described above and diagrammed below suggests, I believe there are at least four identifiable modes of narration within the slave narrative, all of which have a direct bearing on the development of subsequent Afro-American narrative forms.

  • Phase I: basic narrative (a): “eclectic narrative”—authenticating documents and strategies (sometimes including one by the author of the tale) appended to the tale
  • Phase II: basic narrative (b): “integrated narrative”—authenticating documents and strategies integrated into the tale and formally becoming voices and/or characters in the tale
  • Phase III:
    • (a) “generic narrative”—authenticating documents and strategies are totally subsumed by the tale; the slave narrative becomes an identifiable generic text, e.g., autobiography, etc.
    • (b) “authenticating narrative”—the tale is subsumed by the authenticating strategy; the slave narrative becomes an authenticating document for other, usually generic, texts, e.g., novel, history


What we observe in the first two phases of slave narrative narration is the former slave's ultimate lack of control over his own narrative occasioned primarily by the demands of audience and authentication. This dilemma is not unique to the authors of these narratives; indeed, many modern black writers still do not control their personal history once it assumes literary form. For this reason, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) seems all the more a remarkable literary achievement. Because it contains several segregated narrative texts—a preface, a prefatory letter, the tale, an appendix—it appears to be, in terms of the narrative phases, a rather primitive slave narrative. But each of the ancillary texts seems to be drawn to the tale by some sort of extraordinary gravitational pull or magnetic attraction. There is, in short, a dynamic energy between the tale and each supporting text; the Douglass narrative is an integrated narrative of a very special order. While the integrating process does, in a small way, pursue the conventional path of creating characters out of authenticating texts (William Lloyd Garrison silently enters Douglass's tale at the very end), its new and major thrust is the creation of that aforementioned energy that binds the supporting texts to the tale while at the same time removing them from participation in the narrative's rhetorical and authenticating strategies. In short, Douglass's tale dominates the narrative and does so because it alone authenticates the narrative.

The introductory texts to the tale are two in number: a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist and editor of The Liberator; and a “Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq.,” who was equally renowned as an abolitionist, a crusading lawyer, and a judge. In theory, each of these introductory documents should be a classic guarantee written almost exclusively to a white reading public, concerned primarily and ritualistically with the white validation of a newfound black voice, and removed from the tale in such ways that the guarantee and tale vie silently and surreptitiously for control of the narrative as a whole. But these entries simply are not fashioned that way. To be sure, Garrison offers a conventional guarantee when he writes:

Mr. DOUGLASS has very properly chosen to write his own Narrative, in his own style, and according to the best of his ability, rather than to employ some one else. It is, therefore, entirely his own production; and … it is, in my judgment, highly creditable to his head and heart.

And Phillips, while addressing Douglass, most certainly offers a guarantee to “another” audience as well:

Every one who has heard you speak has felt, and, I am confident, every one who reads your book will feel, persuaded that you give them a fair specimen of the whole truth. No one-sided portrait,—no wholesale complaints,—but strict justice done, whenever individual kindliness has neutralized, for a moment, the deadly system with which it was strangely allied.

But these passages dominate neither the tone nor the substance of their respective texts.

Garrison is far more interested in writing history (specifically that of the 1841 Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention and the launching of Douglass's career as a lecture agent for various antislavery societies) and recording his own place in it. His declaration, “I shall never forget his [Douglass's] first speech at the convention,” is followed shortly thereafter by “I rose, and declared that Patrick Henry of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the case of liberty. … I reminded the audience of the peril which surrounded this self-emancipated young man. … I appealed to them, whether they would ever allow him to be carried back into slavery,—law or no law, constitution or no constitution” (italics added). His preface ends, not with a reference to Douglass or to his tale, but with an apostrophe very much like one he would use to exhort and arouse an antislavery assembly. In short, with the following cry, Garrison hardly guarantees Douglass's tale but reenacts his own abolitionist career instead:

Reader! are you with the man-stealers in sympathy and purpose, or on the side of their down-trodden victims? If with the former, then are you the foe of God and man. If with the latter, what are you prepared to do and dare in their behalf? Be faithful, be vigilant, be untiring in your efforts to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free. Come what may—cost what may—inscribe on the banner which you unfurl to the breeze, as your religious and political motto—NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!

In the light of this closure and (no matter how hard we try to ignore it) the friction that developed between Garrison and Douglass in later years, we might be tempted to see Garrison's preface at war with Douglass's tale for authorial control of the narrative as a whole. Certainly, there is a tension, but that tension is stunted by Garrison's enthusiasm for Douglass's tale:

This Narrative contains many affecting incidents, many passages of great eloquence and power; but I think the most thrilling one of them all is the description DOUGLASS gives of his feelings, as he stood soliloquizing respecting his fate, and the chances of his one day being a free man. … Who can read that passage, and be insensible to its pathos and sublimity?

(italics added)

What Garrison does, probably subconsciously, is an unusual and extraordinary thing—he becomes the first guarantor we have seen who not only directs the reader to the tale but also acknowledges the tale's singular rhetorical power. Thus, Garrison enters the tale by being at the Nantucket Convention with Douglass in 1841 and by authenticating the impact of the tale, not its facts. He fashions his own apostrophe, but finally he remains a member of Douglass's audience far more than he assumes the posture of a competing or superior voice. In this way, Garrison's preface stands outside Douglass's tale but is steadfastly bound to it.

This is even more so the case for Wendell Phillips's “Letter.” It contains passages that seem to be addressed to credulous readers in need of a “visible” authority's guarantee, but by and large the “Letter” is directed to Frederick Douglass alone. It opens with “My Dear Friend,” and there are many extraliterary reasons for wondering initially if the friend is actually Frederick. Shortly thereafter, however, Phillips declares, “I am glad the time has come when the ‘lions write history,’” and it becomes clear that he not only addresses Douglass but also writes in response to the tale. These features, plus Phillips's specific references to how Douglass acquired his “ABC” and learned of “where the ‘white sails’ of the Chesapeake were bound,” serve to integrate Phillips's “Letter” into Douglass's tale. Above all, we must see in what terms the “Letter” is a cultural and linguistic event: Like the Garrison document, it presents its author as a member of Douglass's audience, but the act of letterwriting, of correspondence, implies a moral and linguistic parity between a white guarantor and black author that we have not seen before and that we do not always see in American literary history after 1845. In short, the tone and posture initiated in Garrison's preface are completed and confirmed in Phillips's “Letter,” and while these documents are integrated into Douglass's tale, they remain segregated outside the tale in the all-important sense that they yield Douglass sufficient narrative and rhetorical space in which to render personal history in—and as—a literary form.

What marks Douglass's narration and control of his tale is his extraordinary ability to pursue several types of writing with ease and with a degree of simultaneity. The principal types of writing we discover in the tale are syncretic phrasing, introspective analysis, internalized documentation, and participant-observation. Of course, each of these types has its accompanying authorial posture, the result being that even the telling of the tale (as distinct from the content of the tale) yields a portrait of a complex individual marvelously facile in the tones, shapes, and dimensions of his voice.

Douglass's syncretic phrasing is often discussed, and the passage most widely quoted is probably “My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.” The remarkable clarity of this language needs no commentary, but what one admires as well is Douglass's ability to startlingly conjoin past and present and to do so with images that not only stand for different periods in his personal history but also, in their fusion, speak of his evolution from slavery to freedom. The pen, symbolizing the quest for literacy fulfilled, actually takes measure of the wounds of the past, and this measuring process becomes a metaphor in and of itself for the artful composition of travail transcended. While I admire this passage, the syncretic phrases I find even more intriguing are those that pursue a kind of acrid punning upon the names of Douglass's oppressors. A minor example appears early in the tale, when Douglass deftly sums up an overseer's character by writing, “Mr. Severe was rightly named: he was a cruel man.” Here, Douglass is content with “glossing” the name; but late in the tale, just before attempting to escape in 1835, Douglass takes another oppressor's name and does not so much gloss it or play with it as work upon it to such an extent that, riddled with irony, it is devoid of its original meaning:

At the close of the year 1834, Mr. Freeland again hired me of my master, for the year 1835. But, by this time, I began to want to live upon free land as well as with Freeland; and I was no longer content, therefore, to live with him or any other slaveholder.

Of course, this is effective writing—far more effective than what is found in the average slave narrative—but the point I wish to make is that Douglass seems to fashion these passages for both his readership and himself. Each example of his wit and increasing facility with language charts his ever-shortening path to literacy; thus, in their way, Douglass's syncretic phrases reveal his emerging comprehension of freedom and literacy and are another introspective tool by which he may benchmark his personal history.

But the celebrated passages of introspective analysis are even more pithy and direct. In these, Douglass fashions language as finely honed and balanced as an aphorism or Popean couplet, and thereby orders his personal history with neat, distinct, and credible moments of transition. When Mr. Auld forbids Mrs. Auld to instruct Douglass in the ABC, for example, Douglass relates:

From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. … Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I gained from my master.

The clarity of Douglass's revelation is as unmistakable as it is remarkable. As rhetoric, the passage is successful because its nearly extravagant beginning is finally rendered quite acceptable by the masterly balance and internal rhyming of “saddened” and “gladdened,” which is persuasive because it is pleasant and because it offers the illusion of a reasoned conclusion.

Balance is an important feature of two other equally celebrated passages that quite significantly open and close Douglass's telling of his relations with Mr. Covey, an odd (because he worked in the fields alongside the slaves) but vicious overseer. At the beginning of the episode, in which Douglass finally fights back and draws Covey's blood, he writes:

You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.

And at the end of the episode, to bring matters linguistically and narratively full circle, Douglass declares:

I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day has passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

The sheer poetry of these statements is not lost on us, nor is the fact of why the poetry was created in the first place. One might suppose that in another age Douglass's determination and rage might take a more effusive expression, but I cannot imagine that to be the case. In the first place, his linguistic model is obviously scriptural; and in the second, his goal is the presentation of a historical self, not the record of temporary hysteria. This latter point persuades me that Douglass is about the business of discovering how personal history may be transformed into autobiography. Douglass's passages of introspective analysis almost single-handedly create fresh space for themselves in the American literary canon.

Instead of reproducing letters and other documents written by white guarantors within the tale or transforming guarantors into characters, Douglass internalizes documents that, like the syncretic and introspective passages, order his personal history. For example, Douglass's discussion of slave songs begins with phrases such as “wild songs” and “unmeaning jargon” but concludes, quite typically for him, with a study of how he grew to “hear” the songs and how the hearing affords yet another illumination of his path from slavery to freedom:

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension. … Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek.

The tears of the past and present interflow, and Douglass not only documents his saga of enslavement but also, with typical recourse to syncretic phrasing and introspective analysis, advances his presentation of self.

Douglass's other internalized documents are employed with comparable efficiency as we see in the episode where he attempts an escape in 1835. In this episode, the document reproduced is the pass or “protection” Douglass wrote for himself and his compatriots in the escape plan:

“This is to certify that I, the undersigned, have given the bearer, my servant, full liberty to go to Baltimore, and spend the Easter holidays. Written with mine own hand, &c., 1835.

“WILLIAM HAMILTON, “Near St. Michael's, in Talbot county, Maryland.”

The protection exhibits Douglass's increasingly refined sense of how to manipulate language—he has indeed come a long way from that day Mr. Auld halted his ABC lessons—but even more impressive, I believe, is the act of reproducing the document itself. We know from the tale that when their scheme was thwarted, each slave managed to destroy his pass, so Douglass reproduces his language from memory, and there is no reason to doubt a single jot of his recollection. My point here is simply that Douglass can draw so easily from the well-springs of memory because the protection is not a mere scrap of memorabilia but rather a veritable road sign on his path to freedom and literacy. In this sense, his protection assumes a place in Afro-American letters as a key antecedent to such documents as the fast-yellowing notes of James Weldon Johnson's Ex-Coloured Man and “The Voodoo of Hell's Half Acre” in Richard Wright's Black Boy.

All of the types of narrative discourse discussed thus far reveal features of Douglass's particular posture as a participant-observer narrator. But the syncretic phrases, introspective studies, and internalized documents only exhibit Douglass as a teller and doer, and part of the great effect of his tale depends upon what Douglass does not tell, what he refuses to reenact in print. Late in the tale, at the beginning of chapter 11, Douglass writes:

I now come to that part of my life during which I planned, and finally succeeded in making, my escape from slavery. But before narrating any of the peculiar circumstances, I deem it proper to make known my intention not to state all the facts connected with the transaction. … I deeply regret the necessity that impels me to suppress any thing of importance connected with my experience in slavery. It would afford me great pleasure indeed, as well as materially add to the interest of my narrative, were I at liberty to gratify a curiosity, which I know exists. … But I must deprive myself of this pleasure, and the curious gratification which such a statement would afford. I would allow myself to suffer under the greatest imputations which evil-minded men might suggest, rather than exculpate myself, and thereby run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery.

It has been argued that one way to test a slave narrative's authenticity is by gauging how much space the narrator gives to relating his escape as opposed to describing the conditions of his captivity. If the adventure, excitement, and perils of the escape seem to be the raison d'être for the narrative's composition, then the narrative is quite possibly an exceedingly adulterated slave's tale or a bald fiction. The theory does not always work perfectly: Henry “Box” Brown's narrative and that of William and Ellen Craft are predominantly recollections of extraordinary escapes, and yet, as far as we can tell, these are authentic tales. But the theory nevertheless has great merit, and I have often wondered to what extent it derives from the example of Douglass's tale and emotionally, if not absolutely rationally, from his fulminations against those authors who unwittingly excavate the underground railroad and expose it to the morally thin mid-nineteenth-century American air. Douglass's tale is spectacularly free of suspicion, because he never tells a detail of his escape to New York, and it is this marvelously rhetorical omission or silence that both sophisticates and authenticates his posture as a participant-observer narrator. When a narrator wrests this kind of preeminent authorial control from the ancillary voices “circling” his narrative, we may say that he controls the presentation of his personal history and that his tale is becoming autobiographical. In this light the last few sentences of Douglass's tale take on special meaning:

But, while attending an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, on the 11th of August, 1841, I felt strongly moved to speak. … It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the case of my brethren—with what success, and what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide.

With these words, the narrative, as many have remarked, comes full circle, taking us back, not to the beginning of the tale, but rather to Garrison's prefatory remarks on the Convention and Douglass's first public address. This return may be pleasing in terms of the sense of symmetry it affords, but it is also a remarkable feat of rhetorical strategy: Having traveled with Douglass through his account of his life, we arrive in Nantucket in 1841 to hear him speak and, in effect, to become, along with Mr. Garrison, his audience. The final effect is that Douglass reinforces his posture as an articulate hero while supplanting Garrison as the definitive historian of his past.

Even more important, I think, is the final image Douglass bestows of a slave shedding his last fetter and becoming a man by first finding his voice and then, as sure as light follows dawn, speaking “with considerable ease.” In one brilliant stroke, the quest for freedom and literacy implied from the start even by the narrative's title is resolutely consummated.

The final text of the narrative, the appendix, is a discourse by Douglass on his view of Christianity and Christian practice as opposed to what he exposed in his tale to be the bankrupt, immoral faith of slaveholders. As rhetorical strategy, the discourse is effective generally because it lends weight and substance to what passes for a conventional complaint of slave narrative narrators and because Douglass's exhibition of faith can only enhance his already considerable posture as an articulate hero. But more specifically, the discourse is most efficacious because at its heart lies a vitriolic poem written by a Northern Methodist minister, which Douglass introduces by writing,

I conclude these remarks by copying the following portrait of the religion of the south, (which is, by communion and fellowship, the religion of the north,) which I soberly affirm is “true to life,” and without caricature or the slightest exaggeration.

The poem is strong and imbued with considerable irony, but what we must appreciate here is the effect of the white Northerner's poem conjoined with Douglass's authentication of the poem. The tables are clearly reversed. Douglass has controlled his personal history and at the same time fulfilled the prophecy suggested in his implicit authentication of Garrison's preface: He has explicitly authenticated what is conventionally a white Northerner's validating text. Douglass's narrative thus offers what is unquestionably our best portrait in Afro-American letters of the requisite act of assuming authorial control. An author can go no further than Douglass did without writing all the texts constituting the narrative himself.

Principal Works

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (autobiography) 1845

Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, by Frederick Douglass, July 5th, 1852 (speech) 1852

The Heroic Slave (novella) 1853

The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered (speech) 1854

The Anti-Slavery Movement (speech) 1855

My Bondage and My Freedom (autobiography) 1855

Men of Color, to Arms! (essay) 1863

What the Black Man Wants (speech) 1865

John Brown (speech) 1881

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (autobiography) 1881; revised edition, 1892

The Race Problem (speech) 1890

The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. 5 vols. (letters, speeches, and essays) 1950-75

The Frederick Douglass Papers. 6 vols. (letters, speeches, autobiography, and essays) 1979-

Robert G. O'Meally (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: O'Meally, Robert G. “The Text Was Meant to Be Preached.” In Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 77-94. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, O'Meally claims that, although the Narrative was meant to be read, it was also meant to be preached, drawing as it does on the tradition of the African-American sermon.]

Typically, scholars and teachers dealing with Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an American Slave (1845) are concerned with the crucial issue of religion, because the tensions and ironies generated by the sustained contrast between white and black religions constitute a vital “unity” in the work. Slavery sends Old Master to the devil, while the slave's forthright struggle for freedom is a noble, saving quest. Douglass's search for identity—paralleling the search of many and varied American autobiographers before him—is tightly bound with his quest for freedom and for truth. The Narrative presents scholars and teachers with a variety of religious questions. How does Douglass reconcile his professed Christianity with his evidently pagan faith in Sandy Jenkins's root? Why does Christian Douglass condone (even applaud!) the slaves' constant “sinning” against (lying to, stealing from, even the threatened killing of) the upholders of slavery? What is suggested by the fact that the most fervently religious whites treat their slaves more barbarously than do even the “unsaved” whites? While such topics are integral to a discussion of Douglass's Narrative and its relation to religion, they leave untouched a vital dimension of this broad subject.

The Narrative does more than touch upon questions often pondered by black preachers. Its very form and substance are directly influenced by the Afro-American preacher and his vehicle for ritual expression, the sermon. In this sense, Douglass's Narrative of 1845 is a sermon, and, specifically, it is a black sermon. This is a text meant to be read and pondered; it is also a Clarion call to spiritual affirmation and action: This is a text meant to be preached.


The Afro-American sermon is a folkloric process. More than a body of picturesque items for the catalog, the black sermon is a set of oratorical conventions and techniques used by black preachers in the context of the Sunday morning (or weeknight revival) worship service. The black sermon—especially as delivered in churches of independent denominations, which developed in relative isolation from white control—is distinctive in structure, in diction, and in the values it reflects.

Certain aspects of the black sermon's structure vary greatly from preacher to preacher; indeed, the black congregation expects its preacher to have idiosyncrasies in his manner and form of presentation. In keeping with the thinking of the seemingly remote American Puritans, black church men and women view their preacher's personal style and “voice” as bespeaking his discovery of a personal Christian identity and a home in Christiandom; each telling of The Story is as different in detail as each individual teller. In shaping his sermon, a black preacher may follow the American Puritan formula: doctrine, reasons, uses. Or he may use a historical, an analytical, or a narrative scheme for organizing his presentation of the World. In any case, most Afro-American preachers pace themselves with care, beginning slowly, perhaps with citations from the Bible, or with a prayer, or with a deliberate statement and restatement of the topic for the day.

Most black preachers also build toward at least one ringing crescendo in their sermons, a point when their words are rhythmically sung or chanted in a modified, “ritual” voice. Here the call-response pattern is most marked; the preacher's words are answered by the congregation's phrases, “All right!” “Yes, brother!” “Say that!” Sometimes the preacher will rock in rhythm and chant visions of golden heaven and warnings of white-hot hell to his listeners. Sometimes he becomes “laughing-happy” as he walks the pulpit, declaring in words half-sung, half-spoken, how glad he is to be saved by the grace of the Lord. In this crescendo section of the sermon, the highly rhythmical language is closer to poetry than it is to prose. Such chanting may occur only at the conclusion of the sermon, or there may be several such poetical sections. In them the preacher seems possessed; the words are not his own, but the Spirit's.

Classic rhetorical and narrative techniques also abound in the Afro-American sermon. One notes the rich use of metaphors and figures of speech, such as repetitions, apostrophes, puns, rhymes, and hyperboles. A good preacher will not just report as a third-person narrator what the Bible says, but he will address the congregation as a first-person observer: “I can see John,” the preacher might say, “walking in Jerusalem early one Sunday morning.” He is a master of rhetorical and narrative devices.

Characteristically, too, Afro-American sermons are replete with stories from the Bible, folklore, current events, and virtually any source whatsoever. Whether or not this storytelling aspect of the black preacher is an African “survival,” as some researchers claim, the consistent use of stories determines the black sermon's characteristic structure. Some stories may provide the text for a sermon, while others occur repeatedly as background material.

James Weldon Johnson notes that certain narrative “folk sermons” are repeated in pulpits Sunday after Sunday. Or, a section of one well-known sermon may be affixed to another sermon. Some of these “folk sermons” include “The Valley of Dry Bones,” based on Ezekiel's vision; the “Train Sermon,” in which God and Satan are portrayed as train conductors transporting saints and sinners to heaven and to hell; and the “Heavenly March,” featuring man on his lengthy trek from a fallen world to a heavenly home. Johnson's own famous poem, “The Creation,” is based on another “folk sermon” in which the preacher narrates the story of the world from its birth to the day of final Judgment.

Black sermons are framed in highly figurative language. Using tropes, particularly from the Bible, spirituals, and other sermons, the black preacher's language—especially in chanted sections of his sermon—is often dramatic and full of imagery. In one transcription of a black sermon, a preacher speaks in exalted language of the Creator's mightiness:

I vision God wringing
A storm from the heavens
Rocking the world
Like an earthquake;
Blazing the sea
Wid a trail er fire.
His eye the lightening's flash,
His voice the thunder's roll.
Wid one hand He snatched
The sun from its socket,
And the other He clapped across the moon.
I vision God standing
On a mountain
Of burnished gold,
Blowing his breath
Of silver clouds
Over the world,
His eye the lightening's flash,
His voice the thunder's roll.

Like other American preachers, the black preacher speaks to his listeners' hearts as well as to their minds. He persuades his congregation not only through linear, logical argumentation but also through the skillful painting of word pictures and the dramatic telling of stories. His tone is exhortative: He implores his listeners to save themselves from the flaming jaws of hell and to win a resting place in heaven. The black preacher may speak in mild, soothing prose, or he may, filled with the spirit, speak in the fiery, poetical tongue of the Holy Spirit. The black preacher's strongest weapon against the devil has been his inspired use of the highly conventionalized craft of sacred black oratory—a folkloric process.


The influences of the black sermon on black literature have been direct and constant. The Afro-American playwright, poet, fiction writer, and essayist have all drawn from the Afro-American sermon. Scenes in black literature occur in church; characters recollect particularly inspiring or oppressive sermons; a character is called upon to speak and falls into the cadences of the black sermon, using the familiar Old Testament black sermonic stories and images. In his essays, James Baldwin, who preached when he was in his teens, employs the techniques of the sermon as he speaks to his readers' hearts and souls about their sins and their hope for salvation. Just as one finds continuity in tone and purpose from the sermons of the Puritans to the essays of such writers as Emerson and Thoreau, one discovers continuity in the Afro-American literary tradition from the black sermon—still very much alive in the black community—to the Afro-American narrative, essay, novel, story, and poem.

What, then, is sermonic about Douglass's Narrative? First of all, the introductory notes by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, both fiery orators and spearheads of the abolition movement, prepare the reader for a spiritual message. In his preface, Garrison recalls Douglass's first speech at an antislavery convention. Thunderous applause follows the ex-slave's words, and Garrison says, “I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment; certainly my perception of the enormous outrage which is inflicted by it, on the god-like nature of its victims was rendered far more clear.” And then, in stormy, revivalist style, Garrison rises and appeals to the convention, “whether they would ever allow him [Douglass] to be carried back into slavery,—law or no law, constitution or no constitution. The response was unanimous and in thunder—tones—‘No!’ ‘Will you succor and protect him as a brother-man—a resident of the old Bay State?’ ‘Yes!’ shouted the whole mass.”

As if introducing the preacher of the hour, Garrison says that Douglass “excels in pathos, wit, comparison, imitation, strength of reasoning, and fluency of language.” Moreover, in Douglass one finds “that union of head and heart, which is indispensable to an enlightenment of the heads and winning the hearts of others. … May he continue to ‘grow in grace, and in the knowledge of God’ that he may be increasingly serviceable in the cause of bleeding humanity, whether at home or abroad.” As for Douglass's present narrative, says Garrison, it grips its readers' hearts:

He who can peruse it without a tearful eye, a heaving breast, an afflicted spirit,—without being filled with an unutterable abhorrence of slavery and all its abettors, and animated with a determination to seek the immediate overthrow of that execrable system,—without trembling for the fate of this country in the hands of a righteous God, who is ever on the side of the oppressed, and whose arm is not shortened that it cannot save,—must have a flinty heart, and be qualified to act the part of a trafficker “in slaves and the souls of men.”

The choices, Garrison states, are but two: enrollment in the righteous war against slavery or participation in the infernal traffic in “the souls of men.”

In his turn, Wendell Phillips prepares the way for Douglass's “sermon.” In his laudatory letter to the author, Phillips speaks of Southern white slave masters as infrequent “converts.” Most often, the true freedom fighter detests slavery in his heart even “before he is ready to lay the first stone of his anti-slavery life.” Phillips thanks Douglass especially for his testimony about slavery in parts of the country where slaves are supposedly treated most humanely. If things are so abominable in Maryland, says Phillips, think of slave life in “that Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the Mississippi sweeps along.”

Douglass's account of his life serves the ritual purpose announced in the prefatory notes: The ex-slave comes before his readers to try to save their souls. His purpose is conversion. In incident upon incident, he shows the slaveholder's vile corruption, his lust and cruelty, his appetite for unchecked power, his vulgarity and drunkenness, his cowardice, and his damning hypocrisy. Slavery, says Douglass, brings sin and death to the slaveholder. Come to the abolition movement, then, and be redeemed. Take, as Douglass has done, the abolitionist paper as a Bible and freedom for all men as your heaven. Addressed to whites, the Narrative is a sermon pitting the dismal hell of slavery against the bright heaven of freedom.

Douglass's portrayal of himself and of his fellow slaves is in keeping with the text's ritual function. Like a preacher, he has been touched by God, called for a special, holy purpose. Providence protects Douglass from ignorance and despair. Providence selects him to extend his vision of freedom and, concretely, to move to Baltimore. The unexplained selection of Douglass to go to Baltimore he sees as “the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever attended me, and marked my life with so many favors.” Of this “providential” removal to Baltimore Douglass further writes:

I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. … From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.

In his effort to convert white slaveholders and to reassure white abolitionists, Douglass attempts to refute certain racist conceptions about blacks. He presents blacks as a heroic people suffering under the lash of slavery but struggling to stay alive to obtain freedom. To convince whites to aid slaves in their quest for freedom Douglass tackles the crude, prejudiced assumptions—which slavers say are upheld by Scripture—that blacks somehow deserve slavery, that they enjoy and feel protected under slavery. Of the notion that blacks are the cursed descendants of Ham, Douglass writes, “if the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters.” Furthermore, if cursed, what of the unshakable conviction of the learned and eloquent Douglass that he is, in fact, chosen by God to help set black people free?

What, then, of the assumption of the plantation novel and the minstrel show that blacks are contented with “their place” as slaves at the crushing bottom of the American social order? Douglass explains that a slave answers affirmatively to a stranger's question, “Do you have a kind master?” because the questioner may be a spy hired by the master. Or the slave on a very large plantation who complains about his master to a white stranger may later learn that the white stranger was, in fact, his master. One slave makes this error with Colonel Lloyd, and, in a few weeks, the complainer is told by his overseer that, for finding fault with his master, he is now being sold into Georgia. Thus, if a slave says his master is kind, it is because he has learned the maxim among his brethren “A still tongue makes a wise head.” By suppressing the truth rather than taking the consequences of telling it foolishly, slaves “prove themselves a part of the human family.”

At times, slaves from different plantations may argue or even fight over who has the best, the kindest, or the manliest master. “Slaves are like other people and imbibe prejudices quite common to others,” explains Douglass. “They think their own better than that of others.” Simultaneously, however, slaves who publicly uphold their masters' fairness and goodness, “execrate their masters” privately.

Do not the slaves' songs prove their contentedness and joy in bondage? “It is impossible,” says Douglass, “to conceive of a greater mistake.” Indeed, he says,

The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.

Instead of expressing mirth, these songs Douglass heard as a slave “told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” These songs, Douglass recalls, gave him his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery.” In other words, these songs “prove” the black man's deep, complex humanity. Therefore, whites, come forth, implies Douglass, and join the fight to free these God's children!

The tone of Douglass's Narrative is unrelentingly exhortative. Slaveholders are warned that they tread the road toward hell, for even as their crimes subject the slave to misery, they doom the master to destruction. Douglass describes his aged grandmother's abandonment in an isolated cabin in the woods. Then in dramatic, rhythmical language, he warns that,

My poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

Later in the text, Douglass exhorts white readers to sympathize with the escaping slave's plight. To comprehend the escapee's situation, the white sympathizer “must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances.” In a voice one imagines to be as strong and varied in pitch as a trombone, Douglass reaches a crescendo, in black sermon style, when speaking in highly imagistic language of the white man who would comprehend the escaped slave's feelings:

Let him be a fugitive slave in a strange land—a land given up to be the hunting ground for slaveholders—whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers—where he is every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey!—I say, let him place himself in my situation—without home or friends—without money or credit—wanting shelter, and no money to buy it,—and at the same time let him feel that he is pursued by merciless men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what to do, where to go, or where to stay,—perfectly helpless both as to the means of defence and means of escape,—in the midst of plenty, yet suffering the terrible gnawings of hunger,—in the midst of houses, yet having no home,—among fellowmen, yet feeling as if in the midst of wild beasts, whose greediness to swallow up the trembling and half-famished fugitive is only equalled by that with which the monsters of the deep swallow up the helpless fish upon which they subsist,—I say, let him be placed in that most trying situation,—the situation in which I was placed,—then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave.

In this passage Douglass, like a black preacher, uses a variety of oratorical techniques: alliteration, repetition, parallelism. Also, using conjunctions, commas, and dashes, Douglass indicates the dramatic pauses between phrases and the surging rhythms in the sermonlike prose.

Like a sermon, too, Douglass's Narrative argues not only by stern reason but also with tales that may be termed parables. One of the most forceful of these parables, one threaded quite successfully into the Narrative, is the parable of poor Mrs. Auld. Residing in the border state of Maryland, in the relatively large city of Baltimore, Mrs. Auld, who has never owned a slave before she owns Frederick Douglass, is truly a good woman. Before her marriage, Mrs. Auld worked as a weaver, “dependent upon her own industry for a living.” When eight-year-old Douglass is brought into the Auld household, Mrs. Auld is disposed to treat him with human respect and kindness. Indeed, “her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice was tranquil music.” Douglass obviously presents this woman as a glowing model of Christian charity: “When I went there,” he writes, “she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner within her reach.” Soon after Douglass arrives in her home, Mrs. Auld begins to do as she has done for her own son; she commences teaching Douglass the alphabet.

Before long, of course, this “kind heart” is blasted by the “fatal poison of irresponsible power.” In Douglass's words, Mrs. Auld's “cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.” In response to her husband's warning that education “would spoil the best nigger in the world,” she forbids Douglass's further instruction. In fact, she becomes at last “even more violent than her husband himself” in the application of this precept that slave education is a danger. Thus, even the mildest forms of slavery—in providential Baltimore—turn the most angelic face to that of a “harsh and horrid” devil.

The central paradox of the story of Mrs. Auld is that Mr. Auld's vitriolic warning against learning actually serves to make Douglass double his efforts to gain literacy. Mr. Auld's words to his wife prove prophetic:

“Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger … how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.

Douglass overhears this warning and feels that at last he comprehends the source of the white man's power to enslave blacks. “From that moment,” writes Douglass, “I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Also, from that moment on, Douglass's holy search for identity and freedom is knotted to his determined quest for literacy and knowledge. For the skill of literacy, “I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master,” writes Douglass, “as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.” It is as if the providentially guided Douglass receives truth from the mouths of family and friends, and even from the mouths of his most indefatigable enemies. And like a preacher he reports his successes (the Good Word) in exalted prose and in parables.

A second major parable in the Narrative concerns the slave-breaker Edward Covey and the wise old slave Sandy Jenkins. Like Mrs. Auld, Covey is a hard worker whose diligence fails to shield him from the blight of slavery. Sent to Covey's plantation to be “broken,” Douglass, in a sense, breaks Covey. Douglass leaves the slave-breaker's plantation stronger than ever in his personal resolution to break free. At first, the deceptive Covey, with his killing work schedule and “tiger-like” ferocity, seems to have succeeded in “taming” Douglass. “I was broken,” says Douglass, “in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” On Sundays, his only free day, Douglass would lounge in a “beast-like stupor” under a tree. His thoughts of killing himself and Covey are checked only by fear and dim hope.

Somehow, though, Douglass's spirits are rekindled. First, he observes the white sails of the ships piloting the Chesapeake Bay—through identification with their bold freedom, and through soliloquies to them and to God, Douglass finds his hopes revived. He too will try to sail to freedom. Quoting a line from a spiritual, he says, “There is a better day coming.”

Second, he faces down Covey. “You have seen how a man was made a slave,” writes Douglass. “You shall see how a slave was made a man.” One day he faints and is unable to do his work. Covey orders him to arise and return to his labor, but Douglass says, “I made no effort to comply, having now made up my mind to let him do his worst.” Then Douglass runs off to his master, Mr. Thomas Auld, to express fear that Covey will kill him. But Auld merely sends Douglass back to the slave-breaker. Back at Covey's, Douglass is chased into the woods by the slave-breaker, who wields a cowskin. Ordinarily, running away could only make things worse for Douglass: “My behavior,” he says, “was altogether unaccountable.” Providence seems to be with him though. In the woods, Douglass meets his old acquaintance Sandy Jenkins, who advises him to return to Covey. But Jenkins does not send Douglass back to Covey unarmed. Jenkins directs Douglass to a part of the woods where he can find a certain root, which, Douglass says, “if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me.” In the years that he has carried his root, Jenkins says, he had never been beaten, and he never expects to be again. Douglass seeks relief from Covey by petition to Auld, then by attempted escape, and then by the spiritual guidance—dependent upon personal fortitude and faith—symbolized by the old slave's root.

Upon his return to Covey's, Douglass is spared an initial attack, presumably because Covey, a leader in his church, does not want to work or whip slaves on Sunday. Monday morning, however, Covey comes forth with a rope and—“from whence came the spirit I don't know,” says Douglass—the slave resolves to fight. They fight for nearly two hours, Douglass emerging unscarred and Covey bloodied. This fight marks an important rite of passage for Douglass:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. … I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

From this time I was never again what might be called fairly whipped, though I remained a slave four years afterwards. I had several fights, but was never whipped.

Thus we see Douglass, Providence's hero, maneuvering through deadly dangers. His straightforwardness and courage defeat the serpentine and Pharisee-like Covey. Douglass's hope returns through identification with the white sails on the Bay. He is also given heart by the root, a symbol of spiritual and natural power as well as of the supreme power of hope and faith.

As in a successful black sermon, these parables are well woven into the whole cloth of the Narrative. They illustrate the corrupting power of slavery upon whites; they illustrate the power of the slave to overcome the slaveowner and to return, mysteriously—and by the power of Providence—to the winding road to freedom. Douglass's Narrative is alive with allusions to the Bible. Inevitably, the war waged is between the devil of slavery and the righteous, angry God of freedom. Chapter 3 commences with a description of Colonel Lloyd's garden. In its beauty and power to tempt, this “large and finely cultivated garden” recalls the Garden of Eden:

This garden was probably the greatest attraction of the place. During the summer months, people came from far and near—from Baltimore, Easton, and Annapolis—to see it. It abounded in fruits of almost every description, from the hardy apple of the north to the delicate orange of the south. This garden was not the least source of trouble on the plantation. Its excellent fruit was quite a temptation to the hungry swarms of boys, as well as the older slaves, belonging to the colonel, few of whom had the virtue or the vice to resist it.

This Eden, though carefully tended as God commanded, is vile and corrupt. Colonel Lloyd, merciless owner of the garden and gardeners, forbids the slaves to eat any of its excellent fruits. To enforce his rule he has tarred the garden fence; any slave with tar on his person was deemed guilty of fruit theft and was “severely whipped.” This is an Eden controlled not by God but by greedy, selfish, slaveholding man.

Or is this garden under the charge of the devil? As noted, slavery turns the heart of “heavenly” Mrs. Auld to flinty stone. And Mr. Plummer, Douglass's first overseer, is “a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer” known to “cut and slash women's heads so horribly” that even the master becomes enraged. This enraged master, Captain Anthony, himself seems “to take great pleasure in whipping a slave.” In a grueling scene, he whips Douglass's aunt Hester, a favorite of Anthony's, until only the master's fatigue stops the gory spectacle. “The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest.” Mr. Severe would curse and groan as he whipped the slave women, seeming “to take pleasure in manifesting this fiendish barbarity.” Colonel Lloyd renders especially vicious beatings to slaves assigned to the care of his horses. When a horse “did not move fast enough or hold high enough,” the slaves were punished. “I have seen Colonel Lloyd make old Barney, a man between fifty and sixty years of age, uncover his bald head, kneel down upon the cold, damp ground, and receive upon his naked and toil-worn shoulders more than thirty lashes at the time.” Other slaveowners and overseers, both men and women, kill their slaves in cold blood.

One of the men termed “a good overseer” by the slaves is Mr. Hopkins, who, at least is not quite so profane, noisy, or cruel as his colleagues. “He whipped, but seemed to take no pleasure in it.” His tenure as overseer is a short one, conjectures Douglass, because he lacks the brutality and severity demanded by the master.

Covey is the most devil-like slaveholder in the Narrative. Hypocritical, masterful at deception, clever, untiring, seemingly omnipresent, Covey is called “The Snake” by the slaves. In one of the Narrative's most unforgettable portraits, Douglass tells us that through a cornfield where Covey's slaves work, The Snake would

sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael's, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the woodfence, watching every motion of the slaves.

The Snake has built his reputation on being able to reduce spirited men like Douglass to the level of docile, manageable slaves. Under Covey's dominion—before Douglass gains a kind of dominion over Covey—Douglass feels himself “transformed into a brute.” In the symbolic geography of this text the Garden is ruled—at least for the moment—by none other than his majesty, the infernal Snake, Satan.

Douglass makes clear that slavery, not the slaveowner, is the supreme Devil in this text: slavery, with its “robes crimsoned with the blood of millions.” Mrs. Auld falls from “heavenliness” to the hell of slavery. As a boy Douglass learns from Sheridan's speeches in behalf of Catholic emancipation that “the power of truth [holds sway] over the conscience of even a slaveholder.” These white slave-holders, if devil-like, are nonetheless capable of redemption.

Colonel Lloyd, in fact, is described as possessing wealth equal almost to that of Job—the Old Testament's model of supreme faithfulness. Finally, however, the effect of the comparison is ironical, for Lloyd is a man of increasing cruelty; his very wealth seems to provide his temptation to do evil, and Lloyd yields to temptation with relish.

There are several places in the Narrative where American slavery is compared with the holding of the Old Testament Jews in captivity. Douglass points out that, the more he read, the more he viewed his enslavers as “successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery” (italics mine). Later in the Narrative Douglass describes the fugitive slave in the North as a dweller “in a strange land.” The language here and the parallel situations recall the biblical psalm that reads

By the rivers of Babylon, there we
sat down, yea, we wept, when
we remembered Zion
          we hanged our harps upon the
willows in the midst thereof.
          For there they that carried us away
captive required of us a song; and
they that wasted us required of us
mirth, saying, Sing us one of the
songs of Zion
          How shall we sing the Lord's
Song in a strange land?

This allusion is even more suggestive when one considers Douglass's careful explanation of the slaves' songs, demanded, in a sense, and misunderstood by the captors, who, thinking the songs joyous, feel the more justified in their ownership of the black singers.

In the Narrative, Douglass calls on the Old Testament God to free His black children. “For what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?” Douglass also manifests certain characteristics of an Old Testament hero. He becomes Daniel, blessed with supernatural powers of perception and protected by God's special favor. Like Daniel, thrown into a den of lions for refusing to refrain from praying, Douglass never loses faith while he lives in the very “jaws of slavery.” Upon being returned from the Lloyd Plantation to Baltimore, Douglass felt he had “escaped a worse than lion's jaws.” Captain Auld in St. Michael's was a vicious, ineffectual master who, Douglass tells us, “Might have passed for a lion, but for his ears.” Escaping for a brief time from Covey, Douglass, sick and scarred, returns to Auld. The runaway slave supposes himself to have “looked like a man who had escaped a den of wild beasts, and barely escaped them.” Unlike Daniel, Douglass actually has to battle with the lions, tigers, and “the Snake” in the den of slavery. Like Daniel, though, he is protected, and once he has Sandy's root on his right side he can never be beaten. Providentially, too, Douglass is eventually rescued from the crushing jaws of slavery.

Douglass's account of his life follows the pattern of the life of a mythic or historic hero—or a hero of Scripture. His birth, if not virginal, as is so often the case with the archetypal hero, is cloaked in mystery. He is never sure who his father is or even when, exactly, he himself was born. Nor does he feel very close to his natural family; slavery kept mother from son, and brother from sister, so that natural familial bonds were felt only remotely. Like Joseph (the biblical son sold into slavery by his brothers) and like Moses, Douglass feels sure he has been selected by heaven for special favor. And like Jesus, he prays for redemption and resurrection from “the coffin of slavery to the heaven of freedom.” Christ-like, too, is Douglass's faltering faith at the torturous nadir of his enslavement. Under Covey's lash, Douglass nearly surrenders to the bestial slave system, and to murder and suicide. But Douglass turns from the false religion of such “Pharisees” as Covey; like Jesus, Douglass criticizes white institutionalized worship but clings to his faith in a personal Father.

Douglass's personal sense of ethics contradicts the codes of such men as Covey. For instance, Douglass hails the slave's trickery of the master as wit, if not wisdom. Douglass also approaches the attempted assassination of a black informer on runaway slaves; such is justice. Moreover, although Douglass disclaims “ignorant” and “superstitious” belief in the power of the root, his true feeling about root power emerges from the Narrative. Clearly, the root, be it pagan or nonpagan, gives Douglass the strength to master Covey. This “superstition” seems no contradiction in Douglass, for he is presented as a hero who transcends strict adherence to existing law. He is the possessor of pure religion; God speaks directly to him. Like a Christ or a Moses, he not only follows God's law, he gives the law. Clearly, this pure, felt religion of real experience with Providence is not the religion of the white slaveholding churchmen who merely use Christianity to justify their crimes.

Douglass's rejection of the slaveholder's false religion parallels the rejection of popular conceptions of God by such diverse American writers as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and—writing a full century after the Narrative's publication—James Baldwin. Like these writers, Douglass replaces the hollow religion of form for a deep, personal religion—in his case, the religion of abolition, which he practices and preaches with fervent passions.

Furthermore, like many black preachers, Douglass's true religion is a practical one that seeks a “heaven” on earth as well as on high. Salvation is not only a personal matter; Douglass labors for the freedom of a people. Once free (or at least freer) in Massachusetts, he joins the abolition movement: “It was a severe cross,” he writes, “and I took it up reluctantly.” His Narrative is, then, not only the spiritual journey of one soul but also a testimony and a warning, written with the earnest hope that it “may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren.” Like a black sermon, it is the story of a people under the guidance of Providence.

Douglass's message is the message of the progressive black preacher: Be hopeful and faithful, but do not fail to fight for the freedom of your brother men. Douglass recognizes that the God of freedom respects the slave who may lie, cheat, steal, or even kill to stay alive and to struggle for freedom. This freedom ethic, “preached” by Douglass, was in the tradition of many militant black preachers, including the black preacher and pamphleteer, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet.

Douglass's Narrative is in its way, a holy book—one full of marvels, demonstrating God's active participation in a vile and fallen world. The Narrative is a warning of the terror of God's fury. It is also an account of a black Moses' flight “from slavery to freedom.” It is an invitation to join “the church” of abolition, a church that offers freedom not only to the slave and the sympathetic white Northerner but also to the most murderous and bloodthirsty Southern dealers in human flesh. Sinners, Douglass seems to chant, black sermon-style, you are in the hands of an angry God!

Clearly, this is an autobiography, a slave narrative, a fictionlike work shaped by oratory as well as the sentimental romance. But Douglass, who grew up hearing sermons on the plantation and who heard and delivered them throughout his life, produced, in this greatest account of his life, a text shaped by the form and the processes of speaking characteristic of the black sermon. This is a mighty text meant, of course, to be read. But it is also a text meant to be mightily preached.

Henry-Louis Gates, Jr. (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: Gates, Henry-Louis, Jr. “Binary Oppositions in Chapter One of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave Written by Himself.” In Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, edited by Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto, pp. 212-32. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979.

[In the following essay, Gates discusses the way in which Douglass's narrative participated in contemporary literary conventions by setting up such binary oppositions as black/white, slave/free, ignorance/knowledge, and nature/culture.]

I was not hunting for my liberty, but also hunting for my name.

—William Wells Brown, 1849

Whatever may be the ill or favored condition of the slave in the matter of mere personal treatment, it is the chattel relation that robs him of his manhood.

—James Pennington, 1849

When at last in a race a new principle appears, an idea,—that conserves it; ideas only save races. If the black man is feeble and not important to the existing races, not on a parity with the best race, the black man must serve, and be exterminated. But if the black man carries in his bosom an indispensable element of a new and coming civilization; for the sake of that element, no wrong nor strength nor circumstance can hurt him: he will survive and play his part. … I esteem the occasion of this jubilee to be the proud discovery that the black race can contend with the white: that in the great anthem which we call history, a piece of many parts and vast compass, after playing a long time a very low and subdued accompaniment, they perceive the time arrived when they can strike in with effect and take a master's part in the music.

—Emerson, 1844

The white race will only respect those who oppose their usurpation, and acknowledge as equals those who will not submit to their rule. … We must make an issue, create an event and establish for ourselves a position. This is essentially necessary for our effective elevation as a people, directing our destiny and redeeming ourselves as a race.

—Martin R. Delany, 1854

Autobiographical forms in English and in French assumed narrative priority toward the end of the eighteenth century; they shaped themselves principally around military exploits, court intrigues, and spiritual quests. As Stephen Butterfield has outlined, “Elizabethan sea dogs and generals of the War of the Spanish Succession wrote of strenuous campaigns, grand strategy, and gory battles. The memoirs of Louis XIV's great commander, the Prince of Condé, for example, thrilled thousands in Europe and America, as did the ‘inside stories’ of the nefarious, clandestine doings of the great European courts. The memoirs of the Cardinal De Retz, which told the Machiavellian intrigues of French government during Louis XIV's minority and of the cabal behind the election of a Pope, captivated a large audience. Even more titillating were personal accounts of the boudoir escapades of noblemen and their mistresses. Nell Gwyn, Madame Pompadour, and even the fictitious Fanny Hill were legends if not idols in their day. More edifying but no less marvelous were the autobiographies of spiritual pilgrimage—such as the graphic accounts of Loyola, John Bunyan, and the Quaker George Fox. Their mystical experiences and miraculous deliverances filled readers with awe and wonder.” It is no surprise, then, that the narratives of the escaped slave became, during the three decades before the Civil War, the most popular form of written discourse in the country. Its audience was built to order. And the expectations created by this peculiar autobiographical convention, as well as by two other literary traditions, had a profound effect on the shape of discourse in the slave narrative. I am thinking here of the marked (but generally unheralded) tradition of the sentimental novel and, more especially, of the particularly American transmutation of the European picaresque. The slave narrative, I suggest, is a “countergenre,” a mediation between the novel of sentiment and the picaresque, oscillating somewhere between the two in a bipolar moment, set in motion by the mode of the Confession. (Indeed, as we shall see, the slave narrative spawned its formal negation, the plantation novel.)

Claudio Guillén's seminal typology of the picaresque,1 outlined as seven “characteristics” of that form and derived from numerous examples in Spanish and French literature, provides a curious counterpoint to the morphology of the slave narratives and aids remarkably in delineating what has proved to be an elusive, but recurring, narrative structure.

The picaro, who is after all a type of character, only becomes one at a certain point in his career, just as a man or woman “becomes” a slave only at a certain (and structurally crucial) point of perception in his or her “career.” Both the picaro and the slave narrators are orphans; both, in fact, are outsiders. The picaresque is a pseudo-autobiography, whereas the slave narratives often tend toward quasi-autobiography. Yet in both, “life is at the same time revived and judged, presented and remembered.” In both forms, the narrator's point of view is partial and prejudiced, although the total view “of both is reflective, philosophical, and critical on moral or religious grounds.”2 In both, there is a general stress on the material level of existence or indeed of subsistence, such as sordid facts, hunger, and money. There is in the narration of both a profusion of objects and detail. Both the picaro and the slave, as outsiders, comment on if not parody collective social institutions. Moreover, both, in their odysseys, move horizontally through space and vertically through society.

If we combine these resemblances with certain characteristics of the sentimental novel, such as florid asides, stilted rhetoric, severe piety, melodramatic conversation, destruction of the family unit, violation of womanhood, abuse of innocence, punishment of assertion, and the rags-to-riches success story, we can see that the slave narrative grafted together the conventions of two separate literary traditions and became its own form, utilizing popular conventions to affect its reader in much the same way as did cheap, popular fiction. Lydia Child, we recall, was not only the amanuensis for the escaped slave, Harriet Jacobs, but also a successful author in the sentimental tradition. (That the plantation novel was the antithesis or negation of the slave narrative becomes apparent when we consider its conventions. From 1824, when George Tucker published The Valley of the Shenandoah, the plantation novel concerned itself with aristocratic, virtuous masters; beast-like, docile slaves; great manor houses; squalid field quarters; and idealized, alabaster womanhood—all obvious negations of themes common to the slave narratives. Indeed, within two years of the publication in 1852 of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, at least fourteen plantation novels appeared.)

It should not surprise us, then, that the narratives were popular, since the use of well-established and well-received narrative conventions was meant to ensure commercial and hence political success. By at least one account, the sale of the slave narratives reached such profound proportions that a critic was moved to complain that the “shelves of booksellers groan under the weight of Sambo's woes, done up in covers! … We hate this niggerism, and hope it may be done away with. … If we are threatened with any more negro stories—here goes.” These “literary nigritudes” [sic], as he calls them, were “stories” whose “editions run to hundreds of thousands.”3 Marion Wilson Starling recalls Gladstone's belief that not more than about five percent of the books published in England had a sale of more than five hundred copies; between 1835 and 1863, no fewer than ten of these were slave narratives.4 So popular were they in England that a considerable number were published at London or Manchester before they were published in America, if at all. Nor should it surprise us that of these, the more popular were those that defined the genre structurally. It was Frederick Douglass' Narrative of 1845 that exploited the potential of and came to determine the shape of language in the slave narrative.

Douglass' Narrative, in its initial edition of five thousand copies, was sold out in four months. Within a year, four more editions of two thousand copies each were published. In the British Isles, five editions appeared, two in Ireland in 1846 and three in England in 1846 and 1847. Within the five years after its appearance, a total of some thirty thousand copies of the Narrative had been published in the English-speaking world. By 1848, a French edition, a paperback, was being sold in the stalls. Littells Living Age, an American periodical, gave an estimate of its sweep in the British Isles after one year's circulation: “Taking all together, not less than one million persons in Great Britain and Ireland have been excited by the book and its commentators.”5

Of the scores of reviews of the Narrative, two, especially, discuss the work in terms of its literary merits. One review, published initially in the New York Tribune and reprinted in The Liberator, attempts to place the work in the larger tradition of the narrative tale as a literary form.

Considered merely as a narrative, we have never read one more simple, true, coherent, and warm with genuine feeling. It is an excellent piece of writing, and on that score to be prized as a specimen of the powers of the black race, which prejudice persists in disputing. We prize highly all evidence of this kind, and it is becoming more abundant.6

Even more telling is the review from the Lynn Pioneer reprinted in the same issue of The Liberator; this review was perhaps the first to attempt to attach a priority to the Narrative's form and thereby place Douglass directly in a major literary tradition.

It is evidently drawn with a nice eye, and the coloring is chaste and subdued, rather than extravagant or overwrought. Thrilling as it is, and full of the most burning eloquence, it is yet simple and unimpassioned.

Although its “eloquence is the eloquence of truth,” and so “is as simple and touching as the impulses of childhood,” yet its “message” transcends even its superior moral content: “There are passages in it which would brighten the reputation of any author,—while the book, as a whole, judged as a mere work of art, would widen the fame of Bunyan or De Foe.”7 Leaving the matter of “truth” to the historians,8 these reviews argue correctly that despite the intention of the author for his autobiography to be a major document in the abolitionist struggle and regardless of Douglass' meticulous attempt at documentation, the Narrative falls into the larger class of the heroic fugitive with some important modifications that are related to the confession and the picaresque forms (hence, Bunyan and Defoe), a peculiar blend that would mark Afro-American fiction at least from the publication of James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

These resemblances between confession and picaresque informed the narrative shape of Afro-American fiction in much the same way as they did in the English and American novel. As Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg maintain

The similarity in narrative stance between picaresque and confession enables the two to blend easily, making possible an entirely fictional narrative which is more in the spirit of the confession than the picaresque, such as Moll Flanders and Great Expectations.

But this same blend makes possible a different sort of sublime narrative, “one that is picaresque in spirit but which employs actual materials from the author's life, such as [Wells's] Tono-Bungay.” Into this class fall slave narratives, the polemical Afro-American first-person form the influence of which would shape the development of point of view in black fiction for the next one hundred years, precisely because

By turning the direction of the narrative inward the author almost inevitably presents a central character who is an example of something. By turning the direction of the narrative outward the author almost inevitably exposes weaknesses in society. First-person narrative is thus a ready vehicle for ideas.9

It is this first-person narration, utilized precisely in this manner, that is the first great shaping characteristic of the slave narratives. But there is another formal influence on the slave narratives the effect of which is telling: this is the American romance.

Like Herman Melville's marvelous romance, Pierre, the slave narratives utilize as a structural principle the irony of seeming innocence. Here in American society, both say, is to be found as much that is contrary to moral order as could be found in pre-revolutionary Europe. The novelty of American innocence is, however, the refusal or failure to recognize evil while participating in that evil. As with other American romantic modes of narration, the language of the slave narratives remains primarily an expression of the self, a conduit for particularly personal emotion. In this sort of narrative, language was meant to be a necessary but unfortunate instrument merely. In the slave narratives, this structuring of the self couples with the minute explication of gross evil and human depravity, and does so with such sheer intent as to make for a tyranny of point. If the matter of the shaping of the self can come only after the slave is free, in the context of an autobiographical narrative where he first posits that full self, then slavery indeed dehumanizes and must in no uncertain terms be abolished, by violence if necessary, since it is by nature a violent institution. The irony here is tyrannically romantic: Illusion and substance are patterned antitheses.

As with other examples of romance, the narratives turn on an unconsummated love: The slave and the ex-slave are the dark ladies of the new country destined to expire for unrequited love. Yet the leitmotif of the journey north and the concomitant evolution of consciousness within the slave—from an identity as property and object to a sublime identity as a human being and subject—display in the first person the selfsame spirit of the New World's personal experience with Titanic nature that Franklin's Autobiography has come to symbolize. The author of the slave narrative, in his flight through the wilderness (re-created in vivid detailed descriptions of the relation between man and land on the plantation and off), seems to be arguing strongly that man can “study nature” to know himself. The two great precepts—the former Emersonian and the latter Cartesian—in the American adventure become one. Further, as with the American symbolists, the odyssey is a process of becoming: Whitman, for instance, is less concerned with explorations of emotion than with exploration as a mode of consciousness. Slave narratives not only describe the voyage but also enact the voyage so that their content is primarily a reflection of their literary method. Theirs is a structure in which the writer and his subject merge into the stream of language. Language indeed is primarily a perception of reality. Yet, unlike the American symbolists, these writers of slave narratives want not so much to adopt a novel stance from which the world assumes new shapes as to impose a new form onto the world. There can be no qualification as to the nature of slavery; there can be no equivocation.

Stephen Butterfield explicates10 this idea rather well by contrasting the levels of diction in the slave narrative The Life of John Thompson11 with a remarkably similar passage from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

The first is from Thompson:

The harpoon is sharp, and barbed at one end, so that when it has once entered the animal, it is difficult to draw it out again, and has attached to its other end a pole, two inches thick and five feet long. Attached to this is a line 75 to 100 fathoms in length, which is coiled into the bow of the boat.

Melville follows:

Thus the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing about it in almost every direction. All the oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions; so that to the timid eye of the landsman they seem as festooning their limbs.

There is a difference here of rhetorical strategies that distinguishes the two. Melville's language is symbolic and weighted with ambiguous moral meanings: The serpentine rope allows for no innocence; “all the oarsmen” are involved, even those who have nothing to do with coiling it in the tub; the crew lives with the serpent and by the serpent, necessarily for their livelihood, unaware of the nature of the coil yet contaminated and imperiled by its inherent danger. Melville thus depicts the metaphysical necessity of evil.

John Thompson's language is distinguished formally from the concrete and symbolistic devices in Melville. Thompson allows the imagery of a whaling voyage to carry moral and allegorical meanings, yet he means his narration to be descriptive and realistic; his concern is with verisimilitude. There can be nothing morally ambiguous about the need to abolish slavery, and there can be little ambiguity about the reason for the suffering of the slave. “The slave narrative,” Butterfield concludes, “does not see oppression in terms of a symbol-structure that transforms evil into a metaphysical necessity. For to do so would have been to locate the source of evil outside the master-slave relationship, and thus would have cut the ideological ground from under the entire thrust of the abolitionist movement.”12 Thompson means not so much to narrate as to convey a message, a value system; as with the black sermon, the slave's narrative functions as a single sign. And the nature of Frederick Douglass' rhetorical strategy directly reflects this sentiment through the use of what rhetoricians have called antitheses and of what the structuralists have come to call the binary opposition.

In the act of interpretation, we establish a sign relationship between the description and a meaning. The relations most crucial to structural analysis are functional binary oppositions. Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle argue in Fundamentals of Language that binary oppositions are inherent in all languages, that they are, indeed, a fundamental principle of language formation itself.13 Many structuralists, seizing on Jakobson's formulation, hold the binary opposition to be a fundamental operation of the human mind, basic to the production of meaning. Levi-Strauss, who turned topsy-turvy the way we examine mythological discourse, describes the binary opposition as “this elementary logic which is the smallest common denominator of all thought.”14 Levi-Strauss' model of opposition and mediation, which sees the binary opposition as an underlying structural pattern as well as a method for revealing that pattern, has in its many variants become a most satisfying mechanism for retrieving almost primal social contradictions, long ago “resolved” in the mediated structure itself.15 Perhaps it is not irresponsible or premature to call Levi-Strauss' contribution to human understanding a classic one.

Frederic Jameson, in The Prison-House of Language, maintains that

the binary opposition is … at the outset a heuristic principle, that instrument of analysis on which the mythological hermeneutic is founded. We would ourselves be tempted to describe it as a technique for stimulating perception, when faced with a mass of apparently homogeneous data to which the mind and the eyes are numb: a way of forcing ourselves to perceive difference and identity in a wholly new language the very sounds of which we cannot yet distinguish from each other. It is a decoding or deciphering device, or alternately a technique of language learning.

How does this “decoding device” work as a tool to practical criticism? When any two terms are set in opposition to each other the reader is forced to explore qualitative similarities and differences, to make some connection, and, therefore, to derive some meaning from points of disjunction. If one opposes A to B, for instance, and X to Y, the two cases become similar as long as each involves the presence and absence of a given feature. In short, two terms are brought together by some quality that they share and are then opposed and made to signify the absence and presence of that quality. The relation between presence and absence, positive and negative signs, is the simplest form of the binary opposition. These relations, Jameson concludes, “embody a tension ‘in which one of the two terms of the binary opposition is apprehended as positively having a certain feature while the other is apprehended as deprived of the feature in question.’”16

Frederick Douglass' Narrative attempts with painstaking verisimilitude to reproduce a system of signs that we have come to call plantation culture, from the initial paragraph of Chapter i:

I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday, they seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.17

We see an ordering of the world based on a profoundly relational type of thinking, in which a strict barrier of difference or opposition forms the basis of a class rather than, as in other classification schemes, an ordering based on resemblances or the identify of two or more elements. In the text, we can say that these binary oppositions produce through separation the most inflexible of barriers: that of meaning. We, the readers, must exploit the oppositions and give them a place in a larger symbolic structure. Douglass' narrative strategy seems to be this: He brings together two terms in special relationships suggested by some quality that they share; then, by opposing two seemingly unrelated elements, such as the sheep, cattle, or horses on the plantation and the specimen of life known as slave, Douglass' language is made to signify the presence and absence of some quality—in this case, humanity.18 Douglass uses this device to explicate the slave's understanding of himself and of his relation to the world through the system of the perceptions that defined the world the planters made. Not only does his Narrative come to concern itself with two diametrically opposed notions of genesis, origins, and meaning itself, but its structure actually turns on an opposition between nature and culture as well. Finally and, for our purposes, crucially, Douglass' method of complex mediation—and the ironic reversals so peculiar to his text—suggests overwhelmingly the completely arbitrary relation between description and meaning, between signifier and signified, between sign and referent.

Douglass uses these oppositions to create a unity on a symbolic level, not only through physical opposition but also through an opposition of space and time. The Narrative begins “I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland.” Douglass knows the physical circumstances of his birth: Tuckahoe, we know, is near Hillsborough and is twelve miles from Easton. Though his place of birth is fairly definite, his date of birth is not for him to know: “I have no accurate knowledge of my age,” he admits, because “any authentic record containing it” would be in the possession of others. Indeed, this opposition, or counterpoint, between that which is knowable in the world of the slave and that which is not, abounds throughout this chapter. Already we know that the world of the master and the world of the slave are separated by an inflexible barrier of meaning. The knowledge the slave has of his circumstances he must deduce from the earth; a quantity such as time, our understanding of which is cultural and not natural, derives from a nonmaterial source, let us say the heavens: “The white children could tell their ages. I could not.”

The deprivation of the means to tell the time is the very structural center of this initial paragraph: “A want of information concerning my own [birthday] was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.” This state of disequilibrium motivates the slave's search for his humanity as well as Douglass' search for his text. This deprivation has created that gap in the slave's imagination between self and other, between black and white. What is more, it has apparently created a relation of likeness between the slave and the animals. “By far,” Douglass confesses, “the large part of slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs.” This deprivation is not accidental; it is systematic: “it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.” Douglass, in his subtle juxtaposition here of “masters” and “knowledge” and of “slaves” and “ignorance,” again introduces homologous terms. “I do not remember to have ever met a slave,” Douglass emphasizes, “who could tell of his birthday.” Slaves, he seems to conclude, are they who cannot plot their course by the linear progression of the calendar. Here, Douglass summarizes the symbolic code of this world, which makes the slave's closest blood relations the horses and which makes his very notion of time a cyclical one, diametrically opposed to the master's linear conception: “They [the slaves] seldom come nearer to [the notion of time] than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time.” The slave had arrived, but not in time to partake at the welcome table of human culture.

For Douglass, the bonds of blood kinship are the primary metaphors of human culture.19 As an animal would know its mother, so Douglass knows his. “My mother was named Harriet Bailey. She was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey.” Both of whom were “colored,” Douglass notes, “and quite dark.” His mother “was of a darker complexion” even than either grandparent. His father, on the other hand, is some indefinite “white man,” suggested through innuendo to be his master: “The opinion was also whispered,” he says, “that my master was my father.” His master was his father; his father his master: “of the correctness of this opinion,” Douglass concludes, “I know nothing,” only and precisely because “the means of knowing was withheld from me.” Two paragraphs below, having reflected on the death of his mother, Douglass repeats this peculiar unity twice again. “Called thus suddenly away,” he commences, “she left me without the slightest intimation of who my father was.” Yet Douglass repeats “the whisper that my father was my master” as he launches into a description of the rank odiousness of a system “that slave-holders have ordained, and by law established,” in which the patrilinear succession of the planter has been forcibly replaced by a matrilinear succession for the slave: “the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers.” The planters therefore make of the “gratification of their wicked desires,” spits Douglass, a thing “profitable as well as pleasurable.” Further, the end result of “this cunning arrangement” is that “the slave-holder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.” “I know of such cases,” he opens his sixth paragraph, using a declaration of verisimilitude as a transition to introduce another opposition, this one between the fertile slave-lover-mother and the planter's barren wife.

The profound ambiguity of this relationship between father and son and master and slave persists, if only because the two terms “father” and “master” are here embodied in one, with no mediation between them. It is a rather grotesque bond that links Douglass to his parent, a bond that embodies “the distorted and unnatural relationship endemic to slavery.”20 It is as if the usually implied primal tension between father and son is rendered apparent in the daily contact between father-master-human and son-slave-animal, a contact that occurs, significantly, only during the light of day.

Douglass' contact with his mother (“to know her as such,” he qualifies) never occurred “more than four or five times in my life.” Each of these visits, he recalls, “was of short duration,” and each, he repeats over and over, took place “at night.” Douglass continues: “[My mother] made her journey to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance,” he mentions as if an afterthought, “on foot.” “I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother,” he repeats one sentence later, “by the light of day. She was with me in the night” (emphasis added). Always she returned to a Mr. Stewart's plantation, some twelve miles away, “long before I waked” so as to be at the plantation before dawn, since she “was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise.” The slaves, metaphorically, “owned” the night, while the master owned the day. By the fourth paragraph of the narrative, the terms of our homology—the symbolic code of this world—are developed further to include relations of the animal, the mother, the slave, the night, the earth, matrilinear succession, and nature opposed to relations of the human being, the father, the master, the daylight, the heavens, patrilinear succession, and culture. Douglass, in short, opposes the absolute and the eternal to the mortal and the finite. Our list, certainly, could be expanded to include oppositions between spiritual/material, aristocratic/base, civilized/barbaric, sterile/fertile, enterprise/sloth, force/principle, fact/imagination, linear/cyclical, thinking/feeling, rational/irrational, chivalry/cowardice, grace/brutishness, pure/cursed, and human/beastly.

Yet the code, Douglass proceeds to show, stands in defiance of the natural and moral order. Here Douglass commences as mediator and as trickster to reverse the relations of the opposition. That the relation between the slave-son and his master-father was an unnatural one and even grotesque, as are the results of any defilement of Order, is reflected in the nature of the relation between the plantation mistress and the planter's illegitimate offspring. “She is ever disposed to find fault with them,” laments Douglass; “she is never better pleased than when she sees them under the lash.” Indeed, it is the white mistress who often compels her husband, the master, to sell “this class of his slaves, out of deference to the feelings of his white wife.” But it is the priority of the economic relation over the kinship tie that is the true perversion of nature in this world: “It is often the dictate of humanity for a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers,” Douglass observes tellingly. Here we see the ultimate reversal: For it is now the mistress, the proverbial carrier of culture, who demands that the master's son be delivered up to the “human flesh-mongers” and traded for consumption. Douglass has here defined American cannibalism, a consumption of human flesh dictated by a system that could only be demonic.

Douglass' narrative demonstrates not only how the deprivation of the hallmarks of identity can affect the slave but also how the slaveowner's world negates and even perverts those very values on which it is built. Deprivation of a birth date, a name, a family structure, and legal rights makes of the deprived a brute, a subhuman, says Douglass, until he comes to a consciousness of these relations; yet, it is the human depriver who is the actual barbarian, structuring his existence on the consumption of human flesh. Just as the mulatto son is a mediation between two opposed terms, man and animal, so too has Douglass' text become the complex mediator between the world as the master would have it and the world as the slave knows it really is. Douglass has subverted the terms of the code he was meant to mediate: He has been a trickster. As with all mediations the trickster is a mediator and his mediation is a trick—only a trick; for there can be no mediation in this world. Douglass' narrative has aimed to destroy that symbolic code that created the false oppositions themselves. The oppositions, all along, were only arbitrary, not fixed.

Douglass first suggests that the symbolic code created in this text is arbitrary and not fixed, human-imposed not divinely ordained in an ironic aside on the myth of the curse of Ham, which comes in the very center of the seventh paragraph of the narrative and which is meant to be an elaboration on the ramifications of “this class of slaves” who are the fruit of the unnatural liaison between animal and man. If the justification of this order is the curse on Ham and his tribe, if Ham's tribe signifies the black African, and if this prescription for enslavement is scriptural, then, Douglass argues, “it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers,” he repeats for the fourth time, are “most frequently their own masters.”

As if to underscore the falsity of this notion of an imposed, inflexibly divine order, Douglass inverts a standard Christian symbol, that of the straight and narrow gate to Paradise. The severe beating of his Aunt Hester, who “happened,” Douglass advises us parenthetically, “to be absent when my master desired her presence,” is the occasion of this inversion. “It struck me with awful force,” he remembers. “It was the blood-stained gate,” he writes, “the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was,” he concludes, “a most terrible spectacle.” This startling image suggests that of the archetypal necromancer, Faustus, in whose final vision the usual serene presence of the Cross is stained with warm and dripping blood.

Douglass has posited the completely arbitrary nature of the sign. The master's actions belie the metaphysical suppositions on which is based the order of his world: It is an order ostensibly imposed by the Father of Adam, yet one in fact exposed by the sons of Ham. It is a world the oppositions of which have generated their own mediator, Douglass himself. This mulatto son, half-animal, half-man, writes a text (which is itself another mediation) in which he can expose the arbitrary nature of the signs found in this world, the very process necessary to the destruction of this world. “You have seen how a man was made a slave,” Douglass writes at the structural center of his Narrative, “you shall see how a slave was made a man.”21 As with all mediation, Douglass has constructed a system of perception that becomes the plot development in the text but that results in an inversion of the initial state of the oppositions through the operations of the mediator himself, as indicated in this diagram:

With this narrative gesture alone, slave has become master, creature has become man, object has become subject. What more telling embodiment of Emersonian idealism and its “capacity” to transubstantiate a material reality! Not only has an idea made subject of object, but creature has assumed self and the assumption of self has created a race. For, as with all myths of origins, the relation of self to race is a relation of synecdoche. As Michael Cooke maintains concerning the characteristics of black autobiography:

The self is the source of the system of which it is a part, creates what it discovers, and although (as Coleridge realized) it is nothing unto itself, it is the possibility of everything for itself. Autobiography is the coordination of the self as content—everything available in memory, perception, understanding, imagination, desire—and the self as shaped, formed in terms of a perspective and pattern of interpretation.22

If we step outside the self-imposed confines of Chapter i to seek textual evidence, the case becomes even stronger. The opposition between culture and nature is clearly contained in a description of a slave meal, found in Chapter v.23 “We were not regularly allowanced. Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.” The slave, we read, did not eat food; he ate mush. He did not eat with a spoon; he ate with pieces of shingle, or on oyster shells, or with his naked hands. Again we see the obvious culture-nature opposition at play. When the slave, in another place, accepts the comparison with and identity of a “bad sheep,” he again has inverted the terms, supplied as always by the master, so that the unfavorable meaning that this has for the master is supplanted by the favorable meaning it has for the slave. There is in this world the planter has made, Douglass maintains, an ironic relation between appearance and reality. “Slaves sing most,” he writes at the end of Chapter ii, “when they are most unhappy. … The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”

Finally, Douglass concludes his second chapter with a discourse on the nature of interpretation, which we could perhaps call the first charting of the black hermeneutical circle and which we could take again as a declaration of the arbitrary relation between a sign and its referent, between the signifier and the signified. The slaves, he writes, “would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out—if not in the word, [then] in the sound;—and as frequently in the one as in the other.”24 Douglass describes here a certain convergence of perception peculiar only to members of a very specific culture: The thought could very well be embodied nonverbally, in the sound if not in the word. What is more, sound and sense could very well operate at odds to create through tension a dialectical relation. Douglass remarks: “They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. … They would thus sing as a chorus to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves.” Yet the decoding of these cryptic messages did not, as some of us have postulated, depend on some sort of mystical union with their texts. “I did not, when a slave,” Douglass admits, “understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs.” “Meaning,” on the contrary, came only with a certain aesthetic distance and an acceptance of the critical imperative. “I was myself within the circle,” he concludes, “so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.” There exists always the danger, Douglass seems to say, that the meanings of nonlinguistic signs will seem “natural”; one must view them with a certain detachment to see that their meanings are in fact merely the “products” of a certain culture, the result of shared assumptions and conventions. Not only is meaning culture-bound and the referents of all signs an assigned relation, Douglass tells us, but how we read determines what we read, in the truest sense of the hermeneutical circle.


  1. Literature as System: Essays toward the Theory of Literary History (Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 71-106 and esp. pp. 135-58.

  2. Guillén, [Literature as System,] p. 81.

  3. George R. Graham, “Black Letters; or Uncle Tom-Foolery in Literature,” Graham's Illustrated Magazine of Literature, Romance, Art, and Fashion, 42 Feb. 1853, p. 209.

  4. Starling, The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American Literary History, Diss. New York Univ. 1946, pp. 47-48.

  5. Narrative of Frederick Douglass,Littell's Living Age, 1 April 1846, p. 47.

  6. New York Tribune, 10 June 1845, p. 1, col. 1; rpt. in Liberator, 30 May 1845, p. 97.

  7. Lynn Pioneer; rpt. in Liberator, 30 May 1845, p. 86.

  8. See esp. John Blassingame, “Black Autobiography as History and Literature,” Black Scholar, 5:4 (Dec. 1973-Jan. 1974), 2-9; and his Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1977).

  9. Scholes and Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), p. 76.

  10. Black Autobiography in America (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1974), p. 36.

  11. Thompson, The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave, Containing His History of Twenty-Five Years in Bondage and His Providential Escape (Worcester: n.p., 1856), p. 113.

  12. Butterfield, [Black Autobiography,] p. 37.

  13. Fundamentals of Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), pp. 4, 47-49.

  14. Totemism (New York: Penguin, 1969), p. 130.

  15. What has this rather “obvious” model of human thought to do with the study of mundane literature generally and with the study of Afro-American literature specifically? It has forced us to alter irrevocably certain long-held assumptions about the relation between sign and referent, between signifier and signified. It has forced us to remember that we must not always mean what we say; or to remember what queries we intended to resolve when we first organized a discourse in a particular way. What's more, this rather simple formulation has taught us to recognize texts where we find them and to read these texts as they demand to be read. Yet, we keepers of the black critical activity have yet to graft fifty years of systematic thinking about literature onto the consideration of our own. The study of Afro-American folklore, for instance, remains preoccupied with unresolvable matters of genesis or with limitless catalogs and motif indices. Afraid that Brer Rabbit is “merely” a trickster or that Anansi spiders merely spin webs, we reduce these myths to their simplest thematic terms—the perennial relation between the wily, persecuted black and the not-too-clever, persecuting white. This reduction belies our own belief in the philosophical value of these mental constructs. We admit, albeit inadvertently, a nagging suspicion that these are the primitive artifacts of childish minds, grappling with a complex Western world and its languages, three thousand years and a world removed. These myths, as the slave narratives would, did not so much “narrate” as they did convey a value system; they functioned, much like a black sermon, as a single sign. The use of binary opposition, for instance, allows us to perceive much deeper “meanings” than a simplistic racial symbolism allows. Refusal to use sophisticated analysis on our own literature smacks of a symbolic inferiority complex as blatant as were treatments of skin lightener and hair straightener.

  16. The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 113; 35, citing Troubetskoy's Principes de phonologie. See also Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 93, 225-27; Roland Barthes, S/Z, An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), p. 24.

  17. Narrative (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), p. 1. All subsequent quotes, unless indicated, are from pp. 1-7.

  18. There is overwhelming textual evidence that Douglass was a consummate stylist who, contrary to popular myth, learned the craft of the essayist self-consciously. The importance of Caleb Bingham's The Columbian Orator (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1797) to Douglass' art is well established. John Blassingame is convinced of Douglass' use of Bingham's rhetorical advice in his writing, especially of antitheses. (Personal interview with John Blassingame, 7 May 1976.) For an estimation of the role of language in the political struggle of antebellum blacks see Alexander Crummell, “The English Language in Liberia,” in his The Future of Africa (New York: Scribners, 1862), pp. 9-57.

  19. See also Nancy T. Clasby, “Frederick Douglass's Narrative: A Content Analysis,” CLA Journal, 14 (1971), 244.

  20. Clasby, p. 245.

  21. Douglass, p. 77.

  22. “Modern Black Autobiography in the Tradition,” in Romanticism, Vistas, Instances, and Continuities, ed. David Thorburn and Geoffrey Hartman (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1973), p. 258.

  23. Douglass, pp. 13-15.

  24. Douglass, p. 30.

Further Reading

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Anderson, Douglas. “The Textual Reproductions of Frederick Douglass.” Clio 27, no. 1 (fall 1997): 57-87.

Explores the literary and dramatic qualities of Douglass's various representations of self.

Crowley, John W. “Slaves to the Bottle: Gough's Autobiography and Douglass's Narrative.” In The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature, edited by David S. Reynolds and Debra J. Rosenthal, pp. 115-35. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Discusses common traits in John Bartholomew Gough's temperance narrative and Frederick Douglass's slave narrative, both of which appeared in 1845.

De Pietro, Thomas. “Vision and Revision in the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass.” CLA Journal 26, no. 4 (June 1983): 384-96.

Examines the changes Douglass made in the various versions of his life story.

De Vita, Alexis Brooks. “Escaped Tricksters: Runaway Narratives as Trickster Tales.” Griot 17, no. 2 (fall 1998): 1-10.

Discusses the use of the trickster figure in various slave narratives including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Hall, James C., ed. Approaches to Teaching “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999, 174 p.

Provides a collection of essays covering various approaches to incorporating the Narrative into courses at different levels.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. “‘Trust No Man’: Poe, Douglass, and the Culture of Slavery.” In Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg, pp. 225-57. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Compares Douglass's Narrative and Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym within the social context of race relations in the South in the 1830s.

Ripley, Peter. “The Autobiographical Writings of Frederick Douglass.” Southern Studies 24, no. 1 (spring 1985): 5-29.

Compares Douglass's three autobiographical texts: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Royer, Daniel J. “The Process of Literacy as Communal Involvement in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass.” African American Review 28, no. 3 (fall 1994) 363-74.

Discusses the issue of literacy in Douglass's autobiographical writings.

Sekora, John. “The Dilemma of Frederick Douglass: The Slave Narrative as Literary Institution.” Essays in Literature 10, no. 2 (fall 1983): 219-26.

Examines the questions raised by Douglass regarding the restrictions and limitations imposed by the slave narrative genre on its authors.

Van Leer, David. “Reading Slavery: The Anxiety of Ethnicity in Douglass's Narrative.” In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, pp. 118-40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Explores the rhetorical strategies employed by Douglass in the Narrative, specifically his appropriation of various white discourses in order to appeal to a Northern reading audience.

Watson, Charles S. “Portrayals of the Black and the Idea of Progress: Simms and Douglass.” Southern Studies 20, no. 4 (winter 1981): 339-50.

Considers the idea of human progress in representations of black Americans in the fiction of William Gilmore Simms and the autobiographical writings of Frederick Douglass.

Additional coverage of Douglass's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African-American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Vols. 1640-1865; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors and Multicultural Authors; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1, 43, 50, 79, 243; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 2; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 7, 55; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Something About the Author, Vol. 29; and World Literature Criticism.

Lucinda H. MacKethan (essay date winter 1986)

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SOURCE: MacKethan, Lucinda H. “From Fugitive Slave to Man of Letters: The Conversion of Frederick Douglass.” Journal of Narrative Technique 16, no. 1 (winter 1986): 55-71.

[In the following essay, MacKethan explores Douglass's struggle to establish mastery over language and literature as a means of achieving full human and civil rights.]

To be an “American slave” was to be a man denied manhood in a country which defined men as beings endowed by their creator with the inalienable right to freedom. To be a “fugitive American slave” was to be a man seeking to claim title to the specifically American definition of man by finding a “territory” where that definition would legally apply. And to be a “fugitive American slave narrator” was to be a man seeking in a written document to prove that the free territory had successfully been appropriated through language, so that the American definition of man and the American concept of freedom could no longer be denied to himself or by logical extension to any other slave. Yet what the titles of the fugitive slave narratives enact and name is as much a drama of continuing denial as it is of successful appropriation. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; The Fugitive Blacksmith; Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave; and Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave are titles of a struggle with, and not a victory over, an enslaving cultural definition. Like their titles, the narratives themselves are made taut by the pull of two distinctly named purposes which are interdependent but also contradictory—their need to act both as quests for and proofs of the entitling powers of language.

The right to create a new language, to make new names, was crucial to the destiny of America, according to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter of August 16, 1813, he told John Waldo that, as an American, he found it necessary to be a “neologist” and not a “purist” in respect to language. “Certainly so great growing a population,” he explained, “spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of arts, must enlarge their language to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old.” A transformation of status, such as the one all Americans experienced through the Revolution, required new names; as Jefferson saw it, “The new circumstances in which we are placed call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.” The right to name, then, was understood by Jefferson to be an especially important characteristic of a republic, for it reflected the power to order reality: “And should the language of England continue stationary,” he boasted, “we shall probably enlarge our employment of it until its new character may separate it, in name as well as in power, from the mother tongue” (1294-1300).

Jefferson's idea of language was congenial to the romantic spirit of the age that produced America's first great flowering of literature in the three decades that followed his death. Whitman's application of Emerson's ideal of “The Poet” as namer to the specifically American situation sounds closely Jeffersonian: his call for a new literature in the Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass reasoned that “Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest.” The Preface itself illustrates Whitman's idea of the process of naming America's new objects, both spiritual and material, for in it Whitman makes a long list of “objects and qualities” belonging to “his country's spirit, … its geography and natural life.” It is significant that when he names and thereby “incarnates” the diverse objects of the American scene, Whitman lists slavery last, giving it both a name and a gloss: “slavery and the tremulous spreading of hands to protect it, and the stern opposition to it which shall never cease till it ceases or the speaking of tongues and the moving of lips cease” (456). Through untiring speech acts, then, the American poet could command slavery itself, and by the naming of it, defeat it. As a vision of American realities, “the expression of the American,” Whitman thus insisted, “is to be transcendant and new.” Through the titles of their narratives, the names that they fashioned for themselves, the letters that they addressed to their masters, the figures that they shaped to name their experiences, and the literary forms that they imposed upon their narratives, the fugitive slave narrators appropriated in Whitman's own time the function that Jefferson defined for American language and Whitman defined for the American poet. Their express purpose was to enlarge the common and accepted employments of language as a primary means of bestowing on all aspects of the American experience, but especially upon American slavery, “its fit proportions neither more nor less,” as Whitman put it.

Booker T. Washington gave the process that Jefferson and Whitman envisioned a wonderfully apt name when he told, in Up From Slavery, how black freedmen and women insisted on creating their own surnames after the Civil War. A “John” or a “Susan” belonging to a white man named “Hatcher” would feel “that ‘John Hatcher’ or ‘Hatcher's John’ was not the proper title by which to denote a freedman; and so in many cases ‘John Hatcher’ was changed to ‘John S. Lincoln’ or ‘John S. Sherman,’ the initial ‘S’ standing for no name, it being simply a part of what the coloured man proudly called his ‘entitles’” (37-38). One's “entitles” gave one not only identity but rights. For the slave, however, “entitling” signified a central paradox; one had to know one's letters in order to be free, but in America, one had to be free in order to learn one's letters. In this double bind the fugitive slave found the greatest challenge to his achievement of full human status. It is the challenge that was illuminated for Frederick Douglass when he overheard his master's objections to his learning to read; it is the challenge that James W. C. Pennington framed when he wrote that although he was technically free in his Quaker sanctuary in Pennsylvania, “It cost me two years' hard labor, after I fled, to unshackle my mind” (246); it is, finally, the challenge that is expressed in Thomas Wentworth Higginson's description of the black ex-slaves in his Union army regiment attempting to spell out their letters, a feat, he said, “which always commands all ears,—they rightly recognizing a mighty spell, equal to the overthrowing of monarchs, in the magic assonance of cat, hat, pat, bat, and the rest of it” (24-25).

Frederick Douglass's first autobiography, the 1845 Narrative, made the slave narrative form into a weapon of words to establish the right to letters as a basic human and civil right. His strategy involved forging a bond between the familiar image of the slave narrator as preacher of an abolitionist version of Christianity and an entirely new image of the slave narrator as American poet in the Jeffersonian sense—that is, as one who controls and orders national realities by his ability to name. The slave narratives of the eighteenth century had been consciously shaped to the purposes of the protestant spiritual autobiographies; they tended to become quite literally both conversion and captivity narratives. It is not surprising that in the 1830s, when the slave narrative form became a tool in the abolitionist drive to make slavery a national sin, the resulting productions would adapt the conversion and captivity modes to the antislavery aim. Richard Slotkin describes the Christian progression that usually occurred in the nineteenth century slave narratives: “Revulsion from sin frees the black soul of its spiritual bondage to slavery; the aid of Christian men frees his body as well; and the redemption of the soul is followed by the rescue of the body, as in the classic captivity of Mary Rowlandson” (442).

Like many of the slave narrators before him, Frederick Douglass had been led by his unusual educational opportunities to a religious vocation. As a slave he had taught Sabbath schools for other blacks when these were infrequently allowed; once he was free, he became a class leader and local preacher among “a small body of colored Methodists” (275), as he tells us in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Douglass used this background, as Thomas Couser has shown, to present “something with which his audience was not directly familiar—the experience of slavery—in terms of something with which they were presumably familiar,” the experience of conversion. “He was familiar with the experience and the terminology of conversion,” Couser shows, and he “forcefully adopted those models to his own purposes” (53). His most important purpose, it seems to me, was to connect conversion to literacy in the minds of his readers in order to establish the power of the slave writer to alter reality. By setting the achievement of literacy within a spiritual frame of reference, the slave becomes a consecrated man of letters, “entitled Man,” Master. Literacy, then, for Douglass, conferred entitlement with specific application to the right to liberty, and this right meant “salvation” in a literal sense which borrowed but also mocked the white Christian valuation of being “saved.” The conversion analogy that he appropriated for his narrative was a way of visualizing for his audience not just slavery as sin but the slave's mastery of the white man's world through the word.1

Douglass put the scenes of his life dealing with his attainment of literacy into a variety of sacramental contexts, from baptism to conversion to confirmation to ordination. Simultaneously, he made his narrative an exploration of ever-expanding dimensions of the term “letters.” We move from letters as symbols in the alphabet, to letters as components gathered into names, to letters as written communications, to letters as literary culture, the world of learning. In the widest sense, through the equation of conversion (assurance of grace) with literacy (assurance of the word), Douglass was able to adopt for his own design as writer the Christian connotation of “the Word” as Logos, the revealed design of God. For himself and his narrative, “In the Beginning was the Word.”

Douglass's Narrative is arranged to give the significance of the conversion process to the acts of appropriating, deciphering, and then encoding letters. The protestant version of the process has been described in ways very useful to our discussion by G. A. Starr in his book, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography, which defines the motivations, content, and organization of spiritual autobiography in seventeenth century England. Particularly in its organization, Douglass's work seems to adopt the “natural pattern” that the seventeenth century autobiographers used to shape the story of their inner lives. Starr begins his discussion of this pattern with a comment that we might apply as an explanation, at least in part, of the formulaic quality of slave narratives: he says of his own texts that

these autobiographies found significance in all sorts of actions and situations by regarding them in a spiritual context. Careers that were totally unlike in their outward character turned out to be basically similar when viewed in this way.

If one were thinking primarily of “spiritual purpose and plight,” then it would be logical to assume that “souls underwent identical stages of development. … Spiritual striving (and for that matter spiritual decay as well) seemed to obey a pattern of its own.” Organizing the story of one's life according to “recognizable phases” of the soul's development proved the most serviceable arrangement for the spiritual autobiography; the stages were “at once temporal and thematic; their progression was regular and determinate.” Moreover, they stressed “inner contours” of development which “obeys no calendar, and seldom tallies with changes in one's outward affairs” (38-39).

As Starr traces this pattern in a representative autobiography he notes that “Conversion is clearly the pivotal phase in the sequence. … Everything is seen as happening before, during, or after conversion” (40). In his example (“Memoirs of the Rev. James Fraser of Brae,” 1670), the spiritual progress is, typically, “by no means steady or uninterrupted.” Some episodes brought Fraser “nearer conversion, others put it off; nor does he attempt to conceal these fluctuations. What he does is to weigh each in terms of its effect on his conversion” (43). Starr also notes that “Conversion, then, brings no immunity to further spiritual vicissitudes, but it does supply a new orientation from which to face them, and a new strength with which to endure or overcome them” (46). Fraser's conversion, “far from ending his spiritual turmoils, opens the way to many. … He is now forced to cope with impulses which conversion itself cannot eradicate, but rather brings painfully to the surface” (47). Starr tells us that one other prominent feature of Fraser's narrative is “a record of his reading.” Overall, the memoirs “deal at some length, then, with his struggle to retain and extend the effects of conversion, but one finds the impetus to this spiritual exertion coming as often from things read as from things done” (48). All of these remarks offer valuable insights into the patterns governing Douglass's autobiography. As we shall see, he arranged his life story according to the stages of development connected to the “unshackling” of his mind; the movement to conversion began with the moment of recognition that literacy is grace, “the pathway from slavery to freedom”; conversion was assured at the moment that Douglass could say, “Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write”; and conversion as literacy remained thematically the touchstone of all experience thereafter, down to Douglass's final written words: “solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause,—I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass.

Chapters One through Five of Douglass's Narrative take Douglass from his birth on a large, isolated plantation in eastern Maryland to his removal, at around the age of eight, to the city of Baltimore. Starr's comment that the spiritual autobiography “obeys no calendar” has ironic fitness for the life of the slave as Douglass portrays it in his early remark that he had “no accurate knowledge of [his] age” and could “not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday” (18). Douglass's move to Baltimore came as a result of his being given to a relative of his master to be a companion to a white boy near his own age; he interprets this event retrospectively as a kind of early sign of special redemption, a recognition of election as it was often dramatized in Puritan narratives: “I regarded the selection of myself as somewhat remarkable,” he says. “There were those younger, those older, and those of the same age. I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice” (45). What he was chosen for is made quite clear in Chapters Six and Seven, which form the center of the Narrative and deal exclusively with Douglass's personal discovery of the power of words.

In the chapters that come before the two central “literacy” ones, Douglass shows himself being indoctrinated into the ways of a world in which word-wielding is an effective form of “mastering” granted exclusively to whites. He does not show himself as understanding but as observing with a child's eyes the power of language as exhibited by various overseers and masters. What he takes particular care to note is a use of physical force almost always accompanied by a manipulative language strategy. The overseer Mr. Severe, for instance, was not only a “cruel” man but a “profane swearer” who used words in the same manner and to the same effect that he used his whip: “It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of any ordinary man to hear him talk” (26). When Douglass speaks of Severe's “cursing, raving, cutting, and slashing” among the slaves, he is giving us an equation which makes physical and verbal abuse equivalent forms of torture. Douglass begins his description of this overseer with a pun that signals the language emphasis: “Mr. Severe was rightly named” (my italics), he comments; “he was a cruel man.” When measuring Mr. Severe against another overseer, Mr. Hopkins, Douglass says not only that the latter was “less cruel” but also that he was “less profane, and made less noise, than Mr. Severe” (27). Immediately after this comparison, he inserts his discussion of the “wild songs” of the slave, whose words “would seem unmeaning jargon,” an indication of their powerlessness in relation to the power residing in the profanity of overseers.

Speaking of his old master, in Chapter Three, Douglass shows that denying slaves the power of speech was a means of exerting control. Colonel Lloyd, when rebuking his slaves, allowed no verbal replies: “To all these complaints, no matter how unjust, the slave must answer never a word.” When the Colonel spoke, “a slave must stand, listen, and tremble” (32). Another overseer, Mr. Gore, “could torture the slightest look, word, or gesture, on the part of a slave, into impudence.” The overseer could, in a word, translate and redefine the slave's language. A “grave man” himself, Mr. Gore “indulged in no jokes, said no funny words” (Douglass makes an effective contrast of himself with Gore in this sentence with his pun on “grave”). In Gore's case, the sparing use of carefully chosen words controlled effectively: “His words,” says Douglass, “were in perfect keeping with his looks, and his looks were in perfect keeping with his words.” In case his mocking manipulations of Mr. Gore are not made “perfectly clear” by the balance of this empty sentence, Douglass adds more: “He spoke but to command, and commanded but to be obeyed; he dealt sparingly with his words, and bountifully with his whip” (37). We can note that Gore's name, like Severe's, is also in “perfect keeping” with his acts; it must have pleased Douglass greatly that “Gore” and “Severe” worked metonymically, as synechdoches actually, to fix the identity of overseers in their brutal function.

By the time we come to Chapters Six and Seven, Douglass has already established, through his catalogue of overseers, the concept of word-wielding as a form of mastering. These two chapters are carefully prepared for in other ways as well. In Chapter Five, Douglass was told to bathe in preparation for his new employment in Baltimore; he responded by scrubbing off not just the “mange” of his past life but almost “the skin itself” in a kind of ironic baptism to make himself worthy of the “election” by white masters that he next infers. By concentrating on literacy, the gift identified and then denied by his new owners, Douglass makes it the trial and then the proof of his status as a chosen one. In Chapter Six, Sophia Auld, like a ministering angel, offered the keys of the kingdom, as it were, when she undertook the task of teaching Douglass “the A, B, C,” his first symbols. With this initiation accomplished, she began to teach him to spell words of three or four letters. At this point, Mr. Auld stopped the proceedings; at the same time, however, he gave Douglass his most important lesson. Douglass explains that Auld's objections constituted a “special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things,” and that they worked a change that he signifies by a language transformation: “Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master” (47). Douglass's coy disclaimer, “the merest accident,” is contradicted by this scene's dramatic evocation of the Puritan experience of election and conversion.

Mr. and Mrs. Auld, as presented in Chapter Six, acted with equal importance to introduce Douglass to the means of his salvation from slavery. Armed with the knowledge they had bestowed, “I set out,” he says (like any good Mr. Christian), “with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read” (47). Chapter Seven records the pilgrim's progress. First Douglass bribed hungry white street urchins with bread, “who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge” (51). It is significant that Douglass does not name these little children who led him, these “dear little fellows” who gave him aid; he explains that they needed his protection from “this Christian country” where it is “almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read” (52). Literacy becomes here a sacred although forbidden fruit through Douglass's allusion to Christ's scriptural injunctions to his disciples to “become as little children” and “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” In his not naming of the “dear little fellows,” moreover, we see the indicting, accusatory function attached to his very emphatic naming of overseers and owners.

Douglass's preliminary lessons in the street are presented as a kind of “first communion” experience complete with consecrated bread. The scene ends with his young teachers offering special comfort: they would “console me with the hope that something would occur by which I might be free,” he says (52). In the following scene, a “something” does occur, and it is significant that Douglass places his age at the time as “about twelve years.” The age reference puts him within the context of Christ's youthful visit to the elders of the temple, where He both received and gave instruction. It also associates him with the time when Protestant children undergo the preparatory rites for confirmation. Douglass shows himself, then, at the “perfect” age for receiving, as if by divine intervention, his own sacred text. “I got hold of a book entitled ‘The Columbian Orator,’” he says, and “Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book” (52).

By this simple “confirmation” of his ability to read, Douglass announces the onset of his conversion from illiterate to literate being. However, as Starr noted in his discussion of Rev. Fraser, the recognition of the converted state by no means gives immunity to further “spiritual vicissitudes,” but actually “opens the way to many.” The “book” that Douglass could read for himself at age twelve operated as a pentecostal empowering; the antislavery propaganda that Douglass found in “The Columbian Orator” “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul” and “enabled me to utter my thoughts” (53). Yet, as with traditional Puritan conversions, the discovery of knowledge of the certainty of salvation paradoxically brought discontent. Douglass frames this development in a passage remarkable for its biblical rhetoric and its careful documentation of the great change that he has “suffered:”

behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It had opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but no ladder upon which to get out. … I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. … The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.


When we compare this passage to one from Jonathan Edwards' Personal Narrative, we see better the tradition that Douglass's Narrative adopts. Edwards was writing of feelings that came to him after he had “met with that change by which I was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things, that I have since had.” He tells us that

I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, than ever I had before my conversion. It has often appeared to me, that if God should mark iniquity against me, I should appear the very worst of all mankind; of all that have been, since the beginning of the world to this time; and that I should have by far the lowest place in hell.


Edwards' classic expression of paradoxical Puritan spiritual experience is not very different from Douglass's account of the mixture of joy and horror that literacy brought. But the fugitive slave narrator was exhibiting for his own designs the loathsomeness of “natural man,” the fate in the pit of the unredeemed, the awakening of the elected soul to a new state (“everlasting thinking”), and the confirmed “appearance,” not just the promise, of “freedom … to disappear no more forever.”

Reading from “the book” signalled the occasion of Douglass's conversion, as reading scripture did for Edwards, but Douglass, at least, still needed the “ladder upon which to get out.” His process of a conversion to literacy was not quite complete, at age twelve, for it would involve not just reading but writing. Just as conversion in the spiritual sense would involve not only the reception of grace but also the power to act in new modes through grace, so literacy involved not only the ability to read words but the power to write them. Thus after reading in “The Columbian Orator” and receiving its light, Douglass had to go seeking again. When he says in this section, “The light broke in upon me by degrees” (54), he indicates the progressive nature of what was happening to him. Immediately after making this statement, Douglass tells of meeting two strange men, Irishmen at that, “down on the wharf of Mr. Waters.” He went, “unasked,” and helped them to unload stones from a boat, whereupon they expressed sorrow at his condition and recommended that he run away. While he “feared they might be treacherous,” Douglass took their words to heart. The references to stones, boats, water, and two alien messenger figures are all New Testament signs of transformation rites—of baptism, the call to discipleship, the Last Supper, and the Resurrection. Within this context of dramatic religious change, Douglass goes on to indicate that he at that point knew what his “way” would be: “I wished,” he concludes, “to learn how to write, as I might have occasion to write my own pass. I consoled myself with the hope that I should one day find a good chance” (55).

Douglass concludes Chapter Seven and completes his description of his conversion experience with an almost step-by-step account of how he learned to write. Significantly, in the long last paragraph of this chapter, names and alphabet letters figure prominently, as do the words “book” and “write.” It is as though Douglass were “calling up” in a kind of litany the instruments (in a double sense) of his conversion. His initiation into the process of learning to write takes place in a shipyard, and not just any shipyard but one bearing his own last name at that time (during these years his name was Fred Bailey, and the Baltimore shipyard is “Durgin and Bailey's”). Starr tells us that seventeenth century spiritual autobiographies often used seafaring terms and experiences as a means of communicating religious processes (23-24). In the Narrative, Douglass was able to watch ship carpenters write the letters “L” for larboard side, “S” for starboard side, “F” for forward, and “A” for aft on pieces of timber in order to indicate the side of the ship for which each board was intended. Letters in this connection become symbols of larger words which are themselves signs to name direction and placement. In the process of ship-signing, Douglass rehearses the expansions of meaning inherent in all lettering. In the shipyard letters combine to make a craft; in the Narrative they combine to compose a text.

Douglass combines naming and lettering in this paragraph when he says, “I soon learned the names of these letters and commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named” (56). In the rest of the paragraph, the words “copying,” “writing,” and “book” are linked repeatedly in varying combinations that make a rich tapestry:

During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write. I then commenced and continued copying the Italics in Webster's Spelling Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book. … When left [alone in the house], I used to spend the time writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas's copy-book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write.

Douglass becomes in this passage writer, editor, publisher, and bookbinder, transforming fences, walls, and pavements into texts. He names and thus assimilates other books, most importantly, perhaps, his master's copy-book. The final sentence evokes both trial and triumph; this moment marks the completion of the transformation that his master feared: he is now “forever unfit … to be a slave.”

In the last paragraph of Chapter Seven, Douglass repeats the word “copy” five times. What are we to make of his remark that he spent his time “writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas's copy-book,” of that he “could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas”? “The spaces left” and the “master's hand” surely speak of restrictions, not only in terms of the means he could adopt to learn to write but also in terms of the matter that he could produce with his own “hand.” Given what Douglass would say in his later autobiographies, these restrictions seem a kind of coded prophecy of what the fugitive slave narrator as writer was to find; he would always be “bound” to concerns, expectations, and methods defined by whites. As Houston Baker has pointed out, “the light of abolitionism is always implicitly present” in Douglass's Narrative, “guiding the narrator into calm, Christian, and publicly accessible harbors.” This consideration, Baker says, means that Douglass “is comforted, but also restricted, by the system he adopts” (38-39). What allows Douglass to escape the imputations of dictation and imitation, what keeps his signature from being only a dark copy of a white hand, is the way that the last sentence of the paragraph goes back not just to his master's earlier words but to his own. When Douglass says that he “finally succeeded in learning how to write,” we hear the echoes of the words that originally (in two senses) announced his purpose: “I wished to learn how to write, as I might have occasion to write my own pass.”

Writing his own pass, for the slave narrator, involved the appropriation of the master's hand, the master's grasp of language, and the master's symbols, including his religious ones. Chapters Six and Seven explain how a black slave became a man of letters in a country where letters—the ability to make them and make meaning of them—were exclusively a white man's domain. Mastering letters enabled Douglass to write his “pass” and to “pass” into a world where he could no longer be named a slave. We can question what he might have had to give up in order to become what Houston Baker calls “a sharer in the general public discourse about slavery” (43), yet we cannot doubt the historical necessity of his conversion or the historical gains that he made through the process.

While his conversion seems to have been assured when Douglass could announce his ability to write, he still had before him the matter of the nature of his salvation to account for, as the end toward which conversion gradually moves. Using the scheme of Christian progress, Douglass makes conversion analogous to literacy and salvation analogous to freedom; literacy is the sign, the “pass,” to freedom, as conversion, for the Puritan, is the sign of salvation. The events that take place after Chapter Seven relate to literacy in ways that, according to Starr, events after one's conversion relate to the moment in the arrangement of spiritual autobiographies; the spiritual autobiographer struggled “to extend the effects of conversion;” the final extension, beyond the boundaries imposed by the narrative itself, was the autobiographer's salvation. For Douglass, whose salvation was freedom, the moment of liberation would be both a literacy-confirming and literacy-confirmed event, the natural extension of his learning to read and write.

In the Narrative there are several scenes which extend the effects of Douglass's conversion. Each of them partakes of the literacy theme as a naming, writing, or speaking event or as a stylistic event carefully designed to dramatize the fruits of literacy. The famous fight scene with Covey is an instance of the latter strategy.2 The struggle with the “slave breaker” duplicates for the physical realm Douglass's struggle in Chapters Six and Seven to seize control of the world of the mind. While conversion is the “spiritual” medium used in those chapters to express the power of literacy to liberate the mind, resurrection language is called upon in Chapter Ten to show the value of Douglass's defeat of Covey:

I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose … and I now resolved that, however I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.


Douglass juxtaposes and balances the worlds of the damned and the world of the saved. Through his explicit language, Covey is named “the snake,” and God is called upon to “save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free!” (74). Balance extends even to sentence shapes; very early in the chapter, Douglass writes, for instance, “behold a man transformed into a brute” (73); then, during a long sabbath litany he questions, like Job, “O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!” (74). After his prayer, as he turns to the events which constituted his deliverance from the “hottest hell of unending slavery,” he announces, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (75). The statement is crucial not only because it transforms the terms “man” and “slave” but also because of Douglass's use of direct address to a reading audience: “You have seen … you shall see.” The transformation is a linguistic event, accomplished by language in a territory that demands and so invokes readers to witness and thus confirm the transaction.

Three episodes following Chapter Seven deal explicitly with literacy; they frame an act of writing, an act of naming, and finally an act of speaking to direct the state of conversion into the sacrament of ordination. In the first part of Chapter Ten, Douglass defeated Covey by a physical act which confirmed and strengthened his sense of conversion; he left Covey's “service” on Christmas Day and began the “new year” as a hired slave to Mr. Freeland, whose name's implications are not lost on him. During this time he conducts a Sabbath school, which turns into a freedom school, as Douglass decides to file his claims upon the title of free man that he earned first through his achievement of literacy and then through his defeat of Covey. Among the slaves attending his school, Douglass “commenced early,” he says, “to embue their minds with thoughts of freedom” (90-91). The escape plot that he devises is a fulfillment of the Irishmen's prophecy and of his wish “to write my own pass.” Within the text of the Narrative, he includes the wording of the actual passes that he wrote for himself and his friends, “copying,” as it were, his own “original,” which is a parody of what the master would have written. Religion is part of the code of the “pass” in which “the undersigned” certifies that “the bearer, my servant,” has “full liberty to go to Baltimore, and spend the Easter holidays.” The pass is “Written with mine own hand,” signed “William Hamilton.”

In spite of Douglass's ingenious written device, his escape plan failed, and thus the passes designed to take his brave band to freedom became incriminating evidence. Betrayed and captured by their owners, the slaves had to devise a way to destroy the words which proved their intention to be free. The full implications of the writer's vocation, its risks as well as its powers, are clarified in this section which, like the Covey scene, is rhetorically framed in a way that makes language the message as well as the medium. In another of his richly layered passages, Douglass makes the passes, proofs of his literacy as well as agents of his freedom, into the sacrament of the Last Supper, the Pre-Easter, Passover ceremony constituting a Holy Communion of the Word:

When we got about half way to St. Michael's, … Henry inquired of me what he should do with his pass. I told him to eat it with his biscuit, and own nothing; and we passed the word around, “Own nothing;” and “Own nothing!” said we all.

In terms of Douglass's design, it is important that the Covey scene and the abortive escape plot both occur in Chapter Ten. This arrangement reflects the scheme of the spiritual autobiographers of Starr's study who grouped events according to stages of religious growth and change. While the fight with Covey is outwardly an extremely important event, it is only a part of a process, used to posit one example and one result of the converted man's struggle with the “natural” or “unredeemed” world. The episode with the passes is another such example, and both are placed within the explicit context of Christian progress, from the Christmastime birth of the man out of his brutish surroundings to the Holy Communion rite of eating “the word” during a pre-Eastertime captivity.

Chapter Ten ends, as did Chapter Five, with Douglass being sent by his owner to Master Hugh Auld in Baltimore. In Chapter Six that move enabled Douglass to free his mind from ignorance about his condition; in Chapter Eleven, the return to Baltimore is the first step in a journey to physical freedom through an actual escape whose details Douglass does not reveal. Robert Stepto among others has attached great significance to Douglass's omission of his escape. In From Behind the Veil, Stepto says that “This marvelously rhetorical omission or silence both sophisticates and authenticates his posture as a participant-observer narrator” (25). Although this is a perceptive interpretation of Douglass's intentions, we might also infer that, in terms of the organizing principles of the conversion narrative paradigm, the actual physical removal would not have the inner spiritual significance of certain other events. In Douglass's design of Chapter Eleven, the omission of how he got to New Bedford, Massachusetts, allows the greatest weight of this final chapter to fall upon two acts that connect directly to his conversion as assured in Chapters Six and Seven. The first of these acts involves the taking and also shedding of names while the second involves the taking up of a vocation.

Douglass showed very early in his Narrative his awareness of the importance of naming; his narrative demonstrates Gilbert Osofsky's point that “the right to proscribe letters or command a man's name is understood as the power to subordinate …” (41). When Douglass called out the names of Mr. Severe, Mr. Hopkins, Colonel Lloyd, Mr. Gore, Edward Covey, and Mr. Freeland—and worked puns upon their names—he was doing more than just putting them in their place; he was binding them to his space. His attitude toward his own name, a subject he saves for his last chapter, reflects something of Booker T. Washington's explanation of Black “entitles” but is, not surprisingly, more intensely concerned with multiple meanings of letters.3 In Chapter Eleven Douglass explains that his mother had given him the name “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.” Lloyd W. Brown has written that “the choice of historical surnames conforms with the mythologizing process which … allowed the black American to identify his personal emancipation with a broad ideology of social liberty” (19). In conferring upon her son two heroic middle names, Douglass's mother might have been attempting to “entitle” her son to his white father's heritage. Booker T. Washington “expropriated” his last name, Brown theorizes, “in accordance with this custom” (19). Yet Douglass dropped both “Augustus” and “Washington” before he left Maryland, perhaps with something of the same feelings that Ralph Waldo Emerson Ellison much later expressed concerning his childhood feedings about his two middle names: “It was as though I possessed some treasure of defect, which was invisible to my own eyes and ears; something which I had but did not possess, … which was mine but which I could not have until some future time” (152).

When Douglass left Baltimore, he started out with the name “Stanley;” arriving in New York, he became “Frederick Johnson,” but found in New Bedford that there were too many other “Johnsons.” In New Bedford he came under the protection of Mr. Nathan Johnson, a free black man “worthy of the name” of abolitionist, we are told. To Nathan Johnson Douglass gave “the privilege of choosing me a name,” or at least a surname. Douglass insisted on keeping “Frederick” “to preserve a sense of my identity,” he said. Yet surnames, it seems, could easily be changed and for many different reasons. The name “Douglass” that his mentor selected and he approved came from a book that Nathan Johnson was reading, Sir Walter Scott's long rhyming tale, Lady of the Lake. “Douglass” was a heroic though shadowy figure of Scott's story, a noble Scottish chieftain exiled in the Highlands. Frederick Douglass accepted the name, perhaps finding a compliment in its reference to such a manly hero, but also, we might speculate, pleased simply to enter the world of literary letters through a new “title.”4 All he says of the matter in the Narrative is that he kept the name “Douglass” because he became in time “more widely known by that name” (115). The power to take a name, any name, for himself was surely what mattered most. That the name was an allusive one extending into a heroic text would only increase its value. Douglass would himself call up aspects of Scott's tale in his melodramatic novella, “The Heroic Slave” (1853).

The act with which Douglass chose to close the Narrative is introduced by another “book” reference. We recall that it was reading “The Columbian Orator” which made the young Douglass feel, first, despair and then the determination to become, in his own very special sense, a writer. In Chapter Eleven, reading William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator led Douglass to attend an anti-slavery meeting where he felt, first, a great reluctance to take up the “severe cross” of “speaking to white people” and then a “degree of freedom” so that he “said what I desired with considerable ease” (120). The word “degree” goes in many directions. It takes us back to Douglass's explanation in Chapter Seven of the progressive nature of his conversion: “the light broke in upon me by degrees.” It is also a qualifying term, indicating that there are many variables attached to freedom, both in the North as in the South. Most importantly, as a culminating statement for his narrative as a whole, the word “degree” involves the idea of an academic title, with Douglass emerging as a student who has successfully completed a course of study. It is certainly fitting that the last text in his curriculum was the Liberator, which in name as well as content announced the subject in which Douglass was taking his “degree.”5

The mention of the Liberator takes us back to the “Preface” of the Narrative which is a letter written about Douglass's accomplishments by none other than Garrison. The letter is a testimonial, the kind which might accompany the conferring of a title or degree, and it makes many claims for the merit of the Narrative, one of them being that “Compressed into it is a whole Alexandrian library of thought, feeling, and sentiment” (10). Garrison's letter, Robert Stepto has pointed out, does an “extraordinary thing” when it “acknowledges the tale's singular rhetorical power.” Stepto's study shows that most slave narratives were accompanied by letters from white “guarantors” who functioned to authenticate the reality of the narrator, whose very existence, to say nothing of his story, might not be believed otherwise. Yet Garrison becomes most important to Douglass's Narrative not as authenticator but as responsive reader of Douglass's text; finally, says Stepto, Garrison “remains a member of Douglass's audience far more than he assumes the posture of a competing or a superior voice” (19). In the context of the conclusion, Garrison was playing a key but subsidiary role in Douglass's graduation ceremony.

One other aspect of Garrison's letter figures importantly in the impact of Douglass's conclusion. The editor of the Liberator was explicitly concerned with Christianity and found Douglass's Narrative valuable in proving the “religious profession” of southern masters to be “pernicious” (13). Douglass's degree, then, might be considered as a kind of “Doctor of Divinity”; at the very least, what seems to be happening as he takes up the “severe cross” of speaking at an anti-slavery meeting is a ceremonial confirmation of his leadership role in the abolitionist movement, which he has helped to shape into a new and true form of Christianity. This finale records, as Thomas Couser has pointed out, “not only his conversion but also his ordination as a minister” (59).

Douglass's ordination as a minister in an Abolitionist Christian Church is ratified in a striking manner not only by Garrison's Preface but by the appendix that Douglass added to the Narrative. He introduced the Appendix with this explanation:

I find, since reading over the foregoing narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion.


By these words he made himself a reader of his text who, very much like Garrison in the Preface, could note its religious content and go on to make a critical distinction between “the slaveholding religion of this land” and Christianity “proper”: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (121).

What is most remarkable, considering all that has gone before, is the way that Douglass concludes his appendix. The narrative proper was given no decisive closure, for in it Douglass simply announced that “From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren” (120), a statement that ties past and present time to the future of the “cause.” The appendix, however, does have a definitive ending which indicates that one critical struggle of Douglass's life and narrative has been completed successfully—the quest for letters. “I conclude these remarks,” Douglass writes,

by copying the following portrait of the religion of the south, (which is, by communion and fellowship, the religion of the North,) which I soberly affirm is “true to the life,” and without caricature or the slightest exaggeration.


Here the American slave appropriates the function and strategies of his white guarantor, authenticating the truth and the tone of a poem written by a “northern Methodist preacher” which he then inserts into the text. It is significant that he is back to his old game of “copying” here, copying not just the minister's poem but Garrison's way of glossing his own text. The northern minister's poem is entitled “A Parody,” a name particularly interesting because Douglass introduced it as a work “without caricature.” In the poem the “pious priests” of the South are lampooned: “They'll bleat and baa … array their backs in fine black coats, then seize the negroes by their throats, and choke, for heavenly union.” By appropriating a northern minister's poem which criticizes southern hypocritical religion, Douglass completes a portrait of himself as a priest of a true Christianity. Converted from illiterate slave into literary master, Douglass ends his “little book” with “A Parody” within a parody. Then he offers a bold benediction:

Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds—faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts—and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause,—I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass.

Through the signing of his name, Douglass harnesses Christian symbolism to the cause of sacred freedom and at the same time transforms patronizing white sponsors into humble readers. The copier of others' books entitles himself to become the subscriber of his own biblical text, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself.


  1. In My Bondage and My Freedom, the link between literacy and conversion is made more explicit by the fact that Chapter XII (the midpoint in the book) treats both how Douglass learned to read and write and how he was “awakened” to Christianity. It is significant that in the 1845 Narrative, Douglass does not discuss how he came to “that change of heart which comes by ‘casting all one's care’ upon God and by having faith in Jesus Christ” (130). In the earlier work, Douglass is singlemindedly pursuing the theme of his achievement of his freedom; he is also more self-conscious about the subject of how he achieved literacy, in part because questions concerning how such a learned speaker could ever have been a slave gave Douglass his first reason for writing an autobiography. Spiritual conversion, in the Narrative, is thus important not as a subject but as a method which Douglass uses in his visualization of his dual quest for freedom and literacy. My Bondage and My Freedom is much more literal, much more explicit, and much less “craft-y” in its tracing of corollary pilgrimages. It contains, for instance, a thorough explication of “Hymns with a double meaning” in which Douglass acknowledges that the slaves' singing of spirituals was a code expressive of resistance and the desire to escape: “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of

                        O Canaan, sweet Canaan,
    I am bound for the land of Canaan

    something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the north—and the north was our Canaan” (215).

  2. See Thomas Couser's chapter on Douglass in American Autobiography; The Prophetic Mode, for a reading which sees Douglass's experience with Covey as the “climactic phase” of Douglass's “spiritual progress.” My reading stresses the Covey scene, and other “sufferings” after it, as one of the many trials of conversion that Puritan autobiographies stressed.

  3. For valuable studies of Afro-American naming practices, see Lloyd W. Brown, “Black Entitles: Names as Symbols in Afro-American Literature,” Studies in Black Literature, I (1970), 16-44; Michael Cooke, “Naming, Being, and Black Experience,” The Yale Review, 68 (1978), 167-186; Kimberly W. Benston, “I yam what I am: The Topos of (un)naming in Afro-American Literature,” in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Methuen, 1984), 151-172.

  4. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass makes more explicit reference to the symbolic value of his new name. He says that Nathan Johnson “regarded me as a suitable person to wear this, one of Scotland's many famous names.” Then he returns the compliment, alluding to The Lady of The Lake's themes of hospitality to outcasts: “Considering the noble hospitality and manly character of Nathan Johnson, I have felt that he, better than I, illustrated the virtues of the great Scottish chief” (267).

  5. Again, My Bondage and My Freedom reinforces and makes more explicit a connection between conversion and literacy, salvation and religion, when Douglass connects the Liberator to a story of how a white church refused to serve free blacks the sacrament of Holy Communion until all the whites in the church had been served. This hypocrisy infuriated Douglass, who tells how he walked out of the church. Then he gives an account of how, very shortly after the incident, he received a copy of the Liberator, which “took its place with me next to the Bible” (275).

Works Cited

Baker, Houston. The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Brown, Lloyd W. “Black Entitles: Names as Symbols in Afro-American Literature.” Studies in Black Literature I (1970), 16-44.

Couser, G. Thomas. American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., Inc., 1970.

———. The Narrative and Selected Writings, ed. Michael Meyer. New York: Random House, 1983.

Edwards, Jonathan. Personal Narrative, in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, ed. Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson. New York: Hill and Wang, 1962.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962.

Jefferson, Thomas. Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: The Library of America, 1984.

Pennington, James W. C. The Fugitive Blacksmith, in Great Slave Narratives, ed. Arna Bontemps. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

Starr, G. A. Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. New York: A. L. Burt, 1901.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose, ed. Sculley Bradley. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1949.

John Burt (essay date winter 1988)

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SOURCE: Burt, John. “Learning to Write: The Narrative of Frederick Douglass.Western Humanities Review 42, no. 4 (winter 1988): 330-44.

[In the following essay, Burt characterizes Douglass's Narrative as a declaration of citizenship.]

Frederick Douglass claimed that he began to become free when he learned to write. Part of what he meant was that in writing he found the means to see himself as himself rather than as his masters saw him.1 But he also meant that writing enabled him to cross between two different kinds of identity and two different kinds of world. One of these kinds of identity I will call “selfhood,” an identity governed from within by need and desire and from without by force and fortune. The other I will call “citizenship,” an identity which gives law to itself in the form of duty and law to others in the form of rights. Only this latter kind of identity can enter into deliberation with other people and live in a truly public world. In learning to write, Douglass discovers the identity of the citizen, as opposed to that belonging merely to the self; in the three autobiographies he produced between 1845 and 1892, he fashions that public identity for himself and for others.

The first observation one must make about the Narrative of Frederick Douglass is that it is a romantic autobiography: in addition to serving the immediate political exigencies it was designed to answer, it concerns itself with the creation of a powerful literary identity. As such, Douglass' book can be aligned as strongly with The Prelude or Song of Myself as with Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Narrative's participation in this genre, however, is complicated by the fact that it attempts several contradictory tasks: it must testify simultaneously to the barbarity of slavery and to the human strength which even slavery has not been enough to subdue. It must, like Song of Myself, simultaneously attest to and deny the uniqueness of its author, accounting for the individual power and eloquence of the author in a way which does not compromise the author's ability to speak for others who have endured the same conditions. The Narrative speaks at once for the mass and for the most individuated of individuals—and in doing so it suffers a tension which perhaps inheres in the works of all those who take democracy seriously, and which only our own commitment to democracy prevents us from seeing as a tension.2 The unique contribution of the Narrative consists in the fact that the identity it creates is not only the profound selfhood of other romantic works—that mysterious source of integrity, distinctness, and power—but also the identity of the citizen, who has a public role to play in a world of law and rights. Behind Douglass' nineteenth-century ideal of private and unfathomable selfhood stands an essentially eighteenth-century ideal of citizenship and public duty.

Like other slave narratives, Douglass' text attempts to show that slavery, bad as it is, has not disabled the slaves from ever taking part in American political life; indeed, slavery has given them capacities and insights which they would not have come by in any other way.3 Thus the Narrative presents one version of the political education provided by the experience of being a slave. Its politics, however, are as extraordinary as its author, for its primary lessons are not about suffering and cruelty, submission and dominance (the lessons usually taught, intentionally or otherwise, by the experience of oppression), but about the futility of contests over power and, consequently, the necessity and availability—even in the midst of passionate political conflicts—of a public realm where people seek to prevail against each other by means other than force. The Narrative seeks to prove, not only in the face of slavery but also in the face of the slave's justifiable rage against it, the necessity of citizen virtues and the primacy of politics over violence.

The 1845 Narrative originated, of course, not as a demonstration of the kind of metaphysical authenticity and depth which has since been found in it, but as a certification that Douglass, who had been impressing audiences at abolition meetings all over the North for several years with his testimony, was in fact an escaped slave who could describe from experience slavery's nature. Douglass had to prove that he was not the impostor which many shrewd Yankees suspected him of being—not an educated Northern free black but a self-educated ex-slave, formerly the property of a man still living in Talbot County, Maryland. Douglass' patrons, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, imagined the Narrative as the seal of authenticity on Douglass's speeches, which were to them the real objects of value; they hoped it would lay questions to rest so that Douglass could get on with what they believed to be his real work. The document he gave them was quite different from what they expected, not only in that it was full of the same urbanity and sophistication which had caused the skeptics to doubt the orations in the first place, but also in that it cultivated a tone of lucid detachment more characteristic of a legislator than a victim of oppression.

All of Douglass' hearers and readers were prepared for eloquence, but they were not prepared for the kind of eloquence he gave them. They expected from him the native power of a sensibility schooled in a nonwhite rhetorical tradition—something they got from Chief Seattle, say, or Chief Logan, whose famous lament was already considered a classic of oratory. When Douglass spoke, however, he spoke as a polished and mature speaker in the idiom which they thought to be specifically characteristic of educated white people. He did not, as he was repeatedly urged to do, “bring a little of the plantation” into his speeches, and he did this still less in the autobiographies of 1845, 1855, and 1881. It would be easy enough—but also mistaken—to argue that Douglass adopted idioms which his hearers (not Douglass himself) might call specifically “white” as a way of detaching himself from a legacy which embarrassed and maybe disempowered him. Douglass understood that the appeal he wished to make required several things from him; and it was best not to be sentimental about them. Were he to speak in a dialect not shared by his white friends and his enslavers, he could perhaps move them to pity and wonder; but if he were to adopt that dialect which his friends and his enemies shared, he could do something else—he could engage them in articulate conflict. The sense of principled disagreement governing such conflict would be very different from the sense of pathos a speech in his own dialect might have aroused in that same audience.

In the Narrative, Douglass holds both himself and his readers responsible to this requirement of principled disagreement. Indeed, this very responsibility—required not only in the by and by of some world where people no longer oppress each other, but in the midst of the conflict over slavery—is one of the main achievements of Douglass' book. It is rare for people to insist upon an ideal of fair disagreement when they take seriously the disagreements they find themselves caught up in. This is not to say that Douglass believes that we live in a world governed by such an ideal; rather, it is to say that unless one attempts to hold oneself to the requirements of principled disagreement, all of one's efforts, no matter how just the aims, are already devoted to futility. The principal gift of literacy, Douglass believes, is the ability to imagine a world in which people exercise and require responsibility to each other even in their most profound conflicts.

One of the surprises about the 1845 Narrative is that Douglass presents the slaves as people capable of holding their own within slavery. Rather than being utterly disempowered, the slaves have various means at their disposal which enable them to improve their lot within slavery and insist upon a certain measure of human respect from the masters. These means of power enable the slaves to play off the masters' ideology, but they do not suffice to set the slaves free. This attests to the fact that, for Douglass, freedom is more than merely the ability to shift ideological registers or to trip up one's oppressor in his own contradictions.

The means of power available to the slave within slavery seem to be of three kinds, and it is important not to underestimate them.

First, slaves were quite capable of making their masters take seriously the force of their recalcitrance, if not their resistance. Recent students of slavery such as Eugene Genovese have shown how slaves were able to impose their own work rhythms upon their masters (a fact even Olmstead noticed), and how slaves used their awareness of their own economic value to force concessions out of their masters. They were too expensive to kill, and even frequent beating, as the slaveowners' agricultural magazines argued, would usually prove a self-defeating practice.

Douglass presents the power of recalcitrance most clearly in his famous description of his fight with Covey, the notorious “slave-breaker” to whom Captain Thomas Auld has leased him in hopes of rendering him more tractable. When Douglass finally comes to grapple with Covey it is a one on one fight—Covey's white help being put out of action by a timely kick to the groin. Even his black help refuses to come to Covey's aid: When Covey asks another slave to help him hold Douglass down, that slave refuses, saying with some dignity that he had been leased to Covey to work, not to whip, and Covey curiously seems to accept this. Covey and Douglass wrestle for two hours, at the conclusion of which Covey lets go, pretending for public consumption to have beaten his slave squarely (although he has clearly gotten somewhat the worst of a basically equal match) and claiming with a great show of bravado that, had Douglass not resisted, Covey would not have whipped him half so much. This moment is interesting enough in itself, but what follows is even more interesting: Covey's failure to call the instruments of state discipline to his aid. Douglass describes it in this way:

It was for a long time a matter of surprise to me why Mr. Covey did not immediately have me taken by the constable to the whipping-post, and there regularly whipped for the crime of raising my hand against a white man in defense of myself. And the only explanation I can now think of does not entirely satisfy me, but such as it is, I will give it. Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first-rate overseer and negro-breaker. It was of considerable importance to him. That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me—a boy of about sixteen years old—to the public whipping-post, his reputation would have been lost; so to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished.


Douglass' lesson here (echoed later by George Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant”) is that force is itself alienating, that the master is enslaved by his own picture of himself as a master and by the necessity of keeping that picture both before himself and before the world.

Even when the masters are at their cruelest, their actions derive from a sense of their own weakness, a sense which their slaves are among the first to detect. Consider for a moment the famous scene in which Douglass' aunt is brutally whipped by Captain Anthony, the scene in which Douglass, as a young child, first becomes acquainted with the violence of slavery. Douglass describes how his aunt's cries of pain seem to arouse Captain Anthony to whip her more and more severely. His sadism, however, seems to arise from his sense that he cannot control her—as if he whips her harder because every lash reminds him of the impotence of the last one. His abuse of power here is a product of his weakness elsewhere: his inability to make Aunt Hester do what he wishes her to do, and, even more deeply—the bluntness with which Douglass says this is amazing—his inability to compete successfully for Hester's sexual favors with her slave lover, Lloyd's Ned.

Even the master's power to sexually exploit his female slaves turns into a variety of weakness in Douglass' account of it. Notice the moral subtlety of Douglass' account of how the master's own power disables him:

The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves [his mixed-race children], out of deference to the feelings of his white wife; and, cruel as the deed may strike any one to be, for a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity for him to do so; for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother, of but few shades darker complexion than himself, and ply the gory lash to his naked back; and if he lisp one word of disapproval, it is set down to his parental partiality, and only makes a bad matter worse, both for himself and the slave whom he would protect and defend.


The entanglements and ironies of the masters' power reveal that power cannot be a sufficient end in itself, even when the power one has in mind is the power to resist the master; for power, even power over one's own destiny, is not freedom. Freedom, in Douglass' account, is something other than having enough power to do as one pleases.

Douglass describes and criticizes a second means of power available to slaves within slavery. We might call this the power to be recognized as a human being. It is important to be very clear on this point because one might at first assume that this sort of power is exactly what one cannot have as a slave. To be a slave, we almost want to say, is to be thought of as a thing, not as a human being. But we have to distinguish between the ability to recognize somebody's humanity—to recognize that a person has feelings and thoughts deserving of consideration and respect, as well as a moral capacity to which that person is responsible—and the ability to recognize what I will call somebody's citizenship, which is to say, somebody's ability to stand with me in the public arena where we may make claims against each other about our rights and duties. It is on this distinction that Douglass' indictment of slavery finally rests, for the slaveholders are generally capable of recognizing their slaves' humanity but they are not, by definition, capable of recognizing their slaves' citizenship.

If we confuse these two things, humanity and citizenship, we are likely to miss the point of Douglass' indictment of slavery. To confuse the slave's private identity (as someone with whom the masters are in continuous and sometimes close relationships) and the slave's public identity (as someone outside the confines of polity) is to transform the debate from one about the nature and rights of citizenship to one about the nature and intensity of the slave's and the slaveholder's feelings. Arguments about how people feel, about whether their feelings are genuine or not, are almost always pointless. Within the terms of such an argument, the slaveholders can defend themselves merely by testifying that, of course, they understand the human feelings of the slave and that, of course, they do as much as possible to consider those feelings. The fact of the matter is that slaveholders were forced in a thousand ways to grant the humanity of their slaves, and the fact that they did so makes not the slightest bit of difference about the morality of slavery.

Looking hard at Douglass' Narrative, one discovers that only once—immediately before the fight with Covey—does Douglass describe slavery as the confusion of persons with things. What is obliterated by slavery is not the slave's connection to the world of human feeling, a connection which in one way or another most of Douglass' masters seem very well aware of (and which Douglass himself—if his conversation with Thomas Auld on his deathbed many years after Emancipation is any indication—knew they were aware of); what slavery obliterates is the connection between the slave as a psychological and moral being and the slave as a political being, as someone capable of deliberating, rendering public judgment, and pressing public claims.

Douglass presents several examples of masters who work hard at kindness and whose kindness is not entirely the product of their desire for esteem in their neighbors' eyes. Sometimes, of course, when a slave calls a master good the slave is merely being defensive, not knowing perhaps the questioner's ulterior motive in asking about the master's kindness; but not all kindness in this book is illusion or self-deceit, although almost all of it is perfectly futile. Indeed, the futility of kindness, or the futility of basing human polity on feeling, frequently concerns Douglass. He makes his case most strongly when considering the course of his relationship with Sophia Auld, the wife of his Baltimore master, Hugh Auld.4

Mrs. Auld is introduced auspiciously enough as a woman of deep sympathy whose passions are not yet corrupted by slaveholding:

Mr. and Mrs. Auld were both at home, and met me at the door with their little son Thomas, to take care of whom I had been given. And here I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions; it was the face of my new mistress, Sophia Auld. I wish I could describe the rapture that flashed through my soul as I beheld it. It was a new and strange sight to me, brightening up my pathway with the light of happiness. … My new mistress proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door,—a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living. She was by trade a weaver; and by constant application to her business, she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery. I was utterly astonished at her goodness. …

(44, 46)

Mrs. Auld immediately sets about teaching Douglass one valuable lesson—how to read—but winds up teaching him another even more valuable one. When her husband learns what she is doing, he forbids her to continue, arguing that literacy will unfit Douglass for slavery. Mrs. Auld's acquiescence to this decree teaches Douglass valuable lessons about both the futility of the feeling of humanity and the crucial value of literacy. Owning slaves seems to change Mrs. Auld's physical appearance as much as her moral constitution:

The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.


Mrs. Auld's case demonstrates the futility of relying on the mere feeling of human kinship to work any real adjustment in human affairs. Feeling is incapable of remedying the real problem, not only because it is unstable and evanescent, but also because particular feelings tend to leap into their opposites. Stung by her husband's rebuke, Mrs. Auld comes to outdo him in severity. “She finally became,” Douglass remarks, “even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better” (51). Mrs. Auld outdoes herself as a disciplinarian precisely because she is aware of running against the course of her feelings—she has to prove to herself that she is capable of doing what she conceives of as her duty. One sees in her case a smaller version of what the Chinese author Nien Cheng, imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, noticed about her torturers: those who had consciences and felt badly about what they were doing were far more dangerous and brutal to her than those who had no consciences, because they had to use extra force in order to hold their consciences at bay. This suggests that feeling and power are equally futile. Whatever freedom is, it must have some basis other than the equilibrium of powers or the mutual bonds of feeling.

Recalcitrance and appeal to human feeling are two means of empowerment available to slaves. Douglass also discusses a third category in which the slaves retain some vestige of power and self-respect: the cultural means by which slaves cope with the psychological burden of slavery. The most important of these means arise from the folk culture the slaves partly brought over from Africa and partly created for themselves. Interested as Douglass is in the folk culture of black people, he sometimes seems as detached from it as any white observer; he views that folk culture with a skepticism which must strike modern students of slavery as very strange. For example, the magic root which Sandy Jenkins gives to Douglass on the eve of the fight with Covey is treated with gentle comedy in the Narrative: Jenkins' insistence that it was the root which enabled Douglass to hold his own with Covey comes off as a mild joke at Douglass' expense. In the later version of this story, in My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass leaves out the comedy, and instead nervously denies that he ever took Jenkins' root with any seriousness, going out of his way to denounce such necromancy as foolish and even wicked. Rather than treating the root (as one might now) as an emblem of the integrity of black culture in the face of suffering (as, say, Ralph Ellison treats the sweet-potato pie in Invisible Man), Douglass treats it as a disabling diversion from the real question.

Douglass is even more stern about the efficacy of music as a response to suffering. Partly, of course, this is because he has a simple task in front of him—he has to prove that the singing of the slaves is not a sign of their happiness in slavery—but his criticism of slave music goes beyond what this agenda would require. Douglass opens his description of slave singing with a bemused detachment rather unlike what one would expect from a former slave, but rather like what one would expect from a white observer of slave customs like Frederick Law Olmstead or Mary Chesnut:

The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out—if not in the word, in the sound;—and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they could manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home. They would then sing most exultingly the following words:—

“I am going away to the Great House Farm!

Oh, Yea! O, Yea! O!”

This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves.


Douglass goes on to assert that he has only come to understand the meaning of these “rude songs” since he has found freedom: only now, but not then, is he able to see them as “testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” This strange assertion gives us pause. If the singing is really an expression of something, what does it mean for Douglass to tell us that, not only was he incapable then of saying what was being expressed in the songs, but that, if he had been asked about the true content of the songs, he would probably have given, in good faith, a totally incorrect answer?

I think the only way to sort all this out is to attend to Douglass' powerfully mixed feelings on the subject. And to discover the origins of these mixed feelings we need to attend to the mixed feelings which inform slave music itself. Douglass wants badly to see this music only as a cry of pain, as “the complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.” Yet what the music reveals to him is the entanglement of joy with pain, or rapture with pathos. In this entanglement of joy and pain, modern readers tend to find one of the means by which slaves mustered the human strength to resist being dehumanized by their condition; it is not only evidence of misery but also testimony that human beings bravely carried on with human life in the face of misery. But what Douglass finds in this music is quite different. To argue that slaves are able to muster enough of their human resources to resist giving way utterly to the cruelty of slavery would be in Douglass' mind (if not in ours) to weaken the case Douglass wishes to make against slavery. To solve his problem, he follows his description of the mixed feelings which interpenetrate each other in slave music with the claim that, despite the ambivalent description just given, slave music really is only a cry of pain and nothing else. Yet no sooner does he make this claim than it is undone in turn by the force of his own emotional response to the memory of this singing—as if, despite his presentation of slave music as enslaved music, he cannot help but be moved by it. The mixed feelings which Douglass will no longer allow to his enslaved brethren reappear as his own mixed feelings about their music. These mixed feelings give rise to Douglass' distrust of music, since they have the effect of entangling him in the very contradictions of feeling which he wishes to sort out.

All three of the means of resistance I have just discussed are finally only means of power, not means of right, and all three are bound up in the futility which always afflicts exercises of power, whether they succeed or fail. All three can adjust the relations of power within slavery, but none of them can transform the question from a question of power to a question of right. So long as one is unable to manage this transformation, Douglass implicitly argues, anything one does is finally futile, no matter how effective it may seem to be.

The only way to avoid futility in a conflict is by searching for a regulative abstraction to which both sides claim allegiance and which is the exclusive property or agent of neither side. The hope of being able to make this appeal to right renders conflict articulate, and distinguishes argument from screaming. This search for adjudicating principles finally defines what freedom is for Douglass as well—for freedom, in the Narrative, is not just the ability to do what one wishes (a freedom one never fully enjoys in any civil society but which few tyrannies can fully destroy), but the freedom to enter into articulate conflict with one's opponents. Freedom is not the ability to have what one desires but the ability to stand with one's opponents in the arena of principle.

It is likely that nobody, not even Douglass, has a very secure grasp on what the right is—our particular ideas about the right have a peculiar way of reflecting our interests. But if we recognize that there is right (even though nothing we say does justice to it) and if we recognize that sometimes we are capable of discovering ourselves to be mistaken, we hold out the hope at least of not always being made fools of by our desires. We also hold out the hope of learning something from our enemies, who are similarly responsible to a perplexing sense of right they are not fully in possession of. This is perhaps why we cannot fairly argue with anyone unless we can provisionally imagine those common values in whose terms we argue. We cannot fairly argue unless we can imagine circumstances in which we would own ourselves to be beaten.

We do not know what the right is. But we cannot argue in good faith with worthy opponents without accepting at least the conceivability of right, even as we deny that any particular claims we make about right, even claims we share with our enemies, can do full justice to right in itself. For unless a society can be assessed from an abstract point of view not entirely tangled up in the needs and desires of that society, our quarrels can never be about anything other than which of us is the stronger one. To make this assessment, we do not need to know with certainty what right is, only that there is such a thing as right. Only if we can define such a point of view can we separate the idea of justice from the idea of force; only then can we see justice as anything other than what force wants.

In making this claim, I am aware of running somewhat against the current of contemporary literary thought. My claim is vulnerable to the charge that it seems to wish for some arena of absolute truth unaffected by the pressures of ideology or by those collective and usually only semi-conscious habits of thought which are among the means by which we subject each other to coercion. Maybe there is such a place; maybe also mortal flesh is not capable of living there. I do claim that we are sometimes capable of seeing—painfully—into our limitations, and in so doing we glimpse the possibility of a truth beyond those limitations, a truth to which we never do justice. It is no more possible to explicitly describe a region of truth outside of ideology than it is possible to describe a region of experience outside of perception; but this does not mean that such a region is impossible. Indeed, those who aver the impossibility of a region of truth beyond ideology find themselves relying on precisely the sort of metaphysical certainty which they argue we can never have. The doctrine that we are always entirely enwrapped in our ideologies finally despairs of persuasion and requires every serious conflict to be submitted to the arbitration of blood. It projects a world in which only the strong have any place. Most people today who take a strong view of ideology—and, in consequence, a strong view of moral relativism—intend their line of thought to be liberating. But any view that ultimately gives primacy to force can never liberate those who lack force. It is no accident that the strong view of ideology has been for our century what the divine right of kings was to earlier centuries—the most powerful available rationale for authoritarian government.

Douglass' most bitter claim against slavery concerns the slaves' lack of recourse when they have been cruelly treated. He directs his anger not only against the inability of slaves to bring murderous masters to court but, in a larger sense, against the inability of the slave to claim any legal standing whatsoever. It was in fact illegal for masters to murder their slaves; but masters could not be tried for doing so (Douglass provides us with several examples of this, the most famous being the murder of Demby by the overseer Mr. Gore) because slaves could not give testimony in court. Resort to public means of redress—courts, the political arena, and so forth—was closed off even to sympathetic masters when they sought to defend their slaves. This seems to be the point of the story Douglass tells of Hugh Auld's inability to bring to justice the carpenters who, resenting the competition of leased slave carpenters, beat Douglass up when Hugh Auld leases him to their shipyard.

Of course, the legal arena is not the only place in the public world where slaves cannot appear. Slaves are denied family names (Douglass runs through four of them in the course of the book). Even other public institutions—such as marriage—are in theory if not always in practice unavailable to the slaves. The slaves' ability to place themselves in public time by specifying a birth date leaves them no choice but to place themselves in natural time—they can say they were born in cherry-blossom time but not in March, 1818.

Douglass calls literacy the pathway from slavery to freedom because it promises recourse to the public world. Consider the book from which Douglass learns to read, The Columbian Orator, apparently a staple of both Northern and Southern education. What the slaveholder's own book teaches him is only scarcely less surprising than the fact that this lesson comes from a slaveholder's book.

Among much of other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master—things which had the desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of his master.


In this book, Douglass finds a model for the kind of book he is himself attempting to write in the Narrative.5 He discovers not only what he already knew—that slavery is miserable and capable of being resisted by force—but that slavery is wrong according to the masters' own precepts, and that the masters themselves (as Thomas Auld was in fact to confess to Douglass at the time of their deathbed interview) understand that slavery is wrong and can possibly be persuaded to do something about it. He discovers it is possible to meet the master not only in the self-defeating arena of conflict over power or feeling but also in the far more promising arena of public and articulate conflict, conflict in which both sides have to search for arguments which will tell against each other.

This hunger for a regulative principle explains two crucial actions of Douglass' later political career. It explains, first, Douglass' founding of the North Star against the advice of Garrison. Certainly Douglass, in writing for himself, comes into the world more truly as himself than he would have done had he remained merely Garrison's protégé; but it is also the case that writing itself—writing texts which have some permanence and can be read by anybody, as opposed to making speeches mainly heard by already sympathetic audiences—answers more fully to Douglass' sense of himself as a citizen with public responsibilities.

This same hunger explains Douglass' far more controversial adherence to the U.S. Constitution at a time when most abolitionists, echoing Garrison, thought of that document as “an agreement with Death and a covenant with Hell.” The Garrisonians thought of themselves as secessionists, demanding “No Union With Slaveholders.” Part of Douglass' criticism of the Garrisonian position arose from his sense of its inability to free anybody. Secession of the North might have freed New England from moral entanglements and delivered to New Englanders the clean hands we have generally valued above everything else, but it would have left the slaves in a state where there were no advocates for their cause. Douglass' deepest objection to Garrison's position, however, rested on his understanding of what the alternative to the Constitution would be.

Garrison burned the Constitution because of the dirty compromises with which he felt it to be besmirched; in place of the Constitution he honored the unwritten and unwritable imperatives which motivated that document but which, in his view, the Constitution betrayed. For Garrison, the alternative to constitutional law was “higher law.” If the Constitution is the letter that killeth, the higher law is the spirit that giveth life. And yet, in the final analysis, higher law produces moral compulsions about which we need not persuade ourselves or anybody else. To claim the warrant of higher law is not to shift the argument to some higher level of abstraction in search of a regulative principle; it is, on the contrary, to claim that the time for argument has passed and the time for shooting is about to begin. The higher law, being unwritable and nonnegotiable, allows no one opposing us to find a way of telling against us when they disagree with us.

Douglass understood that the alternative to the Constitution was the endless entanglement of fights over power. For all its flaws, the Constitution was finally the instrument of freedom because it embodied principles to which the South had already declared its allegiance. These principles, Douglass argued, were incompatible with slaveholding. Freedom was for Douglass the ability to argue with others in a common arena, using common appeals, using those agreements one must already have with one's opponents (if one is to argue with them rather than shoot them) as a way not only of persuading them but also of redeeming them. To burn the Constitution would be to burn the one thing which redeems our desires from futility, to burn our only instrument for translating our quarrel from a quarrel over force (in which the slaves were finally bound to lose) into a quarrel over right (in which, Douglass believed, even the slaveholders would be forced to reach his conclusions).

What Douglass discovers when he learns “the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder” is not only a way to replace self-defeating force by more promising persuasion, but also a new kind of identity. For no longer is he merely his natural self—the child of an unidentified mother, born in cherry-blossom time rather than in March—nor even merely his social self—the slave of so-and-so, whom he can perhaps force not to beat him. He becomes also Frederick Douglass the citizen, not only the bearer of desires, wishes, and capacities of force, but also the bearer of rights and of duties, someone capable of appearing in the public arena and arguing with someone else on common grounds of persuasion.

This new identity, citizenship, opens up the possibility of some response to the problem of enslavement which does not always and continuously undermine itself. It makes credible the possibility that we can enter into relationships other than those of submission, force, and solidarity, that we can enter into relations of persuasion, articulate conflict, and respect. His entry, through learning to write, into the world of this kind of relationship redeems Douglass from the futility to which every act which arises out of interest, need, or feeling is subject. It makes possible actions which are not futile because they tie themselves not to the metabolism of nature or to the metabolism of social process but to the governance of commonly held first principles. Furthermore, even as citizenship raises Douglass from futility, so it also raises his opponents, transforming them into people who can be appealed to—and redeemed from error—in terms of their own values.

To say that one's opponents are redeemable is to make a large claim, and one must make that claim with precision, for it is the central claim of all rhetorical theory that is worth anything. When Douglass implicitly claims his opponents are redeemable he does not necessarily mean that he will inevitably have his way with them; nor does he necessarily mean even that he understands them fully. All he means is that he is resolved to attend to those higher agreements in whose terms all real disagreements are undertaken. The determining ground which will decide the conflict may not even exist, at least not yet, and he is under no illusions about the extent to which his opponents and he share a common world. But he is determined to attend to those higher agreements even in the face of his recognition that he and the masters may be living in different worlds, for he recognizes that those things which hold us apart, even if they clothe themselves with the appearance of utter certainty, are as provisional as any of our other beliefs.

Learning to write, Douglass seeks admission to a common moral world in which he is bound up with his opponents and in which he can hope to reach them by attending, in a disciplined and critical way, to the sources of his own beliefs. Let us say that writing delivers us into a world where we are responsible to a history we didn't make, where we are never quite free but also are never quite somebody whose story we already know all about. It delivers us into a world where we have a voice of our own, but where we speak to people who aren't ourselves and who have needs, desires, and beliefs which we must address if not always agree with. Writing also delivers us into a world governed by values which neither we nor our enemies are fully in possession of, but which give us the hope of persuading each other and living together as we ought.

Douglass paid a high price for this truth—among other things he gave up his own access to the cultural resources of his people. And at least at first glance it looks as if he did not get in return what his sacrifice was worth. For neither persuasion nor the Constitution finally freed the slaves; it took four years of war and a million lives. Of course Douglass did come to argue for violent resistance to slavery. Yet interestingly enough the nature of his argument seems to have protected him from undergoing that curious slide from pacifism to terrorism so characteristic of abolitionism in the late 1850's. The ex-pacifists could only imagine violence of an apocalyptic sort; but for Douglass even bloodshed remained closer to politics than to religion.

One sometimes wonders whether concepts such as the primacy of persuasion over force or the necessity of principled disagreement can ever stand the blast of urgent human miseries in whose presence they look like niceties. But if the persuasion upon which Douglass places his stake is pale and weak, the domain of force one enters when leaving persuasion behind is infinitely confusing. We read about the wanderings of those who lose their way in force in the large type of the papers every day. If persuasion was ultimately unavailing, as Douglass in the late 1850's was to conclude, along with just about everybody else, it may well have been the hunger for the ideal of persuasion, in minds like Douglass' and Lincoln's, which prevented the violence that followed from descending into that endless and degrading cycle of outrage and retribution which is the usual consequence of force.


  1. For studies which read Douglass this way, see the several readings of Douglass in Gates, Baker, Stepto, Andrews, and Olney. All citations to Douglass will be to Frederick Douglass: The Narrative and Selected Writings, Michael Meyer, ed. (New York: Modern Library, 1984).

  2. The issue of “voice” in this work thus ties it directly into the mainstream of American romanticism. Henry Louis Gates, in Figures in Black, has noted the special tensions black writers suffer when they must speak for their race as a whole. A recent biographer of Douglass, Dickson J. Preston, noting Douglass' almost obsessive concern for himself as a self-created public man, uses biographical evidence to reveal the extent of Douglass' participation in a cultural life to which he seems very alien in his autobiographies. Preston notes, for instance, that although Douglass portrays himself as having no meaningful family ties, he was in fact the product of a five-generation stable matriarchy. In later works, Douglass treats his mother in more detail; apparently, despite his portrayal of her in the Narrative, she was not only a forceful personality but literate. Why Douglass should go to such lengths to detach himself from this past in the 1845 Narrative is worth pondering.

  3. William L. Andrews has recently argued that there is a strong difference between slave narratives written before and after the Civil War, a difference which can be accounted for by attending to the different rhetorical circumstances and aims of their authors. The pre-war authors were principally concerned with making their case against slavery in the strongest possible terms; for them, as a rule, slavery was a barbarous and vicious condition fraught with degrading consequences for both slave and master. The post-war authors of slave narratives were principally concerned with showing that, however hard their lives under slavery might have been, the former slaves were not warped to such an extent as to be unfit for citizenship. In fact, the post-war authors argued that slaves had learned, through the hard school of slavery, many of the very political skills which would enable them to live in peace with their former masters once they had adjusted themselves to new relations with them. Douglass wrote several such narratives—before the war and one after it—and even in the first he clearly wishes to perform both tasks: he has his eye not only on the present difficulties of slavery but on the future difficulties to be faced as former slaves seek to be integrated into the political life of the United States.

  4. In an important article, Eric J. Sundquist has speculated upon the different roles played by Douglass's actual and metaphorical parents—how Sophia Auld and Douglass's actual literate mother seem to interpenetrate each other, and how Douglass keeps attempting to separate himself from those who would place themselves in a paternal position (not only Captain Anthony but also William Lloyd Garrison). Sundquist argues that it was literacy which enabled Douglass to become “self-fathered,” by enabling him to fashion new fathers for himself out of his understanding of the revolutionary idealism of the Founding Fathers and out of his desire to link the Founders with leaders of slave revolts such as Nat Turner or Madison Washington.

  5. Douglass had similar ambitions in his novella The Heroic Slave. See Stepto, From Behind the Veil.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1986.

———. “The Representation of Slavery and the Rise of Afro-American Literary Realism, 1868-1920.” Lecture given at the English Institute, Cambridge, MA, August 1987.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1980.

Gates, Henry Louis, ed. Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1984.

———. Figures in Black: Words, Signs and the “Racial” Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

———. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Olney, James. Autobiography, Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

———. “The Founding Fathers: Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.” Lecture given at the English Institute, Cambridge, MA, August 1987.

Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Stepto, Robert. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1979.

———. “Storytelling in Early Afro-American Fiction: Frederick Douglass's ‘The Heroic Slave.’” Gates, Black Literature and Literary Theory.

Sundquist, Eric J., “Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism.” Raritan 6 (2): 108, 1986.

Donald B. Gibson (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Gibson, Donald B. “Faith, Doubt, and Apostasy: Evidence of Things Unseen in Frederick Douglass's Narrative.” In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, pp. 84-98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Gibson discusses the appendix to Douglass's narrative as an attempt to conform to religious orthodoxy and to disguise the main text's hostility to Christianity.]

Strange order of things! Oh, Nature, where art thou. Are not these blacks thy children as well as we?

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur1

My Lord and Master, help me! My load is more than I can bear. God has hid himself from me and I am left in darkness and misery.

An Anonymous Slave Mother2

Jesus is dead and God has gone away.

The Souls of Black Folk3

Henry Bibb recounts in his Narrative of 1849 how he tried, time and time again, to rescue himself from slavery's bondage, and finally he succeeded.4 So frequently did he run away that he was often sold, and each owner concealed the fact from each successive owner. During one of many unsuccessful attempts, he underwent an extraordinarily harrowing experience—not at the hands of his pursuers but at nature's—an experience so profoundly unsettling as to shake him to his roots.

At the time, he was owned by Francis Whitfield, a deacon in the Baptist church but, in Bibb's eyes, more like a demon from below. Bibb was encouraged by his former owner, who was anxious to rid himself of the constant runagate, to seek his next owner. Bibb chose Whitfield because “he was represented to be a very pious soul, being a deacon of a Baptist church” (117). Bibb's good opinion soon changed: “I afterwards found him to be one of the basest hypocrites that I ever saw. He looked like a saint—talked like the best of the slave-holding Christians, and acted at home like the devil” (118). Recaptured after an earlier attempt to escape from Whitfield, he meets Whitfield as he is being returned to the deacon's plantation: “I had almost as soon come in contact with Satan himself” (135). On the occasion of which I speak he was again fleeing Whitfield, this time with his wife and infant child, in order to avoid a severe beating of 500 lashes that Whitfield promised him for going to a prayer meeting without his permission.

Bibb and his “little family” arrive at the banks of the Red River in Louisiana. Unable to cross directly, they find a tree that grows out over a large island dividing the waters of the river. Though imperiled, they succeed in getting on the island, where they find no immediate way to cross over to the opposite bank. Making a bed of fallen leaves, the hungry and wearied fugitives at once fall asleep:

About the dead hour of the night I was aroused by the awful howling of a gang of blood-thirsty wolves, which had found us out and had surrounded us as their prey, there in the dark wilderness many miles from any house or settlement.

My dear little child was so dreadfully alarmed that she screamed loudly with fear—my wife trembling like a leaf on a tree, at the thought of being devoured there in the wilderness by ferocious wolves.

The wolves kept howling and were near enough for us to see their glaring eyes, and hear their chattering teeth. I then thought that the hour of death for us was at hand; that we should not live to see the light of another day; for there was no way for our escape. My little family were looking up to me for protection, but I could afford them none. And while I was offering up my prayers to that God who never forsakes those in the hour of danger who trust in him, I thought of Deacon Whitfield; I thought of his profession, and doubted his piety. I thought of his handcuffs, of his whips, of his chains, of his stocks, of his thumbscrews, of his slave driver and overseer, and of his religion. … I thought of God, I thought of the devil, I thought of hell; and I thought of heaven, and wondered whether I should ever see the Deacon there. And I calculated that if heaven was made up of such Deacons, or such persons, it could not be filled with love to all mankind, and with glory and eternal happiness, as we know it is from the truth of the Bible.


The wolves are thrown into confusion, scatter, and retreat when Bibb runs at them, waving a bowie knife and screaming at the top of his voice. He and his family survive this night and the next day make their way to the opposite shore, though they are later captured.

During this episode the strength of Bibb's faith is severely tested, and one might wonder whether this version as reported in the narrative is an account of the experience as Bibb actually recalls it, or whether a conscious revision has been made for the sake of evading the questions of faith, doubt, and apostasy, which would arise more sharply than they do had he not put in assurances of the steadfastness of his faith. It seems hardly likely that Bibb, in the heat of the moment of fear and panic, would have thought about such fine points of doctrine as he claims. He reports in such a way as to suggest revision. His poetizing at the end of this passage has little to do with the feelings he was undergoing at the time: “I was so much excited by the fierce howling of the savage wolves, and the frightful screams of my little family, that I thought of the future; I thought of the past; I thought the time of my departure had come at last” (127).

The juxtaposition of ideas during the description of Bibb's reactions at the time of the attack lends the account a tone of veracity. At the point at which he decides that he is unable to protect his family, doubts arise. He attempts to quell the suspicion of doubt in the reader's mind: “I was offering up my prayers to that God who never forsakes those in the hour of danger who trust in him,” and at this very moment “I thought of Deacon Whitfield.” The implication is that he is indeed in the process of doubting, and the source of his doubt is his situation in relation to Whitfield. “If God has not protected me from that monster in the past,” the logic runs, “how can I expect him to protect me from these monsters who presently beset me?” “I thought of God, I thought of the devil.” The truth of God (faith) and the truth of experience (Whitfield, Satan, the devil) are in contention in Bibb's mind. Bibb wonders whether Whitfield would be found in heaven. Perfect faith would have ruled out the question, for “the truth of the Bible” would have given the answer had not Bibb doubted. Bibb's logic is not as reported. What he says is that if the likes of Whitfield are admitted to heaven, then “it could not be filled with love to all mankind.” The implicit logic of his utterance would have it that if Whitfield is going to be in heaven, then I am lost right now. These wolves will devour me and my family, for faith, God, and religion are meaningless. “Jesus is dead and God has gone away.”

Such submerged expressions of apostasy and doubt among slaves and black freemen in the antebellum South are virtually the only ones we are likely to be able to identify, for they belong to no organized or systematized facet of the social structure, not even traditionally to academic history, since it, until rather recently, has tended to discount testimony rendered by blacks in whatever form. Whereas black faith and belief have the institution of the church to record their constancy, apostasy and doubt have no sponsored vehicle, and their recording is likely to be random and happenstance. Frederick Douglas certainly knew that there existed the possibility—even the likelihood—that his narrative could be read as an expression of doubt and apostasy. For that reason he added an Appendix, a contrary one; ordinarily, appendixes are taken out for reasons of health—not put in. Frederick Douglass puts his in for the sake of sanitizing the implications of the Narrative,5 in much the same way that Bibb revises his account of his reaction to the attack of the wolves in an attempt to make it conform to received popular opinion about religious orthodoxy.

Though Douglass certainly seems committed to Christian belief during his narrative, there is some reason to believe that he felt a more than passing hostility to Christianity. The distinction he makes in the Appendix between American Christianity and ideal Christianity, a distinction made by many others in antislavery polemic, is logically nice, so it seems to me, but in fact impossible. When Christ says to Peter, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I establish my church,” the trope intends to connect an ideal church, a church whose existence is outside of time and history, with a material world. The similar distinction that Douglass and others make is based on the assumption that those logical categories have real existence. But if we agree with William James that “feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue,”6 then we might infer that Douglass's love for Christianity and his abhorrence of it both live in the same house, the former, perhaps, on a lower level than the latter.

The virulence of Douglass's characterization of American Christianity in the Appendix barely masks a deep-rooted anger and hostility, anger not only at the men who make up the church (I use the word “men” advisedly; there is not a single reference in the Appendix to Christians as women), but also at the vehicle that makes possible the hypocrisy of which he speaks. They may be separable on a logical level but not on an emotional one:

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which everywhere surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. … He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. … We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls!. … The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angel's robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.

(Narrative, 153-4)

Douglass says, in effect, that whatever appears in the Narrative that could be read as anti-Christian is justified because of the church's participation in and support of slavery. He feels that he must defend himself because he knows that the distinction he and other abolitionists make between the “American” church and the “true” church is not a distinction acceptable to most, especially in a country where one might have been exiled or worse for saying the same thing less than 200 years before. He knows that he is expounding a radical doctrine, one that most Christians will not accept with equanimity. He is, after all, attacking the church and all its denominations, both North and South. “The religion of the South … is by communion and fellowship the religion of the North” (Narrative, 157).

By 1845, when Douglass was writing the Narrative, not one of the major denominations other than the Quakers held a strong antislavery position.7 Earlier, this was not the case. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, antislavery sentiment was strong among Baptists, Methodists, and, of course, Quakers.8 The course of the relations between the church and slavery was essentially similar among the various religious sects. The position of the Baptist church on the issue is illustrative:

The Baptist appeal to and acceptance of blacks, both as equal members and as preachers [during the eighteenth-century Great Awakening], is the best evidence of the depth of their feelings about the spiritual equality of the races. … In a second wave of revivalism [roughly 1785-9] thousands of new parishioners were added to the Baptist churches—so that by 1790 the Baptists were the most numerous nonestablished sect. … During this period, Baptists became more conformist and less concerned with opposition to the establishment. … In 1793 the General Committee of Virginia [in a bellweather move] backtracked on its strong 1789 antislavery stand to allow each white Baptist the freedom to decide his individual position on slavery.

(Sobel, 88-9)

The church was not always so passive; sometimes it was actively proslavery, as when the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1836 voted at its General Conference to oppose abolitionism and to avoid interference in the relations between slaves and slave owners.9 The Presbyterians never disavowed slavery even in the eighteenth century, when it was safe to do so. They resolved in the late 1830s to postpone indefinitely any discussion of the issue.10

Douglass also has a vitriolic anger toward Christians and organized Christianity because his own experience and knowledge led him to believe that the more religious a slaveowner, the more mean, vicious, and cruel he is likely to be: “Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to the enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst” (Narrative, 117). Douglass tells us that they are the worst because the license given them by a slaveholding society is buttressed by a religion that actively supports a system ultimately, it was claimed, sanctioned by God. After his conversion to Methodism in 1832, Thomas Auld, Douglass's owner at the time, was, indeed, not more humane and kind: “If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty” (Narrative, 97). Douglass particularizes his observation by describing Auld's bloody lashing of Henny, a young lame slave girl, whom he has tied up for that purpose. While he lashes her with a cowskin whip, he recites one of the two Bible verses used almost exclusively as texts for sermons preached to slaves. “He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes” (Luke 12:47). The other was “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).11

Douglass is not the only witness to testify that Christians were the cruelest slaveholders. We have heard from Henry Bibb, who lists six “professors of religion” who sold him to other “professors of religion.”12 Harriet Jacobs, in her narrative, informs us that her tormenting owner was the worse for being converted.13 Mrs. Joseph Smith, testifying before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission in 1863, tells why Christian slaveholders were the worst owners: “Well, it is something like this—the Christians will oppress you more.”14 Covey, the “nigger breaker,” is also a “professor of religion”; and if he weren't, the struggle between Douglass and him would not be nearly so significant. The literal conflict between them, in Douglass's eyes, is a microcosmic conflict between all true religions and false ones, all slavery and freedom, all fathers and sons,15 all black and white, all authority and liberty, all truth and error; for Douglass, in taking on Covey physically, takes on the full weight and range of the oppressors' strength and power, politically, religiously, and psychologically. To be free he need only defeat Covey, for Covey is, in Douglass's eyes, the literal embodiment of all that threatens his growth and well-being. Following Covey's defeat, Douglass tells us that Covey is slavery: “He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery” (Narrative, 113), the whole bloody arm! Just as Douglass carried to the grave the scars of slavery, he also carried kinesthetically the significance of his victory over Covey. Although he might well have been influenced by abolitionists' views of Christianity, his own literally felt experience taught him his theology, taught him the belief system that would allow him to express the religious attitudes contained in the Narrative and spotlighted in the Appendix.16

To preserve religious belief, it was necessary for him to distance God from slavery.17 On two occasions in the Narrative he raises the question of God's existence, the theodicy question that must have arisen in the mind of every slave exposed to Christianity: If there is a God, why am I a slave? and Is there a God?18 Douglass asks the question once as he stands on the Maryland shore, looking out onto Chesapeake Bay, lamenting his condition: “Is there any God?” (Narrative, 106). Another time he raises the question as he remembers his beloved, yet still enslaved, companions who attended his sabbath school in Maryland before his escape: “Does a righteous God govern the universe?” (Narrative, 14).19

Very often it was most difficult for slaves to preserve religious faith, either because of the incredible contradictions between the two institutions or because of the conditions of slavery. Tortuous attempts to reconcile slavery and Christianity produced the most astonishing reasoning. At one point, the Savannah River Baptist Association in 1835 dealt with the question of whether slaves separated permanently by being sold and without the possibility of future reconciliation should be allowed to remarry, a question fundamentally about whether slaves, given their condition, can be true Christians. They resolved the issue in this way: “Such separation among persons situated as our slaves are, is civilly a separation by death, and we believe that in the sight of God it would be so viewed.” Since “slaves are not free agents, they have no choice in the matter and have no more control over it than they would over death.”20

The narrator of Narrative of James Williams: An American Slave relates an account of Uncle Solomon, an elderly and deeply pious slave, who frequently reminds other slaves of the necessity of concerning themselves with the welfare of their souls and states that their welfare rests in the hands of Christ the savior. These slaves, including Uncle Solomon, are cruelly driven, punished arbitrarily, and suffer at the whim of an overseer who is a drunkard and subject to frequent drunken rampages. Williams relates the responses of some of those whom Uncle Solomon exhorts:

Some I have heard curse and swear in answer, and others would say that they could not keep their minds upon God and the devil [whom they saw literally embodied in the sadistic overseer] at the same time; that it was of no use to try to be religious—they had no time. … Even Uncle Solomon, when he prayed, had to keep one eye open all the time to see if Huckstep [the malevolent overseer, who despised and mocked religion] was coming.21

In 1864 Charles C. Coffin sought the views of a freedwoman, Nellie, on religion. She responded: “It has been a terrible mystery to me why the good Lord should so long afflict my people, and keep them in bondage, to be abused and trampled down. … Some of my folks said there wasn't any God, for if there was he wouldn't let white folks do as they have done for so many years.”22

Daniel Alexander Payne, later prominent as a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal church, wrote candidly and convincingly in 1839 on the question of theodicy among slaves:

The slaves are sensible of the oppression exercised by their masters; and they see these masters on the Lord's day worshipping in his holy sanctuary. They hear their masters professing Christianity; they see their masters preaching the gospel; they hear these masters praying in their families, and they know that oppression and slavery are inconsistent with the Christian religion; therefore they scoff at religion itself—mock their masters, and distrust both the goodness and justice of God. Yes, I have known them even to question his existence. I speak not what others have told me, but of what I have both seen and heard from the slaves themselves.23

In order to deal with these vexing conundrums, Douglass finds himself, given his temperament, in the position of either denying God's existence or explaining the existence of slavery in such a way as to disallow God's participation in it. Early on, as he begins his reading of the Columbian Orator, he decides that slavery is the responsibility of men (Narrative, 84). His experience with Covey convinces him of several things. It teaches him, first, that he delivered himself out of the arms of slavery and, second, that God is not responsible for the evil that men do. He also learns that no root, such as that offered him by Sandy, his fellow slave, will be efficacious in protecting him from abuse. He becomes one of our early pragmatists (qualifiedly so) in that he comes to believe in a very practical Christianity, a world view that places politics ahead of religion insofar as the managing of the affairs of life is concerned.24

Such a practical bent ran throughout his thought during the course of his career. His early speeches found him saying that “he had offered many prayers for freedom, but he did not get it until he prayed with his legs.”25 During a period of intense debate about whether slaves should be sent the Bible, he said on more than one occasion: “Give them freedom first, and they will find the Bible for themselves.”26 At another time he responded scathingly that it would be “infinitely better to send them a pocket compass and a pistol!”27

The expression of such sentiments led to Douglass's reputation in some quarters, before and after the Civil War, as an infidel.28 It was in part his reaction to such charges that lay behind the composition of the Appendix, where his declaration that “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ” is a clear and direct denial of infidelity (Narrative, 153). His belief, expressed in the Appendix, that Christians would deny fellowship to a “sheep-stealer,” yet harbor a “man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel” for pointing it out, refers directly to the charge and implies that it was widespread indeed (156). This suggests that the apparently disjointed relation of the Appendix to the main text is due to the fact that the Appendix owes its existence to factors lying outside the narrative text and hence bears no organic relation to it. Thus one critic refers to the Appendix as a “slightly nervous apology,” a not entirely apt description, from my perspective, but one clearly cognizant of the distance between main narrative and Appendix.29

The extent to which Douglass's religious thinking tended to be individualistic (in that it fell outside the limits of orthodoxy within black as well as white clerical and community thought of the time), and hence likely to be labeled “infidel,” is revealed in his extraordinary but characteristic response on two occasions following ceremonies honoring the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (allowing black male suffrage) in 1870. The overwhelming significance of the occasion lay in the fact that most people thought that the passage of the amendment signaled the final episode in the struggle, beginning with Quaker antislavery agitation in the seventeenth century, to end black oppression. Douglass's response is extraordinary not simply because of its provocativeness, but because of the character of mind it reflects. At the American Anti-Slavery Convention on April 19 of that year, Douglass, following a number of speakers, several of them religionists, said: “I like to thank men … I want to express my love to God and gratitude to God, by thanking those faithful men and women, who have devoted the great energies of their soul to the welfare of mankind. It is only through such men and such women that I can get a glimpse of God anywhere [my emphasis].”30 The clear implication is that God is visible not through his handiwork, nature, but only through the good acts of humankind. Aptheker tells us that at a similar celebration in Albany, New York, shortly thereafter, Douglass again refused to thank God.31 A few days later in Philadelphia, the stronghold of established black Christianity, Douglass was even more provocative: “I dwell here in no hackneyed cant about thanking God for this deliverance.”32

The established Philadelphia clergy should be numbered among those who considered Douglass an infidel, an apostate, because he refused to place the responsibility for the fate of humankind in the hands of God. Had he done so, he would indeed in his own eyes have become an infidel, an atheist in fact. He could not make God responsible for slavery: “Those who defend slavery as an institution of the Almighty among men prove more than they would like to prove, for if they succeed in proving this, then out of the great heart of God, there is constantly springing all manner of torture and wrong and crime.”33

Devolving from Douglass's sense of release, of freedom after his fight with Covey, came the sense that freedom belongs to those who seize it: “Hereditary bondsmen, know ye not who would be free, themselves must strike the blow?”34 Such a sentiment comes directly out of Douglass's fight with Covey. Douglass personally captures and appropriates the whole of Western rebirth mythology and revises it to his own purposes. Consequently he is not Christ suffering on the cross; he is the risen Christ who seizes (as he “seized Covey hard by the throat,” Narrative, 112), rather than lies subject to, the terms of the mythology: “It was a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom” (Narrative, 113).

Out of his showdown with Covey emerges the expression of Douglass's strongest statement of conviction. The basis of the conviction is explained in his Appendix and also led to the expression of what to his Philadelphia brothers was apostasy. Douglass, the political person, knew that the achievement of political ends depends on the work of human hands. God must be distanced from the acts of men. Thus Douglass could be very much the pragmatist:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.35

God does not free wo/man; only wo/man can!

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress” likewise distances God from social and political processes. The same line of thought, the same assumptions, underlay Douglass's thinking in “Self-Made Men,” one of his most popular lectures. The point he makes is that “self-made men” are made by themselves and not God, fate, or destiny, by their own exertion of will. The pattern of utterance, the rhetoric, is the same as in the previous “freedom without agitation” quotation, statement through counterstatement: “growth,” “knowledge,” “progress,” or “victory” are said to occur only through stress:

There is no growth without exertion, no polish without friction, no knowledge without labor, no progress without motion, no victory without conflict. The man who lies down a fool at night, hoping that he will awake wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as he laid down in the evening.36

No state of dynamic change is achieved without human endeavor. Perhaps Douglass did not know that he knew this in 1845, but he did. Otherwise he would not have felt the need to distance God from slavery, and there would have been no Appendix. The ministers who bridled when Douglass refused to thank God for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment were not making the distinctions he made. Douglass saw that both proslavery and antislavery forces where busy using God for their own purposes, and that if God is responsible for whatever deliverance occurs, then He is also responsible for whatever deliverance does not occur. So, rather than saying that God supports or opposes slavery, Douglass said that He has nothing to do with it, except as His presence is made manifest in righteous human action. Charles Sanders Peirce's contemporary observations about doubt and belief are relevant. Douglass's doubt, occasioned by theodicy, results in an effort “to attain a state of belief,” to destroy doubt.37 The Appendix results from Douglass's desire to maintain psychological and intellectual integrity but not a literary, textual integrity. Douglass could not consider himself psychologically whole unless he connected his escape from slavery with the totality of his life. The Appendix is a testament to the understanding that simply flows from Douglass's experience that literature and life are very much the same in that they are inseparable, just as all aspects of life are inseparable from one another. The fight with Covey is not the literary center of the narrative; it is the psychological center of Douglass's whole life, as miraculous escapes from death and destruction at the end of adolescence are likely to be. Every issue that he later faces points back to the time he was born into adulthood, selfhood. The ending of the narrative reiterates the fight with Covey.38 So does the Appendix insofar as it insists on the responsibility of humankind in determining the direction of history.

In 1890, five years before his death, Douglass made what appears to be his final statement about his basic beliefs, a statement whose essential meaning is prefigured in the Appendix's effort to distance God from slavery:

It seems to me that the true philosophy of reform is not found in the clouds, in the stars, nor anywhere else outside of humanity itself. So far as the laws of the universe have been discovered and understood, they seem to teach that the mission of man's improvement and perfection has been wholly committed to man himself. He is to be his own savior or his own destroyer. He has neither angels to help him, nor devils to hinder him. It does not appear from the operation of these laws, nor from any trustworthy data, that divine power is ever exerted to remove evil from the world, how great soever it may be.39

He wrote in the conclusion of the 1881 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, revising My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), a similar statement:

I have aimed to assure them [blacks] that knowledge can be obtained under difficulties. … [T]hat neither institutions nor friends can make a race stand unless it has strength in its own legs—that there is no power in the world which can be relied upon to help the weak against the strong or the simple against the wise—that races, like individuals, must stand or fall by their own merits—that all the prayers of Christendom cannot stop the force of a single bullet, divest arsenic of poison, or suspend any law of nature.40

There is a measure of realism in Douglass's thinking that separates it from that of most people of his time and, at the same moment, makes him a man of his time. The hard, objective view he takes of religion, a view that allows him to consider it unsentimentally and dispassionately, caused him to be known as an unbeliever in a climate totally intolerant of anything suggesting doubt or unbelief. Such an appellation, however, he shared with the advanced thinkers of the nineteenth century, many of whom were beginning to see religion in its social and historical dimensions. Douglass saw it in its political dimension as well, as an institution inseparably bound to human affairs. The Appendix is one of Douglass's many efforts to see the church objectively, to drive a wedge between faith in God and support of the Christian church, which, as the Appendix conceives it, was the most “peculiar institution” of all.


  1. Letters from an American Farmer (New York: Penguin Classics, 1988), p. 169.

  2. Quoted in Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in The Classic Slave Narratives, Henry Louis Gates, ed. (New York: New American Library, 1987), p. 399.

  3. Du Bois poses this as a theoretical countermessage to that of the spirituals. The “devil of doubt … whispers these words.” W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings (New York: The Library of American Literature, 1986), p. 542.

  4. Puttin' on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup, Gilbert Osofsky, ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), pp. 53-171.

  5. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). Subsequent references are to this edition.

  6. The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. 337.

  7. This fact is what allowed Douglass and other antislavery advocates to attack the church as a whole. There were, of course, always elements of antislavery sentiment in all denominations.

  8. Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812 (1968; rpt. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1969), pp. 271-6, 293, 418; Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 157; Mechal Sobel, Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (1979; rpt. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 87.

  9. Philip B. Foner, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, 5 vols. (New York: International Publishers, 1975), V, p. 127.

  10. James Gillespie Birney, The American Churches: The Bulwark of American Slavery (Newbury Port, Mass.: Charles Whipple, 1842), p. 33. John Jay, Esq., in a pamphlet titled Thoughts on the Duty of the Episcopal Church in Relation to Slavery: “She [the church] has not merely remained mute and a careless spectator of the great conflict of truth and justice with hypocrisy and cruelty, but her very priests and deacons may be seen ministering at the altar of slavery.” Birney, The American Churches, p. 39.

  11. Frederick Law Olmsted quotes the “Southern Presbyterian” who says, in reporting comments made before a South Carolina Bible Society, that these “very passages which inculcate the relative duties of masters and servants … are more frequently read than any other portions of the Bible.” The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States (1861; rpt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), pp. 473-4. Interestingly, Luke 12:48, the passage following “He that knoweth his master's will,” was probably not quoted at all: “But he that knoweth not [his master's will] and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.”

  12. Bibb, Narrative, p. 171.

  13. Jacobs, Incidents, p. 403.

  14. Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 166.

  15. This facet of the narrative is explored at length by Eric Sundquist, “Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism,” The Raritan Review 6 (Fall 1986):108-24.

  16. Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (1948; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1969), attributes Douglass's religious attitudes to the influence of others: “The severe criticism he heard leveled against the church weaned him away from his religious bent and led him to go through life examining religious institutions from outside” (23). I will argue that Douglass's philosophical, religious, and political orientations are closely tied to his experience.

  17. For Booker T. Washington the opposite was the case. Washington believed that God was responsible for everything, a belief that forced him into logical absurdity worthy of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss. God is responsible for the institution of slavery, which He established so that there could be emancipation. Benjamin E. Mays, The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature (1938; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1969), pp. 139-46.

  18. For a general discussion of the theodicy question, especially in its American and English contexts, see James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 204-7.

  19. On an occasion when Douglass is speaking and seems less than optimistic about the ending of slavery, Sojourner Truth interrupts him, saying, “Frederick, is God dead?” Quoted in Frederick May Holland, Frederick Douglass: The Colored Reformer (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1891), p. 252. The obvious answer to the question is “no,” but when Douglass asks it, it reflects true doubt, preceded as it is by “I am almost ready to ask …” Waldo M. Martin suggests that Douglass's religious skepticism increased as he was brutalized by Covey prior to resisting the tyrant. The Mind of Frederick Douglass (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 12.

  20. Birney, The American Churches, p. 27.

  21. Narrative of James Williams (1838; rpt. New York and Boston: Historic Publications, 1969), pp. 70-1.

  22. Raboteau, Slave Religion, p. 314.

  23. Ibid., p. 313.

  24. In a speech before the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society delivered on May 5, 1852, Douglass speaks to this point: “I will never be driven off the platform of the Christian religion in fighting slavery. But my heart goes out only to a practical religion.” Quoted in Holland, Frederick Douglass, p. 203. See also Martin, Mind of Frederick Douglass, p. 177.

  25. Reported in Holland, Frederick Douglass, p. 67.

  26. Douglass expressed this thought on several occasions. See ibid., p. 167; North Star, June 1, 1849, quoted in Foner, Frederick Douglass, V, p. 130. This was a hotly debated antebellum issue especially among ministers, along with other religionists and abolitionists.

  27. Benjamin Quarles, “Introduction,” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. ix.

  28. In a speech before the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York on May 11, 1853, Douglass responds to the charge: “If the glory of American emancipation is to be given to infidels, it will be a killing sentence against the American church.” Holland, Frederick Douglass, p. 219.

  29. Michael Meyer, “Introduction,” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (New York: The Modern Library, 1984), p. xxvi.

  30. Herbert Aptheker, “An Unpublished Frederick Douglass Letter,” Journal of Negro History 44 (July 1959):279-80. See also William L. Van DeBurg, “Frederick Douglass: Maryland Slave to Religious Liberal,” Maryland Historical Magazine 69 (Spring 1974):27-43, who reads this quotation considerably differently and interprets Douglass's religious views differently as well.

  31. Aptheker, “Letter,” p. 280.

  32. Ibid. Douglass tells why he chooses not to thank God. He points to those who were “always holding us back by telling us that God would abolish slavery in his own good time.” Of course, there were thousands of such advisors, among them Henry Ward Beecher, who said, “All the natural laws of God are warring upon slavery. We have only to let the process go on. Let slavery alone. … Time is her enemy.” To which Douglass replied, “With a good cow-hide, I could take all that out of Mr. Beecher in five minutes.” Paxton Hibben, Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1927), p. 151. The black Philadelphia church establishment met three weeks after Douglass's speech and resolved: “That we will not acknowledge any man as a leader of our people who will not thank God for the deliverance and enfranchisement of our race.” Aptheker, “Letter,” p. 281.

  33. Manchester [New Hamsphire] Democrat, reprinted in Frederick Douglass' Paper, February 10, 1854. See also Foner, Frederick Douglass, V, p. 311-12, and Martin, Mind of Frederick Douglass, pp. 178-9.

  34. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 144. It is interesting and significant that this quotation appears in the later biography and not in the Narrative. I would argue that this change does not signify revision. Douglass after all, earlier claimed a hand in his self-emancipation in the Narrative. It was he, the man himself, who “repelled the bloody arm of slavery.” He did indeed strike the blow. The quotation is from Byron, Child Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto II, stanza LXXIV, 11, 720-1.

  35. Holland, Frederick Douglass, p. 261.

  36. Ibid., p. 252. See also Holland's discussion of Douglass's speech, “Self-Made Men,” p. 258.

  37. Peirce sees intellectual doubt as an “irritant” that the mind will, of necessity, attempt to do away with. He assumes that all minds are intellectually curious and will not simply see doubt as one with the unknown or unknowable. He thinks that every doubter is like him, a being who will be intellectually irritated, unsettled, by the state of unknowing, clearly an assumption deriving from socioeconomic class. Douglass happens, anomalously, to be such a character, one who is irritated by not knowing, who requires intellectual consistency. Charles Sanders Peirce, “Illustrations of the Logic of Science,” The Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877):1-15.

  38. See my article, “Reconciling Public and Private in Frederick Douglass's Narrative,American Literature 57 (1985):449-69. There I claim that the autobiography at its end returns to its beginning.

  39. Letter of October 29, 1890, recorded in Holland, Frederick Douglass, p. 336.

  40. Life and Times, p. 479.

John Carlos Rowe (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Rowe, John Carlos. “Between Politics and Poetics: Frederick Douglass and Postmodernity.” In Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies, edited by Günter H. Lenz, Hartmut Keil, and Sabine Bröck-Sallah, pp. 192-210. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 1990.

[In the following essay, Rowe discusses Douglass's Narrative as an important text not just in the literary history of America, but also in the country's political and economic history.]

Douglass has subverted the terms of the code he was meant to mediate: He has been a trickster.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Frederick Douglass didn't even get a brief mention in the Spiller, Thorp, Johnson, Canby, and Ludwig Literary History of the United States of 1946. Although he figures centrally in Carolyn Porter's fine “Social Discourse and Nonfictional Prose” for the new Columbia Literary History of the United States, his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is celebrated principally as “the finest example” of the slave narrative. Porter does avoid the familiar tendency to contain black writing of the antebellum period within the tidy “genre” of the “slave narrative” by stressing the specific political interests of writings by Douglass, Lane, and Harriet Jacobs. In particular, she calls attention to the central concern in black writing of the period on economic questions: “Countless narratives testify to a fact that white abolitionists refused to acknowledge—that the path from slavery to freedom lay through the cash nexus.”1

Porter barely touches upon an issue that ought to be central not only in our revisionary histories of the slave narrative and antebellum writing in general, but also in that “other” history that is the real object of study in any historical activity: that is, the history of our own contemporary political situation. What is missing in Porter's brief reference to “the cash nexus” is the far more complex history of the U.S. economy as it develops from the Jacksonian period to our own postmodern, postindustrial era. Douglass' 1845 Narrative speaks with passion and canny knowledge of the various economic factors maintaining the system of slavery both in the South and the North; we know that these factors are considerably more complex in 1845 than the mere “cash nexus.” It is not just the legal definition of the Southern slave as the owner's chattel that is criticized by Douglass. The rape of black women by white masters and overseers, the division of black families, the exile of elderly slaves served both practical economic purposes and the less tangible end of maintaining the white master's power. Porter argues that “a narrative such as Lunsford Lane's articulates the economic basis of slavery in terms that expose the emphasis on money that lay at the foundation of both Northern and Southern society,” but the “economic” issues in Lane's and Douglass' narratives are only superficially concerned with “money.”2

In our own age, the economy is no longer concerned with either cash or even material products, whether those products be agrarian cotton or urban steel. In this age, the product is information, and it is the control of information that defines our “cash nexus.” In The Liberator for September 22, 1848, Douglass published his justly famous letter to his former master, Thomas Auld. The date is the anniversary of Douglass' emancipation, itself the result of another powerful act of rhetoric: the purchase of his freedom that announced to every Southern slave-owner the contradiction of the system of slavery: that “property” could purchase itself, that those excluded from the protection of the law could use the law to expose its contradictoriness, and that the very act of “self-purchase” was in its own performance a symbolic abolition of the system of slavery itself.3 It is, of course, not the “cash” that makes this act by Douglass so significant; it is the rhetorical authority of the act. In his letter of 1848, Douglass writes:

Three out of the ten years since I left you, I spent as a common laborer on the wharves of New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was there I earned my first free dollar. It was mine, I could spend it as I pleased. I could buy hams or herring with it, without asking any odds of any body. That was a precious dollar to me. You remember when I used to make seven or eight, or even nine dollars a week in Baltimore, you would take every cent of it from me every Saturday night, saying that I belonged to you, and my earnings also … I would not have served you so. But let that pass.

Freedom as a function of purchasing power seems obvious enough in this passage, requiring little comment, except to note rather conventionally what is so often ignored, as Porter observes, in the discussions of abolition: the importance of earning-power in the struggle for freedom. In The Mind of Frederick Douglass, Waldo Martin, Jr. shows how vigorously Douglass worked throughout his career to demonstrate “the dynamic interplay between capitalism and racism to obfuscate class antagonisms,” even though Martin concludes that “Douglass opposed socialism, communism, or any attempt to abolish capitalism as chimerical.”4 But Douglass is hardly as anti-socialist or anti-communist as Martin has argued. In 1845, Douglass is not able to draw upon the more systematic Marxian economic analyses that might have provided him with a model for analyzing what he had experienced in both the Maryland countryside and the city of Baltimore, but he is clearly developing his own understanding of the complicity of Northern capitalism and Southern slave-holding in the 1845 Narrative. In his 1848 letter, he does not conclude with the optimism and Christian forgiveness with which he began; he has merely indulged certain sentiments of his white readers:

I was a little awkward about counting money in New England fashion when I first landed in New Bedford. I like to have betrayed myself several times. I caught myself saying phip, for fourpence; and at one time a man actually charged me with being a runaway, whereupon I was silly enough to become one by running away from him, for I was greatly afraid he might adopt measures to give me again into slavery.5

Wages and purchasing power are far more than simply “cash”; they are crucially related to language. “Counting money” in “New England fashion” means commanding the idiom of money. To use the wrong expression is to risk exposure as a runaway. The discussion of money as its representation—phip or fourpence—quickly becomes a commentary on the relation between language and freedom, which is, of course, the great theme of the 1845 Narrative. The performative “phip” is equated with the “silliness” of “running away” when charged with being “a runaway.” By running away, Douglass gives reality to the perfectly nominal concept of “the runaway.” In his telling of this story, of course, Douglass turns it from his own performance of slave-holding attitudes into an anecdote that exposes the purely nominal basis for slavery. The proper referent for money is one's own labor-power, as Douglass constantly reminds us in the Narrative; “phip” or “fourpence” are utterly “trivial” referents when compared to the “name”—freedom—that Douglass gives to his “money.”

Such rhetorical turning of the ideologies of both Northern capitalism and Southern feudal slavery is characteristic of Douglass' writing, not only in the 1845 Narrative but also in his journalism for The Liberator and his own North Star. Indeed, his very project for the North Star, in itself one of the causes for his celebrated break with William Lloyd Garrison and the Garrisonians, was motivated by his conviction that a weekly newspaper under black editorial management “would be a telling fact against the American doctrine of natural inferiority, and the inveterate prejudice which so universally prevails in this country against the colored race,” as Douglass put it in the Boston Daily Whip in 1847. Douglass italicizes “telling” in the phrase telling fact, as if to call attention to the wordplay that equates the mere idiom for “significant fact” with the activity of telling as the significant labor of freed blacks. John Sekora, Robert Stepto, Anne Kibbey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Russell Reising in his conclusion to The Unusable Past have analyzed the ways that Douglass turns the rhetoric of both ideologies against itself, exposing its contradictions, emptying it of “value,” and then replacing its triviality with the political interests of Abolition.6

“I soon, however, learned to count money, as well as to make it, and got on swimmingly,” Douglass writes in the 1848 letter. The verbal conceit is transcendental in its doubleness: to “count” money is the same as “making” it, insofar as purchasing power in this economy is not so much the possession of “cash” as the power to command what “cash” merely represents: authority over language.

At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters, and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded in your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers, with a view to filling your own ever-hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are … And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them … Send me my grandmother! that I may watch over and take care of her in her old age. And my sisters, let me know all about them. I would write to them, and learn all I want to know of them, without disturbing you in any way, but that, through your unrighteous conduct, they have been entirely deprived of the power to read and write.7

Against his former master's ownership of these family members on his “ledger,” Douglass pits the “ownership” of the very writing that is dramatized ironically in this “personal” letter, published in Garrison's Abolitionist paper. Douglass' imperatives are the consequences of his purchasing power: the psychologically complex language that exceeds mere names—phip or fourpence—for the sake of genuine human relations. The passage is full of references to the 1845 Narrative, and it constitutes a virtual sequel, especially for those readers moved by the exile of the grandmother to the woods: that counter-Sublime of Yankee Transcendentalism. And yet the reader of the 1845 Narrative knows well enough that Douglass' “family” is in doubt from the very first page, by virtue of a slave-scheme that renders even the simplest facts of a man's life radically ambiguous: his parentage, the date and place of his birth, his brothers and sisters. In the 1848 letter, then, Douglass virtually constitutes a “family,” which is, of course, the considerably extended family of all his brothers, sisters, and grandmothers in bondage in the South.

I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery … I shall make use of you as a means of exposing the character of the American church and clergy—and as a means of bringing a guilty nation with yourself to repentance.

Like the money he learns to “use” by learning how to “count” it, so Douglass learns to “use” his former master by making him “count” in the fight against slavery. He has rendered Thomas Auld an “exemplary” figure, a “character” in Douglass' own narrative, but hardly for the customary “literary” purposes.

No, it is not the “cash nexus” that Douglass reveals to us as one of the distinctive issues of the slave narrative as a special genre of American literature. There is no “slave narrative” as a genre, except as it has been invented by white Abolitionists, liberal literary critics and historians, and compulsive classifiers of literary “kinds.” The “slave narrative” is never anything other than political writing, and it must be understood in terms of the other forms and kinds of political pamphleteering, speech-making, political demonstration, and even revolutionary actions that belong to “political reform.” And yet what is distinctive about the “economic” theme in antebellum black political writing is just what these passages from Douglass indicate: that the “economy” of antebellum America was changing from the “cash nexus” to a “market economy,” in which the power over language would be the real capital.

As hard as Douglass works to trivialize the language of his oppressors, he knows well enough that slavery—and its historical successor, urban capitalism—is maintained primarily by the power of words and the subtle manipulations by which slaves are not only forbidden to read and write but kept in positions of perpetual uncertainty regarding the “authority” of the Master. H. Bruce Franklin has argued that the seminal moment of revolutionary awakening in the 1845 Narrative is Douglass' fight with Covey, in which Douglass discovers in himself the power of physical rebellion:

To be reborn as a human being, to shed his animal identity imposed upon him by the white man, this Black slave must commit the most forbidden crime of all: he must strike the white man who oppresses him.8

It would be foolish of me to debate with Franklin which “passage” in the Narrative is the central one in determining the young man's conscious rebellion. Indeed, the fight with Covey may do as well as any other, except that the physical struggle with Covey is in itself a relatively powerless act in terms of the larger revolutionary aims of Abolition. It is satisfying to the young Douglass, because it gives him an illusory contact with his oppressor, a sense that he has finally come to grips with the enemy. Douglass himself characterizes his battle with Covey as “the turning-point in my career as a slave,” because it “revived within me a sense of my own manhood” and thus as “a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.”9 But the enemy is not exclusively Covey; it is the language—indeed, the entire representational system—of slavery itself, which is why the truly central “moment” in the Narrative is the ongoing drama of Douglass' education of himself in the ways of reading and writing.

Often sentimentalized as some version of the white novel's “narrative of education,” Douglass' “education” is much misunderstood. There can be little comparison, of course, between the urgency and danger involved in Douglass' very composition and publication of the 1845 Narrative and most novels and autobiographies. Wendell Phillips advised Douglass to burn the manuscript before publication, lest the book identify him to his slaveowner.10 In addition, the Narrative risked confirming what many Northern Abolitionists often claimed for such works: a demonstration of the “enlightenment” and “education” the abolitionist movement gave “embruted” runaway slaves. Indeed, the modern critical reading of the Narrative as a version of the “novel of education” is simply a later version of this liberal racism. Douglass' Narrative, despite the legitimating preface by Garrison and letter from Phillips, demonstrates quite consistently how Douglass learned to read and write under slavery and already in active rebellion against it. And insofar as the Narrative exposes the secret complicity among sexism, capitalist exploitation, and slaveholding, it presumes to “enlighten” Garrison and Phillips. Douglass' “literary” power, like his celebrated power as an orator, is clearly the accomplishment of a cultural critic who has learned from the urgency of his situation how to comprehend the complex means by which people are held in bondage. Kibbey, Sekora, Stepto, and Gates understand very well how important it is for this education into language to be accomplished by way of deception, trickery, the subversion of the subtle rhetoric by which arbitrary authority assumes the perverse status of Law. The rhetorical turns of Douglass' 1848 letter in The Liberator are excellent examples of this strategic “education” into language, and they are complements to the pervasive style of the 1845 Narrative—a style that has still remained largely unread in terms of its rhetorical complexity. The real “scene of instruction” into a practical revolutionary purpose occurs in those moments when Douglass recognizes the subtle “arts” by which the slave master works to maintain the appearance of his power.

Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence, and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation.


Douglass subtly transforms the “hard-work” of Edward Covey from that of field hand to that of a supernatural devil. What at first appears to be his “manual labor” is quickly turned into crawling “on his hands and knees to avoid detection” in the cornfield, and this “labor” into that of “a thief in the night.” It is, of course, a commonplace to speak of the deceptions and tricks played by the slave-master to maintain his authority on the plantation, but Douglass' association of this illusory authority with hard work is hardly conventional. The plantation romance had certainly led antebellum readers to expect the slave-master to be a gentleman enjoying his leisure at the expense of his slaves' drudging labor, and yet such a stereotype not only tended to idealize the slave-master but to caricature the power of the slave-holding system. Understood as a complex rhetoric, a system of representation penetrating every aspect of everyday life, agrarian slavery would not be overthrown exclusively by “hand-to-hand” combat, unless hands were put to different purposes. In the narrative order of the 1845 Narrative it is especially important that Douglass' exposure of Covey's rhetorical simulation of diabolical omnipotence precedes (by ten pages or so) his hand-to-hand combat with Covey. Indeed, the passages are rhetorically connected in a manner typical of the general style of the Narrative. In the earlier passage, Covey is named collectively by the fieldworkers as “the snake,” thus providing an apt theological context for the struggle between Covey and Douglass ten pages later. Douglass' “victory” and “resurrection,” of course, are not won conventionally over “temptation,” but in the novel figuration of the slave's struggle for freedom as the defeat of a recognized evil—a victory now understandable as one achieved not so much by physical force as by means of semiotic trickery. Even in those years following his break with the Garrisonians' policies of “moral suasion” and his attraction to the revolutionary militancy of John Brown, Douglass still understood that the military abolition of slavery would have to be accompanied by a psychological and sociological revolution whose battles would be waged in the discourses of literature, journalism, and the law.

To speak of antebellum Southern slavery as an ideology operating principally through language (and other, related semiotic means, including architecture, boundary lines, laws, and other aspects of everyday life) is hardly a great revelation to readers of Douglass' political writings. Indeed, the idea is the virtual precondition for understanding the significance of the Southern taboo against slaves learning to read and write. What is revealing, however, is the extent to which these “arts” of the ideology of slave-holding are shown not only to be Douglass' principal antagonists (and motives for his own metaphors), but also the “common ground” the feudal South shares with the expanding economy of the North.

Douglass learns to read and write not only by secretly practicing in the copybook of his Baltimore master's son, but also by watching the ships' carpenters make the parts of the ships they build in the Baltimore shipyards of Durgin and Bailey. This has often been considered an indication of how brilliantly Douglass relates knowledge to its practical uses. What Douglass learns from watching these ships' carpenters, however, goes considerably beyond a narrow pragmatism in the use of language. Douglass' literary ships differ significantly from those of the white ships' carpenters. The ships he builds are hardly simple “material objects,” but vehicles for “transport and use,” as Emerson would define poetic metaphor in “The Poet.” The ships he builds cannot be dissociated from the “sails” of freedom he romantically views on the Chesapeake and what ironically underscores that oft-quoted “vision” in the Narrative: the pirate ships that arrived, like thieves in the night, on the shores of Africa (106). That these same “ships” would become the means of Northern commerce in the period of rapid economic expansion from the 1830s to the boom years following the Civil War is hardly lost on Douglass, who comprehends the “mobility” of this apparently “material” product. To stamp its “parts” with his “letters” figures the “work” that will be required of the political reformer not only in the cause of Abolition but in the equally urgent task of redefining what is meant by “economy.” Even so, his literary ships always carry with them the freight of those other ships bearing African slaves and industrial (or agrarian) goods. Later in the Narrative, as a caulker in the Fell's Point Shipyard, Douglass is badly beaten by his white coworkers, who view “free colored carpenters” as threats to the “employment” of “poor white men” (132). The fight with Covey now may be read retrospectively as the beginning of a struggle that will embrace both southern slaves and free blacks confronting the economic racism of Northern capitalism. The shipyard is thus at once a “scene of reading and writing,” just as it is a political scene of instruction regarding the secret relation between racism and class-conflict. The means by which Douglass relates the material economic and political issues to the problematics of language is genuinely transcendentalist, truer in its bonding of spiritual and material, utopian and historical interests than Emerson in his most politically committed passages.

The “economy” of Douglass' America is an economy of language that quite perversely finds some of its subtlest artists, its grandest stylists among the ruling classes, either North or South. In order to combat such language, Douglass may well work hard to develop a “style” of his own, but he knows that this “literary” voice is far less important than the subversive act of writing by which ideology is revealed in all its complexity as a moving army of tropes and metaphors, a system of deception and control. At the same time, Douglass' style is never merely ironic, simply the exposure of perversely impressive power of slave-holding and capitalist ideologies to maintain control over their exploited workers. Douglass teaches his readers how crucially such subversion depends upon the collective and decidedly political alignments virtually necessitated by such an understanding of ideology. Tempted as readers may be to admire Douglass' rhetorical tours de force, the Narrative never lets us forget that the triumph of its style is to be achieved only in the new political alignments it helps those readers recognize as necessary consequences of its ideological critique. Waldo Martin has stressed Douglass' enthusiasm for Emersonian doctrines of self-reliance, even for the Emersonian hero, but the “voice” of the 1845 Narrative is always appealing for its realization through the writings and political action of its others, its committed readers. This authorial humility often has encouraged critics to conclude that the Narrative is primarily realistic and that the power of its story is that of the representative anecdote. Without minimizing the emotional power of the Narrative to evoke the terrors of everyday life under slavery, I would still contend that the text's power derives from its rhetorical efforts to turn the discourse of the ruling class in the direction of a utopian emancipation—not just of southern blacks, but of workers and women as well.

As I have already suggested, the most obvious of these political coalitions ought to be that between the white urban laborer and both freed and enslaved blacks. Returning to the fight in the shipyard in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Douglass states the issue with what he terms “some minuteness”:

The facts, leading to this barbarous outrage upon me, illustrate a phase of slavery destined to become an important element in the overthrow of the slave system … That phase is this: the conflict of slavery with the interests of the white mechanics and laborers of the south … The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself … The white slave has taken from him, by indirection, what the black slave has taken from him, directly, and without ceremony. Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers.11

Douglass does not explicitly discuss here the implications of this southern economy in the more industrialized North or even in the relatively immediate future of a desired abolition of slavery as an institution, but even so the solidarity that white and black laborers must recognize is predicated on the equally important awareness that their competition with each other is achieved by means of “a craftiness peculiar to” southern slaveholders. The passage, when coupled with those dealing with the economic racism Douglass faced in the North, serves as a warning to his readers that the “craftiness peculiar to” industrial capitalism will require not just ideological criticism comparable to Douglass' in the 1845 Narrative and his journalism, but political coalitions based on the knowledge and thus active power shared by those who have recognized the false divisions and specious “competition” between black and white workers. This co-operation between rhetorical subversion and political action is equally effective in the 1845 Narrative in achieving a working relation between abolition and women's rights. I shall not here recount what is well-known: Douglass' vigorous struggle on behalf of women's rights throughout his career, and his consistent alignment of women's rights with the political and economic agenda for black rights. Traditionally, however, Douglass' work on behalf of women's rights has been treated primarily in non-literary terms. Philip Foner's useful collection, Frederick Douglass on Women's Rights (1976), includes no selections from Douglass' three autobiographies—that is, from his putatively “literary” works.12

These omissions may, of course, be merely editorial conveniences, on the grounds that the autobiographies are well known and readily available in print, whereas the journalism reprinted in Foner's collection is drawn from a wide range of sources not readily available to the interested reader.

Even so, the impression given by Foner's volume is that Douglass' political activism in the cause of women's rights is a primarily “non-literary” matter, which of course does little to change the ways in which the literary autobiographies are understood in the many different literature classes in which they are taught. Of the most famous episode concerning women's rights in the 1845 Narrative, the whipping of Aunt Hester before the terrified young Douglass, Foner comments only in his “Introduction”: “Douglass grew to detest slavery. He saw slaves brutally whipped.”13 But the whipping of Aunt Hester exemplifies not only the especially perverse servitude of black women in the slaveholding South—victims of economic exploitation and sexual rape by white masters, but it refigures the episode in ways that cause the graphic “realism” of the whipping to serve a more profound critique of the Christian cliches used by slaveholders to legitimate the most brutal practices of sexual and economic domination.

Concluding as it does the very first chapter of the 1845 Narrative, the whipping of Aunt Hester serves as “the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery,” through which not only the young Douglass but the reader is forced “to pass” (51). Stunned as the reader is by Captain Anthony's brutal whipping of Aunt Hester, that reader is tempted to conclude that the episode serves merely the most self-evident realist purpose: to reveal the physical brutality of slavery in a manner that is emotionally powerful. Douglass himself begins the episode by claiming, “I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it” (51). But this episode in no way is exhausted simply in the emotional pathos of its drama, in the sheer vulgarity of the overseer's epithet, “damned bitch,” in the terrible brutality of tying Aunt Hester, naked to the waist, to “a large hook in the [kitchen] joist,” as he “commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin,” as “the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.” Turning from the ugliness of the scene, the reader virtually follows the child, who was “so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over. I expected it was my turn next. It was all new to me. I had never seen anything like it before” (52). Recalling as we must that the 1845 Narrative was written primarily for white readers, the episode renders the terrified black child and the naive white reader isomorphic at this moment, but not without reversing effectively racist cliches about “child-like” slaves and “rational,” educated white readers.

Cowering in the closet, still witness to the terrible scene, afraid that we would be next, we reproduce an archetypal biblical scene of perverse instruction: Ham witnessing his father, Noah, naked and drunken in his tent. It was, of course, a popular biblical story in the antebellum South, precisely because it was Ham's “iniquity” that causes Noah to curse him and his son, Canaan, “Cursed be Canaan! / The meanest of slaves shall he be to his brothers,” so that slavery itself might find one of its many perverse biblical warrants.14 The nineteenth-century reader of the Bible hardly needed Freud to explain what otherwise seems such a cruel punishment for an otherwise modest curiosity: spying upon the father's nakedness and drunkenness threatens the patriarch's authority.

In the account in Genesis, Noah's wife is not even mentioned; this is a biblical family-romance only between fathers and sons. How different the episode when translated into Douglass' terrifying realism! The nakedness the child witnesses is that of the black woman, violently “stripped” by the enraged overseer, Plummer, and then not in the domestic privacy of the biblical tent, but in that curious crossing of the public and private in the Southern plantation house, the kitchen. We must recall that Captain Anthony's rage against Aunt Hester, “a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions,” focuses on her disobedience in seeing a young man, Edward Roberts. “Why master was so careful of her,” Douglass writes, “may be safely left to conjecture” (51). The slaveowner's jealous rage focuses on the “property” of her body as both a sexual and economic possession. As the “warm, red blood” drips to the floor, Aunt Hester's sexual and economic violation are unavoidably connected, encouraged by Douglass' reference to “the innocence of my aunt” only a few lines earlier.

This double violation of the black slave woman is, of course, not unusual in itself in black literature of the time; it is a common and thus apparently “realistic” theme. In the biblical context, however, the child and the reader's voyeuristic terror at witnessing this “scene of instruction” powerfully undoes the authority of “The Curse of Canaan.” What mythically initiates slavery is not simply the apparently irrational “curse” Noah hurls at his son, Ham, for having witnessed him in a moment of weakness. The biblical story, even as it ignores Noah's wife, includes the implication that what Ham has witnessed is his parents' sexual intercourse. Oedipal taboos in a Freudian reading of this biblical scene only obscure the archetypal significance that the Bible itself cannot command, but that Douglass' text skillfully uses. An Oedipal reading would merely normalize the perversity of the Scriptural scene, in which the son's and mother's bondage to the Law-that-is-the-name-of-the-Father is enacted. In Douglass' interpretation, Ham's “iniquity” is transformed into the knowledge the child and reader fearfully share that the relation between master and servant begins with the violent rape of woman by man. No distinction is made between economic and sexual rape; they are the same. Aunt Hester's servitude as domestic slave in the kitchen is identical with the rape she and other black women regularly experienced on the plantation; both forms of exploitation served the economic interests of the slaveowner. And it is, of course, Aunt Hester's rebellion against just such servitude that we must understand motivates her refusal to obey the command not to see Lloyd's Ned.

The historical “Aunt Hester's” choice of Ned Roberts in defiance of the perverse law of the master is, of course, not sufficient to identify her as a revolutionary. As Douglass turns this graphically “realistic” scene in the direction of its truly fantastic infrastructure—the myths of gender and slavery often based on Scriptural warrants, he tropes “Aunt Hester” (“Aunt Esther” in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass) into her Old Testament namesake, Esther. Chosen by King Ahasuerus as his queen, Esther keeps her Judaism secret on the advice of her uncle, Mordecai, until Haman plots to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom. Using her power to plead the cause of her people with Ahasuerus, Esther saves her uncle Mordecai and her people, and Haman is hung on the gallows intended for Mordecai. The Old Testament tale is only a hint and cannot be said to fit Douglass' purposes with perfect accuracy. The biblical Esther saves her Uncle, Mordecai; in Douglass, the frightened nephew, prompted to flee and to write in part by her terrible punishment, eventually saves his Aunt. The analogies are sufficiently accurate to achieve rhetorical effect: child saves elder, weaker redeems strong. But the “family” constituted by this narrative of the generational transmission of power—from servitude to freedom, from submission to rebellion—is not for Douglass narrowly tied to blood. Like the biblical story echoed and appropriated, Douglass' story conflates “family” and “people.”

By weaving a complex biblical commentary into a putatively “realist” scene conventional in many so-called “slave narratives”—the sexual or physical violation of black slave women (a conventional “scene” Harriet Jacobs carefully omits from her narrative), Douglass has done much more than merely “shock” us with an anecdote from modern American slaveholding society.15 “I expected it would be my turn next,” Douglass recalls, reminding us how the patriarchal power of a biblical figure like Noah is achieved both by dominating the wife and the son, the woman and the slave. The master's fear that his arbitrary power as patriarch will be so revealed is at least one of the motives for slavery, a social institution that claims its origins in the most elementary domestic psychology. The abolition of slavery will thus include not only an understanding of how insidiously slave-holding rhetoric works to maintain its social and economic power, but how it draws upon the most elementary master-servant relations between the sexes. Such an analysis of Douglass' canny understanding of the complicity between racism and sexism, between social and psychological economies, helps clarify his repeated insistence upon the importance of the family in the tasks of gender and racial emancipation. Douglass often appears to sentimentalize the family, understandably enough given the common division of slave families by white masters for the sake of profit and control. But for Douglass, the utopian family is never a “natural fact,” a mere biological given perverted by southern feudalism. Douglass' utopian “family”—like the one whose return he demands in his 1848 letter to Thomas Auld—is always connected quite self-consciously with its social and political purposes, so that the domestic privacy of family psychologies might never again be the means of mystifying a more pervasive socio-political will-to-power.

In the course of this “episode,” which I confess to have complicated beyond the bounds of sheer literary “propriety,” the physical domination of slaves has been revealed to be far more insidiously invested with mythic, religious, and everyday codes than the sheer “realism” of Aunt Hester's whipping. At the same time that Douglass recognizes the semiotic complexity of slave-holding power, he also recognizes that there are means of intervening strategically, rhetorically, and politically in such a “scene of instruction” and discipline. Rather than simply analyzing the codes at work in the rape/punishment of Aunt Hester, Douglass turns those codes in the direction of that solidarity the reader feels with the black child and the violated black woman. The kitchen, as Jane Tompkins has argued in another context regarding the Quaker Settlement kitchen in Uncle Tom's Cabin, has become a site of empowerment for black men and women, as well as the white abolitionist.16 That it is a profoundly “literary” or “poetic” kitchen by the time such a political coalition is performed in Douglass' text should not lead us to conclude that such political praxis is solely the work of literati. What the literary scene makes possible in Douglass' subtle and canny prose style remains merely a possibility to be realized in the sorts of political actions that are always the proper complements to such “literature.” In this regard, we may turn not only to Douglass' subsequent appeals for collaboration between women's rights' activists and abolitionists in the 1845 Narrative and the two other autobiographies, but to the explicitly journalistic writings as well.

When Mary Howitt wrote from England to Douglass about his interest in founding what would become The North Star, he answered:

You speak of the printing press, and ask shall I like to have it? I answer, yes, yes! The very best instrumentalities are not too good for the cause; I should feel it quite improper to express myself thus, if the proposed present were merely an expression of personal consideration. I look upon it as an aid to a great cause, and I cannot but accept the best gifts which may be offered to it … I hope to be able to do a good work in behalf of my race with it.17

In a similar manner, the 1845 Narrative is not simply a “personal” and “autobiographical” account of the real terrors of slavery for the political purposes of acquainting its readers with representative abuses of the slaveholding system. Like that printing press and the paper it would help found, the 1845 Narrative “is a telling fact,” which poetically makes alignments among black slaves, freed northern blacks, black and white women, and workers both North and South in terms of shared social, economic, and psychological situations in America that enslaved them all, albeit in ways manifestly different.

I risk a great deal, of course, by concluding that Frederick Douglass is a “postmodern writer,” especially if I mislead my audience into thinking that Douglass' postmodernity is compatible with the consistent anti-realism and metafictional obsessions of American fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the same token, we have mistakenly characterized Douglass' writing either as “literary (or autobiographical) realism” or “political journalism.” Postmodernists like Barth, Hawkes, and Gass tended to trivialize the rhetorical powers of ideology; Douglass exposes the rhetorical subtleties of slave-holding and capitalist ideologies not merely by insisting on their unnatural origins, but by demonstrating how such perversity assumes the appearance of normality. Yet, even as Douglass pits the natural rights of human beings against the unnaturalness of slavery and urban capitalism, he develops a utopian vision that is profoundly social and political. Revealing the common purposes behind Southern and Northern economies and ruling classes, Douglass can argue for political coalitions among apparently different, often competitive, interest groups. Although Douglass makes the appeal commonly enough to our “shared humanity,” the political power he offers by way of such coalitions is achieved in response to the historical conditions these groups share. Political action against these oppressive conditions thus becomes the rediscovery of a utopian democracy, in which diverse groups recognize a collective and complementary social purpose. That the “real conditions” of oppression of blacks, women, and workers in nineteenth-century America depend crucially upon the fantastic narrative of American ideology changes considerably what we have customarily understood as “literary” realism. The arbitrary, unnatural, fantastic will-to-power of slaveowners and capitalists is exposed in the interests of a utopian vision of co-operative labor that includes the work of cultural self-representation as much as it embraces the production of useful goods. What is “realist” in Douglass is what I have called “political writing,” rather than “slave narrative” or “autobiography,” and it thus includes the whole range of Douglass' activities as writer, orator, and political figure. What is “postmodern” about that political writing is its recognition of how profoundly social reality is shaped by a malleable rhetoric of control and manipulation. Douglass' great accomplishment was not simply to recognize that such servitude relied on prejudices fundamental to the everyday use of language; many other American writers of the same period had come to the same conclusion. Douglass' great achievement was to discover the means of turning the very terms of such ideological mystification in the direction of new coalitions and social alignments that promised some measure of human emancipation. That such work can be understood as a collaboration among poetic style, formal innovation, journalism, oratory, and political organization should encourage us today as we attempt to find the clew that will lead us out of our narrow and forebidding poetic labyrinth.


  1. Carolyn Porter, “Social Discourse and Nonfictional Prose,” Emory Elliott, ed., Columbia Literary History of the United States, New York: 1988, pp.359,360.

  2. Carolyn Porter, “Social Discourse,” p.360.

  3. Technically, of course, Douglass' freedom was purchased by Ellen and Anna Richardson of Newcastle, England, in accord with the political action of the English Abolitionists with whom they were associated. I am following Robert Cover, Justice Accused, New Haven: 1981, p.184, in my contention that Douglass' purchase of freedom constituted an act of “self-purchase,” which was designed explicitly to expose the contradictoriness of U.S. laws in regard to slaves as legal chattel.

  4. Waldo Martin, Jr., The Mind of Frederick Douglass, Chapel Hill: 1984, pp.127,129.

  5. Frederick Douglass, “Letter to His Master,” in David Levin/Theodore L. Gross, America in Literature, vol. I, New York: 1978, p.1839.

  6. Russell Reising, The Unusable Past: Theory and the Study of American Literature, New York: 1986, reads Douglass' Narrative in his final chapter as an example of how American literary critics can overcome the formalism of earlier approaches. I am in perfect agreement with Reising about the value of Douglass' Narrative and other writings in the revision of American literary and cultural study, but I differ with Reising on the significance of the Narrative in this work. Repeatedly, Reising praises the “experience” and thus realism of the Narrative, but it is the rhetorical power and political intention of the Narrative that I wish to stress. Rather than serving simply as a record of genuine experience, of a self struggling with undeniable enemies, the Narrative uses these “facts” in the effort to develop an encompassing political rhetoric, intended to achieve coalitions among women, slaves, and urban workers.

  7. Frederick Douglass, “Letter to His Master,” pp.1840,1841.

  8. H. Bruce Franklin, “Animal Farm Unbound or, What the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Reveals about American Literature,” New Letters 43, 1977, 44.

  9. Houston Baker, Jr., ed., Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, New York: 1982, p.113. Further references in parentheses in the text.

  10. As quoted in Philip Foner, Frederick Douglass: A Biography, New York: 1964, pp.60,61.

  11. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, New York: 1968, p.310.

  12. Philip Foner, ed., Frederick Douglass on Women's Rights, Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies, No. 25, Westport: 1976.

  13. Philip Foner, Frederick Douglass on Women's Rights, p.8.

  14. See Thomas Virgil Patterson, Ham and Japeth: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South, New York: 1978, for a detailed account of how white slave-owners used the biblical myths to maintain their authority.

  15. The actual biblical reference is irrelevant. The biblical tone of Douglass' scene is unmistakable, and it is clear that the scene, in its terrible particularity and personal relevance for the child and the author, is intended to serve as a sharp rebuke to those appealing to vague biblical cliches to address issues of slavery—either pro-slavery or abolitionist.

  16. Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction: 1790-1860, New York: 1985, pp.141,142.

  17. Quoted in Philip Foner, Frederick Douglass: A Biography, p.76: Douglass to Mary Howitt, May 10, 1848. (From Mary Howitt's Journal I, p.352.

Lisa Yun Lee (essay date summer 1991-92)

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SOURCE: Lee, Lisa Yun. “The Politics of Language in Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an American Slave.MELUS 17, no. 2 (summer 1991-92): 51-59.

[In the following essay, Lee conducts a rhetorical analysis of Douglass's narrative as it progresses from the powerlessness of silence in the first half of the book to the power of speaking within the dominant discourse in the second half.]

In the Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Frederick Douglass recounts his rise from a black slave to an abolitionist leader. Douglass's eloquent book gives testimony to the cruelty that he and other slaves suffered. Not only is Douglass's writing eloquent and moving, it is also carefully planned and sophisticated. One can see that while addressing the evils of slavery, Douglass also addresses the universal issues of powerlessness resulting from the “social appropriation of discourse” (as Foucault terms it). Douglass demonstrates the very relevant problem of exclusion and enslavement of marginal people(s) by a dominant system that privileges and cultivates certain discourses and values. The use of language as a power tool in slave society marginalizes and enslaves people who are outside of or prevented from learning the dominant language. This all amounts to the politics of language, a subtext revealed in Douglass's rhetorical use of silence.

Thus far, leading critics such as Henry Gates, Robert Stepto, Melvin Dixon, and William Andrews, have provided groundwork research and criticism on Douglass. In general, the slave narrative as a genre and the characterization of Douglass emerge as the primary topics of discussion. Criticism focuses on theme and content. Given this primary criticism, one can go one step further into a rhetorical analysis that gives the Narrative an even greater dimension as a complex rhetorical piece. Robert O'Meally does provide a focused rhetorical analysis of the text by discussing binary terms and oppositions used in the text to highlight racial tension between blacks and whites. Nonetheless, the Narrative's “content”—the issue of slavery and Douglass's experience—has overshadowed the form. The form or style of Douglass's writing has largely been overlooked. Through rhetorical form, the book becomes an even more universal slave narrative—it conveys the larger conditions of discourse, dominance, and power, or the politics of language. A rhetorical analysis of the text reveals how Douglass manages to surpass the stereotyped expectations of black slave narratives.

The form of the Narrative underscores the subject of slavery by mirroring the powerlessness of Douglass. For example, as the story progresses, Douglass gains in stature and power, moving from slave to leader. Meanwhile, in the rhetorical sense, Douglass as first person narrator progresses from being narrator in a passive silent stance to narrator in an active speaking stance. Thus, as a silent narrator, Douglass reenacts the silencing of himself as a slave. For instance, Douglass never shows himself as an actually speaking subject in the first half of the book. He does not enact fundamental narrative words such as “I said,” “I say,” “I shouted,” “I replied,” etc. There is an absence of remembered conversations and an absence of Douglass verbally interacting with others. Douglass never quotes himself because he never gets to speak, literally or symbolically, in the first half of his life. Likewise, Douglass the narrator is prevented from colonizing the text just as Douglass the slave is prevented from speaking, reading, writing, and thus prevented from controlling his own daily life.

The rhetorical re-creation of Douglass's silence is emphasized by the emphasis on seeing (versus speaking or doing). The strategy emphasizes Douglass's position of marginal voyeur in the first half of the book. Similar to Lucien Goldmann's interpretation of The Voyeur, Douglass is a “voyeur,” or passive onlooker, who is excluded from the power system. It is by the acts of seeing that the truths of the slavery system are revealed to him as well as to the reader. Among many events, Douglass is forced to witness the repeated beatings and humiliations of other slaves. In the Narrative's important opening chapter, Douglass describes the unforgettable horror of watching Aunt Hester sadistically whipped. Douglass writes that this is “the first of a long series of outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant” (25). As he repeatedly illustrates, Douglass “participates” only by having to observe and obey.

Rhetorically, Douglass narrates as a voiceless observer. In the first half of the book, he never depicts himself as physically or verbally impacting upon situations, nor does he even show himself imagining to do so. He suffers in silence and conveys to the reader what he has seen. This rhetorical strategy of voyeur is even more apt given the historical laws which forced slaves to witness daily crimes against themselves and others, yet prevented slaves from filing suit or testifying in court (40). Again and again, Douglass reenacts the theme of powerless watcher as he is forced to watch others torture Aunt Hester (26), young and old Barney (34), Demby (40), Henrietta and Mary (50), and so on. Douglass emphasizes this seeing with repeated phrases such as: “I was doomed to be a witness … it was a most terrible spectacle” (25), “I have never seen anything like it” (26), “I have seen” (29, 34, 35), “I looked” (45), “I observed” (50), “I have been eye-witness” (51), “[a slave] must stand by and see” (23), and so on. A slave “must answer never a word” (34), Douglass notes. The narrator and the reader can only “watch” the events narrated. In such a way, Douglass re-enacts his exclusion from the power system.

This narrative tack of silence, among others discussed here, highlights the eventual leap Douglass takes in verbalizing and grasping the power of language. The book falls into a dichotomy that forcefully demonstrates the politics of language. Chapters one through six differ greatly from chapters seven through eleven in terms of Douglass's position as narrator and subject. The Appendix neatly rounds out the book to twelve chapters that steadily rise from oppressed silence (first half) to empowered expression (second half).

In the first half, Douglass is relatively absent or, in the narrative sense, is prevented from colonizing the text. Douglass creates his absence (rather than his presence as main character) since he focuses upon events that happen to other people, rather than himself. We as readers observe various exempla or parables through Douglass's eyes. The “I” first person becomes in effect a racial collection of “I”s with episodes revolving around the abuse of fellow slaves. Likewise, the masters who perpetrate the abuse, such as Captain Anthony, Mr. Severe, Colonel Lloyd, Mr. Gore, Mrs. Hicks, are described in detail.

In several episodes, Douglass focuses on others, including abused black women who suffer in anguished silence. Consistent with his method, while illustrating his own silence, Douglass illustrates the women's pain through their own silence. Over and over, the black women of this book are tortured and humiliated yet denied any means of expression or escape. This palpable silence again illustrates Douglass's rhetorical, narrative skill. It is not that Douglass does not include women in the Narrative, because he does, repeatedly. It is exactly their silence, punctuated by screams, that is so sharp and humiliating. This silence begins immediately with Douglass's mother who was only with him “in the night” (22). Douglass never has the opportunity to see her “by the light of day” (22) or to speak to her. She disappears “suddenly” (23). Like other women whom Douglass includes in the Narrative, Douglass's mother is abused by a white master. Even more painful are further examples that Douglass provides of Hester, “a woman,” “my wife's cousin,” Henrietta and Mary, and Henny, among others. The master would whip Hester “to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush” (25). She is stripped naked, hung on a hook, and whipped while she bleeds profusely. Likewise, Douglass describes seeing a master “whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time” (29). Douglass's wife's cousin is mangled, and she expires in a few short hours (41). Douglass also witnesses how fellow slaves Mary and Henrietta continue to live and serve their master and mistress. They are “mangled and emaciated” (50), starved, and “scarce an hour passed during the day” when they weren't lacerated, their heads, necks, and shoulders “literally cut to pieces” (51). Perhaps most revolting is the silent suffering of the disfigured, disabled Henny who is tied up daily for “four or five hours at a time” (68) to be whipped after breakfast and after dinner. In such manner, Douglass goes into great detail to illustrate the complete and ugly silencing of black women. This highlights and reinforces his overall strategy of using silence in the text as a tool to magnify rather than minimize an issue.

Douglass also underscores his own silence and marginality by conspicuously refraining from expressing any personal attachment to anyone. In this way he demonstrates how the slave system cuts his ties with the outside world as well as with his own peers. He notes his unattachment to any of his fellow slaves, even family. He writes: “I found no severe trial in my departure … My mother was dead, my grandmother lived far off, so that I seldom saw her. I had two sisters and one brother … but the early separation of us from our mother had well nigh blotted the fact of our relationship from our memories” (45).

When Douglass does briefly discuss himself he emphasizes his role as outsider. In chapter five, Douglass opens the chapter by noting his separateness from the other slaves: “My connection with Master Daniels was of some advantage to me. [He] was sort of protector of me. He would not allow the older boys to impose on me” (43). Douglass's separateness is moreover communicated when he closes the chapter by saying: “I regarded the selection of myself as being somewhat remarkable … I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last and only choice. I may be deemed superstitious, even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor” (47). In fact, from the beginning of chapter one Douglass emphasizes his separateness when he recounts that he is even kept from the means of knowing his parents, his origin, and thus does not really “know” himself.

For example, in chapter one's first paragraph alone, there are over ten negative rhetorical statements showing gaps and absence such as “I have no,” “never,” “I do not remember,” “seldom,” “a want of information,” “I could not,” “deprived,” etc. Gates points out that such negative statements reveal Douglass's extreme lack and deprivation of knowledge (Gates 90). These negative statements are followed by statements about Douglass's absent slave mother and unknown white father. He emphasizes his ignorance about them: “I know nothing; the means of knowing were withheld from me” (21-22). Douglass thus reveals the gaps in knowledge that contribute to his marginality. He is a mulatto slave who furthermore doesn't even know his own origin. Society recognizes him as neither man nor animal. He writes: “slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant” (21). Moreover, Douglass is denied the means of expression, of language, by which he could become his own man. The young Douglass is in effect a decentered subject as he is dehumanized and prevented from establishing a self.

Douglass's position changes dramatically in the second half of the book, when he at last grasps the power of language, learns to read and write, and becomes a teacher. Noticeably, he becomes the central figure of the narrative. Douglass quotes himself speaking, conversing, interacting with others. He even quotes himself launching into an eloquent apostrophe. He introduces his speech by saying “My thoughts would compel utterance” (76). The connection between the power of thinking and speech is realized as Douglass the silent marginalized man transitions to active individual when a white mistress cracks an opening in the white discourse. She offers to teach him to read, and Douglass seizes the opportunity to enter the power structure. He thus begins to escape the repression, the totality, and breaks the silence. What ensues is a true feeling of his “difference”—Douglass becomes acutely aware of his denial by the world around him and thus becomes more acutely aware of his own identity. Douglass acts out what Jacques Derrida describes as: “difference is articulation” (Derrida 66). Douglass is discovering that presence in itself is not sufficient to differentiate oneself. Identity must be made present by self-expression (Derrida 286).

At last, Douglass portrays himself speaking, with his first spoken words in the Narrative being a recognition of his difference: “I would sometimes say … ‘You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?’” (54). Douglass later states the telling phrase “I used to think, and thus I used to speak” (77). In such manner, the position of Douglass begins to shift. He becomes more equal and centered in his narrative as he acquires language and has the tool to move towards social equality. He now establishes a discourse, whereas before he was excluded and was thus a silent subject and narrator. Instead of being acted upon, Douglass becomes controlling actor. This is mirrored rhetorically. Instead of voyeur, Douglass becomes controlling narrator.

Douglass introduces the idea of an active dialogue and his active role immediately in this second half of the book. He describes reading a book that was most motivating to him: “I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between a master and his slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master—things which had the desired unexpected effect …” (54). The Narrative follows with a series of like incidents, with Douglass in dialogue with his masters.

The second half of the book continues this theme of language empowerment, shifting Douglass to the role of active speaker rather than just mute watcher. He portrays himself several times in the act of conversing with black and white characters, employing phrases indicating speech such as “I said,” “I say,” and “I used to talk [this] over with them” (54), “I would sometimes say to them” (54), “I told him” (56), “I would tell him” (57), “I used to speak” (77), “I talked this whole matter over” (80), “I went directly home and told the story” (102), “I felt strongly moved to speak” (118), and so on.

Meanwhile, the white people who speak through the first half, now become watchful of Douglass. There is a subtle switch in the power play as Douglass threatens the symbolic order. The descriptions of Douglass speaking and appropriating the language, are simultaneously accompanied by descriptions of slave masters silently watching. For example, within his master's house, Douglass is “most narrowly watched” (53), master Covey “watch[es] every movement” (73), white masters resort to “greater watchfulness” (106), and master Hugh would “look [Douglass] in the face with a robber-like fierceness” (107). The positions of power shift, with Douglass becoming active speaker while the masters become passive watchers.

Douglass even sings (which he cannot do in the first half). He sings hymns, which his master Covey is incapable of doing. Douglass shows even greater power by deciding when to sing or not sing: “I would at times do so; at others, I would not. My noncompliance would almost always produce much confusion” (74). In several such instances, Douglass illustrates the exercise of power by choosing when to sing or not sing, or when to speak or not speak. Douglass employs purposeful silence which contrasts with the helpless silence of the first half. When Covey confronts him, Douglass explains: “He repeated his order. I still made him no answer …” (72). When interrogated by white men he urges his fellow slaves to resist: “Own nothing! … Own nothing!” (97). He “would make them no answer” (98). In such manner, once Douglass learns the power of language, he also learns the power of silence to resist and subvert the system.

Douglass's most noticeable silence is regarding his actual escape. In chapter eleven, Douglass refuses to discuss his escape, and he says the white slaveholder should be made to suffer in his silence: “I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight … leave him to imagine himself … Let him be left to feel his way in the dark …” (106). This refusal to fulfill readers' expectations of a good escape scene may enhance Douglass's credibility (Stepto 25). This refusal also demonstrates Douglass's authority to subvert the system. By refusing to discuss his escape, Douglass forces the narrative focus toward his struggle for the human condition and away from simply the dramatic escape. This pronounced silence announces its presence. Through silence about his escape, Douglass asserts control over the text. He places himself in the empowered role of protector by withholding information. He is a black who is now protector of the white abolitionists and black slaves.

Douglass also highlights his centralized role by describing his relationships with fellow men. Douglass describes an emotional bonding between himself and others around him. This is in contrast to his earlier lack of friends and family. Douglass as marginal narrator shifts to Douglass as emotionally involved and empowered narrator. Douglass says about his fellow slaves: “We loved each other” (90), “We were linked and interlinked with each other. I loved them with a love stronger than any thing I have experienced … We were one” (91). It is important to note, however, that Douglass not only becomes involved and central to the text—he goes further to establish himself as one step above the other characters. Douglass builds bonds with slaves at the Sabbath school, such as Sandy and Henry. Douglass calls this school “my Sabbath school” (89, 90). But rather than discuss the school per se, his words serve to emphasize his ascendance to leader and teacher: “I succeeded in creating in them a strong desire to learn” (89), “I teach them … I taught them” (90), “I kept up my school … [and] several of those who came to Sabbath school learned how to read; and [one], at least, is now free through my agency” (90).

Likewise, Douglass describes the plans for escape in terms of his will and leadership. He devises the plan and instills in slaves the desire for freedom just as he instills in them the desire to read. He portrays himself as actively “inspiring” and “explaining” (94). “This was what I wanted” (92), he says. Douglass protects them as well by writing “several protections” (94) or fake documents. Douglass is the leader and teacher to the characters of the book, and is the sermonizing narrator to the readers. In fact, O'Meally discusses the strengths of the book as a sermon form that builds toward converting its reader.

Thus by the end of the book, Douglass's position has changed remarkably, from speechless slave to teacher, speaker, and leader. Douglass narrates as teacher to the reader, to his fellow slaves, and moreover to the whites in the end. Before the last chapter, Douglass even speaks at length to his masters who actually listen to him. Douglass narrates these incidents in a way that indicates the power of language. When Douglass complains to master Thomas, Douglass states that “it seemed, as I spoke, at times to effect him” (79). Later an abused and beaten Douglass complains to master Hugh. The master “listened attentively to my narration … He gave expression to his feelings by pouring out curses upon [those] who did the deed” (102). While listening to Douglass, the mistress Hugh is likewise moved “to tears” (102), and her heart “melted into pity” (102). Douglass has risen to the point where white masters actually listen to and are affected by him.

Of course, listening is not enough, and Douglass escapes to the North. Again, he falls back into marginality and silence. Once more he is in a discursive system that has its own rules as a different “fellowship of discourse” (Foucault 226). He is “without home and without friends” (111), is “afraid to speak to any one for fear of slave kidnappers” (111), is in “a strange land” (111), “perfectly helpless both as to the means of defence and means of escape” (112). Douglass once more emphasizes his exclusion and focuses on his quick rise to powerful leader. In this chapter, Douglass repeats in diminutio the earlier pattern of silence which changes to speech. He goes from fear and not speaking to full empowerment as speaker for white and black abolitionists. This happens for him in a dramatic moment: “While attending an anti-slavery convention … I felt strongly moved to speak, and was at the same time much urged to do so … I spoke but a few moments … From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren” (118-19). In this manner, the pattern of the speechless, powerless Douglass arising to speaking, empowered Douglass is re-enacted a second time with emphasis again on the power of language and speech. This time, Douglass rises much farther.

Douglass heightens his ascent even more through his artfully placed Appendix. Douglass ends the book with verses written by a northern white preacher. The verses parody the hypocritical Southern slaveholders who gave lip service to Christian virtues. Douglass pointedly authenticates the verses for us, as Stepto notes (Stepto 26). Douglass bestows his approval by saying that these are verses “which I soberly affirm [are] ‘true to life,’ and without caricature or the slightest exaggeration” (124). This elevation of Douglass to authenticator is an ironic twist to the Narrative. In the book's two prefaces, it is the white men who must introduce and authenticate Douglass's work. Now, it is Douglass who introduces and validates a white man's work. By the end, Douglass is teacher, leader, protector, and now authenticator.

In summary, Douglass's strategy thus speaks to more than the typified black slave narrative. As a slave, Douglass is silenced. As a narrator, he demonstrates rhetorically that he himself is colonized; he is prevented from active presence in the text. In the process, Douglass demonstrates the decentering of the subject and the marginalization of excluded elements. As slave, Douglass is a silent part of a normalized system, being traded and sold as an object of the slavery system, like currency that has a certain value. The black slave as dehumanized object is denied admission to the normative language and is denied the right to form his own. Thus Douglass acts out his situation as a nonspeaking nonparticipatory person. He is spoken for, rather than doing the speaking himself. Douglass's identity and power are not defined and differentiated until he gains language. He then emerges from signified to signifier, from used to user, from mute to speaker. Overall Douglass's strategy is carefully planned and sophisticated, relying on form as well as content of the story.

The delineation between the experience of silent marginalization and speaking presence is so thoroughly presented that the binary nature of the two halves of the Narrative must be purposefully drawn. This rhetorical strategy should thus affect our reading of Douglass—there should emerge an awareness of Douglass as consciously and skillfully using the full range of rhetorical skills to speak to the larger issues of the human condition and marginalization. Douglass manages to demonstrate the enslavement of peoples in the fullest sense, a physical as well as mental, intellectual, enslavement that prevents expression and identity.

Works Cited

Andrews, William. To Tell a Free Story. Chicago: U Illinois P, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1976.

Dixon, Melvin. Ride Out the Wilderness. Chicago: U Illinois P, 1987.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave. 1845. New York: Signet, 1968.

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black. New York: Oxford U P, 1987.

Goldmann, Lucien. Toward a Sociology of the Novel. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London. Tavistock Publishers, 1977.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Schoepf. New York: Basic Books, 1963.

O'Meally, Robert. “Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative: The Text That Was Meant to be Preached.” Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction. ed. Dexter Fisher and Robert Stepto. New York: MLA, 1979.

Stepto, Robert. From Behind the Veil. Chicago: U Illinois P, 1979.

Donald B. Gibson (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Gibson, Donald B. “Christianity and Individualism: (Re-)Creation and Reality in Frederick Douglass's Representation of Self.” African American Review 26, no. 4 (winter 1992): 591-603.

[In the following essay, Gibson examines Douglass's struggle to reconcile the existence of God with his own condition as a slave.]

“O God, save me! God, deliver me,
Let me be free! Is there any God?
Why am I a slave?”

(Douglass, Narrative 106-07)

“But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”

(James 1:25)

The question of religious belief prompted by Douglass's impassioned utterance regarding the relation between the existence of God and his own status as a slave was not raised by him alone. Reverend Charles Colcock Jones, a white, Southern slave missionary, wrote in 1842, “He who carries the Gospel to them … discovers deism, skepticism, universalism … all such strong opinions about the truth of God; objections which he may perhaps have considered peculiar to the cultivated minds of critics and philosophers” (qtd. in Raboteau 176). Raboteau also reports the response of a recently freed black woman who was questioned about her religious belief: “It has been a terrible mystery to know why the good Lord should so long afflict my people and keep them in bondage to be abused and trampled down without any rights of their own, with no ray of light in the future.” Though she had sustained her own faith, others had not: “Some of my folks said there wasn't any God, for if there was he wouldn't let white folks do as they have done for so many years” (314). The most interesting aspect of this response, and of Douglass's questioning of God's existence, is the ambiguity occasioned by the context. Each expresses belief, yet raises the issue of disbelief in the face of felt knowledge and experience.

Douglass's response to the question raised by theodicy, the recognition of the problem raised by the co-existence of a just God and evil, had a profound effect on Douglass's thinking, for the question was basic to his sense of self and thus to the extraordinary sense of individualism that he clearly possessed. That Douglass should, in the epigraph above, in the same breath implore God to deliver him and then question his very existence points to an implicit line of reasoning: If there were a God, then I would not be a slave; since I am a slave, the possibility exists (hence the question, not a positive assertion) that there is no God. Also implicit in his reasoning is the assumption that, if there were a God, he would “save me,” “deliver me,” “let me be free.” It is of significance that this expression of ambivalence occurs in the Narrative prior to Douglass's fight with Covey, the “nigger breaker,” for it is my contention that such ambivalence was resolved with the outcome of that confrontation, a moment that also witnessed the birth, in the consciousness of the “former” (as he sees himself at the time) slave, of an extraordinarily intense and ardent individualism.

Douglass's sense of individualism is inextricably bound to his psychological sense of self. When sent to Covey's farm, Douglass was sixteen years old and verging on adulthood. He had experienced life as a slave in Baltimore, and as we know, city slave life was on the whole comparatively less restrictive.1 His recalcitrance and his wilfulness were attributed by his then present owner, Thomas Auld, to his sojourn in the city.2 His defiance and intractability were immediately occasioned by the necessity to fulfill his needs (he allows Auld's horse to run away to Auld's father-in-law's because the underfed Douglass knows he will get food there), but he as well challenges patriarchal authority. The “severe whippings” he receives as a result of his fractious behavior are “all to no purpose.”

Douglass, out of psychological necessity, perhaps, or out of instinct, struck at the very core of slavery when he challenged the authority of white males, especially when he rendered Auld's punishment futile by refusing to modify his behavior. Kenneth Stampp says about punishment that, “without the power to punish, which the state through the black codes conferred upon the master, bondage could not have existed. By comparison, all other techniques of control were of secondary importance” (171). Eugene Genovese puts the issue in another way in quoting the opinion (State v. Mann, 1829) of North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Thomas Ruffin: “The end of slavery ‘is the profit of the master; the task of the slave is to toil that another may reap the fruits.’ Such services, he added, can be expected only ‘from one who has no will of his own; who surrenders his will in implicit obedience to that of another.’ The power of the master over the slave's body must be absolute” (200). Douglass strikes at the heart of slave society, at its very center which, as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese asserts, requires white-male dominance (99). The system requires not only that slaves be obedient to their masters but that women and all others related to a particular household should exist in subservient relation to the patriarch's authority (101). To challenge that center is to challenge the whole structure of antebellum Southern society.

Unable to control or discipline Douglass, Auld turned him over to Covey, who by virtue of the system's patriarchal structure, becomes a surrogate father who will do to rebel against just as well as Auld. Auld is not Douglass's biological parent, but he is, in the mythology of slave society and psychologically, a father, as is suggested when Douglass, at odds with Covey during his tenure with the “nigger breaker,” turns to Auld for protection, much as a child might expect protection from a parent.3 The issue becomes more complicated if we recognize that Douglass's appeal to God to “save him,” to “deliver him,” is psychologically an extension of his appeal to Thomas Auld to “save him,” to “deliver him,” from the wrath of Covey. Covey, Thomas Auld, and Captain Aaron Anthony, reputedly Douglass's biological parent, are all conflated into one conception of authoritative male parent. That male parent and his character are evoked in the ambivalence of Douglass's address which serves as an epigraph to this essay. Initially an invocation to a loving and caring savior, the invocation becomes soliloquy as the possibility is raised that, if there is a God, He is a cruel, sadistic entity. The two conceptions are embedded in the portrait of Douglass's reputed father, drawn in the second, revised autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). William L. Andrews points out the ambiguity of the representation in the introduction to his edition of the second autobiography. The portrait reveals a man, Aaron Anthony, who is at once a barbarous, vindictive, merciless, bloodletting brute and a “complex character” who could be, in Douglass's words, “almost fatherly” and who could refer to his Frederick as my “little Indian” (Introduction xix; My Bondage 54).4

Little did Thomas Auld know when he turned Douglass over to Covey for “breaking,” that he was in effect creating the conditions that would eventuate in Douglass's freedom and the loss of his property. Shortly after Douglass comes to Covey, he is seemingly “broken.” He is worked extremely hard and is frequently beaten severely. The desire to read departs; he seems constantly in a daze, torpid. The immediate cause of his conflict with Covey occurs when Covey strikes him on the head with a barrel stave after he has collapsed while working, presumably (since he soon recovers after he has had rest) from exhaustion. Douglass runs away to his owner Thomas Auld, where he seeks support and protection but is simply sent back to meet his fate. His crime is disobedience, since he did not obey Covey's order to return to work after he fainted, and again on two subsequent occasions he does not return when Covey orders him to. Saturday passes and then Sunday. The fight occurs on Monday. Douglass prefaces his narration of this noteworthy event, as will be recalled, with this word to the reader: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (Narrative 107).

The implication of Douglass's statement is that some change of supersignificant proportions is about to occur. Clearly he has in mind, as the alteration of grammatical tense in the sentence signals, changes in a transformation: Transformation from slave to man means, in the language of the antebellum South, radical transmogrification, for the change from slave to man simply does not exist in nature. It is a metamorphosis which has no place in the psychobiology or the ideology of antebellum thought. There is no way in the mythology of Southern thought that a slave can be a man. Men can be patriarchs, but slaves can never be patriarchs, for slaves are by nature and definition children.

Douglass insists on not only challenging but demolishing Southern slaveholding ideology: “You shall see how a slave was made a man,” an argument not to be presented abstractly, but as physically felt experience. The whole effect of the Narrative is intended to be achieved through making the reader both think and feel slavery is wrong, but especially to feel it. The metamorphosis from slave to man is no less incredible, from the ideological perspective of the slaveocracy, than Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis into a beetle in Kafka's tale. That is exactly the sense that Douglass means to convey. “You shall see how a slave was made a man”—not a transformation but a transmogrification, a radical attack upon and departure from the received assumptions and discourse of antebellum slaveholding thought.

On the Monday morning following Douglass's disobedience, his failure to do as he is told, Covey sets about reenacting the enslavement of the whole race, capturing the African and binding him in order to subject him to white, male, patriarchal will and authority. That Douglass is thinking in such broad terms is implicit in the Narrative but explicit in the 1855 revised autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. In fact the terms of Douglass's conception are even broader, extending as they do, to basic Western mythology, particularly to the Bible:

My religious views on the subject of resisting my master, had suffered a serious shock, by the savage persecution to which I had been subjected, and my hands were no longer tied by my religion. Master Thomas's indifference had severed the last link. I had now to this extent “backslidden” from this point in the slave's religious creed; and I soon had occasion to make my fallen state known to my Sunday-pious brother, Covey.


The reference here is to the use of religion and the Bible to control slave conduct. In a sermon delivered at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1850 on the occasion of the dedication of a church built by Presbyterians for slaves, the Reverend J. H. Thornwell said, “This church will prove a stronger fortress against insubordination and rebellion than weapons of brass and iron” (7). Countless slaves and others (I think especially of Frederick Law Olmsted 473-74) have testified that most sermons directed at slaves were based on one or both of two passages: “He that knoweth his master's will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes” (Luke 12:47) and “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).5 Thornwell in his sermon explicates the meaning of St. Paul's utterance: “He [Paul] says to them [servants] in effect that their services to their masters are duties which they owe to God—that a moral character attaches to their works, and that they are the subjects of praise or blame according to the principles upon which their obedience is rendered” (21). If we consider that Douglass, by setting his agon with Covey in a broader context, intends to intensify and expand the meaning of his own particular experience, then our attention is drawn to the mythological meanings implicit in his description of it. We might also consider that the text Douglass knows best is the Bible and that it only makes sense that he would naturally, given his understanding of the meaning of that book, have filtered his experience through it; for initially religion, along with the strength of his own hand, while he is a slave and before he encounters abolitionism, offers his only bulwark against slavery. What first settles into focus, given the two references in the Narrative to Jacob and the explicit reference to the fall, is Genesis. Interestingly enough, the angels in Jacob's dream (Genesis 28:12) go up and down the ladder: “The angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” Hence Douglass's going down the ladder in the earlier version (1845) and up the ladder in the later version (1855) does not constitute a revision of his experience. Rather it represents his situating his experience within the boundaries of the universe as defined in the biblical text.

Perhaps the suggestion of climbing Jacob's ladder as he climbs up to the barn loft led to the further association with Jacob. Jacob's long struggle with “a man” who turns out to be the angel of God, or perhaps God Himself (Genesis 32:24-32), is reminiscent of Douglass's long struggle with Covey insofar as the struggle is a literal power struggle in which Douglass prevails, as does Jacob. The angel is not only unable to prevail against Jacob, but he, like Covey, cannot escape Jacob's hold. Jacob is victorious as he forces a blessing from the angel and announces his victory: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” That the struggle has meaning beyond its apparent surface meaning is revealed when the angel says to Jacob, “You have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” The scope of Douglass's conception of the meaning of his fight with Covey is revealed in his comment afterwards: “He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery” (113). It is not only Covey whom he repels but every slave owner, every overseer, every white male and female, and perhaps even God, given Douglass's reference to his “fallen state” and the implicit reference to that archetypal account of rebellion against patriarchal authority, the Fall.6

Douglass tests authority, as does Jacob, and withstands the test. His sense of the meaning of that victory is reflected in the terms of his description of it. This is no mere besting of a tough in a barroom brawl; this is truly an agon, a contest of mythic, epic proportion. Douglass indicates as much when he chooses the second most quintessential moment in the saga of the central myth of Western culture Christianity (the first being the creation), the crucifixion, as a lens through which to view his achievement and status, not hyperbolically but actually. His victory over Covey, after he has singly, individually, ALONE “himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery”—the whole damned bloody arm!—is analogous to the crucifixion and the resurrection: “I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.” His treatment at the hands of Covey, being “broken,” was his “crucifixion”; his defeat of Covey was his “resurrection” and “ascension.”

He is willing to be crucified for cause. He in fact puts the world on notice that under certain circumstances he will have to be crucified: “I now resolved that, however long I remained a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me” (113). His statement means that he is serious, and his subsequent life leads us to believe that he indeed meant what he said. During the years of his lecturing and life in general, he was faced with the possibility of being beaten or killed more times than we know, for he did not enumerate in detail all of the personal threats to his physical well being. But he had undergone them (Life and Times 230-31, 453-63; McFeely 111-12). Who was going to beat him, to reduce him to the level to which Covey had reduced him? Nobody.

We witness what Peter Walker in Moral Choices, David Leverenz in “Frederick Douglass's Self-Refashioning,” and Paul de Man (supplying the theoretical underpinning) in “Autobiography as De-facement” have called, or implied is, a conscious construction on Douglass's part of an inauthentic self, a fictionalized version of actuality. These critics either ignore or belittle Douglass's political purposes in writing his autobiography in a manner appropriately in tune with his ends. They cast aspersions because Douglass did not associate with, adopt, or sustain the values of blacks who were not members of a black bourgeoisie; he rejected black expressive culture. Unlike Houston Baker in The Journey Back (“Had there been a separate written black language available, Douglass might have fared better” [39]), these critics do not qualify their position by realizing that Douglass had no language other than standard English to adopt, no models of thought or conduct available other than those existing in the general culture. Waldo Martin in the epilogue of his book and elsewhere discusses this issue in a sensitive, respectful, and non-accustory manner (see esp. 282).

To say outrageously, as Peter Walker does, that Douglass nursed a “hopeless secret desire to be white” (247) exposes at best uncommonly extraordinary naïveté about the relation between race and culture for Afro-Americans and for anyone else issuing in the United States from another culture. What should Douglass's language have been? How should he have acted? Are all blacks the same? Are blacks exempt from the class divisions that beset whites in this capitalistic society? Walker assumes so; a black is a black. Frederick Douglass did not think so. He thought that he needed to talk to Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln's own language if he was to make any change in the character of the life of Afro-Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is utterly ahistorical to suggest that he might have privileged the expressive culture belonging to Afro-American slavery. He could not possibly have done otherwise than he did, anymore than Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. Du Bois could have. Perhaps he should have “kept more of the plantation in his speech”; perhaps he should have simply “told his story,” as Douglass was advised early in his career, rather than attempting to theorize about issues of slavery.7 Elizabeth Fox-Genovese points out the necessity Douglass felt to identify “himself with the triumph of manliness and individualism that slavery suppressed. In doing so, he explicitly called upon his northern readers to recognize that the sufferings and inequities to which he had been subjected by the very condition of enslavement directly contravened their deepest principles of individualism” (375).8

Whether that self of the Narrative is constructed, and therefore in some sense inauthentic (as Anne Frank's in her Diary?), it certainly accounts for the political man we later know, a man who champions individualism not only by his words, by his public expression of support of individualism in his often-delivered oration “Self-Made Men,” but also by his acting out of individualism in the conduct of his own life. The seed of such individualism germinates, whether in fact or as imagined, in the fight with Covey. The roots of Douglass's psychology, philosophy, and theology begin there. To put this another way, we might say that Douglass's knowledge and understanding of the world begin not with his perception and understanding of “the word,” of literacy, but with his ability to be, as St. Paul instructed, a “doer of the word.”9 Literacy means nothing per se, Douglass's text tells us. Its meaning is tied to action, to function. This is the pragmatic Douglass; the Douglass responding to those same influences that produce Charles Sanders Peirce and William James.

Douglass goes to great lengths to spell out this relation. When he is in a good situation, when he is not badly treated, he wants to be free; he suffers from the restraints of captivity; when he is maltreated by Covey, reduced to the status of beast of burden, the desire for freedom departs, he no longer desires to read or to exercise the higher functions of mind and consciousness. Finally he responds to his situation in an appropriate way, a way having nothing directly to do with the life of the mind, but a way prepared for by his hard-earned literacy: He responds physically; he (I repeat here again what I said earlier from another angle) “himself … [repels] by force the bloody arm of slavery.” That response, the fusion of his psychological and somatic responses to the whole system of slavery, a response of mind and body, of the whole of Frederick Douglass's being, is the centermost, innermost experience of his life. It is through the fight with Covey that Douglass “escapes” slavery (at least insofar as he understands his experience). Seen from this perspective, his peculiar pronouncement of his status after the encounter makes sense: “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact” (113; emphases added). A “slave in form” is one who is held in bondage against his will but who no longer thinks himself a slave. A “slave in fact” is one who is held in bondage but who sees no disparity between his owner's sense of him as property and his own sense. A slave is one who consents to be a slave, who participates in the dynamic of the relationship. One who is not a slave ruptures the bond between master and slave by refusing to participate in the transaction defining master-slave status. “He who would be free must strike the first blow” (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Byron's lines describe Douglass's sentiments exactly. Indeed, Douglass's whole intellectual orientation follows along these lines. In his distinction between “slave in form” and “slave in fact” he seeks, following his confrontation, to wrest physically the meaning of language out of the grasp of tradition and into the realm of an emerging, developing discourse.

He has struck at the very core of “the peculiar institution,” and in so doing Douglass establishes the whole grounding of his philosophical and theological disposition. Douglass's views on individualism and on the relation of man to God stem from the anti-authoritarianism expressed in the fight with Covey. Individualism was his cup of tea because he felt that he himself escaped the clutches of slavery through the exertion of his own individual will, strength, and power. Whether this is indeed true is not at issue. The fact is that he felt it to be so and hence, following the dominant ideology of his time, pursued the implications of thinking that the individual is responsible for his own situation. He needed to do this in order to contravene institutional authority, for institutional authority declared him a “slave in fact.” He needed to become his own authority, to derive truth, finally, not from established, accepted, institutionalized norms, not from what the whip and its laid on authority dictated, but from his own literally “felt,” and hence “known,” experience.

During the course of his life, the manifestations of his commitment to individuality and to individualism after his fight with Covey are clearly shown. Initially his commitment is to the freedom of himself as an individual; eventually that sense of self is expanded into principle as “individualistic” becomes “individualism.” (In Life and Times, the final revision of his autobiography, he says, “When I ran away from [sic] freedom, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation it was for my people” [479].) The point of such an exchange is marked by Douglass's turn, long before the question of slavery is settled, to a more general topic within the domains of his discourse—“self-made men,” a speech and essay analyzed in considerable detail by Martin (253-78).

According to John Blassingame's brief note introducing an 1860 transcription in The Frederick Douglass Papers, the first versions of this speech were delivered in 1859. Douglass's opening remarks on the occasion of the 1860 delivery refer to the fact that his subject is a novel one: “I usually speak in public on the subject of American slavery, and it is supposed by some in my country that a coloured man has not thoughts worth listening to on any other subject” (Papers 2:260). (Does speaking on another subject manifest a “hopeless, secret desire to be white”?) The disavowal, by virtue of the fact of its existence, raises the question of why Douglass is speaking on this subject. Might he have spoken on such current subjects as animal magnetism, or daguerreotypy? I think not. He spoke on this topic innumerable times from 1859 to the end of his life. It is clear enough that the topic, “self-made men,” was in some sense fundamental to his thinking and not unrelated to “American slavery.”

The implication is that the ideology of the culture regarding the possible establishment of the relationship of the individual to the larger group requires that the individual act within certain boundaries, constraints. These limits are defined by the ideology of individualism and its counterpart, self-reliance. As Douglass saw it, as his knowledge and understanding led him to believe, the only way that blacks after slavery would be able to survive and rise was through accommodating themselves to the presently existing modes of progression, through established societal channels. Black people of whatever gender needed to become “self-reliant men.” He felt that as early as 1859, and he voiced the conviction until the end of his life. Had Douglass had anything of the black nationalist in him, he might have thought differently. But as it was, Douglass was a thorough believer in equality through integration. He did not feel that there should be separate churches for blacks (Meier and Rudwick 89). He believed that the end of slavery would come about when blacks could act freely, when blacks could act like middle-class whites, since, after all, being white (middle- or upper-class) seemed to be being free. (Nobody, who ever knew what poor white was, ever wanted to be one.) Douglass's ostensible “secret desire to be white” readily turns out to be a not so “secret” desire to be middle-class and free.

But again, Douglass's connection to the ideology of his time was through the medium of his own experience. He did not simply think, as Emerson did and as Thoreau set up test conditions to confirm, that self-reliance, and the individualism attendant upon it, was a desirable state, he knew through his experience of its efficacy, for he alone at sixteen years of age and with his own hands “himself repelled the bloody arm of slavery.” This understanding of Douglass's relation to his past is implied by James M'Cune Smith, black physician, civil rights activist, and abolitionist, in his introduction to Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Smith is aware of the connection between Douglass's battle with Covey and his later life: “The same strong self-hood, which led him to measure strength with Mr. Covey, and to wrench himself from the embrace of the Garrisonians … has borne him through many resistances to the personal indignities offered him as a colored man” (23).

I have maintained that Douglass's theology, a theology not unrelated to his individualism, stems from his encounter with Covey. Douglass was a religious man, though not in a conventional sense. Prior to his escape, we learn in My Bondage and My Freedom, he fell under the influence of an older slave and father figure, Uncle Lawson, one of the many fathers that Douglass eventually needed to repudiate. Uncle Charles Lawson told Douglass that “the Lord had a great work for [him] to do,” that he should prepare to preach the gospel. “If you want liberty,” he told the young Douglass (then thirteen years old), “ask the Lord for it, in faith, AND HE WILL GIVE IT TO YOU” (106). These two pieces of advice Douglass needed to weigh over the course of time. Uncle Lawson believed that the two were one and the same. Douglass needed to thread his way between them to differentiate one from the other. Yes, he had a great work to do. No, he need not become a minister to do it. After his escape from slavery and just before he joined the abolitionist movement, Douglass was well on his way to becoming a minister. He was living in New Bedford and earning his living catch as catch can. The ministry seemed a way to rise up in the world, and he had gone a great way in that direction. After attempting to unite with predominantly white Methodist churches, and finding himself subject to prejudice and discrimination, he joined the New Bedford Zion Methodists, a local black branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. He rose in that church from sexton to preacher. He had faith, and he had the skills that would undoubtedly have allowed him to succeed in the ministry (Wilmore 123-24).

When he received his true call, it was truly a “call” and not simply an inclination to pursue a livelihood. He heard no voices in his head; he was not moved by strange forces. He was nonetheless “called,” as true and literal a call as was ever voiced:

While attending an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, on the 11th of August, 1841, I felt strongly moved to speak, and was at the time much urged [called] to do so by Mr. William Coffin, a gentleman who had heard me speak in the colored people's meeting at New Bedford. It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease.

(Narrative 151)10

At this moment he distinguishes, through exercise of intellect, and by means of his experience, between Uncle Lawson's two pieces of advice. Yes, he has a great work to do. No, faith in God will not free him. If he is to be free, he must free himself. Contrary to Uncle Lawson's assertion, the Lord will not free him. “Who would be free must strike the first blow” (Life and Times 480). His “degree of freedom” and “considerable ease” are comparable to his earlier “resurrection” from “the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom.”

A direct reference to his fight with Covey contained in the final moment of the Narrative occurs in his defining his situation: “It was a severe [Mr. Severe (in fact, ‘Sevier’) being the name of a former overseer] cross,” suggesting again, when he “felt a degree of freedom,” a new ascension. Once again he experiences a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom.” He is “called” to abolitionism. The terms in which he couches his “call” typify his whole understanding of his relation to society and the universe. The final paragraph of the Narrative defines his break with Uncle Lawson, for he redefines his relation to authority—black or white. Uncle Lawson tells him that the Lord must free him; he says on the contrary in that final paragraph of the Narrative that he must free himself. As Douglass sees it, he is slave to none. The Lord must not and cannot free him; he must free himself. The final paragraph of the Narrative witnesses the final stage of the birth of his individualism. Thereafter we see its manifestations in many ways.

Let me in concluding describe two of the more interesting of these manifestations: one, the refusal to thank God for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment; the other, Douglass's testament of his theology and philosophy regarding the relation between God, fate, and humankind, issues discussed directly or implicitly by Martin (175-82). Behind both lies the thinking articulated in one of the most famous of Douglass's powerful utterances, a statement expressing the notion that human fate rests in human hands and, by implication, the power and significance of individualism:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

(qtd. in Holland 261)

With this thinking as backdrop, and with our understanding that it stems from a direct reaction and response to the agon with Covey, it is not at all difficult to understand Douglass's position regarding who is responsible for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. It was, after all, Douglass, as he saw it, who “repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery” and not God. He was accused by the powerful black Philadelphia ministry of infidelism, a charge which he never wholly shook (Holland 219). He said at the American Anti-Slavery Convention on 19 April 1870, following religionist speakers, “I like to thank men. … I want to express my love to God and gratitude to God, by thanking those faithful men and women, who have devoted the great energies of their soul to the welfare of mankind. It is only through such men and women that I can get a glimpse of God anywhere” (Aptheker 278-80; emphasis added). The implication is that faith in the presence, the existence of God, is not easily maintained. A few days later in Philadelphia, speaking from within the jaws of the lion, and expressing his individualism against the claims of the group, the black Philadelphia religious institution being the most solid representative of black group cohesion, he throws a challenge into the throat of the enemy, the “enemy” being whoever contradicts or denies in any way the significance of his fight with Covey. “I dwell here in no hackneyed cant about thanking God for this deliverance” (Aptheker 279). His thinking here stems from his own experience. He freed himself; whatever freedom accrues from the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment issues from the efforts of individuals and not from God.

His final statement regarding the relation between affairs of nature and those of humankind, essentially, if not factually so, occurs in 1890, five years before his death. Douglass's statement may come out of disconnected reflection, but I think it comes, as he sees it, out of his specifically literal experience, out of his fight with Covey. He wants and needs to distance himself from God for the sake of maintaining his faith as well as for the sake of maintaining psychic integrity. God must be distanced from slavery, for it is unpalatable to make God responsible for slavery. His psychic integrity requires that he locate and define the character and degree of his own responsibility for his slave or free state. As far as he knows and understands, he is responsible for his independence and freedom. This sense is conveyed in a statement, years beyond his “wrestling” with Covey, defining the meaning of the earlier experience, an interpretation of the past that shows Douglass's understanding of his life as more than an exemplary life. Out of his fight with Covey comes an understanding of his life experience, of the relation of humankind to God and nature.

It seems to me that the true philosophy of reform is not found in the clouds, in the stars, nor anywhere else outside of humanity itself. So far as the laws of the universe have been discovered and understood, they seem to teach that the mission of man's improvement and perfection has been wholly committed to man himself. He is to be his own savior or destroyer. He has neither angels to help him, nor devils to hinder him. It does not appear from the operation of these laws, nor from any trustworthy data, that divine power is ever exerted to remove evil from the world, how great soever it may be.

(qtd. in Holland 336)

To show something of the degree to which Douglass's thinking was of a piece, that “self-made men” is cut from the same cloth as his thinking about the most basic relations between humankind and the universe, and that this thinking is not unrelated to his ideas about slavery and the relation of the individual to that institution, I quote from the conclusion of the 1881 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. This statement reveals the nexus between “self-made men” and the situation of the enslaved and the free. The enslaved is to exert all effort to free himself; the freed is to make himself into an ideal entity.

I have written to assure [black people] that knowledge can be obtained under difficulties … that neither institutions nor friends can make a race stand unless it has strength in its own legs—that there is no power in the world which can be relied upon to help the weak against the strong or the simple against the wise—that races, like individuals, must stand or fall by their own merits—that all the prayers of Christendom cannot stop the force of a single bullet, divest arsenic of poison, or suspend any law of nature.


Such being the nature of things, it stands to reason that the individual is pretty much on his own and is responsible ultimately for the nature and character of his existence. The institution of Christianity has no meaning whatsoever. The “word,” the concept, or idea of Christianity—except as that word, concept, or idea is brought into actuality—has no meaning. Religion, Christianity, God have meaning only insofar as the concepts are concretized in the acts of people, and in the acts of people their reality is rendered. True Christianity reveals its actuality through the right actions of Christians, for it is only through such actions that Frederick Douglass “can get a glimpse of God anywhere.” Individualism, for Douglass the individualism of right-thinking people, is the mode through which God reveals himself. Individualism reflects the will of God in that it encourages the individual to fulfill her/his highest potential.

I personally think, from my twentieth-century vantage point, that this is a terribly wrong conclusion to come to. We might wish that Douglass had not bought into an ideology that would result in simply a new and generally more acceptable form of exploitation than slavery. We might also wish that he had found some model for thought and behavior other than that belonging to the white, male patriarch. But we must remember that his options were severely limited; that he was, as are we, a captive of his time and circumstance. He did what he could, and what he could do was more than most others could conceivably have done. How could he possibly have stood as a foe of laissez-faire capitalism? How could he possibly have privileged women's rights to a greater extent and degree than he did (to a greater extent than practically any other nineteenth-century male)? How could he have spoken any language other than that of the dominant discourse and expected to be heard? He mediated a position less radical than that of Toussaint, Vesey, Turner, or John Brown, yet infinitely more radical, because defined through action, than that of most. A black hero, a man to be respected and admired, Douglass through his sense of the meaning of individualism, through his sense of the meaning of his life experience, and through his sense of the relation between humankind and God, was surely a “doer” of the word.


  1. Frederick Douglass makes this point in the Narrative: “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation” (79).

  2. “My city life, [Douglass's owner Thomas Auld] said, had had a very pernicious effect upon me. It had almost ruined me for every good purpose, and fitted me for every thing which was bad” (Narrative 99).

  3. William S. McFeely, Douglass's recent biographer, suggests that Douglass's owner Thomas Auld, along with his wife Lucretia, had related to Douglass in a somewhat parental fashion (23-25). Douglass's Narrative does not suggest the possibility of such a relation, but the final version of his autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, gives McFeely's version greater plausibility. See also Logan's “Introduction” to his edition of Douglass's autobiography (17).

  4. On the whole issue of representation, see also Leverenz.

  5. Many others have made this self-same observation, among them Henry Bibb (69), and Peter Randolph and Lunsford Lane (both qtd. in Blassingame 63). See also Thornwell (20).

  6. “All by himself he literally overcame ‘The Vicissitudes of Slave Life,’ humbled ‘Covey, The Negro Breaker,’ and ran away to freedom” (Walker 274). The description in the Narrative of Colonel Lloyd's garden as clearly informed by the description of Eden in Genesis. One cannot get at the fruit in the Colonel's garden without being “stained,” and once one is “stained” (with sin), punishment, as with Adam and Eve, inevitably follows (59).

  7. “‘Give us the facts,’ said [John A.] Collins, ‘we will take care of the philosophy.’” “‘Be yourself,’ said Collins, ‘and tell your story. Better have a little of the plantation speech than not,’ was said to me; ‘it is not best you seem too learned’” (Life and Times 217). Douglass undoubtedly was being seen then as he is seen in our time by Peter Walker as expressing “a hopeless, secret desire to be white” (247).

  8. She continues: “Slavery defied the principle of individualism itself. An insult to his manhood was an insult to theirs; a violation of his innate rights was a potential violation of theirs. Thus did Douglass locate himself squarely in the mainstream of universalist and individualistic thought and repudiate Southern particularism and hierarchy” (375). Fox-Genovese's perspective serves as a corrective, an antidote to thinking in the Peter Walker vein. The issue of Douglass's construction of a self is cogently discussed by Valerie Smith (20-28).

  9. Robert Stepto's emphasis on the Afro-American's search for freedom and literacy is in some sense supported by Douglass's narrative and by the narratives of others whom he discusses in his eminently useful and valuable book on black narrative. Douglass and others who themselves wrote their stories might misdirect our thinking unless we recall the fact that the great majority of slaves who escaped were not literate, and that many of those who told their stories told them to others who possessed sufficient skill to write them down. We might expect some distortion, however, if one places too great an emphasis on the necessity and desirability of literacy from a culture emerging from a centuries-old oral tradition. In Douglass's case the quest for freedom merges with the quest for literacy in that Douglass's achievement of freedom after his fight with Covey is as much the result of literacy (as he shapes his life through narrative) as of any other factor (Stepto 3).

  10. This version of Douglass's initial address to the Abolitionist Society is at odds with the biographer McFeely's version (84). What the two versions have in common is that in both there is a literal call for Douglass to assume a role as abolitionist speaker.

Works Cited

Andrews, William, ed. “Introduction.” My Bondage and My Freedom. By Frederick Douglass. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. xi-xviii

Aptheker, Herbert. “An Unpublished Frederick Douglass Letter.” Journal of American History, 44 (July 1959): 278-80.

Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. Ed. Gilbert Osofsky. New York: Harper, 1969.

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.

———, ed. The Frederick Douglass Papers. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979-85.

de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as Self-Defacement.” Modern Language Notes 94 (1979): 919-30.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. 1881. Boston: DeWolfe, 1892.

———. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, 1855.

———. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Boston: Boston Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.

Genovese, Eugene. The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation. New York: Vintage, 1971.

Holland, Frederick May. Frederick Douglass: The Colored Reformer. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1891.

Leverenz, David. “Frederick Douglass's Self-Refashioning.” Criticism 29 (1987): 341-70.

Logan, Rayford, ed. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. By Frederick Douglass. 1845. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960.

Martin, Waldo E., Jr. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1990.

Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States. 1948. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.

Smith, James M'Cune. “Introduction.” Andrews 9-23.

Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Stampp, Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Vintage, 1971.

Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.

Thornwell, Rev. J. H. The Rights and Duties of Masters: A Sermon Preached at a Dedication of a Church Erected in Charleston, S.C. for the Benefit and Instruction of the Colored Population. Charleston, 1850.

Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1964.

Walker, Peter. Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1978.

Wilmore, Gayrand S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism. New York: Doubleday, 1972.

Dolan Hubbard (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Hubbard, Dolan. “‘Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around’: Reading the Narrative of Frederick Douglass.” In The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, edited by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, pp. 265-71. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Hubbard, an African-American university professor, describes his experiences reading and teaching Douglass's Narrative.]

Reading Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) is liberating and exhilarating for me. On numerous occasions his words have lifted my spirits such as when I was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight as chair of the Faculty Senate at Winston-Salem (N.C.) State University, or when I felt worn down during the grind of a rigorous doctoral program as one of three African American students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or in those moments when I do a self-inventory regarding my position in the academy whose atmosphere, at times, can be lonely and indifferent. I use his narrative as a motivational tool to cope with the stress generated by questions such as: Do I belong? Can I do the work necessary for a productive and successful career? Can I handle the expectations of both community and academy? I draw sustenance from the achievements of this self taught man who rose from his position at the bottom of the social order to become one of the dominant voices in the nineteenth-century fight for freedom, social and economic justice, and women's suffrage.

I first encountered Frederick Douglass (1818-95) in church and elementary school in my Piedmont North Carolina hometown. The teachers at Granite Quarry Colored Elementary School filled the minds of my classmates and me with the exploits and accomplishments of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Langston Hughes. Along with learning Bible verses, we had impressed upon our minds the heroic deeds of these magnificent seven. This ritual action was repeated in church on Sundays. With a quiet confidence bordering on messianic fervor, teacher and preacher encoded our fragile minds with models of success to offset the impact of life in a rigidly segregated American South. As I neared the completion of the eighth grade, another name was added to this list, W. E. B. Du Bois.

The black teachers under whom I studied through the ninth grade constantly reminded us that we cannot take our education for granted—that like Douglass and other blacks who had achieved we must draw upon all of our resources in order to succeed in a system that was designed to see us fail. They saw education as a weapon of liberation. Of all the teachers that I have ever had, no one ever put my classmates and me through the paces like our fourth grade teacher of Ghanaian descent Rosebud Aggrey (1910-1990). On the job training for success in life began the moment we opened the door to the classroom. Just as Douglass was inspired by the stirring words that denounced oppression in The Columbian Orator (1799), Miss Aggrey instilled in us the value of mastering the three r's—'reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic—as the route to independence.

Among this group of teachers and writers, Douglass occupies a special place in my imagination because of the power of his pen and the power of his fists. With his pen, he deconstructed the ideology of slavery; with his fists, he demolished the demons of inferiority in his epic fight with Covey. He won his manhood on the battlefield of life. I now realize that the teachers and preacher held up Douglass and other black men and women of distinction so that we would not allow anybody to turn us around.1

An inescapable fact of my reading of Douglass's Narrative is the extent to which my personal history shapes and informs my reading of him. Three of my favorite passages from Douglass's Narrative are his learning to read, his fight with Covey, and his description of Col. Lloyd's garden. While I do not claim to speak for all Americans of African descent, I am sure many will hear in this brief record of my experiences an echo of their own.

Without a doubt the most celebrated passage, the defining moment, in Douglass's Narrative occurs in chapter 3 where he describes in riveting detail his accidental discovery of “the pathway from slavery to freedom” (59). The epiphanic moment occurs when Hugh Auld brusquely reproaches his wife Sophia for teaching Douglass how to read with the furious denunciation that “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world” (58).2

The means by which Douglass creates an image of the heroic “self” is intrinsically linked to his ability to read and write. He (re)defines the terms of his humanity and challenges those who use the Bible to justify the enslavement of black people. Moreover, Douglass's encounter with reading and writing as a subversive activity resonates in the works of black writers such as Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, Peter Abrahams, and Malcolm X.

I remind students in my Major Black Writers class that Douglass learned to read and write between the age of eight and fourteen, and he went on to write a recognized masterpiece by the age of twenty-seven. In spite of the many accomplishments of Douglass as pacesetter—newspaper editor, entrepreneur, government official, and adviser to presidents—all roads lead back to the major epiphany in his life: his learning to read and write.

Occasionally, I bring to class the Benjamin Quarles edition of Douglass's Narrative, my favorite text—which I found while rummaging through the used-book section of the Goodwill Store in Winston-Salem, N.C., in late 1977 with my friend and mentor Joseph Patterson—and read some of my editorial comments on my favorite passages from its dog-eared pages. I remind my students that Douglass did not suffer and endure the indignities he chronicles in his Narrative in order for them to come here and complain about inadequate funds, insensitive teachers, and indifferent classmates—and be passably mediocre. He wants them, young, gifted, and bright, to give their best and be their best. The ritual action of his life would be refined by a black scholar of another generation into the concept of “the talented tenth.”3 To my words of uplift, some of my black students exclaim, “Ease up, Dr! That was then, this is now.”

As near as I can gauge, the response of my white students to this rhetoric of uplift ranges from muted anger to let's make America a better place for all. In a society that favors them at every turn, many white students think that the world has turned upside down. Douglass unveils the ideology that we commonly refer to as the American Dream; he challenges us to think about what it means to be an American. Having said this, most students respond positively to Douglass for he jump starts their imagination. They admire him for his use of words, for his refusal to be defeated, and for his honesty. I remind my students that the best way they can honor the memory of Douglass is through the development of their critical thinking skills. For Douglass it was not enough to be free; we must be about the business of the development of the total self.

The development of the total self includes the right to defend oneself. In a system designed to break the spirit of the enslaved black people, one thinks twice about defending oneself as Douglass makes clear with his telling of violent incidents he witnessed as a slave. Viewed from this perspective, the emotional center of his narrative occurs in chapter 10 where Douglass describes the epic fight he has with the notorious slave breaker Covey. The fight sets Douglass's narrative apart and gives it a special meaning for me. It triggers a rush of emotions which are almost indescribable, the prime one being the thrill of victory.

Although Douglass couches the fight in apocalyptic language as the triumph of good over evil, students intuitively respond to the larger reality that lies behind the meaning of his words. They tap into a fundamental urge on the part of many blacks to avenge centuries of abuse directed at our community as a result of what Grier and Cobbs describe in Black Rage as “the unwillingness of white Americans to accept [black people] as fellow human beings” (1968: vii). Much of the rap music, as well as Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing, taps into this suppressed rage. Moreover, the fight enables Douglass to exorcise the demons of inferiority, many of which are associated with his impotence in not being able to defend the black woman. Douglass argues, implicitly and correctly, that a man without the essential element of force does not possess the ability to defend himself.

I want my students to see the fight with Covey as the logical culmination of a process rooted in Douglass's ability to read and write. As a result of his mastery of the word, Douglass not only begins the process of rehabilitating his damaged self-consciousness, but he also sees that on a larger scale, “writing is fighting.”4 In another classic black American first-person narrative, Richard Wright makes a similar discovery in chapter 13 of Black Boy (1945). He discovers that H. L. Mencken “was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would a club” (272). I experienced the rush that comes from using words as a weapon during my days as a staff writer on my college newspaper as one of eleven or twelve blacks on a campus of 1,200 students (1967-71). I was given plenty of ammunition about which to write: the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and, of course, what it felt like to be one of a handful of black students on an overwhelmingly white campus during an angry decade.5

“Writing is fighting” is most apparent in chapters 2 and 3 in which Douglass describes the palatial splendor at Col. Lloyd's Great House Farm. With biting irony, Douglass describes “the home plantation of Colonel Lloyd [which] wore the appearance of a country village” (35) as “the seat of government for the whole twenty farms” (32). The opening paragraph of chapter 3 contains the centerpiece of Douglass's attack on wanton opulence:

Colonel Lloyd kept a large and finely cultivated garden. … Its excellent fruit was quite a temptation to the hungry swarms of boys, as well as the older slaves, belonging to the colonel, few of whom had the virtue or the vice to resist it. Scarcely a day passed, during the summer, but that some slave had to take the lash for stealing fruit. The colonel had to resort to all kinds of stratagems to keep slaves out of the garden. The last and most successful one was that of tarring his fence all around; after which, if a slave was caught with any tar upon his person, it was deemed sufficient proof that he had either been into the garden, or had tried to get in.


To be sure, many of us recognize in Douglass's description of Col. Lloyd's garden an alternative reading of America as the promised land, the Garden of Eden. I would suggest that for Douglass the garden is a metaphor for government's descent into institutional immorality, which is consistent with his view of slavery as a living hell. It is an extension of his view that the slave traders were nothing but “a band of successful robbers” (67) who had the Bible and government on their side. They rob the enslaved African Americans of their dignity and their labor. For those readers who may have missed his point, Douglass drives it home with his reference to the ubiquitous tar, which signifies on the relation of blacks to America as he unveils a fundamental paradox of life in America. Black people assist in the building and maintenance of many of the carefully coiffured “gardens” in America from courthouses to country clubs; yet they do not benefit in any meaningful way from the fruits of their labor.

Douglass's image of America as “a large and finely cultivated garden” registers strongly in the imagination of many of my students who have ambitions of being successful in the world of corporate America. If fraternity row represents the garden with a lowercase “g” and the country club represents the garden with an uppercase “g,” then I ask my students: What does this mean in terms of the implications for public policy? Who lives where and why? How will this affect their opportunities for success? And to be successful, must my black students become Afro-Saxons, black on the outside and white on the inside? I tell them that these are questions we all have to work our way through.

As an African-American intellectual, I see the academy as a type of garden—a private preserve in which many of us are spoken of but rarely spoken to. By this I mean, we are often out of the loop in regard to meaningful academic discourse; many of us discover upon our arrival in the academy that we are cultural elites without portfolio. Consequently, our presence is tolerated in an atmosphere of benign neglect. This serves to create feelings of inadequacy and ambivalence; it thus raises an interesting question: Are we scholars who are black or blacks who are scholars? As I wrestle with this question, I am aware that those on the outside see us as having made it, while those on the inside see us as necessary but unwelcome interlopers.

I read Douglass's Narrative as an impressive hymn to the indefatigable human spirit. His autobiographical statement is his declaration of semantic independence. He measures his creation of a human and liberated self by the degree to which he is able to articulate imaginatively his experiences. As one who is the first in his family to graduate from college and whose life is now paying dividends on the promise so many people saw in me, Douglass's Narrative puts me in sync with my history and the possibility that lies beyond the restrictive categories of race and gender. That his narrative is so in tune with the spirits that move in the souls of black folk may be gauged by how quickly it assumed scriptural significance.

And like any sacred text, there is room in Douglass's narrative for those with divergent points of view to go “up from slavery,” “stride toward freedom,” or seek freedom and liberation “by any means necessary.” The unmistakable optimism that infuses Douglass's vision makes it possible for all to say in unison, and “still [we] rise” (Washington, King, Malcolm X, Angelou). Frederick Douglass, the heroic voice of black America, challenges us to not let anybody turn us around.


  1. One of the verses to this classic spiritual is:

    Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round,
    Turn me 'round, turn me 'round.
    Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round.
    Gonna keep on decidin'
    To keep on a-ridin'
    Ridin' to the Promised Land.

    (qtd. in Farmer 1985: 15, 185)

  2. Subsequent references to Douglass's Narrative, edited by Benjamin Quarles and published by Harvard University Press (1960), will be designated parenthetically.

  3. In his essay, “The Talented Tenth,” originally published in the anthology The Negro Problem (1903), Du Bois argues that liberal arts education is essential for creating the “aristocracy of talent and character” that will raise “the masses of Negro people” (1986: 847).

  4. Ishmael Reed, one of the most productive black writers of his generation, titles a collection of his essays Writin' is Fightin'.

  5. I attended Catawba College in Salisbury where I earned my B.A. in English. I had a very rewarding and productive four years at this institution affiliated with the United Church of Christ.


Abrahams, Peter. Tell Freedom. New York: Collier, 1970.

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam, 1970.

———. “Still I Rise.” Poems. New York: Bantam, 1986. 154-55.

Bingham, Caleb. The Columbian Orator: Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces. 2d ed. London, 1799.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. 1845. Ed. Benjamin Quarles. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Talented Tenth.” 1903. Writings. New York: Library of America, 1986. 842-61.

Farmer, James. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Plume, 1985.

Grier, William, and Price M. Cobbs. Black Rage. New York: Bantam, 1968.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.

Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. 83-96.

Reed, Ishmael. Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. 1901. Three Negro Classics. Ed. John Hope Franklin. New York: Avon, 1965.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy. New York: Harper & Row, 1945.

X, Malcolm. Autobiography. With Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine, 1965.

———. By Any Means Necessary. Ed. George Breitman. New York: Pathfinder, 1970. 41.

David W. Blight (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Blight, David W. “Introduction: ‘A Psalm of Freedom.’” In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by David W. Blight, pp. 1-23. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993.

[In the following introduction, Blight provides an overview of the composition and reception of Douglass's Narrative.]

Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is … the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make them more symmetrical.

—Frederick Douglass, 1884

Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

—Job 7:11

Frederick Douglass was the most important African American leader and intellectual of the nineteenth century. He lived twenty years as a slave and nearly nine years as a fugitive slave; from the 1840s to his death in 1895, he attained international fame as an abolitionist, reformer, editor, orator, and the author of three autobiographies, which are classics of the slave narrative tradition. As a man of affairs, he began his abolitionist career two decades before America would divide and fight a tragic civil war over slavery. He lived to see black emancipation, to work actively for women's suffrage long before it was achieved, to realize the civil rights triumphs and tragedies of Reconstruction, and to witness America's economic and international expansion in the late Gilded Age. He lived until the eve of the Age of Jim Crow (racial segregation), when America seemed in retreat from the very victories in race relations that he had helped to win.

Although Douglass lived long and witnessed many great events, perhaps his most important contribution to American history was the repeated telling of his personal story. Above all else, this book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, is a great story told, like most other great stories, out of the will to be known and the will to write. This tale of a young African American's journey into and out of slavery provides a remarkable window on America's most compelling nineteenth-century social and political problem. In this introductory essay, several historical and literary themes will be explored as a guide for student readers. Such a guide may be useful either before or after reading the text. Some may wish to plunge right into Douglass's first chapter, a classic polemic against slavery's hostility to family life. Others may wish to read this introduction first and consider its many suggestions about the content and meaning of the text for American history. Either way, Douglass is, of course, his own uniquely informed, sometimes manipulative guide to his experience.

Douglass saw to the core of the meaning of slavery, both for individuals and for the nation. Likewise, the multiple meanings of freedom—as idea and reality, of mind and body—and of the consequences of its denial were his great themes. In 1855 he offered this timeless explanation of his hatred of slavery and his desire for freedom: “The thought of only being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future—a future with hope in it. To be shut up entirely to the past and present is abhorrent to the human mind; it is to the soul—whose life and happiness is unceasing progress—what the prison is to the body.” No genre of literature has offered better descriptions of the meaning of hope, of the liberation of mind, body, and soul—that sense of future Douglass named—than the slave narratives. Douglass probed his past throughout his life, seeking to understand the relentless connection of past and present, telling his story in relation to the turbulent history of his time, and hoping to control or stop time itself. But, like all great autobiographers, he would only discover how memory is both absolutely essential and bewilderingly deceptive as a means to self-understanding.1

Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in the cabin of his grandmother Betsey Bailey along Tuckahoe Creek, in Talbot County, Maryland, in February 1818. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was a slave owned by Aaron Anthony, a former Chesapeake schooner captain and an overseer on a large Eastern Shore plantation. Douglass saw his mother for the last time when he was seven, making him in every practical way an orphan. The actual identity of his father is still unknown, but he was undoubtedly white, as Douglass declares in the Narrative. Douglass was, therefore, of mixed racial ancestry, including part American Indian, which came from his grandmother's family. As readers will readily see, Douglass's twenty years in slavery were marked by stark contrasts between brutality and good fortune, between the life of a favored slave youth in Baltimore and that of a field hand on an Eastern Shore farm, and between the power of literacy and the despair born of its suppression. The Frederick Bailey who became Frederick Douglass after his escape had a story well worth telling, and American and British audiences would be eager to read it.

In 1845 Douglass felt compelled by many factors to write his story. His extraordinary life as a slave, the circumstances of his escape, his emergence as a skillful abolitionist lecturer in the early 1840s, and suspicions as well as bigoted denials that so talented a voice could ever have been a chattel slave combined with the sheer popularity of slave narratives to prompt him to tell his tale. On September 3, 1838, at the age of twenty, Douglass, disguised as a sailor and having obtained the papers of a free seaman, escaped from slavery on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake in Maryland.2 Within a week he was joined by his fiancée, Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore. David Ruggles, the black abolitionist leader of the New York Vigilance Committee (one of a network of urban organizations by which the Underground Railroad operated), helped provide Frederick and Anna safe haven, which was no simple matter for fugitive slaves in the 1830s. On September 15 they were married by Rev. James W. C. Pennington, himself an escaped slave from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The Douglasses quickly moved from New York City to New Bedford, Massachusetts, a thriving port town with a significant free black population and where it was believed Douglass could ply his trade as a ship's caulker.3 It was there that Douglass and the growing band of Massachusetts abolitionists discovered each other during the next three years.

In its content and its strategies, therefore, Douglass's Narrative belonged to the world of abolitionism and to the national political crisis over slavery from which it sprang. Douglass's autobiographies are our principal sources for major aspects of his life, especially his early years. But they are perhaps as revelatory of the history of the times through which he lived as they are of his personality and his psychology. Close readings of the Narrative uncover not only Douglass's rhetorical strategies, which are many and complicated, but also a good deal about the moral and economic nature of slavery, the master-slave relationship, the psychology of slaveholders, the aims and arguments of abolitionists, and the impending political crisis between North and South that would lead to the Civil War.

Douglass's personal story, like American history itself, is both inspiring and terrible. Few writers have better combined experience with the music of words to make us see the deepest contradictions of American history, the tragedy and necessity of conflict between slavery and freedom in a republic. Douglass exposes the bitterness and absurdity of racism at the same time that he imagines the fullest possibilities of the natural rights tradition, the idea that people are born with equal rights in the eyes of God and that those rights can be protected under human law. Few have written more effectively about the endurance of the human spirit under oppression. And in American letters, we have no better illustration of liberation through the power of language than in Douglass's Narrative. With his pen, Douglass was very much a self-conscious artist, and with his voice and his activism, he was a self-conscious prophet.

Readers of the Narrative quickly come to realize that language, written and oratorical, had been a fascination and a weapon for Douglass during his years as a slave. When he first spoke before a meeting of New Bedford blacks against African colonization in March 1839, and when he delivered his first public speeches before a gathering of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on Nantucket Island in August 1841, he was not merely appearing as the spontaneous abolitionist miracle he was often portrayed—and portrayed himself—to be. No doubt the first effort at “speaking to white people” at the Nantucket meeting was a “severe cross,” as he describes the experience in the Narrative.4 But Douglass was no stranger to oratory, or to the moral arguments, sentimentalism, and evangelical zeal that characterized the antislavery movement during that era. By 1841 he had been reading abolitionist speeches, editorials, and poetry in William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, The Liberator, for at least two years. And as the Narrative tells us in a variety of ways, Douglass had been a practicing abolitionist of a kind—out of self-interest and for his fellow bondsmen—even while he was a slave. He had read the Bible extensively, and he had discovered and modeled his ideas and style on a remarkable 1797 book, The Columbian Orator, by Caleb Bingham, a selection from which is reproduced in this volume.

From the earliest period of his public career, Douglass knew that whether in the slave South or in the free North to which he had liberated himself, literacy was power. The nineteenth-century Western world owed much of its values and mores to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment's faith in human reason and its assertion of individual rights. To be judged truly human and a citizen with social and political recognition, therefore, a person had to achieve literacy. For better or worse, civilization itself was equated with cultures that could write their history. Hence, writes Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Douglass became an American “Representative Man because he was Rhetorical Man, black master of the verbal arts. Douglass is our clearest example of the will to power as the will to write. The act of writing for the slave constituted the act of creating a public, historical self.”5

The Douglass who spoke at Nantucket was quickly hired by Garrison and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to be a traveling lecturer, first around New England and eventually across the North. Thus the fugitive slave found his voice and his calling. From 1841 to 1845, on almost countless platforms, Douglass began to tell the “free story” that he would soon publish to great acclaim in the Narrative.6

In many ways Douglass's Narrative is a careful, artistic summing up of the many speeches he had delivered in the three years he spent on the abolitionist lecture circuit before he sat down in 1844 to create his own character and to try to make the world stop seeing him as a mere curiosity. To tell his story of suffering and liberation from slavery on platforms was one thing; to publish it for a reading public eager for the tales of escaped slaves was quite another. On the lecture platform it might appear that he only told stories. But in the Narrative he sought authentication. He wanted the world to know that fugitive slaves had histories. His book would make witness to the fact, contrary to popular attitudes, that blacks too were people, whose struggles and aspirations mattered in human society.

Douglass's oratorical brilliance, the “curiosity” of his audiences, and the relationship of the Narrative to the style and content of his early speeches are attested to by two addresses reprinted in this volume. The first, delivered in Concord, New Hampshire, February 11, 1844, and recorded by Nathaniel P. Rogers, offers a striking picture not only of Douglass “narrating his early life” but also of an angry young man who insists that Americans imagine slavery as a scene of horror. Rogers's description of the rhetorical pivot in the speech is stunning: Douglass finished narrating the story and “gradually let out the outraged humanity that was laboring in him, in indignant and terrible speech. It was not what you could describe as oratory or eloquence. It was sterner—darker—deeper than these. It was the volcanic outbreak of human nature long pent up in slavery and at last bursting its imprisonment.” Undoubtedly, some of those prison metaphors soon to appear in the Narrative emerged in the speech Rogers heard. Rogers was an abolitionist newspaper editor and adept in his own way at antislavery propaganda, but he seems to have been convinced that he had just listened to a latter-day prophet whose “terrible voice” would one day “ring through the pine glades of the South, in the day of her visitation.” He was surely right in his observation that he had watched “an insurgent slave taking hold on the right of speech.”7 Shortly after this speech, Douglass was hard at work writing the Narrative. The second speech reprinted here was delivered in New York City on May 6, 1845, only a little over a week after Douglass finished writing the Narrative and just three weeks before it was published. It is believed to be the first time he divulged numerous specific facts about his slave background beyond the general contours of the story which he had told many times. Both speeches provide a historical and rhetorical context in which to read the Narrative.

Although antislavery sentiment emerged in a variety of ways during the age of the American Revolution, the formative decades of organized abolitionism were the 1820s and 1830s, the period in which Frederick Bailey grew up a slave in Maryland. In the Narrative, following the moving passages about his achievement of literacy and the discovery of the human rights impulses in The Columbian Orator, Douglass describes his gradual realization of the antebellum meaning of the words abolition and abolitionist: He “always drew near” when those words were spoken, “expecting to hear something of importance to myself and fellow-slaves. The light broke in upon me by degrees.” With the life-giving power of literacy also came, as Douglass so honestly puts it, an “unutterable anguish.” “It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.” Literacy afforded the young Douglass a whole world of thought, stirring dreams of freedom thwarted at every visible turn of his daily life. The truly thoughtful slave, as Douglass's master had predicted, was a desperately discontented one. Such slaves possessed a language by which to imagine freedom, but this awareness only made their condition more wretched. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me,” writes Douglass. But “every little while,” he remembers taking heart, because, as he says, “I could hear something about the abolitionists.”8

What he heard, and read in Baltimore newspapers, were stories of organized groups who sent petitions to the U.S. government demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia as well as the interstate slave trade. He learned of activists who published their own antislavery newspapers and crusaded to change the condition in which he lived. He realized that many of those abolitionists considered slaveholding a mortal sin. Above all else perhaps, he gained the simple awareness that in the northern states slavery either did not exist or was rapidly dying out. Some of the reformers he read about would turn out to be racist and patronizing, but some of them would provide the community, friendship, and mentorship in which Douglass found his life's work. As he sat on a crate during break time as a caulker in the dockyards of Baltimore, or lamented away afternoons on William Freeland's farm on the Eastern Shore, he realized in half-formed ways, as he had learned from The Columbian Orator and the Bible in metaphorical ways, that up there in the free North there was an “argument” about slavery.9

Under the influence of evangelical religion, a growing realization of southern commitment to slavery, and especially the British antislavery movement, American abolitionists found their ideological roots in the 1820s. The campaign to end slavery in the British Empire profoundly shook the increasingly active defenders of slavery in the American South and helped to cause a steady radicalization of antislavery tactics in the North. After 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator in Boston, as abolitionist societies sprang up across the North, and as a growing number of fugitive slaves and other free blacks entered the movement on their own behalf, American abolitionism became an organized crusade. By 1838, the year Douglass escaped from slavery, the movement had flooded Congress with petitions, experienced intense and deadly antiabolition violence, awakened a defiant South, and caused many conversions in the reformist North. It had also fomented the beginnings of antislavery political parties and, like most great reform movements, fallen into bitter factional dispute. Douglass was deeply inspired by Garrison himself, and by his newspaper. When he fell in with the Garrisonians in 1841, they represented the largest and most radical wing of the antislavery movement.

Garrison and many of his loyal followers were fierce radicals; they devoted their lives to ridding America of slavery and worked vigorously to eliminate discrimination against blacks and women in northern society. They roamed the frontiers of reform ideology in antebellum America. By the late 1830s, Garrison himself had taken some positions that increasing numbers of abolitionists found untenable and impractical. He denounced churches, the U.S. Constitution, political parties, and voting itself as institutional or personal complicity with the evil of slaveholding. “No Union With the Slaveholders,” part of the masthead of The Liberator, became the slogan of a Garrisonian doctrine of “disunion,” which urged northern abolitionists to sever all political and religious ties to the South. Such a plan would, through a strange logic, isolate slaveholders and their accomplices under the blinding light of moral condemnation and lead to emancipation through peaceful, ethical renewal. This was the doctrine of “moral suasion” taken to its fullest extent: The hearts and minds of the American people were first to be persuaded of the evil of slavery, then the laws and political structure would change.

After returning from his first trip to England in 1847, and having experienced a growing sense of organizational and intellectual independence, Douglass broke with his Garrisonian comrades in a protracted and bitter dispute. This split with his first abolitionist mentor had both ideological and personal causes. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, especially after his move to Rochester, New York, and the founding of his own newspaper, the North Star, Douglass became a more open, though no less committed, pragmatist about antislavery tactics. Under new influences, especially the New York abolitionist and philanthropist Gerrit Smith, Douglass came to believe that the Constitution could be used to exert federal power against slavery, especially its expansion into the West. He also embraced the use of political parties, and eventually even certain instances of violence, as a means of destroying slavery (through the political system or outside of it). Moreover, during and after his two-and-a-half-year tour of the British Isles, and because of his brilliant oratory, the impact of the Narrative, and the force of his personality, Douglass became an international star of the abolition movement. Simply put, he became a visible, independent, and less doctrinaire rival to the Garrisonians' leadership of the American antislavery movement.10

Readers of the 1845 Narrative, however, will find many influences of Garrisonian doctrines, especially the attacks on religious hypocrisy and the remarkable moment in Chapter 2 when Douglass compares trusted slaves who pleased overseers with the “slaves of the political parties.”11 Indeed, like most slave narratives, the book is as much an abolitionist polemic as it is a revealing autobiography. What sets Douglass's work apart in the genre, though, is that he interrogated the moral conscience of his readers, at the same time that he transplanted them into his story, as few other fugitive slave writers did.

Douglass's writing is not cautious; he pays little regard to the tender sensibilities of his readers, and he is willing to manipulate their deepest fears and passions. Garrison's preface, itself a masterly piece of antislavery propaganda, attests to these qualities in Douglass's language: The mentor celebrates the substance and style of the “terrible chastisements,” the “shocking outrages,” and the continual access Douglass allows to “how he thought, reasoned, felt, under the lash of the driver, with the chains upon his limbs!” As William S. McFeely and William L. Andrews have suggested, Douglass's Narrative shares kinship with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, published a decade later; it too is a “Song of Myself.” Even more, it may have influenced another great work of self-emancipation, Henry David Thoreau's Walden.12 But mostly, Douglass's Narrative is a song of abolitionism, an argument with America's conscience, an appeal by the risen slave testifying to his own sufferings and making witness to the crimes of a guilty land.

As the literary critic Robert G. O'Meally has argued, Douglass's Narrative was, “in its way, a holy book … a text meant, of course, to be read, but … also a text meant to be mightily preached.” The book is imbued with biblical references, imagery, and metaphors, and it owes much to the black sermonic tradition from which Douglass had learned a great deal about the use of language and its powers. His exhortative tones and rhythms not only were modeled on the Old Testament prophets Douglass read but were undoubtedly the ones he had practiced among his band of brothers at the Sabbath school on Freeland's farm, as he and his charges learned to plot their own deliverance as well as to keep faith in one another and in God. Indeed, from Garrison's preface to Douglass's appendix about the perils of religious hypocrisy in slaveholding America, the work is framed and conceived as, in O'Meally's apt description,

a warning of the terror of God's fury. It is also an account of the black Moses' flight from “slavery to freedom.” It is an invitation to join “the church” of abolition, a church that offers freedom not only to the slave and the sympathetic white Northerner but also to the most murderous and bloodthirsty Southern dealers in human flesh. Sinners, Douglass seems to chant, black sermon-style, you are in the hands of an angry God!13

Douglass's burning contempt for “pious slaveholders” was not merely abolitionist propaganda, as it is too often portrayed. It was the fuel, the bitterly ironic energy of a spiritual autobiography.

Douglass's Narrative, like much of his oratory, also fits squarely into one of America's oldest literary traditions: the jeremiad. Named for the book of Jeremiah, and appropriated in America since the seventeenth-century Puritan sermons that chastised Christians for their declining faith, the jeremiad became a kind of political sermon and a literary form—functioning not only as a lamentation about waning zeal but also as a national ritual of both self-condemnation and optimistic assertions of the American mythology of mission. As the historian Wilson J. Moses has contended, jeremiads took on special urgency in the language of black abolitionists; they became the “constant warnings” issued to white audiences “concerning the judgment that was to come for the sin of slavery.” On hundreds of platforms Douglass had lent his voice to this ritual like no other black abolitionist. And in writing the Narrative, William L. Andrews has suggested, Douglass announced not only his literary calling but also “his ultimate self-appointment as America's black Jeremiah.”14

Douglass's Narrative appealed to readers in his own time for many reasons. Midnineteenth-century American readers were very familiar with jeremiads that reminded them of America's divinely appointed mission and of such betrayals of that mission as slavery. They might have been both troubled by and attracted to narratives about true and false Americanism. They were especially drawn to escape from captivity narratives, to tales of self-made men and self-liberation. And, perhaps most of all, readers were at home with spiritual autobiographies—ritualistic testimonies about the trial of the soul as well as the body, journeys from mental and spiritual darkness through severe tests to the light of regeneration.15

In one of the most memorable passages of the Narrative, Douglass remembers the terrible year he lived as a sixteen-year-old under the wrath of the slave breaker Edward Covey: It was his “dark night of slavery,” a time when he often felt “transformed into a brute,” and when he spent whole days “mourning over my wretched condition.” But all of this frames a story of resurrection and an unforgettable image of freedom. The Covey farm was only a short distance from Chesapeake Bay, and on its banks Douglass places himself, changing voice to the nearly suicidal sixteen-year-old slave, pouring out his “soul's complaint” in a psalmlike prayer for deliverance. The white-sailed vessels on the bay are “shrouded ghosts” that torment him one moment and become the dreamlike objects of his lonely prayer the next: “You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!” Here Douglass reveals a mind and soul made captive, but, through moral imagination and belief in “a better day coming,” he keeps faith and wills his own freedom.16

In this famous passage Douglass reaches an early height in his craft as a writer and demonstrates the influence of the Negro spirituals and of the Psalms on his temperament. Appealing for deliverance from enemies and testifying to tattered but refurbished faith, Douglass writes what might best be called his own psalm, or a prose poem, about the meaning of freedom. In the decade before the Civil War, readers of the Narrative could sit with Douglass in the dark night of his soul along their own Chesapeakes and sense the deepest of human yearnings in their own souls. Today's readers can do so as well.

Well into the twentieth century, slave narratives were not considered proper historical sources for the study of slavery. They were deemed inauthentic and biased by Ulrich B. Phillips, the first major historian of slavery to make extensive use of plantation records. Phillips did not acknowledge that ex-slaves left any genuine testimony on what plantation slavery was really like. His American Negro Slavery (1918), the most authoritative work on the subject as late as the 1950s, pictured slavery as a patriarchal, benign institution in which masters and slaves acted out largely natural roles of fatherlike masters and chattel laborers. In Phillips's work, the slaves were the beneficiaries of a system that maintained white supremacy and an agricultural order. This “plantation legend”—an Old South living a kind of golden age in which the masters provided and the slaves labored in relative contentment—died hard in American historiography and still survives in popular culture. The most enduring examples of that survival come from motion pictures and popular fiction, especially the eternal, worldwide fascination with Gone With the Wind.17

But the revolution of interest in black history, which coincided with the modern civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, brought a renewed attention to and use of the slave narratives.18 The first modern edition of Douglass's Narrative was published in 1960, and many other first-person accounts of bondage were brought back into print through the next decade and a half. Historians began to make careful use of the slave narratives as sources of historical information and, perhaps more important, as guides to the slaves' perspective on their own felt experience. With the works of John Blassingame, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, Lawrence Levine, and several others in the 1970s, the slave narratives emerged from obscurity and became a major tool by which historians were able to open the world the slaves made—their folk life, religious expression, modes of resistance and psychological survival.19

In this major shift in methodology, the use of previously suspect sources, and the rich analysis that flowed from it, we can see a prime example of how perceptions of historical truth can markedly change. Single documents and texts can be interpreted in different ways and from different perspectives. Indeed, historians can be directly influenced by the events and values in their own era; at the same time they must strictly adhere to evidence in order to seek the truth as they can best determine it. What actually happened in the past does not really change, of course. But the questions we choose to ask of the past change, and thereby new interpretations emerge. This is what is really meant by learning something new from or about the past. The questions change and thus yield new understandings. This is why, as historians often say, each generation must write its own history. From the 1960s, the old, neglected slave narratives, Douglass's in particular, became sources that had new uses and meanings.

What, indeed, was it like to be a slave? What were the slaves' daily feelings, yearnings, crises, and hardships? The best of the slave narratives offer complex answers to these questions. In spite of the propagandistic nature of a work like Douglass's Narrative, its principal historical value may be the access it allows us to the psychological world of a slave who had determined to be free. Although it is full of the language of the self-made hero ascending to his destiny and manipulates readers with the purple prose of sentimentalism, a close reading of Douglass's Narrative reveals much about the slave's inner torments. His descriptions of the loving bonds he shared with his pupils at the Sabbath school on Freeland's farm and his romantic but altogether believable images of the fears he and his fellows faced in plotting their escape serve as examples of the self-conscious artist struggling to recapture real experience. Douglass looks back to his Sabbath school “with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul.” But the love he still feels for his band of brothers mixes with the memory of the “odds” and “obstacles” they faced in contemplating flight. “The thought was truly a horrible one,” remembers Douglass, and he converts the memory into a mixture of metaphors and terrible opposites:

At every gate through which we were to pass, we saw a watchman—at every ferry a guard—on every bridge a sentinel—and in every wood a patrol. We were hemmed in upon every side. Here were the difficulties, real or imagined—the good to be sought, and the evil to be shunned. On the one hand, there stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us,—its robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting itself greedily upon our own flesh. On the other hand, away back in the dim distance, under the flickering light of the north star, behind some craggy hill or snow-covered mountain, stood a doubtful freedom—half frozen—beckoning us to come and share its hospitality.20

Thus could knowledge about the difference between slavery and freedom manifest in the ex-slave's imagination and, in turn, in that of his readers. Slavery, like all historical experience, must be imagined before it can be understood.

Alternating between parody and condemnation, one of the most persistent themes in Douglass's Narrative is his portrait of slaveholders. A striking feature of the book is the sheer range of slaveholders Douglass presents. Examples of unmitigated evil and depravity include Covey, Andrew Anthony (Master Andrew), and Orson (called Austin) Gore. Thomas Auld, both cruel and incompetent, is distinguished for his “meanness” but disrespected for his haplessness. At the other end of the human scale, though, we meet William Freeland, a master Douglass seems to have respected because he was educated, sought no religious sanction for slavery, and ran an economically efficient plantation where work expectations and treatment seemed in rational relationship. And, finally, there is Sophia Auld, Douglass's “kind and tender-hearted” mistress in Baltimore who first taught him to read. She becomes Douglass's principal example that slaveholding is learned behavior, and presumably can therefore be unlearned. In a document so full of anti-slavery propaganda, physical violence, and suffering, it may come as some surprise that Douglass could conclude that, for Sophia, “slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.”21 But such is the complex argument of this highly crafted narrative: It is a picture of a world that not only involved brutal dehumanization but also operated by the cunning and negotiation of human relationships.

This was, in part, the point of Douglass's famous 1848 public letter to Thomas Auld, reprinted in this volume. The letter, written after Douglass's freedom had been purchased for him by his British antislavery friends, is a highly polemical, at times factually inaccurate (see headnote with letter), attack on Auld as a prototypically evil slaveholder. The highly personal, even sensational, charges Douglass makes against Auld do not mask his honest admission at the end of the letter. In words so many slaves must have dreamed they could one day say as freedpeople to their masters, Douglass announces that “I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery … and as a means of bringing this guilty nation with yourself to repentance.”22 Again Douglass mingles his personal story, its villains and its self-made hero, with his claims of national birthright.

Although the slave narratives have limitations as sources for the daily, material lives of slaves, as well as for the socioeconomic structure of the antebellum South, Douglass's account is a window into slave work and culture. In Chapter 2 Douglass allows us to observe the huge Wye plantation—the Great House Farm—in operation. We can almost see its bustling “business-like aspect,” and hear the “driver's horn” and the profanity of an overseer's voice in the field. In Chapters 3 and 4, slaves are shown to be the essential laborers at the center of southern economic production, but their work is framed and overwhelmed by the larger story of the potentially total power of masters and overseers. The overseer, Austin Gore, appears as a kind of absolute creation of the slave system—a grave, humorless man who performed all his duties, including the murder of insubordinate slaves, with military precision.23 Douglass strives to describe the most terrible meanings of slavery—its existence outside any law or social control and its capacity to render African American life of no value.

The theme of family separation, a staple of abolitionist argument, emerges in all its potential capriciousness in Chapter 8. Frederick's old master had died, and the ten-year-old was forced to return from Baltimore to the Wye plantation on the Eastern Shore “to be valued with the other property.” Douglass's frequent use of animal imagery was never so stark, and his sense of the slaves' anxiety about being sold South is palpable: “Our fate for life was now to be decided. We had no more voice in that decision than the brutes among whom we were ranked.” Douglass was luckier than many of his relatives; he was sent back to Baltimore rather than to a much harsher fate on the Eastern Shore or at the hands of the “Georgia traders.”24

Douglass's Narrative, like others in the genre, often reads like a tale of unremitting woe and dehumanization. This was, indeed, one of the aims of the private story converted to public, abolitionist purposes. Reading audiences in the 1840s had to be shocked before they could become a source of sociopolitical action. The five murders Douglass sketches in Chapter 4 and the family separations are tales of lawlessness and rightlessness in republican and Christian America. They point to the deep ironies, as well as a very American quality, of the book: As a Garrisonian at this stage in his career, Douglass could denounce politics and religious hypocrisy at the same time that he wrote with his own heartfelt political and religious motivations.

Douglass's rich use of irony leads us, finally, to an understanding of the complexities of slave resistance. Colonel Lloyd's magnificent garden was exotic and the object of admiration, but it also became for the slaves an education in both the risks and the righteousness of “stealing fruit.” The totalitarian capacity of masters to sell their slaves away for profit or spite is balanced with the slaves' control of their own language: The slaveholders' power was blunted by the slaves' “maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family.”25 Thus, Douglass argues, the slaves' humanity manifests in their cunning accommodation to and subversion of evil authority.

Douglass makes this point most subtly, and anticipates modern historians' treatment of slave culture most directly, in his discussion of slave music. He portrays the slave songs as primarily expressions of sorrow and lament, but he also indicates the inseparability of the sacred and the secular in black folk music, of everyday life mixed with appeals for deliverance in “the most rapturous tone.” The scene in which he discusses music is, after all, that of a mass of slaves walking toward the Great House Farm on “allowance-day.” The “dense old woods … reverberate” with song as groups of selected slaves congregate at Colonel Lloyd's mansion for their periodic allotments of food and clothing. Here, Douglass brilliantly juxtaposes the dehumanizing power structure of slavery with the slaves' own best means of inner relief and self-expression. He even leaves an invitation to modern historians and folklorists: “If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd's plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul.” Since the 1960s, this is precisely what historians like Lawrence Levine, Sterling Stuckey, Leon Litwack, and others have done with the lyrics and forms of slave music. Scholars have found various ways to gain access to the piney woods, to listen to the slaves' own voices, as they created an inner moral order out of potential chaos and forged what Levine has called an “improvisational communal consciousness.”26 Although intended as confrontational abolitionist literature in its context, Douglass's Narrative has been used as a crucial source in the most significant revolution in slavery historiography in our time—the use of folklore and slave autobiographies themselves as sources for understanding how slaves created a culture of resistance amidst oppression.

Slave narratives are, of course, personal testimonies; but they are also the individual stories by which we begin to discern patterns of a collective experience that we can comprehend as history. Such is the view of the modern black novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison. Ellison has argued that autobiographical works (his own Invisible Man or the slave narratives) both emerge from history and allow us access to it. “One of the reasons we exchange experiences,” says Ellison, “is in order to discover the repetitions and coincidences which amount to a common group experience. We tell ourselves our individual stories so as to become aware of our general story.” W. E. B. Du Bois, author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and the most prolific black scholar of the twentieth century, also saw individual and collective meanings in Douglass's Narrative. In his Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Du Bois asks the question each generation of American students and scholars should ask: “What was slavery in the United States? Just what did it mean to the owner and the owned?” Du Bois answers by asserting that the plantation legend would only be overturned by consulting the slave autobiographies. “No one can read that first thin autobiography of Frederick Douglass,” he writes, “and have left many illusions about slavery … no amount of flowery romance and personal reminiscences of its protected beneficiaries can keep the world from knowing that slavery was a cruel, dirty, costly and inexcusable anachronism, which nearly ruined the world's greatest experiment in democracy.”27

One of Douglass's favorite techniques was to connect his personal story to the plight of the nation, to link the Edward Coveys and Thomas Aulds in his own life to slaveholding America. He never did this more effectively than in the brilliant, bitterly ironic jeremiad “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” delivered in Rochester, New York, in 1852 and reprinted in this volume. In the Narrative, moreover, we find an intriguing link between the long chapter on the Covey fight, with its description of personal resurrection through force, and the appendix, which is an angry attack on both religious hypocrisy and the slaveholding republic, climaxing with a passage directly from Jeremiah: “Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord. Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?”28 A major argument of Douglass's Narrative, and something he would repeat in many forms down to the Civil War, is that the “prison” of slavery housed blacks and whites, slaves and slaveholders, the entire nation in a single fate.

Douglass's Narrative quickly became a best-seller. Much anticipated among abolitionists, it sold five thousand copies in the first four months of publication. In August 1845 Douglass's possessive but encouraging sponsors among the New England abolitionists sent the young author on a tour of the British Isles. Britain had abolished slavery in its colonies more than a decade before, and strong ties existed between American and British abolitionists. Moreover, Douglass was still a fugitive slave, and after publishing his story and his true identity, a trip abroad might provide temporary safe haven from possible slave catchers.

His nearly twenty months out of the country were a personal and political awakening for Douglass. He took the Irish, Scottish, and British antislavery communities by storm, drew huge audiences to his speeches, and discovered environments that appeared to be devoid of the grinding racism he had encountered everywhere during his travels in America. Douglass helped finance his British tour by selling the Narrative, which went through nine editions and sold eleven thousand copies from 1845 to 1847. By the eve of the Civil War in 1860, approximately thirty thousand copies of the Narrative had been sold on two continents, and the book had been translated into both French and German editions.29 Indeed, along with his public speeches, the Narrative made Frederick Douglass the most famous black person in the world.

Except for Harriet Stowe's enormously successful Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the Romantic age in America had no more popular exemplars than the narratives of fugitive slaves. Indeed, the slave autobiographies published in the 1830s and 1840s may have helped prepare the audience for Stowe's classic best-seller. The great antebellum works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, or Margaret Fuller did not sell nearly as well as the approximately one hundred book-length slave narratives. The epic character of individuals who first willed their own freedom, then wrote the story proved irresistible to readers in the American North and in Britain. Those who would never literally see slavery could now find a literary medium through which to observe and perhaps understand it.

By attending a speech by Douglass or by reading his narrative, or those of the former fugitive slaves Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, or Josiah Henson, white audiences not only encountered the heroic in form but heard or read the slave's own voice in substance. The abolitionist U.S. Senator Charles Sumner captured some of these sentiments in 1852, when, having read several narratives, he declared that fugitive slaves “are among the heroes of our age. Romance has no storms of more thrilling interest than theirs. Classical antiquity has preserved no examples of adventurous trial more worthy of renown.”30

The two reviews of Douglass's work reprinted in this volume demonstrate the literary and social impact of slave narratives during the decade when the genre became an international sensation. In June 1845 the Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller found Douglass's story “so affecting” because it was the slave's “living voice.” She admired Douglass's artistic abilities, urging that his work be “prized as a specimen of the powers of the Black Race.” That strange but wonderful discovery—a black person who could write beautifully and compellingly—was to be celebrated. Douglass could not have asked for a better endorsement than Fuller's: “We wish that every one may read his book and see what a mind might have been stifled in bondage.” Fuller had, indeed, seen to the core of Douglass's own sense of the message of his book. In 1849 Ephraim Peabody, a Boston Unitarian minister and moderate abolitionist, groused over the “extravagance and passion and rhetorical flourishes” in Douglass's language but boldly announced America's “mournful honor of adding a new department to the literature of civilization,—the autobiographies of escaped slaves.” The slaves' quest for “freedom,” said Peabody, kept “poetry and romance” alive, and readers of this Romantic age could find a “whole Iliad of woes” and a “modern Odyssey” in the slave narratives.31

Sympathetic commentators on Douglass's Narrative could not resist reaching for antiquity to explain the book's impact. William Lloyd Garrison, in his famous preface to the original edition (reprinted here), found in the best passages of Douglass's writing a “whole Alexandrian library of thought, feeling, and sentiment” (referring to the ancient Egyptian cultural capital at the mouth of the Nile River). In Wendell Phillips's prefatory letter, which also accompanied the original edition (also reprinted here), the famed abolitionist orator opened by recalling the “old fable of ‘The Man and the Lion,’ where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented ‘when the lions wrote history.’ I am glad the time has come when the ‘lions write history.’”32

Such expressions of admiration for Douglass's Narrative by his white abolitionist friends and critics served as sanctions (which Douglass both welcomed and resented) for the veracity of his authorship in a world that, unfortunately, doubted black abilities. A good many people maintained that such books must have been ghostwritten, that no black person could achieve such a high intellectual level. But verifications like Phillips's were also recognitions of the central themes of slave narratives: They are at their core, as literary critic William L. Andrews has argued, stories about freedom and about the act of writing freely.33 Thus did Douglass, who eventually grew a great mane of hair and even looked a little like a lion, represent himself and write his own history.

Just as historians have made innovative use of the slave narratives in recent years, literary critics have made analysis of them, especially Douglass's, into a veritable industry. This was not always the case; for more than a century, from the 1850s to 1960, Douglass's Narrative went out of print. As a model leader and writer, Douglass was not ignored by black writers and intellectuals from the 1890s to the 1930s; they appropriated him to every conceivable cause and debated whether he was the precursor or the antithesis of Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. Du Bois, the two dominant African American figures of the turn-of-the-century era. By the 1950s a genuine Douglass revival may be said to have begun among literary scholars, and through the civil rights revolution and the rediscovery of black history during the following decade, at least three new editions of the Narrative were published by 1968.34

During the 1970s and 1980s, Douglass's first autobiography emerged fully from obscurity and entered the larger American canon. The way analysis of the text became a kind of rite of passage in the burgeoning field of black literary criticism attests to the book's significance. Many insights of value to historians, as well as to all readers, have flowed from the unabated flood of literary essays on Douglass's Narrative. Critics have shown how the work fits many nineteenth-century literary traditions: sentimental fiction, the picaresque novel, and captivity narratives. But primarily the focus of analysis and debate has been Douglass's artful and self-conscious use of language.

Did Douglass, the seemingly self-taught writer, master the masters' language, or did that language still trap him within literary conventions, abolitionist and religious propaganda, and gendered assumptions? When read without adequate historical context and biographical background, some criticism of Douglass's Narrative renders the author a creature of language alone, a writer who somehow did not live or act in history. Feminist critics have recently opened a new avenue of analysis.35 Douglass's virtual silence about his wife, Anna (who was a stalwart spouse, mother, and homemaker but never learned to read and write), as well as the manner in which he portrays the violence inflicted upon slave women (especially the beating of Aunt Hester in Chapter 1) have been brought under scrutiny. Douglass's quest to affirm his own “manhood,” through either violence or literacy, is a persistent and revealing theme in the book. Not surprisingly, he wrote and spoke with the male values of the Victorian age. Women rarely have voices in Douglass's autobiographical writing. He was, after all, creating one essential, heroic character—himself. And, as he says in the famous sentence that announces the bloody contest with Covey: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Thus, drawing upon assertions of male virtue and religious metaphor, Douglass could declare his victory over the “snake” Covey to be his revival of a “sense of my own manhood” and his “glorious resurrection.”36 Just as in analyzing the text as a historical document we must be aware of how we are influenced by our own values and the events of our time, so, too, in analyzing the Narrative as literature, we should all be aware of how much we let issues of the present inform, or intrude upon, the texts of the past.

Some of the most persuasive criticism simply allows us to see, indeed, how effective Douglass was in using his own memory and imagination to reverse some of the allegedly fixed oppositions of antebellum America: master and slave, human and animal, black and white, slavery and freedom. Douglass ceaselessly creates his own dualisms to demonstrate that language can liberate just as easily as it can degrade or enslave the human spirit. This has much to do with why the Narrative garners such an enduring readership; his are the dualisms of the free mind becoming ever freer. Near the end of the book, just as he is about to announce the date of his escape from Maryland, Douglass tries to remember his sentiments. He matches the “wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom,” and declares that escape “was life and death with me.”37 Such passages are full of sentiment and pathos, but in them readers have always been able to find their own stories, their own sense of the terrible oppositions in life that require decisions which may bind or liberate them.

Autobiography is self-indulgent by definition. As the reconstruction of the personal story, it often masks the most private of sentiments in favor of constructing a public self serviceable to the present. Autobiographical memory, writes James Olney, is not “an orderly summoning up of something dead—a sort of Final Judgment on past events—but … a creative figuration of the living present and a summary reconstruction of how the present came to be that which it is.”38 Although Douglass left few hints as to exactly why or how he wrote his autobiographies, such present consciousness compelled him to write his story just as much as anyone else. Douglass's biographers have helped us understand how his autobiographies, though intended as public polemics, nevertheless reveal an orphan's endless quest to retrieve a “lost” and “usable” past in a life of great change, or to seek the truth about his unknown father. They have helped us notice the avoidances and silences in the Narrative—about his wife, women generally, and the fate of his brothers and sisters. They have helped us see that in Douglass's life there were, as William S. McFeely suggests, “private torments and horrors too deep in the well [of slavery] to be drawn up.” Moreover, biographers have argued that through Douglass's writing and speaking he desperately sought a secure social identity, a sense of belonging in a country that until emancipation had defined his people out of the social contract.39

Like all autobiographers, Douglass sought to bring a sense of order to a life of potential chaos. As Douglass performed his story on abolitionist platforms and then took the spoken and written versions on the road in the British Isles, he boldly served both public and private needs. The ruptures and discontinuities of a fugitive slave's life made for an awesome journey from slavery to freedom. This was perhaps America's ultimate progress narrative, and it compelled the young Douglass, lover of words as the only real weapon he had, to tell and retell his story. It was propaganda, but in a great cause; it was also an act of self-creation, a thoroughly human quest to know himself. Like those of all good autobiographers, Douglass's motives were both social and personal, and this should be no surprise. He wanted to understand himself within the world that so controlled him, and that he sought so dearly to change.

The American philosopher William James once wrote that after “long brooding” he concluded that “the one and the many” is the “most central of all philosophic problems.” This is, indeed, the key to the relationship between autobiography and history. The one becomes the source of the individual narratives out of which we construct a sometimes coherent, sometimes conflicted, story about the many. The modern American writer Richard Rodriguez, himself the author of an autobiographical journey across boundaries of nationality and ethnicity, may have best captured the reasons why a fugitive slave like Douglass turned to first-person narrative. “Autobiography seems to me appropriate,” writes Rodriguez, “to anyone who has suffered some startling change, a two-life lifetime; to anyone who is able to marvel at the sharp change in his life: I was there once, and now, my God, I am here! (… was blind but now I see.)” In Douglass's great story, he was lost and then he was found, and he would not let anyone forget it. Neither pious psalm nor pleasing history did he offer to his readers. By an intangible grace, good fortune, and heroic initiative, Douglass became free. Surely this is why he places us on that ridge overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, marveling at the “moving multitude of ships,” as he imagines himself on one of their “gallant decks,” speaks to us and the ships in alternating voices of anguish and triumph, pouring out his “soul's complaint,” and converting it into an unforgettable image of the meaning of freedom.40


  1. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855; rpt. New York: Collier Books, 1969), 273. The literature on autobiography is massive, but for places to start on its relationship to personal memory and history, see James Olney, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972); James Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980); and Stephen Butterfield, Black Autobiography in America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974). A classic, and especially self-conscious, probing of the meaning of autobiographical writing is Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1947; rev. ed. New York: Random House, 1966).

  2. Many other famous black abolitionists also escaped from the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake in Maryland, among them Harriet Tubman, Henry Highland Garnet, and James W. C. Pennington.

  3. See Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (1948; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1968), 4-11. On vigilance committees, see Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 150-67; and Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, They Who Would Be Free: Blacks' Search for Freedom, 1830-1861 (New York: Atheneum, 1974), 207-12.

  4. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845; rpt. New York: Doubleday, 1963), 114. All subsequent references are to this edition. On Douglass's discovery of The Columbian Orator, see Dickson J. Preston, Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 96, 98-100.

  5. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 108.

  6. See William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986). Andrews's persuasive argument is that the principal themes of the slave narratives were a multilayered quest for freedom, self-liberation, and the act of writing freely.

  7. “Southern Slavery and Northern Religion,” two addresses delivered by Douglass in Concord, New Hampshire, 11 Feb. 1844, recorded by Nathaniel P. Rogers, in Herald of Freedom (Concord, N.H.), 16 Feb. 1844, in John W. Blassingame, ed., The Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 26.

  8. Narrative, 44, 42-43.

  9. Ibid., 41.

  10. For the best general histories of abolitionism, see James B. Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976); and Merton Dillon, The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979). On Garrison's ideas and leadership, see John L. Thomas, The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963). On Douglass's break with Garrison, see Waldo E. Martin, The Mind of Frederick Douglass (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 40-46; William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 146-49, 175-76; and David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 26-31.

  11. Narrative, 13.

  12. Narrative, preface, xv. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, 115; William L. Andrews, “Introduction to the 1987 Edition,” Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), xi-xxvi.

  13. Robert G. O'Meally, “Frederick Douglass' 1845 Narrative: The Text Was Meant to Be Preached,” in Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto, eds., Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction (New York: Modern Language Association, 1979), 210.

  14. Wilson J. Moses, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982), 30-31; Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 124. On the jeremiad, see Sacvan Berkovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 148-210; Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War, 105, 117-20; James H. Moorhead, American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War, 1860-1869 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 43-49; and David Howard-Pitney, “The Enduring Black Jeremiad: The American Jeremiad in Black Protest Rhetoric, from Frederick Douglass to W. E. B. Du Bois, 1841-1919,” American Quarterly 38 (Fall 1986), 481-92.

  15. On Douglass's Narrative as spiritual autobiography, see Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 123-27.

  16. Narrative, 66-67. On the nature of the Psalms, see The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3 (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 942 58. On biblical radicalism, see Peter Linebaugh, “Jubilating; Or, How the Atlantic Working Class Used the Biblical Jubilee Against Capitalism, with Some Success,” Radical History Review 50 (Spring 1991), 143-80. Douglass was so aware of the power and impact that the passage about the sailing ships had had on his readers that in his second autobiography he simply quoted it verbatim. See My Bondage and My Freedom, 219-21.

  17. Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery (New York: D. Appleton, 1918); and Ulrich B. Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South (Boston: Little, Brown, 1929), 219.

  18. For a rich survey of the revival of interest in slave narratives and an argument for their use by historians, see John W. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), xvii-lxv.

  19. The first modern edition was by Harvard University Press, Benjamin Quarles, ed., Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960). John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972); Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Random House, 1974); Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Random House, 1976); and Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). There are many good historiographical essays on slavery; for one of the best during the peak years of attention to this field, see David Brion Davis, “Slavery and the Post-World War II Historians,” Daedalus 3 (Spring 1974). For a single-volume survey of slavery historiography, see Peter J. Parish, Slavery: History and the Historians (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

  20. Narrative, 82, 84-85.

  21. Narrative, 54-55, 39. On Douglass and slaveholders, see Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War, 43-44, 83-88.

  22. Douglass to Thomas Auld, 3 Sept. 1848, in The Liberator, 22 Sept. 1848, in Philip S. Foner, Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 343. On the Douglass-Thomas Auld relationship and the inaccuracies in the letter, see Preston, Young Frederick Douglass, 184-87; and McFeely, Frederick Douglass, 40-43, 158-60.

  23. Narrative, 11-12, 24-26.

  24. Ibid., 47-48.

  25. Ibid., 17, 20.

  26. Ibid., 13-15; Levine, Black Culture, 29. Sterling Stuckey, “Through the Prism of Folklore,” Massachusetts Review 9 (1968), 417-37; and Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Random House, 1979). Douglass also discusses the slave songs in the other two autobiographies. See My Bondage and My Freedom, 253-54; and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881; rpt. New York: Collier Books, 1962), 159-60.

  27. Ralph Ellison, in a 1978 interview quoted in Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., The Slave's Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), xviii-xix; W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Atheneum, 1935), 715.

  28. Narrative, 121. The biblical reference is Jeremiah 6:29.

  29. Davis and Gates, eds., Slave's Narrative, xvi; Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 97-98. For more detailed sales statistics on slave narratives generally, see Charles H. Nichols, “Who Read the Slave Narratives?” Phylon 20 (Summer 1959), 149-62; Arna Bontemps, “The Slave Narrative: An American Genre,” in Great Slave Narratives (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), xvii-xix; and Marion Wilson Starling, The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988), 32-39.

  30. Summer quoted in Davis and Gates, eds., Slave's Narrative, xxii.

  31. Margaret Fuller, New York Tribune, 10 June 1845; Ephraim Peabody, Christian Examiner, July 1849. Both reviews are reprinted in William L. Andrews, ed., Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991), 21-26.

  32. Narrative, xv, xxi.

  33. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 103-4.

  34. For the early argument that Douglass represented the black protest tradition, see Kelly Miller, “Radicals and Conservatives,” in Race Adjustment: The Everlasting Stain (New York: Ayer, 1908), 11-27. The revival of critical interest in Douglass can be traced to Benjamin Brawley, The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States (New York: Duffield, 1930); Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author: His Development in America to 1900 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931); and J. Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939). The three editions of the Narrative were by Harvard University Press (1960), Dolphin Books of Doubleday (1963), and Signet (1968).

  35. Some of the most important early essays on Douglass in the recent revival are Houston A. Baker, Long Black Song (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1973), 58-83; Albert E. Stone, “Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass' Narrative,CLA Journal 17 (1973), 192-213; and Robert B. Stepto, “Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control in Frederick Douglass' Narrative of 1845”; O'Meally, “The Text Was Meant to Be Preached”; and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Binary Oppositions in Chapter One of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself,” all three in Fisher and Stepto, Afro-American Literature, 178-232. Two new collections of essays, literary and historical, have assembled a wide variety of work in the continuing scholarship. See Eric J. Sundquist, ed., Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Andrews, ed., Critical Essays. For feminist critiques, see Deborah E. McDowell, “In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition,” in Andrews, ed., Critical Essays, 192-214. Also see Jenny Franchot, “The Punishment of Esther: Frederick Douglass and the Construction of the Feminine,” and Richard Yarborough, “Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass' ‘The Heroic Slave,’” in Sundquist, ed., Frederick Douglass, 141-88.

  36. Narrative, 68, 74.

  37. Ibid., 105. On Douglass's use of dualisms and oppositions, see Gates, “Binary Oppositions,” 212-32; and Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 131-33.

  38. Olney, Metaphors of Self, 264.

  39. Peter F. Walker, Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth Century American Abolition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), 209-28; McFeely, Frederick Douglass, 116. On Douglass's need for a social identity, see Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War, 73-78, 165-67, 187-89. On Douglass's need for reconciliation with his masters' families and his homecomings to Maryland after the Civil War, see Preston, Young Frederick Douglass, 159-97. On the overall importance of the autobiographies to Douglass's developing self-image, see Martin, Mind of Frederick Douglass, 253-84.

  40. William James, “The One and the Many,” in Bruce Kuklick, ed., Pragmatism (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), 61; Richard Rodriguez, “An American Writer,” in Werner Sollors, ed., The Invention of Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 7-8; Narrative, 66. On the public and private motivations in Douglass's Narrative, see Donald B. Gibson, “Reconciling Public and Private in Frederick Douglass's Narrative,American Literature 57 (1985), 551-69.

Winifred Morgan (essay date fall 1994)

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SOURCE: Morgan, Winifred. “Gender-Related Difference in the Slave Narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass.” American Studies 35, no. 2 (fall 1994): 73-94.

[In the following essay, Morgan compares Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and states that scholars have neglected gender-related distinctions between the two texts.]

Since the late 1960s, ante-bellum slave narratives have experienced a renaissance as dozens of the thousands still extant have been reprinted and as scholars have published major works on the sources, art, and development of the narratives; the people who produced them; and their on-going influence on later work. Drawing upon slave narratives as well among other sources, John Blassingame's The Slave Community (1972), for example, drew attention to the complex social interactions developed in antebellum slave culture. Examining the milieu that spawned the narratives and their development, and providing insights into what the narratives can tell about slavery as well as what they omit, Frances Smith Foster's Witnessing Slavery (1979) gave readers a book-length analysis of the genre. Robert B. Stepto's From Behind the Veil (1979) situated slave narratives at the center of African-American written narrative. John Sekora and Darwin Turner's collection of essays, The Art of the Slave Narrative (1982), focused closer attention on how the narratives achieved their rhetorical effects. In The Slave's Narrative (1985), Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. gathered excerpts from some of the best-known narratives and essays about the narratives as history and autobiographical literature. William L. Andrews's To Tell a Free Story (1987) examined the narratives as public autobiographies, at once exploring and demanding freedom. Today, hardly a book is published on American autobiography without a chapter on slave narratives. Not only do scholars writing about African-American literature often refer to the slave narratives' on-going influence on the fiction and autobiography, some of the novelists themselves mention their debt to the narratives. Toni Morrison, for instance, has often referred to the fact that previous to writing Beloved, she read hundreds of the narratives.

Studies of the slave narrative have explored numerous themes. Much of the work concentrates on the subtext beneath the stories. In the narratives, fugitives and ex-slaves appealed to the humanity they shared with their readers. The genre's themes flow from its assertion of the slaves' humanity. Slave narratives show that slaves suffered physically, emotionally, and spiritually under slavery; that slaves yearned for freedom and resisted slavery in every possible way; that slavery was a pernicious system ultimately destroying masters as well as slaves; that the narrators were telling the truth about their own experiences; and that each narrator was a “reliable transcriber of the experience and character of black folk.”1 In addition to showing how these themes recur in the narratives, scholars have demonstrated that while early slave narratives written during the eighteenth century drew their themes from earlier narrative forms,2 in the last three decades before the American Civil War, the slave narrative moved beyond the captivity narrative's emphasis on physical enslavement and the spiritual autobiography's focus on introspection to confront the moral bankruptcy of slavery itself. Unfortunately, few scholars have systematically examined the role of gender-related differences in these themes. However, given the pervasive impact of the “social organization of the relationship between sexes,”3 gender influenced even the way in which bondage was experienced; men and women experienced it in different ways.

In Ar'n't I a Woman?, Deborah Gray White outlines a series of ways in which slave women's lives differed from those of men. White discusses the networks women slaves developed among themselves. She details, for example, the ways that being a woman added burdens to a slave's life but also furthered the “cooperation and interdependence”4 necessary for a woman's survival. For example, women and children were not shackled below decks during the middle passage to America; however, being above deck also left them “more easily accessible to the criminal whims and sexual desires of seamen” (63). Women had less mobility, and thus fewer opportunities to flee, than men (75). When they joined the men in field work, they still had to finish their own domestic work at home while the men rested (122). The women's shared work, however, often offered them opportunities for camaraderie. Laundry work, for example, gave them an opportunity to talk among themselves, to share joys and sorrows; so did prayer meetings (123). Slave women passed work skills on to one another (129). Even more crucially, slave women depended on one another in all that had to do with childbirth and child-rearing. For health care they depended on midwives and “doctor women” (124), for child care they depended on elderly slave women, and sometimes they used the services of a conjure woman (135). As a consequence of these different experiences, men and women slave narrators tell different stories of resistance to their enforced servitude.

As noted above, twentieth-century scholars of the slave narrative genre have often neglected apparently gender-related distinctions between the narratives of men and women. For example, critics have almost invariably cited the hunger for literacy as one of the most prominent themes found in slave narratives; scholars repeat as a truism that the narratives stress the importance of learning to read and write. In their introduction to The Slave's Narrative, for example, Charles Davis and Henry Louis Gates base their explanation for several common strategies encountered in the narratives on a preoccupation with literacy presumably found in all slave narratives. Gates and Davis generalize that in their concern about their writing, narrators depict vivid scenes describing their learning to read and write, underscore the dominant culture's strictures against African-American literacy, and intertwine an “ironic apologia” for their literary limitations with denunciations of the system that has refused the slave “development of his capacities” (emphasis added).5 Their characterization accurately describes male narratives. In another essay in the same book, James Olney lists among seven characteristics that a reader typically encounters in any slave narrative a “record of the barriers raise[d] against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write” (153).6

Discussing the autobiographies of Douglass, Lucinda MacKethan (“From Fugitive”) also assumes the centrality of the quest for literacy in slave narratives. MacKethan explores connections between the strategies of earlier conversion/captivity narratives and Douglass's Narrative and then Douglass's use of these strategies to validate his role as a “fugitive American slave narrator … seeking in a written document to prove that” he has successfully appropriated through language the free territory he claims.7 MacKethan notes as well the close connection for Douglass between the acquisition of literacy and personal autonomy (57). MacKethan probes both the role literacy played for Douglass, establishing him as a man worthy of freedom, and—by implication—its significance to other slave narrators. However, such a generalization does not extend to slave narratives written by women.

Male narrators do stress the importance of reading and writing. Thus, for example, Olaudah Equinno, James Pennington, and William Craft (the actual narrative voice of Running a Thousand Miles) stress how illiteracy disabled them while they were slaves and how they felt the need, once they slipped their bonds as slaves, to satisfy as soon as possible, their hunger for education.8 However, the drive to become literate appears to be gender-based; unlike the narratives written by men, women's narratives do not emphasize this factor. While male narrators accentuate the role of literacy, females stress the importance of relationships. Given the importance of relationships in the lives of most women, this is hardly surprising. Through their narratives, both male and female fugitives and ex-slaves strove to counter the racial stereotypes that bound them even in “free” societies. Black men and women, however, faced different stereotypes. Black men combated the stereotype that they were “boys” while black women contested the idea that they were either helpless victims or whores. For a male fugitive, public discourse served to claim his place among men; for a female her relationships—as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend—demonstrated her womanliness and her shared roles with women readers.

Two of the most widely read American slave narratives, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of F D (1845) and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) provide useful representative texts with which to examine gender-specific differences in both the narratives and the lives of slaves. The slave narratives of Jacobs and Douglass suggest that, while they were responding to their place and period's significant themes—among them, individualism, community, resisting oppression, and striving for freedom—strategies of coping and resistance differed by gender. In common with most male narrators, Douglass emphasizes his ability to speak in public as well as to read and write. Through their use of language, male narrators strove to demonstrate their place as men among men, that they had a right to autonomy in a political democracy based on a voter's ability to understand and debate the issues. On the other hand, in common with other women narrators, Jacobs emphasizes her womanliness. Women narrators related to feminine culture of their time, and that involved telling their stories in terms of relationships.


Aside from gender-related differences such as their distinct emphases on the importance of literacy and relationships, narratives written by men and women share many common characteristics. In all slave narratives, the fugitive or former slaves relate their trials as slaves, their flight to freedom, and, finally, their dedication to helping others flee slavery.9 As in other slave narratives, Douglass's Narrative makes this pattern explicit; but in addition, Douglass further organizes his narrative around the theme of increasing control over his life as a path toward personal independence. A major instrument in his quest is language, and in particular, literacy. Perhaps the paramount virtue in his Narrative is the individual's courage, and the crucial weapon—in a struggle where armed conflict would be suicidal—is the word.

Throughout his career, Douglass was preoccupied with language, and the preeminence he gives language and especially literacy in the Narrative reflects this preoccupation. Douglass first gained a reputation in the North as an orator. William Lloyd Garrison's and Wendell Phillips's prefatory letters to the Narrative establish Douglass as someone who has witnessed effectively at abolitionist meetings. In fact, according to one editor of his works, contemporary reports noted that Douglass “charmed his audiences with his style.”10 Nonetheless, Douglass seems to have understood even during his early days as a public speaker that until he recorded his experiences and crafted them in his own literary style, they would remain ephemera, and under the control of others. Douglass's recollections closely identify slavery with ignorance and lack of access to the written word. Thus, for example, the first paragraph of his Narrative notes that he had never seen “any authentic record” (47) of his birth. Had he not grabbed at freedom and gained the skill to write his Narrative, we might never have learned of his existence. Literacy gave Douglass the power to assert his existence as well as his freedom from those who would keep him ignorant and a slave.

When Sophia Auld first taught him to read and then when Hugh Auld showed him—by objecting to his lessons—the importance of literacy, Douglas began on his road to freedom. Even as a young child, Douglass realized that knowledge represented power. Words provide access to the power of communication, and the route to long-term control of the message is through literacy. As an adult Douglass, writing his Narrative, had literate and articulate language at his command. He used his command of language to reflect on the presumably inchoate insights of the barely lettered child he once was. Douglass's musings make his readers aware of the contrast between his polished adult abilities and his preliterate juvenile state when he listened to Hugh Auld's comments to his wife Sophia:

It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. … Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.

(78) (emphasis added)

Throughout his life Douglass demonstrated his belief in the connection between access to the written record and power. Not only did Douglass write two further autobiographies (published in 1855 and 1881), but he also edited and published a series of weekly and monthly newspapers11 and in later life toured as a lecturer and wrote for national periodicals such as the North American Review and Harper's Weekly. Douglass never forgot Hugh Auld's inadvertent lesson, “if you teach that nigger … how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master” (78). Nor did Douglass forget Auld's insistence that Douglass cultivate “complete thoughtlessness … and setting aside [his] intellectual nature, in order to [achieve] contentment in slavery” (139-40). In fact, by contravening Auld's insistence that he live out his existence as a thoughtlessly contented slave, by making every effort to achieve literacy, and finally by becoming quite unmanageable, Douglass showed how well he understood Auld's dictates.

Power and personal autonomy have special significance to the former slave who has endured utter impotency and lack of control. Lucinda MacKethan even speaks of male slave narrators crafting “master narratives” in order to explore “what it means to be a master, not what it means to be a fugitive slave.”12 In the Narrative Douglass structures his story to show how he has used literacy to achieve power and control in his life. As Eric Sunquist notes, “Both the contents and the serial development of his autobiographical writings make evident the subversive lesson young Frederick first learned in reading the alphabet—that literacy is power.”13 The Narrative demonstrates in 1845 how someone has gained control of his life by gaining control over the means of communication.

Drawing on Harold Bloom's A Map of Misreading, William L. Andrews finds that African-American autobiographies such as Douglass's prod readers to review and sometimes revise “the myths and ideals of America's culture-defining scriptures.”14 Throughout the Narrative, Douglass appeals to two major legitimizing sources in American culture: the Bible and “documents” (84) of political tradition in the United States. As the youthful Douglass realizes when he reads, rereads, and mulls over his copy of The Columbian Orator, the American rhetorical tradition speaks in terms of universal freedom and the rights of all men. This rhetorical tradition prevailed even after laws further restricted African-Americans following the Nat Turner Rebellion (1831) and in the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), enacted a few years after his Narrative's publication. Yet slave owners and their sympathizers attempted to cut off Douglass and other slaves from both the scriptural and Revolutionary rhetorical sources that championed human freedom.

One of Douglass's most vehement arguments against Christianity as practiced in the South was that it perverted the Scriptures—the Word of God. Thus early in the Narrative, an overseer, Mr. Severe, is known for his swearing as well as for his sadism, “his fiendish barbarity” (55) as Douglass calls it. And later in the Narrative, Thomas Auld, who “after his conversion … found religious sanction and support for his cruelty” (99), quotes Scripture (“He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes”) to justify his sadism when he ties up a young lame woman and whips her until blood drips off her naked shoulders (98-99). In these and other passages where white Christians break up black Sabbath schools, Douglass clearly associates access to the written word (and sometimes to the Word of God) with control of one's situation.

Despite the “generic conventions” that mold into types all the characters and even the protagonist's voice in most slave narratives15 Douglass does, in fact, manage to stamp his individuality onto his Narrative. In this, his Narrative stands apart from most of the other extant narratives. In the Narrative, Douglass presents himself as someone who has learned to read and write almost solely by his own efforts, who fought with Covey, the slave breaker, for his human dignity, and who finally seized his own freedom, all pretty much on his own. Douglass actually sets up two contrasting frames: he presents himself as someone who is “one of a kind” and at the same time “representative.” Douglass presents himself as someone who, in order to break free from slavery, found sources of strength within himself rather than from his community. Yet at the same time, he puts himself forward as someone whom other slaves, freedmen, and fugitives can emulate. Thus he also becomes an Emersonian “representative” man, an exemplar. His story, in one sense, is every slave's; in another sense, his story is that of the extraordinary man. Part of the appeal of the Narrative is Douglass's invocation of the twin but opposing American themes of individualism and community. Douglass's challenge in the Narrative is to combine them.

Douglass and the other slaves in the Narrative live isolated and mistrustful lives. As a child, for example, Douglass uses guile to learn and practice his letters—first tricking or bribing white boys into teaching him letters he does not know and then practicing these letters in the discarded copybooks of his master's son. The youthful Douglass does not dare accept the offered help of Irish workmen because they might be trying to entrap him. In the Narrative Douglass appears single-handedly to have beaten Covey to a standstill. (Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, reveals that Caroline, a strong slave woman, could have tipped the balance in his opponent's favor; however, she chose to stay out of the fight and was later punished for not helping Covey.) Douglass's first attempt to flee North with two other slaves by using the passes he has written almost ends in disaster because someone, presumably another slave, has warned the owners. The Narrative thus gives the impression that neither slaves nor whites can be trusted. Douglass primarily emphasizes his uniqueness, and the other black characters in his Narrative interact only warily either among themselves and with whites; the theme of individuality, depending on oneself alone, predominates over the theme of community.

How does an individual conscious of himself, his singularity, his sense of being “self-made,” come to know and understand himself without appropriating a community and a means of communication? Writing the Narrative, reflecting on his experience in words, helped Douglass to understand his passage from the isolation he perceived in being a slave to the community possible as a freeman. It may be that his lack of peers made the language Douglass used all the more critical. He needed to put his insights into words so that he could understand them. Telling one's own story is a particularly human way of organizing and coming to understand one's experience.

Telling his story in his three autobiographies became Douglass's means of understanding his experience and that of other African-Americans. This is why, as his understanding evolved, he had to keep rewriting his story. With his “story” to communicate, Douglass could begin to connect with those who could become his community at large. Language and control of that language became both his opportunity and his vehicle. As an adolescent slave, he had written passages which he had hoped would help him and his friends on their way to freedom. As an adult writer of autobiographies, he was still attempting to use language to further his own and his people's freedom. Douglass used language to break out of the isolation he perceived in slavery, finally through his later autobiographies, he attempted to build a relationship with the rest of the African-American population.

As the single most widely read slave narrative, Douglass's Narrative has often come to represent the entire genre. Despite its impressive craft, however, it presents problems as a representative text. First of all, its implicit assumption that literacy provides the power leading to individual freedom does not characterize women's narratives. In addition, its advocacy of literacy as a major route to personal autonomy might prove misguided. Valerie Smith critiques the utility of making literacy central in a struggle for equality because literacy has often served not only as a means of access for the underprivileged but also a means by which dominant groups have controlled access to society's rewards and thus preserved their hegemony.16 Smith even credits Douglass's “story of his own success” as “provid[ing] counter evidence of his platform of radical change; for by demonstrating that a slave can be a man in terms of all the qualities valued by his northern middle-class reader—physical power, perseverance, literacy—he lends credence to the patriarchal structure largely responsible for his oppression” (27). This does not necessarily mean that Douglass was wrong in his choice of language as his most important weapon for his struggle, merely that he had not examined nor critiqued that choice.

In part because of what she perceives as Douglass's limitations, Deborah McDowell also has challenged the Narrative's preeminence among slave narratives and suggests that a presumably inadvertent male bias has insisted on its primacy as an Emersonian “representative” text. McDowell contends that “the literary and interpretative history of the Narrative has, with few exceptions, repeated with approval its salient assumptions and structural paradigms. This repetition has, in turn, created a potent and persistent critical language that positions and repositions Douglass on top, that puts him in a position of priority.”17 Indeed, Douglass's Narrative has enjoyed a preeminent place among North American slave narratives. Yet Davis and Gates maintain that among Douglass's contemporaries, Douglass's account may have been considered most “‘representative’” because it was most “presentable.” “He was most presentable because of his unqualified abilities as a rhetorical artist. Douglass achieved a form of presence through the manipulation of rhetorical structures within a modern language.”18

A number of critics, among them Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, have explored the process whereby Americans judge the significance and value of a piece of literature according to dominant male and European-derived cultural values. Reactions to Douglass's Narrative seem to illustrate this process because it affirms what his nineteenth-century white male audience valued. Although Douglass labels his confrontation with the slave-breaker Edward Covey the “turning point” in his life, most of the language and imagery of the Narrative emphasize Douglass's increasing fluency with and control over written language and how literacy gave him the means to make himself free and to live as a free man. With its emphasis on gaining control of language, the structure of Douglass's Narrative reflects accepted hierarchical values common to nineteenth-century Western culture: education leads to social uplift, and progress is good. The Narrative also accepts the assumptions that men are the natural heads of the family and society and that children “belong” to their father. When they found the Narrative “representative,” Douglass's “fellows” may have responded to what felt comfortably familiar to them as male readers and writers educated in a cultural milieu that taught them to respond positively to specific paradigms.

The dominant culture values in Douglass's narrative, in turn, often reflect male values. The black women in Douglass's narrative are by nature subordinate to the men. They serve as examples of victimization, such as his aunt, or as shadowy helpmates, such as the free woman he marries. Sophia Auld may think independently as a young bride but quickly accommodates herself to her husband's preferences. The narrative assumes a hierarchy that places male prerogatives (such as the right of Hugh Auld to countermand Sophia's attempt to teach Douglass, of Douglass's father to impregnate and abandon Douglass's mother, of Douglass himself to use and ignore his wife) at the apex. If Valerie Smith and others are correct in their argument that traditionally, literacy and a literary canon have been used to support patriarchy and other powerful groups to suppress the rights of oppressed people, then women slave narrators were right to doubt the value of learning to read and write as a major strategy in achieving their freedom. Patriarchy limited their worth both before and after slavery.19 Women who had been slaves had reason to seek “their own independent definition of womanhood.”20

Douglass's use of printed language to connect with others differs considerably from the relationship-building found in the work of women writers like Jacobs. Female as well as male, slave narrators desired and strove for literacy. Nonetheless, being literate never saved women fugitives from the burdens of slavery, racism, or sexism and they knew it. Whether they found literacy at best a weak reed on which to lean—whether they were ultimately more cynical or perhaps more realistic in confronting the economic realities of the racist and sexist societies in which they lived—women narrators do not give central significance to the acquisition of literacy. Instead, the most significant realities in these women's lives usually derived from their personal relationships. While many nineteenth-century white women also developed significant ties among themselves,21 African-American women had little choice but to depend on one another in order to endure. Nineteenth-century social definitions of femininity marginalized white women but entirely excluded black women. The relationships that enabled women to survive slavery remain in their narratives like the framing timbers of a ship's hull, outlining how slave women used connections with others in their efforts to keep out the seas of oppression that threatened to overwhelm them.


Feminists writing in a variety of fields offer contemporary readers insight into the preference of Jacobs and other women narrators of slave experience for organizing their narratives around their relationships with meaningful people in their lives rather than around how they “proved themselves.” Far more so than today, asserting “rugged individualism” would have been a foreign, perhaps repellent, notion for most nineteenth-century American women of any racial heritage. Even today, as psychologists such as Carol Gilligan and Jean Baker Miller have noted, women, more than men, tend to come to make choices based on their understanding and experiences of relationships.22

Not only does contemporary psychological research emphasize the importance of relationships in women's lives, but a look at literary forms popular during Jacobs's lifetime demonstrates that her female contemporaries also relied on sustaining relationships. For example, relationships play a central role in women's religious conversion narratives. Susan Juster notes the centrality of relationships in the published conversion narratives of women during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century: “Authority for women is experienced as personal rather than abstract power. Embodied in personal relations, authority is exercised through the emotional and social channels which connect human beings. The exercise of authority thus requires the establishment of a relationship which is in some way significant for both partners.”23 Juster's analysis of religious conversion narratives suggests contrasting values in the slave narratives of men and women. She points out that the men and women who wrote conversion narratives during the early nineteenth century needed to suppress and assert different dimensions of themselves in religious conversion: men needed to suppress their egos and to link with others, while women needed to assert their egos and cease submerging themselves in others if they were to achieve the human wholeness demanded by religious conversion. In fact, Juster's study of religious conversion narratives seems to show men and women writers of conversion narratives following separate paths to ultimately the same goal.

Relationships also play a central role in women's novels of the period. According to Beth Maclay Doriani, Jacobs and her contemporary, novelist Harriet Wilson, both reshaped the slave narrative as it had been written by men24 in order to show “the world of the black woman—as a person inextricably bound up with others yet responsible for her own survival, emotionally, economically, and politically” (emphasis added) (207). While male fugitives stressed their individuality, their ability to stand alone and assume adult male responsibility for themselves, women fugitives generally saw themselves as part of their communities. So women like Jacobs and Wilson, according to Doriani, stress connections among members of their communities rather than their isolation. Female narrators envision themselves as striving with and for others. They do not think of themselves or other fugitives as alone.25

Harriet Jacobs's narrative differs significantly from Douglass's autobiography. While Douglass's narrative emphasizes his acquisition and development of written language, Jacobs depicts a network of relationships on which she depends and to which she contributes; her most important relationships devolve from bonds of love. She respects and fears but, above all, she loves, her grandmother. She loves her children, her brother, her uncles and aunt. Her feelings for her employers, both the first and second Mrs. Bruce, and later, as revealed in her letters, for abolitionist Amy Post, derive far more from affection, acceptance, and a sense of worth than from patronage. There is nothing legalistic about these relationships. In Incidents bonds of affection support and nourish the individual and contrast with the contrived and unreasonable bonds of slavery. Unlike Douglass, who tries to connect with and control his relations with both white and black communities through his manipulation of language, Jacobs already feels closely connected with family and friends. She makes sense of her responsibility to larger communities in terms of the ties that bind her to her family and friends. The support she receives from family and friends nourishes her; it assures her of her own worth; it impels her to take a role in the larger world. Not only did Jacobs write Incidents after her years as a nanny, she also worked with her brother, running an abolitionist library. During and after the Civil War, she joined in relief work and the education of freed slaves.

In contrast with Douglass, Jacobs does not find language much of a weapon. Although literate, Jacobs makes only limited use of reading and writing to distract her enemy, Dr. Flint. Eventually, Jacobs does write letters from Edenton and has them mailed from Northern states, and later she peruses the “arrivals” section of Northern newspapers for warnings about the presence of her enemies. Nonetheless, at an earlier point in the story, Flint actually turns Jacobs's literacy against her and uses her ability to read as a further avenue of sexual solicitation. For the most part, Jacobs feels she has no other resource than her relationships with family members and close friends and no other weapon than low cunning. Recognizing the hopelessness of overt opposition, Jacobs's narrative glories in her ability and that of other oppressed slaves to subvert the will of their oppressors.26

The people in Jacobs's narrative engender respect as a result of the moral authority they wield. They earn respect. Jacobs serves her first mistress because she loves her and views her as a “second mother.” Her grandmother also dominates Jacobs not because of any parental “right” but because they share a bond of love. In contrast, her “ownership” by the Flints becomes an abstract and irrational legal fiction. The events of her story show that not only “ownership” of human beings is unjust; more important, the institution of slavery is evil because it perverts all relationships between men and women, children and parents, slaves and free people. The institution of slavery encourages a relatively good man such as Mr. Sands to keep his and Harriet's children in bondage. In addition, it destroys society's basic unit, the family. It poisons the Flints' marriage and condones Dr. Flint's attempted seduction of the adolescent Jacobs. It leaves a slave child unsure whether he “belongs” to his parents or his owners. Thus, for example, Jacobs's young brother Willie does not know whether his first responsibility is to answer his father's or his mistress's call (9). As women narrators like Jacobs show their readers, slavery works to weaken familial relationships: those between husbands and wives, children and parents, brothers and sisters.

Relationships in Incidents demand responsibility by other individuals and the larger community. Drawing out the implications of Jacobs's narrative, one might even judge individuals by how they respond to that responsibility. By this criterion, one would have to say that some characters, such as Mr. Sands, fail as human beings. The men and women of Jacobs's family, however, invariably respond wholeheartedly to their responsibility for one another. Jacobs remains for years in Edenton for the sake of her children; later, after fleeing to the North, she works from dawn to past dark to support her children. As much as she can, she also tries to contribute to her larger community. For instance, even though the Anti-Slavery Society offers to pay Jacobs's fare and her friend Fanny's to New York through the Durhams in Philadelphia, Jacobs refuses (161). She is motivated in part by pride in her ability to pay her own way; but in addition, she recognizes that if she accepts more than she needs, funds may not be available for other fugitives. Later, after the first Mrs. Bruce dies, Jacobs accompanies her “little motherless” (183) child to the girl's grandparents in England. She values the salary the child's father offers, but in part she makes the overseas trip to acknowledge the kindness she received from the child's dead mother.

The structural core for Incidents emerges from a series of encounters through which Jacobs learns to rely on some relationships and painfully discovers how unreliable others can prove. Incidents details Jacobs's testing of relationships. One of these is her relationship with God; another relationship involves the dealings of Jacobs and of all slaves with those who purport to own them. And, finally, there are all of the personal relationships of individuals with one another based on blood, sex, friendship, or employment. Examining the relationships she has experienced, Jacobs gradually comes to decide on the validity of various social and religious claims. The very length of Incidents seems to suggest Jacobs's evolving apprehension as to which relationships to trust and what moral and ethical principles flow from those relationships.

But personal relationships come first. What Jacob's experience seems to teach is that few relationships, especially few relationships with whites, can be trusted because overlying all Southern and many Northern relationships is that initial and overwhelming fact noted in her first line, “I was born a slave” (1). Jacobs's narrative contrasts the unreliability of relationships with white people with the warmth and steadfastness of those with her own family. Her grandmother functions as a good angel whose virtue opposes Dr. Flint's vice. Thus Jacobs's angelic grandmother is “always kind, always ready to sympathize” (emphasis added) (83) and confronts in different ways both the “the demon Slavery” (83) and the demonic Dr. Flint whom Jacobs's toddler son calls “that bad man” (80). Jacobs's grandmother might even be a figure of the angel of death when she warns Flint, “You ain't got many more years to live, and you'd better be saying your prayers. It will take ‘em all, and more too, to wash the dirt off your soul” (82).

While Jacobs's grandmother is portrayed as a woman of universally recognized piety, perhaps her most impressive quality is her ability to forgive her enemies. Thus, after Dr. Flint's death, her grandmother actually writes to Jacobs, “‘Dr. Flint is dead. He has left a distressed family. Poor old man! I hope he made his peace with God’” (195-196). In response to her grandmother's words, Jacobs comments with a summary of his sins: “I remembered how he had defrauded my grandmother of the hard earnings she had loaned; how he had tried to cheat her out of the freedom her mistress had promised her, and how he had persecuted her children; and I thought to myself that she was a better Christian than I was, if she could entirely forgive him” (196). When Jacobs finally flees to the North, her grandmother gives her “a small bag of money”—literally the biblical widow's mite that Jesus commends—and enjoins Jacobs and Jacobs's son to prayer (155). Jacobs tells readers that her grandmother had “a beautiful faith” (17). Yet she is human and reacts with consternation to the news of the teenaged Harriet's first pregnancy.27 In contrast to her grandmother's usual forbearance, Dr. Flint “chuckle[s]” to hear of what he considers another's adversity (136), works to the death Jacobs's faithful aunt Nancy (195), and almost to his dying day is still lying to Jacobs and trying to cheat her (171-72).

While they live, Jacobs's parents and grandmother are the most important people in her life. She reverses their memories after their deaths. While she and they live, Jacobs depends on her parents, her grandmother, her uncles, her aunt, and her brother. In addition, her fugitive uncle and brother are models to emulate. And for the most part, other blacks are also almost as supportive as “family.” For example, while she does not marry the “young colored carpenter” identified as “a young girl's first love” (37), he might be the “Peter” who more than ten years later risks his life to spirit her away to the North.

Jacobs's most important relationship, of course, is with her children, and this keeps her in place when she might otherwise have fled or even committed suicide. Jacobs speaks of her infant son as a “little vine … taking root in my existence” (62). From the time her son Benjamin is born, he and, later, his sister Ellen become the primary influences on Jacobs's decisions.28 Jacobs fears that if she runs away, the Flints, as retribution, would sell her children; yet she takes a chance on breaking the cycle of slavery because she fears even more having Ellen grow up and repeat her humiliation. Even as her children's welfare undermines any desire she might have had to run away, they also strengthen her resolve “that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should rise for them” (85). For them, Jacobs stays alive even during her seven years hiding in “a dismal hole” (113), the crawl space over her grandmother's storage shed. Jacobs's physical separation from her children, despite her knowledge of their proximity and occasional glimpses of them, proves almost as difficult for her as the physical rigors of life in her “bolt hole.” For years after their escape to the North, Jacobs struggles to follow her grandmother's example by caring for and educating her children. A poignant touch at the end of the narrative involves Jacobs's acknowledgment that she has not yet been able to provide a home for her children.

Jacobs's relationship with her northern, white, middle-class women readers, her primary audience, is perhaps best thought of as analogous to her relationships with the white women in her narrative. Both were problematic. She found some of these women trustworthy, some untrustworthy, but few capable of genuine empathy. Jacobs feared that publishing her story might scandalize some of her new northern friends. They had no way of knowing the reality of her life and might misinterpret her experience and condemn her unwed motherhood. Her relationship with her northern reading audience lacked the trust and support she enjoyed from friends and relatives. Although her support for the abolitionist cause impelled Jacobs to make her story public, she worried about public acknowledgment of her teenage pregnancies. To communicate with this audience, she used her ability to write her own story; to do that she used a mode, a variation of the domestic novel, suited to their expectations and appealing to their sympathies. Her reliance on narrative strategies usually encountered in sentimental domestic fiction certainly shows that she assumed that this audience would have difficulty accepting, much less understanding her experience.29 In addition to the experiences Jacobs details in the text, Yellin's research has shown that Jacobs's encounters with such anti-slavery advocates as Harriet Beecher Stowe had taught her not to depend much on the help or the understanding of her northern audience.30

Yet given her avowed purpose—to persuade northern readers to the abolitionist cause—Jacobs sought to engage and thus to place some reliance on her white audience. Indeed, both Jacobs and Douglass encountered overt as well as covert opposition from a part of that audience, white fellow writers who wanted to “help,” perhaps, at least unconsciously, to control their narratives. Jacobs wrote only after she had finished her long day's work as a child's nurse and glorified domestic. She guarded her manuscript from the view of her de facto employer, Nathaniel Willis. A noted, presumably liberal, white writer, Willis could have helped Jacobs; but she distrusted his commitment to the abolitionist cause. Living in his home for years, she probably had cause. Jacobs did ask for Harriet Beecher Stowe's help, but Jacobs's dealings with Stowe convinced her that Stowe would coopt her story and “use” her but never allow her to tell her own story. So Jacobs refused entirely Stowe's “help.” Eventually, despite her self-doubts, Jacobs learned to trust her own work. The editor Jacobs finally chose to trust, Lydia Child, insists in the original introduction to Incidents that the changes she made were minor.31

Jacobs needed her white audience and she knew it. Valerie Smith makes the interesting points that while Jacobs flees from “one small space to another” (31) in her slow progression toward freedom, she leaves each “only with the aid of someone else” (31-32). Jacobs's white female audience provided her with one of her only partially reliable relationships. She feared their judgmental reactions. Nonetheless, she needed this audience as much as her grandmother once had needed the white women of Edenton who bought her bakery goods. Smith further notes that by underscoring a reliance on other people, Jacobs reveals an alternate way in which the story of slavery and escape might be written (34). While male narrators, including Douglass, emphasized their own derring-do, a woman like Jacobs remains aware of the role of her compatriots in her escape. She relates her own subterfuge and courage, but she also includes illustrations of the considerable courage her escape demanded of her grandmother, her uncle, and, in time, her children, as well as the white friends of her family. Jacobs's emphasis on relationships also serves as a further defense of slaves who have not even attempted to flee bondage. As her story implies, the same bonds of love that hold Jacobs, her grandmother, and her uncle in Edenton just as surely keep other slaves from dashing to freedom.

Throughout her account Jacobs values relationships because they have sustained her. Her loving relationships with African-Americans in the South are based on ties of kinship, affection, and mutual interdependence. In contrast, the legal relationship of owner-slave constitutes a perversity. By the time Mrs. Bruce pays off the Flints, who now have legal title to Jacobs, Jacobs is a middle-aged working woman living in the North and longing for the healthy adult independence of a mother able to care for herself and to educate her children. Jacobs believes that she and her ancestors have fully paid for her free status. They have paid for her freedom through her grandmother's, her mother's, and her own years of service. She defines freedom as independence, as the right and ability to maintain herself and her loved ones within a network of mutual care and service to and from others. Her experience has convinced her that she already has earned her freedom. Thus, she comments, “I regarded such laws [as those that declared me still a slave] as the regulations of robbers, who had no rights that I was bound to respect” (187).

Although the second “Mrs. Bruce”—whom Jean Yellin has established was Mrs. Nathaniel P. Willis32—finally did pay the Flints' son-in-law $300, she did so against Jacobs's will. Mrs. Bruce's payment made Jacobs feel unreasonably indebted. Valuing as she did the independence of freedom, Jacobs felt bound in a new way. Much of Jacobs's anger and resentment (200) at finally being bought and set free by Mrs. Bruce may come from Jacobs's sense that their relationship had been altered. All of her adult life, Jacobs tried to deny the validity of the slave's bond. In effect, Mrs. Bruce's action implicitly acknowledged chattel slavery. That altered their relationship from that of peers and free women, even friends, to one—at best—of patron and client. Having been redeemed, rather than acknowledged a free peer, can also prove a burden.

Incidents concentrates on slavery—and to a lesser degree, racism—which Jacobs depicts as a poison infecting relationships. (Jacobs often uses images of poisonous snakes and the devil in referring to the South and slavery.) As it poisoned most close personal relationships, slavery also distorted social relationships. Only a few exceptional people, such as the first and second Mrs. Bruce and Amy Post, seem immune to the racism that infected even the northern states. Finally, Jacobs shows how slavery has perverted the relationship between human beings and God. As does Douglass, Jacobs shows in Incidents not only how slavery has perverted Christianity but also suggests her own spiritual doubts and possibly the evolution of an adult faith.33 Jacobs admires her grandmother's adherence to a radical Christian forgiveness. But the incessant demands of the Flints make it impossible for Jacobs to follow her grandmother's example of forgiveness. The destruction of the African-American church in the woods (67) symbolizes the impossible situation of African-American slaves enjoined to live as Christians but denied the opportunity. In addition, Jacobs includes in Incidents many tales about ministers who do not see any conflict between their professions of “Christianity” and the “rules” of southern slavery.

In contrast with Douglass's Narrative, which is the story of an individual's finding and using language as the key to effecting his freedom, Jacobs structures her narrative with incidents that illustrate her place within personal and communal relationships. Their different emphases grow out of gender differences. Most male narratives reflect the nineteenth-century popular admiration for “rugged individualists.” The proportionately few women slave narrators, on the other hand, were hostages to nineteenth-century America's “cult of domesticity”34 that demanded a standard of feminine “purity” that slavery denied them. Unlike men, women were excluded from the public recital of their stories in a culture that at least publicly insisted on the cult of pure womanhood. Readers who insisted that women should choose “death before dishonor” would not accept mothers of fatherless children. The recital of their abuse gained female narrators neither money, power, nor social advantage. Since women narrators could not show that they had been the “perfect wives” that the cult of domesticity demanded, they emphasized instead the ways in which their relationships with their families allied them with their white reading audience.


Male and female slave narrators had basically the same goal: to show that they deserved to live as free people in a free society. Nonetheless, in their need to contest different stereotypes, male and female fugitives and former slaves seized on different strategies. Men and women fugitives may well have had different models of freedom. The slave narratives written by men emphasize their desire to be “men” in their society, to take a “man's” role. In the words of Niemtzow, “Male slave narratives, indeed male autobiographies, are frequently stories of triumph in a public sphere.”35 In a blatantly patriarchal society, the public sphere would, of course, entail a position of power. Attaining literacy and writing literature advanced those goals. Male slave narrators stress the importance of achieving literacy and their independence as men; they need to demonstrate that they are men among men.

Female slave narrators, on the other hand, have to convince their readers that they were neither the victims nor the fallen women that stereotypes have labeled them. With Sojourner Truth, they cry, “Ar'n't I a Woman?”36 These women, therefore, stress their kinship with their white and black sisters: they remind their readers that they were someone's children, sisters, wives, mothers, and friends. For instance, throughout her memoir, Elizabeth Keckley emphasizes her ties with “kind, true-hearted friends in the South as well as in the North.”37 Keckley's memoir emphasizes her business accomplishments, but she considers her role as Mary Todd Lincoln's seamstress and sometimes confidant far more significant than her ability to read and write, because the former, after all, allows her to achieve the modicum of independence that she cherishes. Mary Prince, another woman narrator, tells a story of physical labor, abuse, and misery after her early years with her mother. Although Moravian ladies teach Prince to read,38 this does not alter her situation. At the end of the narrative, living in England, she still pines for reunion with her husband (22). Male narrators relate little about their families; women always describe their close relatives. A pattern emerges in these narratives as well as those of Douglass and Jacobs: most male fugitives seem to define freedom as autonomy, whereas most female fugitives seem to define freedom as interdependence within relationships.

Women narrators are more apt than men to stress, as Jacobs does, a desire for a home of one's own. Yet to maintain their own homes, women need a degree of economic power. Male slave fugitives might earn a living lecturing on the abolitionist lecture circuit and writing slave narratives, but for woman fugitives, publishing narratives frequently meant a certain amount of infamy. Even in freedom, most fugitive slave women still worked as domestics, cooks, laundresses, and seamstresses.39 Although most male former slaves worked as laborers, some used literacy to open up broader employment opportunities; for women, it offered little advantage. For women narrators, literacy was useful, but it only marginally advanced their “independence.”40 Even in freedom, racism and sexism combined to keep ex-slave women's status—to alter Orlando Patterson's definition of slavery—that of people suffering permanent, violent domination, generally dishonored, as they had been from birth (13).41

Written slave narratives flourished with the abolition movement. At abolition meetings, male ex-slaves were known to bare their scarred backs as testaments to slavery's cruelty. Written slave narratives extended that oral testimony by relating both the physical and psychological cruelty experienced by slaves. Readers encountered the individual, a fellow human being wounded by the system. Women fugitives, like men, told their stories because they believed that publication furthered the abolitionist cause. But for women, abolishing slavery meant more than achieving atomized, personal goals. Ultimately, in telling their stories, women were motivated by the need to build communities and—by extension—the commonwealth. Ironically, the nineteenth-century American admiration for rugged individualism actually militated against building communities that could enrich and vivify public life. Working with others seemed less valued a trait.

Further significant differences may well exist between male and female narratives. Identifying them might also provide further strategies that women used in dealing with slavery. Women's narratives, as suggested by Jacobs's Incidents, offer a demanding but humane path to public life. Their narratives stress the bonds that tie people together but also support them. Their narratives widen the critique of the slave culture encountered in men's narratives. The slave narratives of male and female writers together, given the emphasis on literacy and control in the former and on relationships and interdependence in the latter, offer insight on balancing individualism and community. Women narrators emphasized implicitly that sexual abuse and the break-up of their families violated the community. Women slaves regarded this as more destructive than the withholding of education.


  1. William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana, 1988), 1.

  2. John Sekora, for example, in “Red, White, and Black: Indian Captivities, Colonial Printers, and the Early African-American Narratives,” A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, ed. Frank Shuffleton (New York, 1993) shows significant connections between early slave narratives and contemporary Indian captivity narratives; and in To Tell, William Andrews discusses the influence of black spiritual autobiography on later slave narratives.

  3. Joan Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” The American Historical Review 91 (1986), 1053.

  4. Deborah Gray White, Ar'n't I A Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York, 1985), 124.

  5. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., (Oxford, 1985), xxviii.

  6. As still another illustration of how common the assertion has been—in an end note reminding readers that “most students of the slave narrative have commented on how central the moment of literacy is to the individual narrator,” Annette Niemtzow in The Problematic of Self in Autobiography, ed. John Sekora and Darwin Turner (Macomb, IL, 1982), 108, lists four further scholars (H. Baker, S. Butterfield, R. Rosenblatt, G. Taylor) who have characterized the acquisition of literacy and writing as an essential mark of the slave narrative.

  7. “From Fugitive Slave to Man of Letters: The Conversion of Frederick Douglass,” The Journal of Narrative Technique 16 (1986), 55.

  8. Equiano in Great Slave Narratives, ed. Arna Bontemps (Boston, 1969) weaves into his narrative his progressive steps toward a more complete education. At one point—right before he is sold by Pascal—he makes an explicit identification between his desire for freedom and education (62). Pennington, though trying to demonstrate Christian forebearance in his narrative, makes clear that his greatest resentment comes from having been “robbed of my education” (246). Having gone to great lengths of disguise in order to mask their illiteracy as they fled, the first thing William and Ellen Craft attend to during their first three weeks of relative freedom in Philadelphia is learning how to spell and write their own names (317). All three narratives are reprinted in Bontemps's collection.

  9. See Houston A. Baker, Jr.'s introduction to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (New York, 1982). All page numbers refer to this edition of the Narrative. In her introduction to an excerpt from Incidents in Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960 (New York, 1987), Mary Helen Washington also notes specific parallels between the rhetorical arguments of Jacobs and Douglass.

  10. Michael Meyer, ed. The Narrative and Selected Writings of Frederick Douglass. (New York, 1984), xv.

  11. John Sekora takes for the title of an essay, “‘MR. EDITOR, IF YOU PLEASE,’” in Callaloo 17 (1994), 614, Douglass's reply when asked what title of address he preferred.

  12. Sekora and Turner, 56.

  13. “Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism,” Raritan (6: 2), 109.

  14. Andrews, To Tell, 14.

  15. Frances Smith Foster, “‘In Respect to Females …’: Differences in the Portrayals of Women by Male and Female Narrators,” Black American Literature Forum, 15 (1981), 66.

  16. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Literature (Cambridge, MA, 1987), 4.

  17. “In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition,” Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, ed. William L. Andrews (New York, 1991), 207.

  18. The Slave Narrative, xxiii.

  19. As Kari Winter succinctly reminds her readers in Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives, 1790-1865 (Athens, GA, 1992), 3, the exploitation of slave labor that developed in the southern United States “was based primarily on race [but] secondarily on gender.”

  20. White, 141.

  21. See, for example, Carol Smith-Rosenberg's “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1 (1975), 1-29.

  22. Many contemporary researchers conclude that most women value relationships over, for example, abstract notions of right and wrong. Women's decisions often flow from what they have come to understand through their relationships. As Mary Field Belenky, et al. demonstrate in Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York, 1986) this proves true in women's understanding of themselves and their world view. Carol Gilligan argues in In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA, 1982) that women develop moral choices in terms of relationship; and the work of Nancy Chodorow, “Family Structure and Feminine Personality,” Woman, Culture and Society, ed. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (Stanford, 1974) as well as that of Jean Baker Miller, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Boston, 1976) supports Gilligan's argument. Deborah Tannen's findings about the ways women handle language also points to the importance of relationships in women's lives. As Nancy Chodorow notes, “The feminine personality [often] comes to define itself in relation and connection to other people more than masculine personality does” (43-44). Mary Belenky and her collaborators further argue that women develop their understanding of themselves, their worlds, and even their ethical sense through what they learn “in relationships with friends and teachers, life crises, and community involvements” (4). In her books on socio-linguistics focusing on the centrality of spoken language and relationships in the lives of women, Deborah Tannen too posits that each woman tends to come to grips with her environment “as an individual in a network of connections” (25).

  23. “‘In a Different Voice’: Male and Female Narratives of Religious Conversion in Post Revolutionary America,” American Quarterly 41 (1989), 39.

  24. “Black Womanhood in Nineteenth-Century America: Subversion and Self-Construction in Two Women's Autobiographies,” American Quarterly 43 (1991), 203.

  25. In “Race, Gender, and Cultural Context in Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road,Life Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography, ed. Bella Brodski and Celeste Schenck (Ithaca, 1988), Nellie Y. McKay emphasizes that “In constructing their personal narratives, black women negotiate the dangerous shoals of white male and female role and class oppression and white and black male sexism. Connected to black men by the history of class and race, to white women by sex and the configuration of gender roles, and to both by the politics of writing from the outside, they have, from the beginning, created unique selves-in-writing to document their individual and collective experiences” (177). Female fugitives and former slave women respond to the common pressures they share with former male slaves to strive for full freedom and with other women to perceive themselves as connected to community.

  26. Luke, for instance, the brutalized slave of a dying but depraved psychopath, tricks the man's heirs into giving him a pair of the dead man's old pants into which Luke has secreted a goodly cache of money (192-93). Jacobs explicitly praises Luke's having acted with the “wisdom of serpents.” All page numbers for Jacobs's text refer to Jean Fagan Yellin's edition of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Cambridge, MA, 1987).

  27. Yet the reader may wonder at this point in the narrative whether Jacobs's grandmother's anger might not be directed in part at herself as well as toward Harriet. Despite Jacobs's care to name her father as well as her mother, Jacobs never names her maternal grandfather. Her grandmother's distress may stem, in part, from seeing Jacobs repeating her own mistakes.

  28. Jacobs's plight reminds one of Frances Kemble's story found in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, ed. John A. Scott (New York, 1975) about an overseer on her husband's plantation who explained that he never worried about his wife's slave running away once she got to free territory. He noted that although, “I take care when my wife goes North with the children, to send Lucy with her; Her children are down here and I defy all the abolitionists in creation to get her to stay North” (344).

  29. While much of the current discussion of what Frances Smith Foster—see Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives (Westport, CT, 1979), 55—calls Jacobs's “literary embellishments” focuses on Jacobs's use of and limitation by sentimental fiction, some of the most useful are Hazel Carby's exploration in Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York, 1989) of the “variety of narrative forms” (61) Jacobs and other black women writers utilized to break out of the procrustean bed of either the black male-dominated slave narrative form or the white female tradition of “true womanhood” found in sentimental fiction and Valerie Smith's parallel exploration with perhaps more emphasis on “class, race, and gender analysis” (43). Smith also emphasizes the limits for Jacobs's purposes of both the sentimental novel (41-42) and the male slave narrative (34).

  30. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese outlines her belief in “My Statue, My Self: Autobiographical Writings of Afro-American Women,” The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Shari Benstock (Chapel Hill, 1988), that Jacobs and her contemporary Harriet Wilson “harbored deep bitterness toward northern society in general and northern women in particular” (71). A reading of Jacobs's letters found at the back of the Yellin edition of Incidents, including those letters describing to Amy Post Jacobs's unhappy encounters with Stowe, certainly appear to give Jacobs reason for bitterness.

  31. Douglass ran into similar trouble with his white sponsors. William Lloyd Garrison had helped Douglass to a career as a public speaker, an effective orator at abolitionist meetings. Yet as Douglass changed from an object of concern, a live illustration at abolition meetings, to an independent thinker and writer who crafted his own language and focused his own message's point for his own rather than Garrison's ends, the two became estranged.

  32. Jean Yellin has identified Mrs. Bruce (480) and most of the other significant players in Incidents for modern readers of the narrative.

  33. Ann Taves in “Spiritual Purity and Sexual Shame: Religious Themes in the Writing of Harriet Jacobs,” Church History 56 (1987) has explored the interconnections between Jacobs's “intense, female-oriented family relationships” (60) and her religious sense. Taves believes Jacobs accepted the association women whom she admired made between sexual purity with spirituality. Taves sees Incidents as a healthy adult “movement toward autonomy” (72) because in the narrative, Jacobs publicly acknowledges the choices she has made as a slave.

  34. Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1800-1860,” Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Barbara Welter (Athens, OH, 1976), 21.

  35. In Sekora and Turner, 104.

  36. Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Bondswoman of Olden Time, Comp. Olive Gilbert (Battle Creek, MI, 1878; rpt. New York, 1991), 133-34.

  37. Behind the Scenes: or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868; rpt. New York, 1989), xi.

  38. William L. Andrews, ed. Six Women's Slave Narratives, [Mary Prince, Old Elizabeth, Mattie J. Jackson, Lucy Delaney, Kate Drumgoold, Annie Burton] (New York, 1988), 17.

  39. William Andrews's Six Women's Slave Narratives, for example, have been chosen to illustrate typical stories; the occupations of the earlier accounts typify those of former slave women living in the North. Certainly before the Civil War and Emancipation, educational and professional opportunities for black women were even more restricted than the limited opportunities available to white women.

  40. Dorothy Sterling, ed. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1984), 72, 87, 97, 119-150.

  41. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA, 1982), 13.

Kelly Rothenberg (essay date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Rothenberg, Kelly. “Frederick Douglass' Narrative and the Subtext of Folklore.” Griot 14, no. 1 (spring 1995): 48-53.

[In the following essay, Rothenberg examines Douglass's blending of black and white folkloric elements in the Narrative.]

Much has been written on Frederick Douglass and his triumphant escape from slavery. His prose work, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is considered to be a masterpiece of personal autobiography and documentation of the “peculiar institution” known as American slavery. Almost every article written about Douglass deals with the written text as Douglass presents it, either in terms of historical accuracy or as some form of reflection upon the events leading up to the Civil War. What does not get discussed is Douglass' unwritten text, the one that he does not consciously write but which is there nonetheless. Frederick Douglass' Narrative contains an unwritten text of folklore that the reader, and probably Douglass himself, may not be conscious of but which adds greatly to the strength of the narrative. The way to point out this unwritten text is to provide a background of the missing folk elements in his work (and the lessons they teach), and to show how Douglass incorporates them. In doing so, it can also be seen how Douglass rejects his own folk group in favor of the dominant White folk group. Henry Louis Gates says that the Narrative “become[s] the complex mediator between the world as the master would have it and the world as the slave knows it really is” (Gates 93). In the case of a folklore study, this is taken a step further to show how Douglass creates a work that fluidly blends both the Black and the White folk groups and how Douglass himself becomes a bridge between both groups.

Frederick Douglass was an Afro-American, born into slavery but descended from an African folk culture. Whether he tries to suppress this heritage or not, it is inevitable that some of it will reveal itself in his writing. The important distinction between folklore and Douglass' Narrative is that the work—and subsequently Douglass himself—breaks from what Negro folklore traditionally teaches. Often folklore contains disguised messages intended to educate or warn the listener. When Little Red Riding Hood is warned not to stray from the path to grandma's house, and then does so, she is eaten by the wolf. She did something she was not supposed to do, and she was punished for it; a grim lesson, indeed. Douglass defies these lessons of not “straying from the path” and charts his own path to freedom and self-realization.

To understand Douglass, his folklore and how he deviates from it, some basic background is necessary. Much of this Douglass himself alludes to in his Narrative, though he does not elaborate on it. For a full understanding of this folklore background, it is important to go all the way back to Africa, since that is where the roots of Afro-American folklore lie. Unlike European folklore, which came amalgamated to America, Afro-American folklore has retained much of its characteristics. As Richard Dorson notes, “Only the Negro, as a distinct element of the English-speaking population, maintained a full-blown storytelling tradition” descended from its African roots (12). In Africa, the role of the storyteller was often held by the griot, whose main job was that of tribal historian. As with so much of early history and literature worldwide, African history was passed down orally. Because of the griot's vast knowledge, he or she was often called upon to be the advisor to the king and educator to the people (Kouyate 179). In short, the griot maintained the cultural and tribal identity (180). Folktales of this nature are hard to come by, but they probably resemble much of the animal folklore that has already been collected in America. The story's closeness to that of an African folktale is especially likely considering many of the tales were told by first or second-generation slaves not far removed from their African heritage.

When the Africans were brought to America as slaves, they brought their oral traditions with them. The storytelling grew to reflect their new situation, and both it and their music became a subtle form of protest. Douglass mentions the singing of the slaves early in his text, but admits that he did not understand their meanings at the time. “I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear” (Douglass 1653). The truth of the matter may be that Douglass does indeed understand the messages he hears in slave songs, but he chooses to ignore them. Slave singing, which would later evolve into blues music, teaches endurance of life as it is, with no real hope for change. David Evans says that blues singers “are content to describe the dimensions of their subject, taking the situation as a given and not likely to be altered significantly in the long run.” In short, “No real solutions to major problems are proposed in the blues” (Evans 566).

Gospel music is very similar to blues music in this respect. It sends a message of overcoming hardship that the blues lacks, but the overcoming does not occur in this life but the next one, Heaven. Douglass makes no references to gospel singing in his text, but this religious ideology is one that Douglass must have been aware of. Douglas often comments on the ironic teachings of the church, especially when it concerns his master Captain Auld. “Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty” (Douglass 1671). Douglass later says that “I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels” (Douglass 1700). The idea had to occur to him that if God existed, and God was a just and loving God as the Bible said, then he would not ever have been a slave; but since he was a slave, God must not exist (Gibson 591), which makes the entire institution of religion a fallacy. If there were a God, then he would “‘save me,’ ‘deliver me,’ ‘let me be free’” (Gibson 591), which are all the same things spirituals speak of. “God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave?” he asks a Being he is not even sure exists (Douglass 1676). Douglass eventually realizes that he must save himself, and rejects the notion of help from a divine outside source. His help and strength must come from within himself first, and he refuses to accept the idea that he must wait until the afterlife for his suffering to end. In a very humanistic way of thinking, Douglass realizes that he should not have to suffer in this life. In the science of folklore, religion is classified as a type of folklore in itself. It is usually under the heading of mythology, but the principle idea that folklore advocates is still the same—it is a way of binding people together with oral tradition. Note that Douglass rejects this folkloristic tradition, as well.

While all of this may seem like a lengthy background summary, already it can be seen how Douglass ties in with the folk group that slavery produced. The best known part of that group, however, are the folk tales. The ones of particular interest are the tales collectively known as John tales. The lore cycle involves the Negro slave John in various adventures with and against his owner, Ole Massa. These are the types of stories the slaves would have told to pass the time, and even though Douglass was raised around white people from the age of eight and older, it's certain that he would have heard these or other folk tales at some point. “On any given evening slaves might transcend their temporal situation by singing their sacred songs of hope, attempting to control it by putting into practice one or more of their varied store of folk beliefs, and understand it and its immediate imperative by reciting some of their tales. All three were essential parts of the slaves' life” (Levine 134).

Like the blues song and folk seculars, the Negro folktale is often a disguised form of protest. It also shares the characteristic of not advocating any action against Ole Massa and the slavery system; again, more lessons in endurance, not rebellion. John, the trickster figure, often plagues Massa to end with his mischief, but in the end it's all a moot point. Rarely, if ever, do the folktales ever advocate escape or show John successfully fleeing his oppressor. There are scenes of flight from Ole Massa, to be certain, but whether John successfully escapes or not is never told. Even though that ending is not provided, it's probably safe to assume that John does not escape, and if he does it is still in such a fantastical way that it can only be looked on as imaginative amusement and not serious advice on how to escape. It should be remembered that folk tales are often thought to work in the subconscious, sometimes spring to mind much later as a form of advice that may not have been apparent when the story was first heard. As Douglass himself remarked, he did not understand the meanings behind the slave's singing until much later. Consider the implied message they are giving: there is no escape; don't even bother to try, Ole Massa will get you and kill you. Assuming Douglass would have figured out the messages in the songs and tales at an older period of his life, there is no message of hope for him to take inspiration from. Instead, it's one of acquiescence and tolerance. Even though the songs and folktales are a form of protest, they still offer no advice on what can be done to change the situation (or that anything can be done), and any inspiration and determination that Douglass finds must come from within himself.

For example, consider the “Philly-Me-York” folktale, possibly one of the most popular John tales ever collected. Massa goes away to the city, colloquially called “Philly-Me-York,” and leaves John in charge of everything. John, in Massa's absence, throws a party for himself and the rest of the slaves, going so far as to dress in Massa's fine clothes and kill some of his hogs to eat. Ole Massa disguises himself, sneaks back and discovers just what John has done (Hurston 88-89). The common ending is for the tale to end with John's discovery by Ole Massa.

To someone who is literal-minded, there should be an obvious question that comes to mind: why doesn't John escape? Instead of fleeing to the woods and at least trying to escape, he throws a party. Even in the version where he almost gets hanged, it ends like every other John tale with John remaining on the plantation and no sense that John will ever be free. For the slave telling these stories, that was the way life really was; there was little, if any, hope for freedom. This is perhaps a more telling portrait of Douglass' historical background than people realize. It's one thing to discuss the physical horrors of slavery, but it's quite another to consider its psychological horrors. If a collective body of people, all enslaved, is telling stories that offer no hope for escape at all, that must mean the collective will of the people is crushed so badly that they cannot even bring themselves to imagine escape in their stories. If Ole Massa is stupid enough to leave his plantation unattended, why wouldn't his slaves attempt to flee? But even in fantasy this is not portrayed as happening. The story, then, becomes a psychological symbol of the ultimate despair.

Douglass makes no mention of the “Philly-Me-York” story at all in his Narrative, perhaps for the very reason that he does not allow himself to ultimately give in to despair. However, this tale is representative of the types of tales he would have heard as a child on the Lloyd plantation or elsewhere. Like all the others, there is no sense of hope or escape. If this is the collective body of folklore that the slaves are teaching themselves, then it is obvious that in order to escape one has to first break away from this folk group and the lore it is teaching.

This breaking away is inevitable, if not with Douglas then with somebody else. One interesting note about the lore cycle classification is that as the cycle progresses, the lore begins to lose its effect for the folk group. If, at the height of its cycle, the Negro folklore is advocating non-resistance and endurance, then a 180 degree turnabout from this would be to become active and resist. This is the area of the lore cycle, that Douglass fits into. Douglass makes a conscious decision to escape, and another conscious decision on how to escape. Whether he is making a conscious decision to break from his heritage is debatable, but it is evident that he is making a conscious decision to embrace the White culture by becoming one of them—educated and free. His narrative is directed at a white, educated audience. In order to appeal to this audience, it would have been necessary to suppress his background and appear as educated, or more so, than his audience. His language is very carefully chosen and literary sounding. This is not the text of an illiterate Negro slave, and that is a very conscious and careful decision on Douglass' part. He wants to be a part of the White folk group. Until he can fit in to that White culture, he is out-of-sorts. Being an escaped slave, he no longer quite fits in with the plantation slave, and not being white he cannot easily amalgamate himself into that culture either. He is the man in the middle, and no matter how hard he tries, some of his folk background still slips through the Narrative.

Ironically, even though Douglass is rebelling against the “no-hope” idea taught in Negro folklore, he embraces the aspect of tales used as warnings to others. Many of the stories Douglass relates are simply examples of how the life of a slave is, but they also serve as a warning of the consequences of going against the slavery system. One interesting example straight out of primitive folklore is Douglass' experience with the root Sandy gives him. The root is supposed to protect Douglass from further beatings at the hands of a white man, which Sandy swears is true. “He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it” (Douglass 1678). In a few sentences Douglass uses to describe Sandy, he paints a picture of what might be called a superstitious primitive. Sandy relies on superstition to protect himself, and for him it works. Douglass tries it and it fails. The folktale Richard Dorson collects, “The Mojo,” ends in a similar way: the slave John is given the root and told that it will protect him from Ole Massa by allowing him to change into three different animals in order to escape. The first time John is chased by Massa, he changes into a hare. Massa changes into a greyhound. John changes again, this time into a quail. Massa changes into a chicken-hawk. Finally, John changes into a snake. Massa says, “I'll turn into a stick and I'll beat your ass.” (Dorson 141-42). That is where the tale ends.

Where the tale ends is important. The reader, or listener, is never told if John escapes or not, but the implied threat, as well as the pattern established by the other John tales, says he does not. Douglass, when relying on the root, faces the same fate as John when his master comes to beat him. However, where John flees, Douglass stands his ground and faces Mr. Covey in the scene that shows “how a slave was made a man” (Douglass 1676). Douglass obviously does not do this as a stand against his folk heritage; he's fighting for his life and his self-worth. His actions, though, are an act of defiance against this tradition. He uses the very same tool that is being used against him—violence—to remake himself, and in doing so he adopts the methods of the White folk group. There are no explicit lessons in any folk group on how to act or what to do in order to be a part of it, but considering the black folk group as a non-volatile, passive group and the White folk group as dominant, educated, aggressive and—most importantly—free, then Douglass clearly leaves the Black folk group for the White one.

In My Bondage and My Freedom there is even a larger gap between the Black and White folk groups that Douglass is bridging. This is especially evident in his rewrite of the scene with Sandy and the root, where Douglass states point blank that he sees the root as “‘absurd and ridiculous, if not positively sinful,’” and admits his own distancing from his heritage by saying Sandy “‘professed to believe in a system for which I have no name’” (Goddu 838-39). By the time Douglass is writing My Bondage and My Freedom, he has come too far away from his folk culture to truly understand it anymore.

There are many other instances of folklore in Douglass' Narrative. The problem in pointing them out is that there is still a lot of Afro-American folklore that has not been collected yet, so proving examples from the work as folklore is not a concrete possibility. The validation for proving them folklore falls to the fact that in every story Douglass narrates there is some sort of implicit warning or lesson to be learned, which fits in with traditional folklore. There is also the fact that many of the stories Douglass relates he does not witness, but events he heard about. This oral factor is a key tip-off to something being a folktale. The fact that it is Douglass relating these events to us makes them more believable, since we believe Douglass' Narrative. In other words, Douglass' voice carries weight with the reader. This is another key point in folklore, especially folklore concurrent with the time period it is being told: no matter how ludicrous, it carries the weight of plausibility. When the reader knows that everything else in the Narrative is true, it is natural to assume that these folktales should be taken as truth, as well. Donald Gibson says that even “when it is not clear whether he [Douglass] actually witnessed an event or heard it told … it is fairly obvious that he perceives it as actual, and hence it carries the weight of fact.” This is compounded when it is realized that nearly everything in the Narrative is related to the readers as if it were directly experienced by Douglass (Gibson 551).

So, is Douglass participating in his own folklore and, if so, why? Everyone participates in their own folklore without realizing it. If they realized it, it would not be folklore. It's like the children's game of telephone. One person starts a message at one end of the room, and by the time it gets to the other end of the room, it's completely different. The changes that take place in the message are not intentional; they just happen. This is what happens to Douglass when he relates these events. He may not have been there, but just as they sound truthful to Douglass' audience, they must have sounded truthful to him, as well. Therefore, when he relates them back they become more personalized and believable.

Even though Douglass may inadvertently be changing his own narrative in a folkloristic way, it still follows the patterns already established. Every story, whether true or not, is both educational in way slaves were treated, and also served as a warning to Douglass when he heard them. Consider the story about the slave and Colonel Lloyd. When Lloyd asks the slave, who does not recognize him, how his master treats him the slave replies truthfully. “‘Well, does the colonel treat you well?’ ‘No, sir’” (Douglass 1655). For the slave's honesty he was sold to a Georgia trader and separated from his family, probably forever. The lesson from this: lie because your life depends on it. Douglass says this is why a slave never speaks badly about his master, and why people get the impression that all the slaves are happy to be working the plantations in the hot, Southern sun.

Consider the lesson of the freed Black who threatened to report a runaway slave to his master. The blacks of New Bedford organized a meeting and immediately decided to kill the betrayer (Douglass 1698). The lesson from this: never betray one of your own. There are also little things in the text, such as the folk saying “it was worth a half-cent to kill a ‘nigger,’ and a half-cent to bury one” (Douglass 1658). All of these things portray in a coded way both the environment Douglass came from and what he had to rebel against to obtain his freedom. Even though these folktales have probably not been recorded anywhere, a further argument for their legitimacy as folklore can be made by using the Stith Thompson Motif index that is the standard for folklore classification. Even though these were designed with European folklore in mind, they can serve as a working classification, especially considering the idea of polygenesis in folklore. For example, the Colonel Lloyd tale could theoretically be classified into Motifs HO-H199 (Identity tests: recognition), H1550-1569 (Tests of character) and S400-499 (Cruel persecutions). Of course this is only conjecture, but it helps to show how these tales have elements in common with other folktales. But again, no matter how they are classified, the point is that Douglass refuses to follow what they dictate. If taken as a lump sum, Douglass' folklore heritage says that one should endure slavery because there is nothing that can be done about it; that lying is the only way to stay alive, and that one person cannot deliver himself from slavery, but that it must come from an outside Divine source. Douglass refuses to accept all of this. His Narrative is not only a social protest against the system of slavery, but it is also a protest against the folk tradition that taught him that these things were to be tolerated. Douglass does not believe that a man should have to lie in order to stay alive; that's why he writes his Narrative as brutally honest as he does. He refuses to just endure his situation, and instead sets out to better himself (an idea from the White folk group—the self-made man pulling himself up by his own bootstraps). Part of Douglass' success in seeing his situation for what it was, and managing to escape, is due to the fact that he began living in a white household at the age of eight, but the rest of it is due to his sheer determination. Instead of sticking to his folk group, he begins adopting a new one, the White folk group. By learning how to read and adopting some of their tactics (such as fighting back and standing up for himself, instead of being passive), he manages to use their own weapons against them. Through education—primarily a White luxury—he learns enough to help him escape, and then turn around and receive support from the same race of people that had enslaved him in the first place.

None of this rebellion from his folk group is conscious on Douglass' part. The literal text as Douglass wrote it is probably closest to his immediate feelings, but the change Douglass must undergo in order to obtain his freedom involves an unconscious change in folk groups, as well as physical change of situation. It has to. Had Douglass remained with his folk group he may never have seen any hope past the boundaries their folktales imposed. Symbolically, he must become the taboo breaker, the one who dares to go against what the folklore says and break the barriers down. If John is the trickster figure of the slave folktales, then Douglass becomes symbolic of the type of tricker that appears in Native American folklore, the trickster who is the most powerful member of the tribe and who dares to transgress the taboo barriers. Douglass is a barrier- breaker: he renounces the folklore of his people, dares to do what is unspeakable in that folklore—break free, and adopts the custom of another folk group altogether. His Narrative finally becomes his own folk warning, not one caked in folklore imagery but one that comes right out and says what it means: be passive and be conquered.

Works Cited

Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Paul Lauter, ed. Lexington: D. C. Heath and Company, 1990. 1637-1704.

Dorson, Richard. American Negro Folktales. Greenwich: Fawcett, 1968.

Evans, David. “Structure and Meaning in the Folk Blues.” The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Jan Harold Brunvand. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. 563-93.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Gibson, Donald B. “Christianity and Individualism: (Re-)Creation and Reality in Frederick Douglass' Representation of Self.” African-American Review. 26:4. 591-603.

Goddu, Teresa A. and Craig V. Smith. “Scenes of Writing in Frederick Douglass' Narrative: Autobiography and the Creation of Self.” The Southern Review. 25:4. 822-840.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

Kouyate, D'jimo. “The Role of the Griot.” Talk That Talk. Linda Goss and Marian E. Barnes, eds. New York: Touchstone, 1989.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York Oxford UP, 1977.

MacDonald, Margaret Read. A Storyteller's Sourcebook: A Subject, Title, and Motif Index to Folklore Collections for Children. Detroit: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1982.

A. James Wohlpart (essay date September 1995)

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SOURCE: Wohlpart, A. James. “Privatized Sentiment and the Institution of Christianity: Douglass's Ethical Stance in the Narrative.American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 3 (September 1995): 181-94.

[In the following essay, Wohlpart suggests that Douglass's relationship to Christianity is more complicated than many critics believe, suggesting that in the Narrative the author operates within accepted religious discourse while at the same time subverting it.]

In his “Introduction” to Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, published in 1991, William L. Andrews rightly concludes in relation to the 1845 version of Douglass's autobiography that the primary critical debate in the 1980s was whether or not the Narrative signifies “Douglass's mastery of literary discourse—or its mastery of him …” (10). Several positions have been staked out in relation to this question, the first of which, exhibited in the readings of Wilson J. Moses, Valerie Smith and Houston A. Baker, Jr., holds that the hegemonic (i.e., white, Protestant, abolitionist) discourse co-opts Douglass in his attempt to write his identity. Moses, attempting to unravel Douglass's motivations for using certain oratory and literary forms (including, primarily, confinement to black vernacular and the slave narrative), concludes that Douglass's “life as a literary creation was a market commodity,” forcing him into prescribed and socially accepted modes of self-presentation (69). Valerie Smith likewise concludes that Douglass remains trapped “by the very rhetorical and ideological structures he seeks to undermine”; because he attempts to define his identity based on white manhood, he “lends credence to the patriarchal structure largely responsible for his oppression” (26-27).

Houston A. Baker, in his essay “Autobiographical Acts and the Voice of the Southern Slave,” most fully develops this position, demonstrating how, “In recovering the details of his past … the autobiographer shows a progression from baffled and isolated existent to Christian abolitionist, lecturer and writer. The self in the autobiographical moment … however, seems unaware of the limitations that have accompanied this progress” (102). Baker concludes that, in Douglass's move from private to public figure, he necessarily subjects his autobiographical self to “linguistic codes, literary conventions, and audience expectations” which deny that self “the authentic voice of black American slavery” (104). In direct opposition to such readings, several critics have attempted to demonstrate the way in which Douglass uses literary and linguistic devices to subvert the hegemonic discourse of his society and his literary project. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., suggests that Douglass, in exploring the relationship between a series of antitheses or binary oppositions, demonstrates that the discourse of white, Protestant society is a cultural artifice and is thus arbitrary, not natural: “There exists always the danger, Douglass seems to say, that the meanings of nonlinguistic signs will seem ‘natural’; one must view them with a certain detachment to see that their meanings are in fact merely the ‘products’ of a certain culture, the result of shared assumptions and conventions” (92). Similarly, Raymond Hedin details the way in which Douglass reverses important aspects of the expected literary forms of his audience; in offering a purified character (to subvert the roguish picaro of the expected form) and in refusing to bring his narrative to some sense of closure, Douglass, Hedin suggests, subverts the discourse of his readers.

In direct reaction to these two types of readings, both of which focus on the primacy of language and literacy, several critics have offered a position which attempts to stand both inside and outside the boundaries of the debate. Thad Ziolkowski outlines what he considers the “internal dialectic” of the Narrative, a conflict within and about the text's “project of representation that occurs between the spectacle of violences (both physical and symbolic) and the acquisition of literacy” (164). Ziolkowski suggests that in opposing unrepresentable violence to literary representation, Douglass operates both inside and outside the hegemonic discourse of his society, finally offering the “autobiographical ‘I’” as “an interface mediating [these] antitheses” (164). Ann Kibbey and Michele Stepto likewise describe the role of violence in the text, noting how violence operates as the enforcer of the master's language; in fighting Covey, Douglass takes control of the foundation of this language: “Douglass declares within slavery, and in defiance of it, his own indivisible individuality as a human being. He returns to the slaveholder the signifiers of slavery in the only form that an overseer can understand: the physical act” (184).

A detailed rehearsal of this criticism is significant to my reading for two reasons. First, I would like to note that constant to all of these interpretations is the unquestioned nature of religion and ethics, the assumption that some undefined American Christianity is an inseparable aspect of the language of Douglass's society. I do not mean to suggest that these critics never discuss religion or Douglass's attitude towards American Christianity. Rather, I am suggesting that any such discussion is subordinated to a discussion of literacy and language and thus does not attempt to analyze Douglass's use of Christianity in and of itself. Second, I would like to note that those few critics who do question the nature of Douglass's religious and moral message parallel the first two groups of critics outlined above, suggesting only that Douglass either is co-opted by the Christian framework in which he operates or subverts this framework. Critics have yet to suggest the possibility that Douglass might operate, as Ziolkowski and Kibbey and Stepto suggest he does in relation to the question of literacy, both inside and outside the boundaries of American Christianity. Indeed, it is the efficacy of this third position that I hope to describe in this paper, detailing the way in which Douglass develops an ethical stance that will at once challenge both the institution of slavery and the institution of Christianity.

In relation to the question of religion, the first critical position is represented in the reading of Vincent Harding, who suggests that American Christianity entirely co-opted Douglass's attempt to transform the slave system. In There Is a River, Harding claims that Douglass fails to indict American institutions, including religious institutions, that perpetuate slavery: “it was not the call to armed insurrection which was the hallmark of antebellum black radicalism, but a careful, sober capacity to see the entire American government, and the institutions and population which it represented, as the basic foe of any serious black struggle …” (200). Harding painstakingly details the way in which Douglass fails to offer such a vision in the Narrative, describing Douglass's religious convictions as a two-edged sword: “On the one hand, it had a profoundly strengthening effect, allowing Douglass to maintain himself in the midst of discouraging realities. But it also held the possibility of blinding him to the ultimate harshness of those realities, decreasing the sense of need to face them and organize against them with more than hope and faith, without losing either” (148). Thus, one edge of this sword suggested the absolute equality of all human beings and the immorality of the institution of slavery while the other edge suggested a passive faith in a divine providence that curtailed the necessity of radical human action. Such passivity, Harding concludes, rendered Douglass's attack on slavery inefficacious. In opposition to Harding, Sharon Carson and Lisa Margaret Zeitz emphasize Douglass's strong critique of “American Christianity” and his assertion of his own religious authority; Carson concludes that Douglass's Narrative is his call to testify and demonstrates his claim to “divine authority and religious sanctification for not only his opposition to slavery, but more important, for his own life, for his self-definition over and against any other definitions proffered to him by white society” (22). Rather than co-optation by Christianity, Carson and Zeitz suggest that Douglass subverts orthodox readings of slavery.1

The recent close analysis of the role and status of the Christian religion in Douglass's 1845 Narrative has, so far, like the first two types of interpretations of the role of literacy and language, remained within the system, suggesting only the possibility that Douglass resides firmly inside the Christian framework of his culture, either to be co-opted by that framework or to subvert it. What I would like to suggest is that Douglass, in defining the ethical stance he would use to critique the slave system, operated both inside and outside the institution of Christianity. As I will demonstrate, Douglass understood the necessity of reacting against American Christianity because of its ability to co-opt the slave, defining the slave as nonhuman and indeed deserving enslavement. Douglass realized that the Protestant religion of America, as an institution, was corrupt because of its participation in and propagation of slavery. Indeed, as Kenneth Stampp notes, many slave masters “considered Christian indoctrination an effective method of keeping slaves docile and contented” (156). Yet Douglass also knew the necessity of maintaining an ethical and moral stance against the slave system and thus educed an ethics which, while derivative of the Christian religion, imperatively operated on a private and individual level in asserting the primacy of feelings and affections.

During the 1830s and 1840s, several Christian churches reversed earlier anti-slavery positions and either abrogated their duty in relation to abolishing the slave system or accepted slavery as not only an economic but also a moral imperative. According to Stampp, “In the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, southern Baptists and Methodists exhibited considerable anti-slavery sentiment”; by the 1830s, however, “the southern wings of these churches changed their positions” insisting that “slavery had divine sanction, that insolence was as much an offense against God as against the temporal master” (157-58).2 Central to the argument that denominations like the Methodists and Baptists offered for supporting slavery was a specific reading of the Bible, one which suggested that Africans, because of their color, were descendants of either Cain (thus, their color was the “mark of Cain”) or Ham (in which case their color was the mark of the curse of Ham). Because of this lineage, these Christian churches claimed, the black, heathenistic African was meant to be a servant to his or her white, Christian master.

Yet, as Douglass would have known, the reading of scripture to support slavery within American Churches was challenged, in some few northern Churches, with a counter reading and critique. In May of 1845, Wendell Phillips delivered a speech, later reprinted in William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator, attacking Christian churches “for their unchristian support of slavery” (qtd. in Mailloux 19). Phillips, and other commentators, viewed the biblical support of slavery as fallacious and offered a very different reading of biblical passages which suggested that slaves, as human beings, should be treated with love and equanimity. Significantly, the debate between the few northern congregations that spoke out against slavery and their largely southern counterparts led to the possibility of disunification between northern and southern branches of various Christian denominations. While such a split was indeed the direction that Garrison was moving, many of these congregations (and those individuals, like Margaret Fuller and, I believe, Frederick Douglass, viewing the debate from the outside) feared that such a breach would leave the slave system firmly intact and northern advocates of abolition without any power to create change in the system.3

In the first chapter of the Narrative, Douglass demonstrates his awareness of the use of the Bible to defend slavery. In discussing the mulatto children of the white slave masters, Douglass notes that

if their increase will do no other good, it will do away the force of the argument, that god cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently [are] their own masters.


Both Carson and Zeitz interpret this passage in light of its reference to the southern scriptural defense of slavery, concluding that Douglass destroys 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” (Zeitz 59). While clearly Douglass does suggest that the separation of humankind into two groups, those who will become slaves and those who will become masters, is no longer tenable in the South, he does so not in order to offer an alternate, Christian mode of valuing humans. Indeed the force of his argument suggests that he, rhetorically at least, accepts the fact that “the lineal descendants of Ham are … to be scripturally enslaved.” Rather, Douglass here attempts to describe his own position on the borders, between two worlds, as one who is a descendant of Ham and a descendant of a white master. As I have suggested, such a stance will allow Douglass the opportunity to offer a new ethical system.

The descriptions Douglass offers of various masters, including his own masters, reinforce the religious context of the Narrative. Of Thomas Auld, Douglass notes that, after attending a Methodist camp meeting in 1832, he became “more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before” (67). Douglass explains the source of this increased inhumane treatment of his slaves: “after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty” (67). Indeed, Douglass offers a particular example of such sanction, Auld's whipping of a young lame woman while quoting “this passage of Scripture—‘He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’” (68). Likewise, Edward Covey, commonly known as a “nigger-breaker,” was also “a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church” (70). Covey's system of breaking slaves was founded “in his power to deceive. His life was devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deceptions. Every thing he possessed in the shape of learning or religion, he made conform to his disposition to deceive. He seemed to think himself equal to deceiving the Almighty” (74).

Douglass furthers these depictions later in the Narrative. He notes, in a long diatribe against southern churches and their scriptural defense of slavery: “I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under … which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection” (86). He concludes that “religious slaveholders are the worst” masters, offering the examples of Reverend Daniel Weeden and Reverend Rigby Hopkins, “members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church” (87). While Douglass appears here to chastise all Christians (he claims that those Christians who hold slaves are the worst slaveholders), he clarifies his position in the “Appendix” to the Narrative: “What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper. … I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (120).

As I have noted, several critics have interpreted these passages as Douglass's attempt to subvert the slaveholders' reading of the Bible. Zeitz claims that “Douglass uses Biblical phrasing primarily to refute the claim that Christianity sanctions slavery” (57). Ultimately, these readers suggest that Douglass remains firmly within the Christian tradition, merely reversing the terms of the southern slaveholders and countering their scriptural interpretations. Yet, as I have suggested, Douglass seems to be aware of the danger of remaining within the institution of Christianity and to realize the need to position himself both inside and outside the system in launching his critique. If one merely works within the system, using its terms (even if attempting to realign them) to critique the system, one runs the risk of co-optation.

Douglass suggests his awareness of these dangers in describing two important events. The first occurs while he is under the employment of Mr. Freeland and is successful in uniting with a community of fellow blacks interested in moral and intellectual advancement. To this end, Douglass and his fellow slaves create a “Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man” in order “to learn how to read the will of God” (89). After several months of religious schooling, Douglass becomes incited with the desire to try for his freedom: “But I was not willing to cherish this determination alone. My fellow-slaves were dear to me. I was anxious to have them participate with me in this, my life-giving determination” (91). Significantly, after gaining their consent, Douglass suggests that they should leave on the Saturday before Easter, reaching the North, and freedom, on the day of Christ's resurrection (93). If Douglass merely operates within the institution of Christianity in his Narrative as Carson and Zeitz suggest, then this plan, which originates from Douglass's religious union with other slaves and is to be instigated on the Easter holidays, should, ultimately, be depicted positively. Yet Douglass and his fellow slaves are eventually betrayed, captured and imprisoned; instead of a holy resurrection, the slaves find themselves cast into the very pit of hell and made all too aware of their status: “We had been in jail scarcely twenty minutes, when a swarm of slave traders, and agents for slave traders, flocked into jail to look at us, and to ascertain if we were for sale. Such a set of beings I never saw before! I felt myself surrounded by so many fiends from perdition” (98).

Douglass later reinforces the idea that operating within the institution of Christianity leads not to freedom but rather to deeper enslavement. In 1838, while living with Hugh Auld, Douglass determines to “try to hire my time, with a view of getting money with which to make my escape” (107). He applies to his master, Thomas Auld, who refuses his request, advising Douglass “to complete thoughtlessness of the future” (107). Douglass's determination, nevertheless, does not waver, and he next applies to Hugh Auld. While Hugh at first denies Douglass this privilege, he later realizes that it is to his own economic advantage to allow Douglass to hire his time, and so he grants him the right to contract his labor under certain terms, including the contingency that Douglass must pay a set fee at the end of each week. Again Douglass is making a move towards freedom, but his plan fails when, one Saturday evening, he fails to pay Hugh Auld for his week's work. The reason for his failure, I think, is significant: “This failure was occasioned by my attending a camp meeting about ten miles from Baltimore. During the week, I had entered into an engagement with a number of young friends to start from Baltimore to the camp ground early Saturday evening; and being detained by my employer, I was unable to get down to Master Hugh's without disappointing the company” (108-9). Douglass here reiterates the way in which institutionalized religion co-opts the slave; in describing how his attendance at a camp meeting (and his fellow slaves' attendance, the idea of community is significant) leads to the loss of privileges, and thus the chance at freedom, he reasserts his awareness that he cannot merely operate within the circle of American Christianity to challenge the slave system.

After several chapters which carefully delineate the life of a plantation slave, chapters which set up an antithesis to the life and identity that will be established in the remainder of the Narrative, Douglass concludes on a pious note: “From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise” (47). Douglass's direct and private application to God suggests his realization of the need to offer an alternate ethical system to the institutionalized Christianity of America. Indeed, the very next chapter, in which he begins his journey towards freedom, incipiently outlines such an alternate system. In describing Sophia Auld, Douglass notes that she “proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door,—a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living … by constant application to her business, she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery” (48).

Sophia Auld's role is significant not only because of her willingness and ability to relate to Douglass with affection and kindness but also because of her willingness to teach Douglass how to read and write (49). In direct contrast to the depictions of the ultimate outcomes of the fellowships established in Douglass's Sabbath school and journey to the camp meeting, his depiction of the efficacy of his kind mistress privately and affectionately teaching him his letters cannot be mistaken: “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 the least expected it” (49). Douglass here suggests that, in order to challenge the system of slavery, a system which blights the soul and dehumanizes both the master and the slave, one must act privately and industriously with “the kindest heart and finest feelings.” Asserting the role of private sentiment in an ethical stance which openly declares the immoral nature of the institution of slavery (and, by extension, the institution of religion), Douglass begins his counter critique of slavery with one foot outside the system.

But Douglass is aware of the possible inefficacy of the private sphere. Immediately after commencing to teach Douglass his letters, Sophia Auld is interrupted by her husband: “Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read” (49). Douglass's description of Hugh Auld's re-assertion of power, a power that ultimately derives from the public sphere, the marketplace (Hugh Auld goes on to explain to his wife that literacy will make a slave discontent with his situation and thus ruin him), suggests Douglass's awareness of the nineteenth-century debate over the roles of the private and public sphere, a debate paramount to a novel like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.4 In discussing this novel, Jane P. Tompkins argues that its moral force derives from the transformative force of the domestic sphere. Tompkins argues that “the popular domestic novel of the nineteenth century [and Uncle Tom's Cabin is “the summa theologica” of such novels] represents a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view,” offering a critique of American society and American institutions more radical than that offered by so-called high art (83).

Building on Tompkins' work, several other critics, including especially Amy Schrager Lang and Gillian Brown, concentrate on the dilemmas facing Stowe in her use of the domestic sphere as a transformative power to radically alter the conventions of her society. For instance, Lang suggests that Stowe's attempt to invest the “tearful prayers of women” with any political power should be viewed controversially, for women, in Stowe's domestic economy, did not hold the requisite public role to exhibit such a power; consequently, Stowe must create a male character, in the form of Augustine St. Clare, who combines “the knowledge and power of men with the goodness of women and thus … bridge[s] the gap between private feeling and public action …” (34). But St. Clare dies before he can act on these “private feelings,” suggesting that Stowe's form (and the social relations which invest that form) were incapable of positing a real solution to the problem of slavery. Gillian Brown, in Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America, argues that Stowe's primary concern is the critique and reform of the very domesticity that she adheres to in order to alter the patriarchal society which informs the novel (and Stowe's world). Brown suggests that Stowe invests matriarchy with a transformative power through an advancement of what she calls “a feminized ethic of possession,” one based not on the marketplace (where masculine desires, never fulfilled, create chaos and instability, even in the domestic sphere) but on maternal self-denial (30-31).

Indeed, Douglass, too, suggests the possibility that private feelings will have no effect on the public institution of slavery. In the very next chapter, after Sophia Auld, urged by her husband, has quit teaching Douglass his letters, Douglass describes her moral degeneracy: “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. … Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness” (52-53). Yet, significantly, at the very end of the Narrative, just before Douglass successfully escapes, Sophia Auld returns to her original, kind self. After receiving an unjust beating at Gardner's ship-yard, Douglass finds his way home and recounts his story to Hugh Auld:

irreligious as he was, his conduct was heavenly. … He listened attentively to my narration of the circumstances leading to the savage outrage, and gave many proofs of his strong indignation at it. The heart of my once overkind mistress was again melted into pity. My puffed-out eye and blood-covered face moved her to tears. She took a chair by me, washed the blood from my face, and, with a mother's tenderness, bound up my head, covering the wounded eye with a lean piece of fresh beef. It was almost compensation for my suffering to witness, once more, a manifestation of kindness from this, my once affectionate old mistress. Master Hugh was very much enraged. He gave expression to his feelings by pouring out curses upon the heads of those who did the deed.


Douglass emphasizes here that the Auld's were “irreligious” yet “pious,” suggesting a contrast between an institutionalized approach to slaves as mere chattel and a privatized approach to slaves as human beings who deserve and require affection and kindness.

While the Aulds may not offer any systemic challenge to the institution of slavery, they do offer Douglass the awareness that he is a human being, an awareness that is founded on a private, emotional response and is central to both a literal and a figural attempt to establish an identity and attain freedom. Douglass reiterates the importance of private sentiment to his ethical stance in the penultimate chapter of the Narrative. The section describing the fight with Covey begins with Douglass's all important chiasmus: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (77). Before Covey confronts him, however, Douglass privately meets with Sandy Jenkins in the woods, who “very kindly invited [Douglass] to go home with him” (80). Sandy advises Douglass to return home to Covey, but before going, he offers him a root which “would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man,” to whip him (80). As Douglass notes later during his fight with Covey, some spiritual force guides him and gives him the strength to resist Covey's inhumane treatment. Unlike the Sabbath school and camp-meeting incidents, not only does Douglass here go it alone, without the help of the other slaves, but he also finds support from outside Christianity.

Douglass concludes, of this incident: “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free” (82-83). Significantly, after this completely secular depiction of this central episode, he returns to religious imagery, suggesting his position both inside and outside the Christian religion: “It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom” (83). Indeed, such a balancing act occurs throughout the Narrative, suggesting Douglass's ethical stance as one which straddles two positions. After describing Mr. Freeland as a man who “made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion,” Douglass counterpoints with his depictions of the two Methodist ministers, Reverend Weeden and Reverend Hopkins. Yet it is while Douglass is in the employment of Mr. Freeland, a man with no religious convictions, that Douglass begins his Sabbath school among the slaves.

As an escaped slave and a black man in a predominantly white society, Douglass had good reason to distrust any and all public institutions. In discussing the North's attempt to aid escaped slaves near the conclusion of the Narrative, Douglass notes: “I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad” (106). Understanding that the institution of Christianity in America easily co-opted, and thus disempowered, the slave, Douglass realized the need to posit a private ethics in order to mount a real challenge to the institution of slavery. Indeed, the text of the Narrative itself is such a private stance: as an autobiography it presents the private feelings and experiences of a slave to a private reader in hopes of affecting his or her affections and thus altering his or her attitude towards slavery. Douglass's last paragraph reads: “Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds—faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts—and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause,—I subscribe myself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS” (126).

Douglass's Narrative thus “exploit[s] the natural focus of autobiography upon private experience and the single self” (Stone 64) in order to define a position both inside and outside the religious institutions which at once offered him freedom and enslavement. In counterpointing the (im)morality of the Christian religion with the ethics of a privatized sentiment, Douglass defines an ethical stance which cannot be co-opted by the Protestant religion of nineteenth-century America. Such a stance, centering on the efficacy of individual feelings and emotions, is derived largely from the sentimental and domestic ethics of the women's movement in the nineteenth century and is offered to critique both the institution of slavery and the institution of religion.

Like the question of literacy, where Douglass opposes the antitheses of violence and language in order to effectively master the hegemonic discourse in which he must, necessarily, labor, the question of ethics and morality opposes the antitheses of private sentiment and the Christian religion in order to constitute a new ethical stance. In the Narrative, Douglass demonstrates his recognition of the significance of attaining this position, a position on the margins where the disenfranchised black author has the ability to stand both inside and outside the institutions that he must critique but that have the power to co-opt that critique. In describing the slave songs that echoed in the old woods around the Great House, songs which revealed “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” and which sometimes explored “the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone,” Douglass notes: “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear” (31). Douglass admits that existence within the circle circumscribes one's understanding (and thus one's ability to effect change), yet merely existing outside of the circle does not guarantee a clear comprehension of the meaning of slavery. As Douglass explains, Northerners also fail to read properly the meaning of these songs (32). Douglass thus implies that only that person who exists both inside and outside the institution of slavery can fully understand, and thus properly critique, its cruel and dehumanizing nature.


  1. One other position might be mentioned, that of Donald Gibson who claims that Frederick Douglass ultimately situates himself outside of the question of religiosity in analyzing and critiquing the institution of slavery. According to Gibson, “Douglass saw that both proslavery and antislavery forces where [sic] busy using God for their own purposes, and that if God is responsible for whatever deliverance occurs, then He is also responsible for whatever deliverance does not occur. So, rather than saying that God supports or opposes slavery, Douglass said that He has nothing to do with it, except as His presence is made manifest in righteous human action” (94). While Gibson's claims are astutely supported with biographical and cultural contexts, he fails to explain where the moral or ethical critique of slavery originates if it does not originate in some mode or form of Christianity. Furthermore, as both Carson and Zeitz clearly demonstrate, Douglass's Narrative does not exist completely outside of Christianity as Gibson suggests.

  2. See also Willie Lee Rose, Slavery and Freedom and Lester B. Scherer, Slavery and the Churches in Early America, 1619-1819.

  3. For a discussion of the historical background to this debate, as well as to Fuller's and Douglass's position in relation to that debate, see Steven Mailloux. As Mailloux notes, it is Fuller's position both inside and outside the institution of Christianity that allows her to level an effective critique of the Southern position. See also The Bible Against Slavery: or, an Inquiry into the Genius of the Mosaic System, and the Teachings of the Old Testament on the Subject of Human Rights; originally published in the 1830s and revised during the Civil War, this text analyzes the development of the use of scripture to support slavery.

  4. Douglass's role within the women's rights movement is well known. Not only did Douglass attend the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, but he was instrumental in asserting the necessity of women's suffrage to change the system, what might be read as an insertion of the private into the public sphere.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L., ed. Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Andrews, William L. Introduction. Andrews, Critical Essays 1-17.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. “Autobiographical Acts and the Voice of the Southern Slave.” Andrews, Critical Essays 94-107.

The Bible Against Slavery: or, an Inquiry into the Genius of the Mosaic System, and the Teachings of the Old Testament on the Subject of Human Rights. 1864. Detroit: Negro History Press, 1970.

Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Carson, Sharon. “Shaking the Foundation: Liberation Theology in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.Religion and Literature 24 (Summer 1992): 19-34.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. New York: Signet, 1968.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Binary Oppositions in Chapter One of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave Written by Himself.” Andrews, Critical Essays 79-93.

Gibson, Donald. “Faith, Doubt, and Apostasy: Evidence of Things Unseen in Frederick Douglass's Narrative.Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 84-98.

Harding, Vincent. There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Hedin, Raymond. “Strategies of Form in the American Slave Narrative.” The Art of the Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Eds. John Sekora and Darwin T. Turner. N.p.: Western Illinois University, 1982. 25-35.

Kibbey, Ann and Michele Stepto. “The Antilanguage of Slavery: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative.” Andrews, Critical Essays 166-91.

Lang, Amy Schrager. “Slavery and Sentimentalism: The Strange Career of Augustine St. Clare.” Women's Studies 12 (1986): 31-54.

Mailloux, Steven. “Misreading as a Historical Act: Cultural Rhetoric, Bible Politics, and Fuller's 1845 Review of Douglass's Narrative.Readers in History: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Contexts of Response. Ed. James L. Machor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. 3-31.

Moses, Wilson J. “Writing Freely? Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing.” Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 66-83.

Rose, Willie Lee. Slavery and Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Scherer, Lester B. Slavery and the Churches in Early America, 1619-1819. Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1975.

Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Stone, Albert E. “Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass's Narrative.” Andrews, Critical Essays 62-78.

Tompkins, Jane P. “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.” The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 81-104.

Zeitz, Lisa Margaret. “Biblical Allusion and Imagery in Frederick Douglass's Narrative.College Language Association Journal 25 (September 1981): 56-64.

Ziolkowski, Thad. “Antitheses: The Dialectic of Violence and Literacy in Frederick Douglass's Narrative of 1845.” Andrews, Critical Essays 148-65.

Lisa Sisco (essay date September 1995)

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SOURCE: Sisco, Lisa. “‘Writing in the Spaces Left’: Literacy as a Process of Becoming in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass.” American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 3 (September 1995): 195-227.

[In the following essay, Sisco discusses Douglass's ambivalent feelings towards literacy, and his struggle to find an acceptable narrative voice in his works. Sisco also examines Douglass's search for a new identity in post-Civil War America.]

In a vague, sentimental way, we love books inordinately, even though we do not know how to read them, for we know that books are the gateway to the forbidden world. Any black man who can read a book is a hero to us. And we are joyful when we hear a black man speak like a book. The people who say how the world is run, who have fires in winter, who wear warm clothes, who get enough to eat, are the people who make books speak to them.

—Richard Wright, Twelve Million Black Voices

Chapter VI of Frederick Douglass's 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, opens with a scene of literacy instruction: the young Douglass is being taught to read by his mistress Sophia Auld, but he is interrupted by his master. Hugh Auld warns his wife that it is:

unlawful as well as unsafe to teach a slave to read … If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world … it would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.


Auld's vehement efforts to deny access to literacy provide Douglass with a profound insight as to literacy's power in the eyes of his slavemaster. This scene of instruction is cut short, but Douglass has seen enough to remark: “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement and I prized it highly. From that moment on, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (275).

Douglass's comments here seem pretty straightforward. He appears to be arguing that in the denial of literacy lay the “white man's power to enslave the black man”; that literacy was the “pathway from slavery to freedom.” Indeed, an entire tradition of scholarship has explored the link between literacy and freedom in the narrative of the slave. Henry Louis Gates Jr., has thoroughly documented the origins of this relationship between literacy and freedom by showing that in the writings of “great” thinkers of the European Enlightenment—among them Kant, Hume, and Hegel—illiteracy was the basis for arguing that slaves were subhuman, since man's capacity for reason (as reflected in literacy) was the ultimate means of differentiating him from the beasts. For slaves like Douglass, becoming literate was the most powerful way to prove they were human. In Gates's words, literacy was not a skill, it “was a commodity [slaves] were forced to trade for their humanity” (The Slave's Narrative xxviii).

But while Douglass's words seem to provide clear evidence of this tradition of linking literacy with freedom in slave narratives, it is important to remember that these are supposedly the thoughts of a pre-literate slave (as represented by a highly literate ex-slave). In other words, as a character within the narrative Douglass argues most forcefully for literacy as the pathway to freedom before he is actually literate; before he has any personal experience with reading and writing; before he has even acquired the skills. He is attracted to an abstract ideal of literacy before he has any familiarity with its actual practice. Once he has acquired the skills and begins reading, Douglass's attitude is pulled by contradictory impulses. He is no longer sure literacy leads to freedom but instead feels his ability to read is a “curse” as well as a “blessing.” In fact, when Douglass attempts to use his literacy to escape, by writing passes for himself and his friends, he is literally jailed, even further imprisoned by his belief that literacy alone can provide a pathway to freedom.

In this scene with Mrs. Auld, Douglass's strong desire to learn to read and write arises out of the fact that literacy is denied to him by Auld (and by laws in some southern states against teaching slaves to read or write), not because Douglass has any firsthand knowledge or experience of literacy's power to help him gain freedom at that point in the narrative. Douglass seems drawn to literacy because Auld's words indicate that it “would forever unfit him to be a slave,” which is precisely what Douglass wants: to be recognized as a human being, unfit for slavery. Douglass understands that literacy can provide the power to re-define relationships of authority. He clearly states his desire to oppose his master Auld, from which emerges a desire for literacy:

What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire to learn.


Douglass's primary sense of literacy's benefits comes from Auld's assessment of its power. In fact, Douglass claims that it was the vehemence with which Auld “impressed his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction that served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read” (275). In this pre-literate stage, Douglass accepts an ideology of literacy put forth by Auld, one which rests upon the binary oppositions of slave/master, freedom/enslavement, human/subhuman, literate/illiterate. Aware that Auld uses literacy as a means to assert superiority over his slaves, Douglass plans himself to change his own position among these binary oppositions by using literacy to assert power over his master. He appears to take great pleasure in simultaneously agreeing with and subverting Auld's assessment of literacy's power when he explains to his readers, echoing the words of his master, that his “Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” (277).

In a sense, Douglass's response to Auld's understanding of literacy is what Mikhail Bakhtin characterizes as an individual's struggle with “authoritative discourse,” which Bakhtin describes as the word which is “indissolubly fused with authority—or political power, an institution, or a person … It is, so to speak, the word of the fathers. Its authority is already acknowledged in the past. It is a prior discourse … It is akin to taboo” (342). Taboo is precisely what literacy is to the slave. It is literacy's embodiment of the authority of the white man and of the institution of slavery which Douglass both resists and embraces in this initial pre-literate stage.

I describe Douglass as being pre-literate in the above early scene because I want to differentiate his literacy in this initial stage—as a struggle with “authoritative discourse”—from later stages, in a developing consciousness of literacy which emerges throughout the narrative.1 Literacy is not a monolithic thing for Douglass; it is not simply a skill that he has or doesn't have. Instead Douglass's story shows us that, to borrow a way of thinking about literacy from Cathy Davidson, “literacy is a process, not a fixed point or a line of demarcation. ‘Literateness’ is a more useful term … since it suggests a continuum (and a continuing process of education and self-education) between, say, rudimentary reading and elementary ciphering, on the one hand, and the sophisticated use of literacy for one's material, intellectual, and political advantage, on the other” (Revolution 60-61). The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave chronicles Douglass's process of maturing “literateness” which includes a continual reworking of the binary oppositions set up by the culture of slavery.

Bakhtin's discussion of the individual's struggle with language can help us to understand this process of becoming literate, of struggling with language. “Language” or, in the case of Douglass, literacy “is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intention; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process” (294). It is this process of increasing “literateness,” of forcing literacy to submit to the intentions and experiences of the slave, which Douglass dramatizes throughout the narrative. Bakhtin describes this as an “ideological process of becoming,” which is characterized by a sharp gap between Auld's “authoritative discourse” and Douglass's “internally persuasive discourse.” Bakhtin describes internally persuasive discourse as language “that is denied all privilege, backed up by no authority at all and is frequently not even acknowledged in society … not even in the legal code” (342). Certainly this definition fits slave literacy—without privilege, denied by law, unacknowledged in society. For Bakhtin, “the struggle and dialogic interrelationship of these categories of ideological discourse are what usually determine the history of an individual ideological consciousness” (342). Similarly, for Douglass, his narrative dramatizes the process by which he reconfigures the authoritative discourse of the institution of slavery. In this “process of becoming,” as I call it, Douglass begins by internalizing slavery's ideology of literacy, but he ultimately transforms that authoritative discourse with the internally persuasive voice of slave experience and African spirituality.

Once he learns to read, Douglass's conceptions of his own literacy become more complex, as evident in his paradoxical response to reading a dialogue between slave and master in “The Columbian Orator” which “resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave by his master” (279) and a speech by Sheridan about Catholic emancipation which was “a bold denunciation of slavery and a powerful vindication of human right” (278). Douglass explains that this

reading enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery, but while [it] relieved me of one difficulty, [it] brought on another more painful. The more I read, the more I was led to detest my enslavers … As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing [emphasis added]. It had given me a new view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It had opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness.


Houston Baker argues that “Douglass grasps language in a Promethean act of will but leaves unexamined its potentially devastating effects” (“Autobiographical Acts” 251). But Douglass's words here do account for literacy's many paradoxes, including its capacity to simultaneously empower and imprison, to “bless” and to “curse.” Ironically, at the very same moment that Douglass's position in the “horrible pit” “enables” him to understand his enslaved condition, it gives no “remedy” to his pain. The experience of reading provides Douglass with the language to argue on an intellectual and moral basis against slavery, but those arguments are useless in freeing him from his own horrible reality. Even if he could present the arguments against slavery to master Auld, it would not change his identity as a slave. (What ultimately does change his reality as a slave, as I will argue below, is Douglass's ability to redefine literacy by infusing the written word with the power of the spirit.) At this moment, Douglass realizes that ironically, literacy has only further enslaved him, has come to “torment [his] soul to unutterable anguish” (288) by providing him with terrifying knowledge of his condition but not physical freedom. His experience of reading fulfilled Auld's promise that learning “would make [the slave] discontented and unhappy” (275). Douglass explains that once he learned to read “freedom now appeared to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition … I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead” (279).

Nearly paralyzed by this initial reading experience, Douglass is unsure about what literacy can offer the slave beyond a tormenting knowledge of freedom. His experience of reading both subverts and reinforces his sense of the freedom/enslavement dichotomy. But even though his experience with literacy is difficult, that doesn't interfere with the fact that Douglass still wants to read and to learn to write, nor with the fact that these desires are always connected with a search for freedom from bondage. Upon learning about abolition, Douglass focuses on his desire to escape to the North and believes that being able to write his own pass will lead him to freedom. His dramatization of learning to write, against the opposition of his master, shows Douglass developing an increasingly sophisticated understanding of literacy, which permeates beyond Auld's binary oppositions. Chapter VII's boatyard scene, discussed below, which dramatizes Douglass's process of learning to read, reveals that literacy exists in many varying capacities in the rich interstices between and around freedom and enslavement, in marginal spaces free from such confining structures and ideologies. Douglass comes to understand a “heteroglossia” of literacy, which, in Bakhtin's words

enters a dialogically agitated and tension filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group … brush[es] up against thousands of living dialogic threads woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in the social dialogue.


Douglass's ability to survive in a slave system which rests on the many incompatible truths of slave and master prepares him to ultimately accept literacy's paradoxes, to live and even thrive amid a “tension-filled environment” full of a seemingly endless multiplicity of truths about literacy co-existing.

It is this multiplicity of shifting possibilities for literateness which seems unacknowledged in our histories and theories of the subject. Much that has been written about literacy and its role in the slave narrative seems intent on arguing in the terms of Auld's binary oppositions, claiming that literacy either does or doesn't represent freedom. Scholars qualify literacy discussions to a particular time and place, since the meaning and ideology of literacy shift among cultures. But Frederick Douglass's narrative tells us that for the slave, so many opposing ideologies and cultures of literacy existed simultaneously in antebellum America, that it is impossible to permanently sort them out in any meaningful way. At the very moment one makes the claim that literacy leads to freedom for the slave, evidence of literacy's role in the further enslavement of blacks becomes obvious, as Douglass's experiences repeatedly show us. Douglass's response to this multiplicity of meanings is to constantly shift his perspective on literacy, to melt into the heteroglossia, to maneuver his point of view both inside and “outside the circle” of southern culture, and to literally and metaphorically acquire his literacy from a hidden position in the margins where he takes advantage of literacy's paradoxical potentials. Douglass's most important insight is that the binary oppositions of literacy set up by the culture of slavery are both true and false simultaneously; he then sets out to take advantage of that insight.

Douglass refers to two important moments of liminality in the narrative, that of being “outside the circle” of the slave songs and of writing “in the spaces left” of his young master's copying book. These liminal points, one of reading or interpretation and one of writing, serve as spatial metaphors for the fluidity of Douglass's process of defining and/or transcending the meaning of literacy in slave culture. William L. Andrews has discussed the issue of liminality in Afro-American fiction, explaining that interstitial autobiographers “depict themselves as ‘betwixt and between’ standard identifying classifications and norms … In the cracks and crevices of the social hierarchy, the interstitial figure creates his own fluid status and unlikely freedom … Such figures mediate and often reverse the binary oppositions between the hierarchical states to which they are marginal” (To Tell 173). The resulting position of liminality, explains Andrews, acts as “a condition of psycholiterary freedom” (179). Andrews believes that the autobiographical act itself allows escaped slaves to “affirm their liminality as a ‘potentializing’ phase in which indeterminacy signifies a host of possibilities, not simply a loss of center” (202).2 Chapter VII details the drama of learning to write, a drama involving literal and metaphorical levels of accommodation, subterfuge, antagonism, direct imitation, and ultimately self-insertion in the margins of the “authoritative discourse” of a southern ideology of literacy. Douglass moves quite fluidly among these different postures, each of which embraces an alternative discourse of literacy.

In a rather deconstructive insight, Frederick Douglass sees that whenever literacy is used for a particular purpose by whites, there is at that very same moment a whole host of “spaces left” for literacy to be also performing other functions. Increasingly aware of those spaces, Douglass manages to exploit their rich potential. Whites using literacy for one purpose are at that very moment ignoring all sorts of other possibilities. As illustrated in the discussion that follows, Douglass uses this knowledge to his advantage by constantly practicing a kind of sleight of hand (or trickery) reminiscent of African trickster tales. For example, he takes letters used by whites for solely utilitarian purpose (to identify pieces of wood in a boatyard) and transforms that use of literacy into a sophisticated political act. Douglass knows that literacy is a technology by which one group asserts control or status over another, so he exploits that capacity of literacy when antagonizing white boys, who only see in his taunts a way to use literacy to show their superiority over Douglass. As I will show, the white boys are incapable at that moment of seeing into “the spaces left,” which is why Douglass is successful in learning from them. He turns moments of literacy's potential oppression into moments of control and self-education; “in the spaces left” by the white boys' efforts to prove their superiority is the unseen opportunity for Douglass to learn to write. In this more sophisticated stage of his literacy education, Douglass constantly shifts the meanings of the literacy situation, setting up for his white enslavers a utilitarian use of literacy and working in the margins for his own benefits. The scenes dramatizing Douglass's learning to write in Chapter VII are interstitial representations of literacy which shift according to the circumstances.

Significantly, Douglass's scenes of literacy acquisition also occur on geographical borderlands, between north and south, between land and sea, in the port of Baltimore. “The idea as to how I might learn to write,” he says, “was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey's shipyard” (280). Moreover, the ships represent hope and possibility for Douglass because they provide a potential means of escape from the South, yet ships were also used to facilitate the slave trade. In addition, the shipyard is the place Douglass later returns to in the narrative when he works as a caulker, calling it his “school.” This parallel acquisition of literacy and the learning of a marketable skill in the boatyard also implies a correlation between literacy and economic empowerment for Douglass. Douglass is by no means free from slavery in the boatyard, but he is separated from the relative oppression of southern plantation culture and he does earn an income while working among “many … black carpenters [who] were freemen” (312). He explains his manner of learning to write as follows:

[T]he ship carpenters, after hewing, and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the starboard side, it would be marked thus—“S.” A piece for the larboard side forward, would be marked thus—“L.F.” When a piece was for starboard side forward, it would be marked thus—“S.F.” For larboard aft, it would be marked thus—“L.A.” For starboard aft, it would be marked thus—“S.A.” I soon learned the names of these letters and for what they were intended when placed on a piece of timber in the shipyard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time, was able to make the four letters named.


On the body of ships which both represent freedom and facilitate slavery, literacy is used by shipbuilders for a purely utilitarian purpose, to identify ship parts. But Frederick Douglass sees “in the spaces” left by this functional use of literacy, the opportunity to transform the shipyard into a scene of self-education and an act of political resistance. The white men are unaware of the way that Douglass, who has been denied access to letters, reconfigures this experience of literacy for his own benefit while simultaneously pretending to blithely accept literacy's benign utilitarian capacity.

In the second stage of this scene of learning to write, Douglass takes advantage of the antagonism whites feel for him as a slave. He understands the way that literacy, as a form of knowledge, signals a kind of mental superiority for whites over illiterate blacks. He exploits the implications of this superiority by turning literacy into a competition designed to feed the ego of “any white boy who [he] knew could write” (281). Douglass explains:

I would tell [the white boy] I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don't believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way.


What masquerades as a literacy competition is actually a lesson in literacy, with the white boy entirely unaware of his role as teacher. Douglass is successful because he has the ability to identify white control of literacy as oppressive and to simultaneously use that desire for control as the white boy's Achilles' heel. He subverts the ethic of competition essential to the prevailing ideology of white manhood and to the growth of capitalism. This activity is akin to stealing, but really Douglass does not steal his knowledge of letters from his white teachers; they are simply unaware of the value of what they freely give to him. He is handed an education by those who, at that moment, see literacy only in a narrow framework of competition—entirely unrelated to the passing on of knowledge.

All of these scenes of literacy acquisition are performed outside of the Auld household, in the open air free from the institutional space of slavery and the white accouterments of literacy. “During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I mainly learned how to write” (281). Douglass thus emerges as a literate individual in the marginal spaces between the world sanctioned by slavery and an alternative space of his own making free from its oppressive limitations. His moments of literacy in the boatyard and in the neighborhood are physically free from the hierarchy of slavery inside the Auld household (where he was initially admonished from acquiring literacy) and, because always shifting into the “spaces left,” also metaphorically free from the slaveholder's particular ideology of literacy. These scenes capture what Bakhtin calls a “double-voicedness” in that Douglass simultaneously acknowledges both the “authoritative discourse” of the institution of slavery and his own “internally persuasive discourse” about literacy. This conception of language is especially relevant to writers like Douglass, who are caught between conflicting worlds. W. E. B. Dubois's conception of the “double consciousness” experienced by African-Americans is similar to Bakhtin's idea about language.

Douglass achieves the ability to write in a state of fluidity, of acknowledged heteroglossia, always maneuvering to fit himself into “the spaces left” by his white enslavers. An essential part of this process of learning to write is the act of copying. As Douglass explains:

I then commenced and continued copying the Italics in Webster's Spelling Book, until I would make them all without looking at the book. By this time, my little Master Thomas had gone to school and learned how to write, and had written over a number of copying books. These had been brought home, and shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid aside. My mistress used to go to class meeting at Wilk Street meeting-house every Monday afternoon, and leave me to take care of the house. When left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas's copy-book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write in a hand very similar to Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write.


In many ways, Douglass's acquisition of literacy is a series of acts of resistance, because his master and the southern legal code specifically say he shouldn't be taught to read or write. But at the same time that Douglass opposes Auld, he is also copying his young master's hand, imitating his style, writing “in a hand very similar to Master Thomas.” Douglass's handwriting, the unique mark of literacy, always bears the trace of his unwitting teachers and enslavers.

Douglass's ephemeral acts of writing on the wall with chalk call forth the image of Christ writing in the sand in the gospel of St. John. In this story Christ revises the written law which condemns the woman adulterer, challenging those among her without sin to throw the first stone. In doing so, Christ privileges the spirit of the law over the written word of the law, and he does so by writing with his finger in the dust, the authority of which is as ephemeral as the spoken word. Christ explains that “the written word kills but the spirit gives life (2 Corinthians, 3.1-6).

It is precisely this ability to differentiate between the spirit and the word, between literacy and orality, which guides Frederick Douglass to his most effective means of coming to ideological consciousness and of transcending the experience of slavery. The first step in this experience of relative freedom involves Douglass's repeated critique of the limitations of Christian literacy which illustrates a kind of “second sight” which allows him to step outside the bounds of slave culture to critique literacy as a system of representation by showing how thoroughly literacy has been corrupted by slavery's perpetuation of a “system of fraud” (301). A constant strain throughout the narrative reminds the reader that slavery corrupts language to such an extent that it frequently has little representative capacity or any connection to truth or reality. Words have lost their power in a culture which allows hypocritical slavemasters to manipulate language to justify acts of oppression.

A specific case of slavery's corruption of language is religious literacy. Particularly in his Appendix, Douglass argues that religious doctrine uses the text of the Bible as a means of hiding reality, of misrepresenting truth. Religion, particularly the text of Scripture, “is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection” (301). Calling the South a land of Christianity is, for Douglass, “the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels, … I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me” (326).3 Douglass can offer this critique because his own “literateness” has matured to the point where he can step “outside the circle” of southern religious culture in order to “read” it truthfully and comment on its failings. Steven Mailloux argues that Douglass's identity as an escaped slave provides him a different locus of interpretation than those outside or inside the circle of slavery because his acts of reading slavery occur from both positions simultaneously. “Douglass does identify two positions from which the slave songs can be read: from inside the slave's experience and from outside that viewpoint. … However, Douglass actually represents himself as occupying a third position which is neither insider nor outsider but a combination of the two … Only interpreters occupying the subject position of fugitive slave can correctly read the slave's song” (9-10). To develop further along the literacy continuum, one needs the distance that Douglass has from this experience to provide an authoritative reading.

The section of the narrative which tells the story of Douglass's captivity on Mr. Covey's farm epitomizes all that is wrong with slavery and the means by which orality can provide some measure of freedom from an oppressive reality in a way that literacy has failed to do up until this point. Covey, to whom Douglass is sent to be “broken in,” has a reputation of extreme hypocrisy: he is “a professor of religion—a pious soul, a member and a class leader in the Methodist church” (289) and a most savage master. “Mr. Covey's forte consisted in his power to deceive. His life was devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deception. Everything he possessed in the shape of learning of religion, he made conform to his disposition to deceive” (292). Covey is thus the human embodiment of hypocrisy, the master of slavery's capacity for misrepresentation and fraud.

While in Covey's possession, when “made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery” (293), Douglass describes himself as least human and most human; in the confines of one chapter he changes from being a “brute” to a “man,” transcending from the lowest moments of his enslavement to the highest. Douglass claims of his time on Covey's plantation: “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man was transformed into a brute” (293). When Douglass equates his humanity with, among other things, his desire to read, he seems to reinforce the literacy-humanity connection explored earlier by Henry Louis Gates, which equated a lack of “intellect” with sub-human status. But while in Covey's possession Douglass reasserts his humanity through two experiences which draw on an oral and spiritual tradition. In the first, Douglass spends a Sunday on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay watching the sailboats and speaks out loud to no one but himself and God: “[T]here, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships” (293). Douglass expresses his utmost grief to the open sea, an oral truth which seems to allow him to transcend his pain and realize that “[t]here is a better day coming” (294). This empowering experience of spirituality prepares Douglass for the following scene, when he becomes immune to Covey's inhuman treatment. Douglass describes this as the time when “the slave was made a man” (294).

After fleeing from a particularly horrible beating by Covey, Douglass is given, by his friend Sandy Jenkins, “a certain root, which if I should take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man to whip me” (297). Douglass's belief in the power of the root seems to represent his acknowledgement of African folklore, which, like his apostrophe to the sea, brings him closest to a sense of freedom and humanity than he has ever had as a slave. It empowers him to act, to fight back against Covey in an epic battle:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood … and inspired within me a determination to be free. He can only understand the deep satisfaction I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom … and I now resolved that, however long I remained a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.


In a comparison to Christ's resurrection from the dead, Douglass achieves from the root a kind of spiritual transcendence. Moreover, his ability to separate the fact from the name of slavery illustrates his power to disregard the name given to him by the institution of slavery and to define himself. He relies on his own internal sense of reality to name his world, which critic Lucinda H. MacKethan reminds us is a metaphor for the state of being free and of “having control … over his own identity” (66). He gains this strength from a belief in the African “root” of his identity as opposed to accepting the definition of his white enslaver. In this, he acknowledges what Dolan Hubbard calls a “doubly rich heritage … [by converting] a tension between black oral tradition and Judeo-Christian texts of moral absolutes” into a new mode of action (19). In this syncretic moment lies his ultimate experience of freedom. As Gayl Jones writes, “to liberate their voices from the often tyrannic frame of another's outlook, many world literatures look to their own folklores, and oral modes for forms, themes, tastes, conceptions of symmetry, time spaces, detail and human values” (192). Douglass is most liberated from Covey's tyranny when he can metaphorically acknowledge the “root” of his African identity, which combines with his faith in a Western Christian tradition to give him strength.

Despite all its associations with freedom, literacy alone doesn't lead to the turning point in Douglass's identity, nor does it provide him the means to assert his own reality and his own humanity. But Douglass's narrative does act to reevaluate the power and function of orality in his life as a slave as the root episode illustrates. Moreover, Douglass's discussion of the songs of slavery early in the narrative anticipates the power of orality to transcend the pain of oppression and to convey truthfully the human condition of slavery, “revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” (262). Upon hearing the sounds of slave songs, Douglass reinforces the ability of orality to capture the deepest emotions and the reality of experience when he claims that “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy could do. … Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains” (263). Even as he himself writes a “testimony against slavery,” Douglass acknowledges the strengths and limitations of both the written word and the power of song, and he seeks to combine them. Simply remembering the sounds of these songs infuses Douglass's writing with an eloquence unmatched in the narrative:

To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. These songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If anyone wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd's plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,—and if he is not impressed, it will be because there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.


In interpreting the meaning of these songs, Douglass uses the spatial metaphor of being “within the circle” of slavery, which he differentiates from the experience of listening to the slave songs outside the circle of slave culture: “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incomprehensible songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see or hear” (263). The songs of slavery are misinterpreted by those “inside the circle” of slavery; uninformed whites hear them as representations of contentment, thereby justifying the system of slavery. It is only in the liminal space, outside the circle of slavery, with a sophisticated critical literacy, a “second sight,” that a true interpretation is possible. The songs are the slave's own language, to which their white enslavers are illiterate, but Douglass needs the distance afforded by his escape from slavery to understand this complexity.

Walter Ong offers a possible explanation for this when he claims that “[f]or an oral culture, learning or knowing means achieving close, empathetic, communal identification with the known … writing [or literacy] separates the knower from the known and thus sets up conditions for ‘objectivity,’ in the sense of personal disengagement or distancing” (44). The kind of analysis offered of the songs by Douglass results from his roots in the oral culture of slavery combined with the distance and objectivity gained in the process of becoming literate. Ong goes on to explain that the kind of self-analysis Douglass offers in this section results from the kind of objectivity and distance afforded by writing (54). Steven Mailloux presents a similar reading of the songs section of the narrative, explaining that “Douglass complicates what counts as the conditions of correct reading by placing himself first inside and then outside the experience of slavery and suggests that it is precisely the history of changing places that … gives [Douglass his rhetorical authority]. Only interpreters occupying the subject position of fugitive slave can correctly read the slaves' songs” (10).

Douglass seems to hint of song as a proprietary language when he describes Covey's attempt to sing. “A very poor singer,” Covey relies on Douglass's help to carry a tune, which Douglass sometimes denied him. “My non-compliance would almost always produce great confusion. To show himself independent of me, [Covey] would start and stagger through his hymn in the most discordant manner” (293). Douglass's refusal to sing for Covey is reminiscent of Auld's denial of literacy instruction to Douglass in Chapter VI; Covey is “illiterate” when it comes to song, and Douglass uses that as a means to assert his own superiority.

Douglass's use of the food metaphor to describe his appetite for reading captures the many complexities of the relationship between slave literacy and orality / aurality. He refers to literacy as food when he trades bread for the lessons he receives from the neighborhood children: “I used to carry bread with me … [which] I used to bestow upon these hungry little urchins, who in return, would give me the more valuable bread of knowledge” (278). In this, and several other instances in the narrative, literacy, like food, gives Douglass sustenance. He craves any kind of written document. For example, he describes the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator as “my food and my drink” (325).

But food and literacy were also frequently denied to slaves in an effort to keep them docile. Unable to read, slaves had their “minds starved by their cruel masters” (304). And to use Douglass's food metaphor, being literate and in bondage was much like being outside the food house at his master's in Baltimore. “A great many times have we poor creatures been nearly perishing with hunger, when food in abundance lay smoldering in the safe and smoke-house” (286). It was also like the experience of hungry slaves outside the finely cultivated garden on Colonel Lloyd's plantation. Tempted by boundless fruits of almost every description, slaves were not allowed to partake of the garden's sustenance; the same held true for a literate slave without freedom. Douglass's sense of being overwhelmed by his reading of The Columbian Orator is similar to the experience of the slave who was forced to eat molasses “until the poor fellow [was] made sick at the mention of it” or the slave who is given more food than he can possibly eat and is compelled by his master “to eat it within a given time” (301). Such treatment was designed to “carry off the rebellious spirit” of the slaves by “disgust[ing] them with freedom” and making them feel that returning to slavery was in fact relative freedom. Douglass expresses this same sentiment about literacy when he claims, after learning to read, that “in moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity” (279).

As if to illustrate the way that literacy could exacerbate his sense of enslavement, Douglass tells of his failed attempt to escape by forging passes for himself and his friends. In this incident, Douglass's literacy has the potential to lead him to freedom but only ends up imprisoning him further. Even before Douglass and his friends get the chance to try to use the forged passes, their plan is discovered. While being brought in for questioning by their masters, Douglass tells his friend Henry to eat the forged pass with his biscuit, lest it be discovered as evidence of their plan. Here, the metaphoric value of literacy as food is subverted, because the literal eating of the pass, the words, is not sustaining but is an acknowledgement of literacy's failure to lead to freedom. At the same time, acts of orality (the rumor Douglass hears) and aurality (the eating of the pass) ensure the men's survival. Moreover, in this instance literacy not only failed to help the men escape, it further imprisoned them and separated Douglass from those friends he loved the most. This punishment also reinforces the power of literacy in the eyes of the master, in that the literate act is the crime for which the punishment is the most severe. At this moment of failed literacy, from his jail cell, Douglass echoes the sentiments felt when he first learned to read: “Covered with gloom, I sunk down to the utmost despair” (311).

Ironically, Douglass's actual escape to freedom in the North is unwritten; it is disconnected from any literate acts. In a move which illustrates literacy's potential to cause harm to good people, and the protective power of oral communication, Douglass consciously remains silent about the particulars of his eventual escape. “I deem it proper to make known my intention not to state all the facts connected with the transaction … [since] such a statement would undoubtedly produce greater vigilance on the part of slaveholders than has existed among them; which would, of course, be the means of guarding a door whereby some dear brother might escape his galling chains” (315). Douglass uses the master's tool of ignorance as a weapon against him. “I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. … Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him” (316). Critic Dana Nelson Salvino claims that this characterization of the white slaveholder shrouded in darkness depicts him as illiterate, a “victim to a system of knowledge from which he is barred. Douglass's description of the unknowing slaveholder captures the very experience of illiteracy in a literate society, one of fear and powerlessness” (151). The decision not to write about his escape indicates that Douglass has moved beyond the idealization of literacy which characterized his pre-literate stage. Here, he succeeds in subverting the opposition between slave and master by putting the white man in the position of being illiterate. But Douglass also acknowledges that literacy and freedom are not necessarily inextricably linked.

Ultimately, Douglass's experiences of literacy alone within the narrative do not afford him with even a semblance of the freedom he experiences in these scenes of orality/aurality. Of course, the scenes depict a more spiritual than physical freedom, but from the way that Douglass talks about his experiences, such transcendence is still empowering for the slave. As Douglass later says in My Bondage and My Freedom, “slaves sing more to make themselves happy than to express their happiness” (100), indicating that the process of singing the songs has the capacity to change the slave's reality. Perhaps the reason for the empowerment experienced by Douglass in all these scenes is that they share one important thing: as a means of self-representation and self-expression, the black speakers are relatively independent of any white audience. The songs, Douglass's words to the sea, even the root folktale, are moments of ideological consciousness “outside the circle” of white oppression, spiritual in their strength because they allow the slave to momentarily transcend an oppressive reality, reminiscent of Homer's standard epithet, “winged words” which, as Walter Ong explains, “suggests evanescence, power and freedom: [oral] words are constantly moving, but by flight, which is a powerful form of movement, and one lifting the flier free of the ordinary, gross, heavy ‘objective’ world” (77). As Gayl Jones reminds us, “musicians use a collection of sounds to communicate to one another things that language cannot adequately convey … feelings and realities; they can more easily create possibilities and transcend audience controversies over definitions of African-American reality” (190). It is precisely this quality of orality to which Douglass's story attests; these are experiential moments not committed to space in the way that literacy commits words to a physical space. For the slave, who is denied control of physical space and who is himself a piece of property, the elusive quality of orality, the fact that it does not leave a trace, makes this oral mode of expression more liberating than literacy which introduces a sense of private ownership and responsibility for words.

The repeated failure of the communicative act between black speakers and their white audiences is evident in scenes scattered throughout the narrative where slaves' efforts to speak their own truths are repeatedly denied or in scenes where slaves are forced to lie or to remain silent according to the demands of their white audience. When two slaves on Colonel Lloyd's plantation, old and young Barney, were unjustly accused by Lloyd of not giving proper attention to the horses in their charge, they were not afforded any opportunity to reply to the accusations. “To all these unjust complaints, no matter how unjust, the slave must never answer a word … When [Colonel Lloyd] spoke, a slave must stand, listen and tremble” (264). Slaves learned that even when they were allowed to speak, they dare not utter the truth, since Colonel Lloyd might trick them into expressing how they felt about their enslavement, and then sell them to a Georgia trader for doing so. Slaves learned to lie in order to protect themselves, leading them to establish “the maxim that a still tongue makes a wise head” (266). Coerced into using language to hide reality in order to protect themselves in the presence of a white audience, slaves instead found their true humanity in moments of spirituality independent of whites.

In the Afterword to From Behind the Veil, his study of Afro-American narrative, Robert B. Stepto reinforces Douglass's assessment of literacy, when he writes that “Afro-American literature has developed as much because of the culture's distrust of literacy as because of his [Douglass's] abiding faith in it” (196). Stepto discusses in detail Douglass's identity as a writer and traces the impetus for the writing (and rewriting) of his autobiography to his relationship with a distrustful white readership, using the paradigm of storytelling. Stepto's argument refers to Douglass's relationship with a white readership as a published author, but his comments are also helpful in understanding Douglass's critique of literacy as a character within the narrative struggling with individual acts of communication in the face of hostile white masters. Stepto explains that “[i]n Afro-American storytelling texts especially, rhetoric and narrative strategy combine time and time again to declare that the principle unreliable factor in the storytelling paradigm is the reader … and that acts of creative communication are fully initiated … when the reader gets ‘told’—or ‘told off’—in such a way that he or she finally begins to hear. It is in this way that most written tales express their distrust, not just of readers, but of the official literate culture in general” (202-3). Douglass's narrative fits Stepto's definition of the Afro-American storytelling text in that, as I have outlined, it expresses its distrust of the “official” southern literate culture, particularly the religious literate culture. There are countless scenes in this narrative, several of which I have mentioned, which illustrate the failure of the communicative act, both written and oral, between the black speaker and his white audience. Douglass's response to this failure as a slave in bondage—in the scenes which illustrate his strongest sense of freedom—is to ignore his white audience, to speak instead to himself and to God, which, in Bakhtin's way of understanding it, is the means by which Douglass “populates [his language] with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention” (222). Ultimately, Douglass identifies moments of reclaiming his humanity not in literacy alone—which was dominated by the rules and intentions of the white audience—but with literate experiences transformed by action and infused with the spirit of an African oral tradition.

Thus far I have limited my discussion to quite a narrow framework, focusing only on Frederick Douglass's experiences of literacy and orality as a character within his 1845 narrative. I now want to widen my scope beyond Douglass's life as a slave to explore the meaning and function of literacy in Douglass's experiences as a published author and a renowned orator in the years after his escape from slavery. I have argued that as Douglass's literateness becomes increasingly sophisticated he manages to transcend the limitations of slave literacy by constantly shifting his perspective and by engaging in acts of literate expression transformed by action and infused with the spirit of orality. These moments of relative freedom frequently occur “outside the circle” of a white audience. But once he becomes a spokesman for the abolitionist movement and a published author and journalist in a racist northern society, Frederick Douglass no longer has the option of transcending a white audience because whites are the very audience he needs to persuade of slavery's horrible injustices. Instead, as the revisions to his narrative illustrate, Douglass continues to synthesize the black oral tradition with his developing literateness. It is in the syncretization of these two systems of representation, which Douglass repeatedly refers to as his “two-pronged instrument,” his own unique version of Bakhtin's “double-voiced discourse,” that he gains his utmost personal power and cultural authority.

As a public speaker and a published writer, Douglass's experience of literacy changes dramatically. He is forced to negotiate his way through a whole host of new concerns, mostly having to do with his relationship to his audience. Houston Baker reminds us that Douglass's 1845 narrative was initially written in response to distrustful whites who doubted the veracity of incidents Douglass narrated in his speeches at abolitionist meetings. The “work was written to prove that the narrator had indeed been a slave” (251). At the same time, in writing the narrative (as in any autobiographical act) Douglass is asserting his identity as a human being and defining himself as a man, not a slave, a very personal and potentially liberating act. Given these two impetuses for his public act of writing, Douglass's experiences of authorship were alternately freeing and enslaving because they simultaneously asserted his humanity and reinforced his identity as a slave.

In addition, as Douglass's literacy becomes a public act, the rhetorical triangle of his literate activity (writer-reader-text) broadens to include the added political dimensions of his sponsors, the Garrisonian abolitionists, and his constituency, the millions of blacks both free and enslaved, on whose behalf he writes. The continuing development of Douglass's literateness, evident in emerging conflicts between him and his sponsor William Lloyd Garrison, from whom he breaks in the 1850's, and Douglass and his constituency (many of whom criticized him for “deserting to the old master class and being a traitor to his race”) are embodied in the various versions of the narrative which Douglass revised throughout his life (436). In the rest of this essay I explore the changing meaning and function of literacy in these texts, and acknowledge the process of revision and the role of orality in Douglass's developing consciousness of literacy. I explore Douglass's shifting definitions of literacy: his understanding of literacy as a system of self-representation (as an autobiographical act) and as an avenue for political representation as he attempts to speak and write for an oppressed people without alienating his white readership. Douglass always occupies a marginal position between a privileged, highly literate white ruling class to whom he writes and a largely illiterate class of blacks for whom he writes.4 This shifting position, evident in Douglass's changing self-definition, is reflected in the revisions of his narrative.

Many scholars have argued that the form of the slave narrative itself is enslaved because of its inextricable link to a white audience and the racist assumptions of those to whom arguments against slavery are being directed. Robert Stepto, for example, points to the existence of “authenticating documents” appended to the beginning of slave narratives by prominent whites which are “at least partially responsible for the narrator's acceptance as historical evidence” (3). These documents attest to the veracity of the narrative, evidence that even the literate slave narrator had little authority without being backed up by the voice of whites who swear the story is indeed the truth. These documents are (to get back to Bakhtin) the “authoritative discourse” of the abolitionist movement. William Andrews argues that all nineteenth-century slave narratives are “enclosed” by the literary forms bequeathed to them by whites. “Formally (at least) the framework relegates the narrator's words to the status of middle … thus creating the impression that the narrative proper is a ‘means’ serving its white audience's ‘ends’” (“Strategies” 25). Douglass's narrative is preceded by a Preface from abolitionist Henry Lloyd Garrison and a letter from lawyer Wendell Phillips. Both Phillips and Garrison assure the readers that “[t]he testimony of Mr. DOUGLASS … is sustained by a cloud of witnesses, whose veracity is unimpeachable” (251). The narrative, says Garrison, “is essentially true in all its statements; nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination” (247).

Ironically, Garrison argues most forcefully for the authenticity of Douglass's written narrative by citing the pathos and stirring eloquence of Douglass's first speech in Nantucket in August 1841. “As a public speaker he excels in pathos, wit, imitation, strength of reasoning, and fluency of language” (247). Furthermore, Garrison says that Douglass was “capable of high attainments as an intellectual and moral being” (246)—the very qualities which define humanity—even though “he was only a piece of property, a beast of burden, a chattel” (246). Here Garrison refers to Douglass's orality to validate his literacy; he equates intellectual capacity with humanity to argue for Douglass's believability. Garrison also points to Douglass's soliloquy on the shore of the Chesapeake as the most eloquent moment in the narrative: “I think the most thrilling [incident] is the description DOUGLASS gives of his feelings, as he stood soliloquizing respecting his fate, and the chances of his one day being a freeman, on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay—viewing the receding vessels as they flew with their white wings before the breeze, and apostrophizing them as animated by the living spirit of freedom. Who can read that passage, and be insensible to its pathos and sublimity?” (249). Douglass wrote in order to authenticate his speech, but Garrison's statement authenticates the written narrative by attesting to Douglass's power as an orator, thus attesting to the “internally persuasive” power of Douglass's preacherly voice.

Houston Baker argues that Douglass's act of writing is further dictated by the language, discourse, and expectations of the white readership. He claims Douglass's style is “indistinguishable from that of the sentimental-romantic oratory that marked the American nineteenth century” and that Douglass is forced to create a version of himself that is “molded by the values of white America” (251). Baker questions whether or not the “self” described in Douglass's narrative is “authentic” because “once literacy has been achieved, the black self … begins to distance itself from the aural-oral community of the slave quarters. … The voice of the unwritten self, once it is subjected to the linguistic codes, literary conventions, and expectations of a white audience, is perhaps never again the authentic black voice of American slavery. It is, rather, the voice of a self transformed by an autobiographical act into a sharer in the general public discourse about slavery.” In essence, Baker believes that Douglass, in using literacy, imprisons himself within the confines of an already established public discourse about slavery. Baker believes that had “there been a separate written black language available, Douglass might have fared better” (251) in terms of making his literacy an act of freedom. Annette Niemtzow agrees, claiming that Douglass's autobiography, “by virtue of its genre, unconsciously pays tribute to a definition of self created by whites … the act of writing itself … helps him to [a] self.. defined by whites … for the word itself posits a concept controlled by whites” (102).

Henry Louis Gates extends this argument further, claiming that language itself is enslaving for all black writers. Gates explains that by playing into the false premise “of the great white Western tradition” that argued writing would bring freedom (from bondage, from racism), blacks accepted a challenge which concealed a trap. This trap is symbolized in the story Gates tells of the 1915 death of Edmond LaForest, a prominent member of the Haitian literary movement LaRonde. LaForest tied a dictionary around his neck and jumped from a bridge to his death, symbolizing the “curious relation of the marginalized writer to the act of writing in a modern language” (Race 13). LaForest's death captures the indentured relationship of the black writer to modern languages since blacks have not been liberated from racism by their writings (12). It is the challenge of the black writer, argues Gates, to “critique this relation of indenture” which is precisely what Douglass does.

Certainly Frederick Douglass's entrance into an already existing discourse about slavery is initially limiting in some respects, but language is not always the “prison house” which critic Wilson J. Moses characterizes it as being for Douglass (70). Instead, language and the genre of the slave narrative serve more as a template for Douglass's acts of writing, which he draws upon as a model, but which he increasingly moves away from as he rewrites and revises the text. There are indications that once Douglass is physically free he does remain enslaved by the language of slavery. For example, when he calls his fellow slaves “stupid” for being unable to read, he echoes the correlation that Henry Louis Gates reminds us was originally made by Immanuel Kant, who equated “black” with “stupid” (Race 11). Even after his escape from slavery, Douglass refers to his state of freedom as being his own master. By calling himself his “own master” Douglass identifies himself in the language of the master-slave relationship, even though he has escaped its bonds.

While I acknowledge the arguments that Douglass is confined by language and the demands of his white audience, Gates and especially Baker and Niemtzow present an oversimplified view of Douglass's relationship to literacy. They represent literacy as a static relationship of bondage and represent the black self as defined by language. To reiterate the claim made earlier, Douglass's literacy is a process by which he comes to terms with the authoritative discourse of the institution of slavery, a process in which he infuses that discourse with the internally persuasive voice of slave experience. Douglass's acts of authorship show us—in opposition to Baker's assessment of the authentic black self—that Douglass's sense of self is a fluid one which emerges through his struggles with literacy as a means of self- and political representation. His relationship to the form of the slave narrative and to the discourse of slavery constantly shifts throughout his career, moving beyond being defined by it, to rewriting the discourse itself, indeed, even rewriting the discourse of history.5

At certain moments, admittedly, Douglass is enslaved by literacy. In the 1845 version of the narrative in the early period of his public life, Douglass is relatively dependent upon the validation of the abolitionists and is limited by the “authoritative discourse” of the abolition movement. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society pays his salary and ensures that his narrative is published. But if we move beyond the 1845 narrative to explore its revisions and if we look at Douglass's changing role in public life, we see a writer who gradually matures in his public literacy and moves away from what Baker and Gates would characterize as literary bondage to an increasingly critical literacy which he uses for political advantage. In the process, Douglass's writing becomes less dependent upon the authentication of whites and ultimately critiques the relation of indenture Gates describes. Moreover, by the time he completes his final revisions of the autobiography in the 1880's, slavery has been abolished and Douglass's writings move beyond the slave narrative form to address the complexity of race relations and the American political consciousness during Reconstruction. By constantly revising his own acts of self-representation and political representation, Douglass eludes the enslaving capacity of literacy for the black writer in much the same way that he wrested control of literacy from the white boys in Durgin and Bailey's shipyard.

This developing sense of self is evident in the changing titles of the narrative, which correspond with the phases of Douglass's public career. From 1841-1845, Douglass was a paid lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The 1845 narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, represents a self defined by slavery. By 1855, Douglass's life has moved beyond his identity as a slave, as evident in the title My Bondage and My Freedom, which indicates a shared emphasis on Douglass identity as a slave and his identity as a free man as well as a shift from object to subject as indicated by the shift from third to first person. In the 1881 narrative, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, his early life as a slave, his escape from bondage, and his history complete, Douglass's life is important, but also important are the “times” in which he lived, indicating that the text moves beyond autobiography into accounts of history. Indeed, Douglass claims that “I have written out my experiences here, not to exhibit my wounds and bruises to awaken and attract sympathy to myself personally, but as part of the history of a profoundly interesting period in American life and progress” (486). Douglass's autobiographical writing is a constant process of redefining and accommodating his multiple selves; the act of revision allows him to acknowledge that fluid process of self-definition and the means by which it merges into political and historical representation.

Initially Douglass accommodates his acts of literacy to meet the demands of his abolitionist supporters and to win the acceptance of a distrustful audience of whites. In describing his life as a slave, he uses textual metaphors to capture the objectification of his experience. When being whipped, he claimed that his master was the “author” of his situation (160) and that the overseer, in whipping slaves, “had written his character on the living parchment of [the slaves'] backs” (177). Once he is freed from slavery, when he becomes a speaker for the abolitionist movement, Douglass describes Garrison as taking him as his “text.” Douglass was introduced in those early years as an orator, “a graduate from the peculiar institution … with [his] diploma written on his back” (359). Douglass was also cautioned against speaking of anything more than his own experiences as a slave or venturing to give any personal opinions on slavery. It was said to him: “Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech then not; 'tis not best that you seem too learned” (362). Moreover, in many of his early speeches, Douglass echoes slavery's definition of him as a piece of property, even as he argues against that definition. For example, in his early years he was introduced to his audience “as a ‘chattel,’—a ‘thing’—’a piece of southern property’—with the assurance that ‘it’ could speak. In fact, he sometimes used the same terminology to refer to himself” (Blassingame l-li).

Douglass's 1855 revision, My Bondage and My Freedom, dramatizes the emergence of his internally persuasive discourse and its growing tension with the authoritative discourse of the abolitionist movement. For example, Douglass explains that in his speeches, abolitionists encouraged him to be himself and tell his story, but he complains that he was no longer content “writing in the spaces left” of texts written by whites: “I could not always obey, for now I was writing 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. … Besides, I was growing, and needed room” (362). Douglass needed the room of his own pages on which to write. Moreover, he begins here to develop his strong pattern of linking literacy with orality, indicating that alone, neither provide sufficient conditions for freedom.

By 1855, the introductions of him as a “thing” which Douglass had earlier embraced became to him “an anathema, smacking of paternalism and racism” (Blassingame li). In essence, Douglass moved beyond his objectification by the abolitionists to a new kind of subjectivity even as they resisted his efforts to grow beyond the bounds of his identity as a slave. As he became more literate, Douglass grew increasingly discontented with a representation of himself only as a slave. “He was tired about all the conjecture of his not having truly been a slave and suggestions that he was not able to write his own speeches. He could damn well read and write; he had been a slave, but slavery had not left him a beast to be displayed; he was not a black dummy manipulated by a white ventriloquist” (Blassingame 113). Douglass moved beyond being Garrison's “text” to authoring his own text.

Douglass's ultimate break with the Garrisonian abolitionists centered around two issues of literacy which reiterate the “thinking and writing” duality mentioned earlier: Douglass's desire to print and edit his own newspaper and his interpretation of the Constitution. Both of these incidents resulted from Douglass's desire to assert his independence both as a writer and as a reader of texts. Upon returning from an extended trip to England, Douglass planned to purchase a press and begin his own newspaper to enter into the public debate about slavery without Garrison's protective arm. Douglass claimed, again using the writing/thinking connection, “I already saw myself wielding my pen, as well as my voice, in the great work of renovating the public mind, and building up a public sentiment which should, at least, send slavery and oppression to the grave, and restore to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the people with whom I had suffered, both as a slave and as a freeman” (392-392). Douglass had some reservations about taking on the role of editor and printer and was opposed vehemently in his efforts by the abolitionists in America for several reasons. He explains: “First, the paper was not needed; secondly it would interfere with my usefulness as a lecturer; thirdly I was better fitted to speak than to write; fourthly the paper could not succeed” (393). Moreover, Douglass feared that his failure with his newspaper might “contribute another proof to the mental and moral deficiencies of my race” (393). His doubts indicate that Douglass was still working with the assumptions about blackness and literacy outlined by Gates. But that didn't stop him. His newspaper, The North Star, later to become Frederick Douglass Paper, proved to be very successful because it acknowledges Douglass's belief that “[o]ur relation to the American people makes us in some sense a peculiar class, and unless we speak separately, our voice is not heard” (484).

In the second issue of literacy underscoring Douglass's developing sense of autonomy, he ultimately broke with Garrison over their differing interpretations of the Constitution. Garrison was committed to the belief that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document and that the union with slaveholding states should be dissolved. As an objection to the union with slaveholding states, the Garrisonians refused to vote. For years Douglass “advocated [this position] with his pen and tongue” (396). But ultimately, in a move which illustrates Douglass's emerging critical literacy, he reconsiders this blind devotion to Garrison's perspective:

[U]pon a reconsideration of the whole subject, I became convinced that there was no need for dissolving the union … that to seek this dissolution was no part of my duty as an abolitionist; that to abstain from voting, was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means of abolishing slavery and that the constitution of the United States not only contains no guarantees in favor of slavery but on the contrary, it is, in its letter and spirit, an antislavery document, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence as the supreme law of the land.


Here, Douglass refuses to give up his power to vote, which is the act of a literate populace. He recognizes that Garrison can afford to give up that literate power precisely because he already possesses it. But Douglass, who has been denied the power to vote, recognizes that the literate act is, for him, essential to his own independent identity. Ultimately, Douglass's change in doctrine hinges on the development and embrace of his literate skills. He had previously assumed the constitution to be just what Garrison's interpretation made it because Douglass had little faith in his own ability to interpret the document:

I was bound, not only by their superior knowledge, to take their opinions as the true ones, in respect to the subject, but also because I had no means of showing their unsoundness. But for the responsibility of conducting a public journal and the necessity imposed upon me by the abolitionists in this state, I should in all probability have remained as firm in my disunion views as any other disciple of William Lloyd Garrison. … [But] my new circumstances compelled me to rethink the whole subject and to study, with some care, not only the just and proper rules of legal interpretation, but the origin, design, nature, rights, powers and duties of civil government, and also the relations which human beings sustain by it. By such a course of thought and reading, I was conducted to the conclusion that the constitution of the United States … could not have been designed to maintain a system … like slavery.


By dramatizing his break with the Garrisonians (again through thought and writing), Douglass works against their discourse and against their image of him as an uncritical disciple. Bakhtin describes this stage in developing literateness as a time when “someone is striving to liberate himself from the influence of such an image and its discourse by means of objectification, or is struggling to expose the limitations of both image and discourse. The importance of struggling with another's discourse, its influence in the history of the individual's coming to ideological consciousness, is enormous. One's own discourse and one's own voice, although born of another or dynamically stimulated by another, will sooner or later begin to liberate themselves from the authority of another's discourse” (348). Douglass's own newspaper and his new interpretation of the Constitution are born of his relationship with the Garrisonian abolitionists, but as he matures, his critical literateness allows him to liberate himself from the authority of those who wish to define him.

This is especially evident in the Life and Times, written well after slavery has been abolished. In this version of the narrative, Douglass no longer feels it necessary to keep secret the details of his escape from slavery. Interestingly, he explains that he was able to escape by using the masters' assumptions about literacy against them: “My means of escape were provided for me by the very men who were making laws to hold and bind me more securely in slavery” (197). Free blacks in the state of Maryland were required to carry “free papers” with them, which included a description of the owner. But Douglass explains that this use of literacy to control blacks “in some measure defeated itself, since more than one man could be found to answer to the same description. Hence many slaves could escape by impersonating the owner of one set of papers” (197). These papers were frequently transferred among blacks to help each other escape from slavery.

Douglass did not use these free papers, but he did have a sailor friend, who had a sailor's protection, “which somewhat answered the purpose of free papers” (199). “The instrument had at its head the American eagle, which gave it the appearance of an authorized document” (198). Even though Douglass looked nothing like the man described on the document, the mere fact that the document was “official looking” was enough to protect him in his flight north. The telling of this story indicates that because many literate white men had not grasped the necessary coexistence of “writing and thinking,” Douglass is able to use the white man's belief in the power of literacy against him, as a means to escape from bondage.

There are other significant changes to Douglass's description of his life as a slave in the revision. Eric Sundquist explains that many recent literary critics have expressed a preference for the 1845 version over My Bondage and My Freedom and especially over the “more self-indulgent” Life and Times, indicating “a distrust of the patriotic rhetoric, the gothic and sentimental literary conventions, and the myth of self-made success that are more characteristic of the later volumes” (4), all of which critics have seen as weaknesses. The distaste for the later versions as being less existential, more crafted, and more conscious leads to a paradox: “the less like a slave [Douglass] acted or sounded, the less likely audiences were to believe his story” (4) or to value his writing. What these criticisms seem not to recognize is that the process of developing literateness, for any individual, requires a period of experimentation with literary conventions.

Overall, the 1855 revision indicates a writer with more conscious control over his subject and a greater sense of the relationship he has with his audience. Douglass more frequently addresses his audience; he analyzes events to a greater extent, venturing to engage in a harsher denunciation of the evils of slavery and to work against many of the common prejudices against blacks. For example, Douglass is aware of those whites who attribute his skills as a writer to the blood of his white father. In response to these prejudicial accusations, in the first revision of the narrative Douglass attributes his love of letters to his dark-skinned mother:

I learned, after my mother's death, that she could read, and she was the only one of all the slaves and colored people in Tuckahoe who enjoyed that advantage … I can … finally and proudly ascribe to her an earnest love of knowledge … and in view of that fact, I am quite willing and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess and for which I have got—despite of prejudices—only too much credit, not to my admitted Anglo-Saxon paternity, but to the native genius of my sable, unprotected, and uncultivated mother—a woman, who belonged to a race whose mental endowments it is, at present, fashionable to hold in disparagement and contempt.


As this revision shows, if Douglass does begin to adopt the rhetoric and the conventions of his culture, he does so in order to critique the prejudicial beliefs of his white audience. Moreover, the form of the autobiography becomes less and less dictated by the demands of a white audience. The revised narrative, for example, does not have the “authenticating documents” from prominent whites, since Douglass's reputation stood on its own. In My Bondage,My Freedom, the letters by Garrison and Phillips are replaced with an Editor's Preface which includes a letter written by Douglass himself and an Introduction by a black physician Dr. James McCune Smith. Life and Times opens with an Introduction by Mr. George L. Ruffin. In addition, Douglass also includes many of his speeches and newspaper articles in the revised versions of the narrative. In this sense the document becomes more diverse in that it incorporates his acts of orality into its written framework, in addition to the fact that the prose itself, as Eric J. Sundquist notes, becomes more “oratorical.”

In the later versions of the narrative, Douglass seems to feel comfortable with the many different selves from which his writing emerges, as well as the complexity of his reading audience. He is aware that his white readers may object to things he has written, but he is able to acknowledge that his differing audiences have different needs and he is willing to address and accommodate those differences. For example, in writing to a mixed audience he explains:

It will be seen in these pages that I have lived several lives in one … the life of slave … of a fugitive slave, of comparative freedom, of conflict and battle, of victory. If I have pushed my example too prominently for the good taste of my Caucasian readers I beg them to remember that I have written in part for the encouragement of a class whose aspirations need the stimulus of success.


This ability to handle the changing complexities of audience was a conflict which Douglass constantly struggled with in his later years. He seemed to realize there were different kinds of language to be used for different audiences and that to be effective, his literacy must be able to shift according to those differences, to embrace a double-voicedness: “There are some things which ought to be said to colored people in the peculiar circumstances in which they are placed, that can be said more effectively among ourselves, without the presence of white persons. We are the oppressed, the whites are the oppressors, and the language I would address to one is not always suited to the other” (xlv).

Once slavery was abolished, Douglass experienced a difficult transition in his sense of purpose, since the cause for which he had directed his life had changed. He no longer was asked to speak to white audiences about abolition. He explains that “Outside the thoughts of slavery my thoughts had not been much directed, and I could hardly hope to make myself useful in any other cause than that to which I had given twenty five years of my life” (381). In Life and Times Douglass dramatizes a transitional experience in his writing and speaking. Asked to speak to a college audience for the first time after slavery has been abolished, he approaches another stage in his developing literateness. At first, Douglass is unsure of what to speak about before a highly educated audience:

The puzzling question now was, what should I say if I go there? It won't do to give them an old fashioned anti-slavery discourse. But what shall I talk about? … For many nights I toiled, and succeeded at least in getting something together in due form. Written orations had not been in my line. I had usually depended upon my unsystematized knowledge and the inspiration of the hours and the occasion, but I had now got “the scholar bee in my bonnet” and supposed inasmuch as I was to speak to college professors and students, I must at least make a show of some familiarity with letters. It proved as to its immediate effect, a great mistake, for my carefully studied and written address, full of learned quotations, fell dead at my feet, while a few remarks I made extemporaneously … were enthusiastically received.


Essentially, Douglass's conflict here emerges out of his identity as a literate being, which had always been connected to his ability to write “in the spaces left” by the discourse of the master, and out of a sense of personal responsibility as a survivor of slavery. By trying to adopt the language of the scholar in this lecture, Douglass momentarily places himself back into the position of echoing the words of the master or being the ventriloquist for the abolitionists. He ultimately realizes, however, that even though slavery has been abolished, the “pen and the tongue” still had much work to do in the fight for equality. When he learns that the president and the faculty of the college were distressed that he, a black man, was asked to speak at their institution, he begins to understand the discrepancy between the word of the law of abolition and the spirit of the law, just as he had earlier articulated the discrepancy between the words of Christianity and the deeds of the slaveholders. As Douglass states about a similar experience of ostracism upon being selected as a delegate to a national political convention: “They, dear fellows, found it much more agreeable to talk of the principles of liberty as glittering generalities, than to reduce those principles to practice” (395).

Ultimately, Douglass understands that his power as an orator and writer rests not in echoing the authoritative discourse of his scholarly audience, but in continuing to speak and write in a manner which recognizes what he learned in the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, that is, by privileging the spirit of the law over the written word of the law. As he states soon after his experience with the college audience: “I … soon found out that the negro had still a cause, and that he needed my voice and my pen with others to plead for it” (385-6). Douglass achieves this multivocal literacy by continuing to rely on his “unsystematized knowledge and the inspiration of the hours and the occasion” to guide his voice and pen. He ultimately finds success as a writer and lecturer after slavery by relying on his reputation and continuing to refine his skills as an orator. He knows how to command an audience of whites: “I had an audience ready made in the free states; one which thirty years of labor had prepared for me, and before this audience the freedmen of the South needed a advocate as much as they needed a member of Congress” (407). He also understands that in his career as a public speaker he must go beyond mere words to act towards achieving equality for his people. “I never rise to speak before an American audience without something of the feeling that my failure or success will bring blame or benefit to my whole race” (385).

Rather than working to adopt the language of the scholar, Douglass acknowledges the importance of his own voice in the fight for equality. In perhaps his deepest and most sophisticated insight into his own literate identity, Douglass acknowledges the differences between his own act of storytelling and those of the masters and scholars, reiterating the value of his own active literacy in the chronicling of American history:

I have written out my experiences here not to exhibit my wounds and bruises to awaken and attract sympathy to myself personally, but as part of the history of a profoundly interesting period in American life and progress. I have meant it to be a small individual contribution to the sum of knowledge of this special period, to be handed down to after-coming generations which may want to know what things were allowed and what prohibited; what moral, social, and political relations subsisted between the different varieties of American people down to the last quarter of the nineteenth century; and by what means they were modified and changed. The time is at hand when the last American slaveholder will disappear behind the curtain which separates the living from the dead, and when neither master nor slave will be left to tell the story of their respective relations and what happened in those relations to either. My part has been to tell the story of the slave (emphasis added). They have had all the talent and genius that wealth and influence could command to tell their story. They have had their full day in court. Literature, theology, philosophy, law and learning have come to their service and if condemned they have not been condemned unheard.


That important sentence, “My part has been to tell the story of the slave” speaks volumes about Douglass's understanding of the fractured nature of the master discourse of American history and of the important role his story plays in that history. Certainly Douglass's “small individual contribution,” continues to fill in the spaces which those histories have left unwritten and unspoken.


  1. Walter Ong reminds us of the dangers of using the term “pre-literate” to describe cultures of primary orality. “Although the term ‘pre-literate’ itself is useful and at times necessary, if used unreflectively it also presents problems which are the same as those presented by the term ‘oral literature,’ if not quite so assertive. ‘Preliterate’ presents orality—the ‘primary modeling system’—as an anachronistic deviant from the ‘secondary modeling system’ that followed it” (13). In the case of Frederick Douglass, however, who is on the threshold of literacy, the term pre-literate works to capture his position of being informed about the technology of literacy even though he is not yet capable of reading or writing. See Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.

  2. Henry Louis Gates also refers to liminality in “James Gronniosaw and the Trope of the Talking Book.” Gates sees the acts of reading and writing as a way to “transgress” the realm of liminality, which he sees as a negative position. Gates' use of liminality arises from Robert Pelton's use of the term in The Trickster in West Africa. See also Houston Baker's use of the term liminality in Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Baker's use of the term is taken from Victor Turner's work. Turner observes that “liminality [a transitional or marginal state] is pure potency, where anything can happen, where immoderacy is normal, even normative, and where elements of culture and society are released from their customary configurations and recombined in bizarre and terrifying imagery.” Baker is discussing the role of myth in Afro-American literature. See p. 116.

  3. Steven Mailloux reminds us that Douglass's comments on Christianity and slavery were part of a larger cultural debate in the 1840s over the Bible politics. According to Mailloux in these comments and in the Appendix to the 1845 Narrative Douglass enters directly into a “multifaceted and highly contested Bible politics of interpretation” (20). See “Misreading as a Historical Act: Cultural Rhetoric, Bible Politics and Fuller's 1845 Review of Douglass's Narrative.” For more on Douglass and his relationship to Bible politics see Janet Duitsman Cornelius, “When I Can Read My Title Clear”: Literacy, Slavery and Religion in the Antebellum South.

  4. In “Frederick Douglass's Life and Times: Progressive Rhetoric and the Problem of Constituency,” Kenneth W. Warren likens Douglass to other social reformers (among them, naturalist and realist novelists) in that he used his autobiography as an avenue of democratic representation to speak on behalf of silenced African-Americans. The problem with this, argues Warren, is similar to the problem experienced by realist and naturalist novelists, in that “the intelligent, articulate spectator, while attempting to reveal the details of these mute silenced lives, distances himself from those he represents, making them other than himself, and confines them to a realm, outside of that inhabited by the spectator. The condition of representation seems to be alienation” (257). Warren likens Douglass, in his later life, to Henry James in their belief in the “missionary potential of the educated voice” (262). “Concerned with the vulgarity they thought they saw destroying the fiber of American public life, both men sought to play the role of social missionary or popular prophet” (264).

    For a similar discussion about the alienation inherent in acts of political representation, see Michael Warner's The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth Century America.

  5. For other discussions of Douglass's conflicts in writing, see Wilson J. Moses, “Writing Freely? Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing” and David Van Leer's “Reading Slavery: The Anxiety of Ethnicity in Douglass's Narrative”; Kenneth Warren's “Frederick Douglass's Life and Times: Progressive Rhetoric and the Problem of Constituency” and Eric Sundquist's “Introduction” all found in Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays.

Works Cited

Andrews, William. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

———. Ed. Afro-American Autobiography, A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Baker, Houston A. Jr. “Autobiographical Acts and the Voice of the Southern Slave.” The Slave's Narrative. Eds. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. 242-261.

———. Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

———. The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Blassingame, John W. Introduction. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. Volume 1: 1816-46. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979. xxi-lxx.

Cornelius, Janet Duitsman. “When I Can Read My Title Clear”: Literacy, Slavery and Religion in the Antebellum South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Davidson, Cathy. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York. Penguin, 1987. 243-332.

———. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.

———. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, his early life as a slave, his escape from bondage and his history complete. 1881. New York: Citadel Press, 1983.

Dubois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Introduction. “Race,” Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

———. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

———. Figures in Black: Words, Signs and the “Racial Self.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

———. Introduction. The Slave's Narrative. Eds. Gates and Charles T. Davis. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. xi-xxxiv.

———. “James Gronniosaw and the Trope of the Talking Book” in Afro-American Autobiography, A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. William Andrews. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 8-25.

Hubbard, Dolan. The Sermon and the African American Literary Imagination. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991.

MacKethan, Lucinda H. “Metaphors of Mastery in the Slave Narratives.” The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Eds. John Sekora and Darwin Turner. Illinois: Western Illinois University Press, 1982. 55-69.

Mailloux, Steven. “Misreading as a Historical Act: Cultural Rhetoric, Bible Politics and Fuller's 1845 Review of Douglass's Narrative.Readers in History: Nineteenth Century American Literature and the Contexts of Response. Ed. James L. Machor. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. 3-31.

Moses, Wilson J. “Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing” in Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 66-83.

Niemtzow, Annette. “The Problematic of Self in Autobiography: The Example of the Slave Narrative.” Eds. Sekora, John, and Darwin Turner. The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Illinois: Western Illinois University Press, 1982. 96-109.

Ong, Walter. Literacy and Orality: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen & Company, 1982.

Salvino, Dana Nelson. “The Word in Black and White: Ideologies of Race and Literacy in Antebellum America.” Reading in America: Literature and Social History. Ed. Cathy Davidson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. 140-156.

Sekora, John, and Darwin Turner. The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Illinois: Western Illinois University Press, 1982.

Stepto, Robert. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Sundquist, Eric J. Introduction. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 1-22.

Van Leer, David. “Reading Slavery: The Anxiety of Ethnicity in Douglass's Narrative.” Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 118-140.

Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth Century America. Cambridge Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Warren, Kenneth. “Frederick Douglass's Life and Times: Progressive Rhetoric and the Problem of Constituency.” Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 253-270.

Gwen Bergner (essay date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Bergner, Gwen. “Myths of the Masculine Subject: The Oedipus Complex and Douglass's 1845 Narrative.Discourse 19, no. 2 (winter 1997): 53-71.

[In the following essay, Bergner draws parallels between the identity formation present in Douglass's Narrative and Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex.]

No pre-emancipation text by an African-American has enjoyed as much currency as Frederick Douglass's 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Long considered the paradigm text of African-American slave identity, Douglass's Narrative was a forceful testament for the abolition movement and for African-American literary and historical consciousness. Douglass commandeered American myths of self-reliance and heroic rebellion to describe his escape from slavery; in this way, he extended symbolic citizenship to African-Americans (Andrews 166). His Narrative modeled “a coherent self which subsequent generations could use as a point of origin of written Afro-American discourse and subjectivity” (Cunningham 109). Deemed the “prototypical, premier example of the form,” Douglass's text has eclipsed other narratives and genres of slave writing (McDowell 192). Its representation of subjectivity has a transformative—even transferential—effect.

Critics generally have attributed the Narrative's resonance to its “literariness”—that is, its rendering of slave experience through a subtle narrative voice and set of metaphors (Smith 2). Such claims of transcendent literary value clarify neither the Narrative's mythical stature nor its “widespread explanatory power and appeal” (McDowell 194). A “second wave” of Douglass criticism has begun to deconstruct the text's literary identity, arguing that Douglass claims universal subjecthood by idealizing masculinity. For instance, Valerie Smith notes that his terms of self-reliance and achievement affirm a specifically masculine American myth (21). Deborah McDowell chronicles the widespread, erroneous belief that Douglass wrote the first slave narrative—a misconception that, she argues, bolsters the text's importance in a tradition that grants authority to what is original, and consistently identifies originality as male (192-97). Finally, George P. Cunningham suggests that comparisons between Douglass and “Founding Fathers” such as Jefferson and Franklin create a “genealogical model” that fixes a masculine and African-American literary identity (111). What critics have often touted as the Narrative's universal value is, in part, an effective adaptation of certain modes of representation, which makes intelligible this literary identity by eclipsing black women (McDowell 198; Stone 64; Franchot 148).

Why is Douglass's combination of metaphor and masculinity so compelling? In addition to mastering conventions of autobiography and providing eyewitness accounts of the horrors of slavery, Douglass molds his metaphors of masculinity from basic components of slave society. His acquisition of freedom and subjectivity, which fosters (in his terms) a transition from slave to man, involves problems of parental lineage, linguistic authority, and physical autonomy (Olney 156). These problems mark the slave's generic, disempowered relation to fundamental components of American national identity. By describing his experience in slavery through metaphors that correspond to the tenets of American culture, Douglass traffics in the realm of myth.

As an account of one African-American man's entry into the social order, the Narrative functions as a specimen story of identity. In this way, the Narrative resembles another paradigm of masculine subject formation: Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex. Freud's Oedipus complex and Douglass's Narrative are mythic (and historically specific) versions of the process by which masculine subjects submit to their symbolic systems. Both accounts engage a discourse of identity and difference; both are mythical case studies. By classifying the Oedipus complex as myth, I mean that Freud's theory of the boy's incestuous desire for the mother and sexual rivalry with the father does not summarize masculine desire; rather, it is an allegorical account of the boy's position in his sociosymbolic structure. The Oedipus complex metaphorizes, specifically, sexual difference, which determines the child's relation to paternal Law. Douglass's Narrative dramatizes a similar moment of sociopsychic alterity, but in this text racial and sexual differences coalesce with ontogenesis. Since these differences combine to shape the subject's relation to the paternal metaphor, the Narrative demonstrates that classic psychoanalytic paradigms inadequately explain the relevance of race for subjectivity.

Critics generally consider Douglass's 1845 Narrative as more striking than his later autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; certainly the Narrative is more frequently read. I attribute these factors and my decision to focus on the 1845 autobiography to the way it (like psychoanalytic accounts of the Oedipus complex) condenses the gradual process of ontogenesis into a narrative flash. By comparison, My Bondage (1855) takes five chapters to relate the incidents of the Narrative's first chapter. I shall focus specifically on the Narrative's whipping scene because it marks a crucial moment in Douglass's subjectivity, serving as a gateway to the text's themes of identity, literacy, and writing.

The whipping scene has parallels in a startling number of other American literary texts on race: Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! all contain scenes involving photographs, mirrors, or acts of witnessing that inaugurate the protagonist's “recognition” of race. Although these “stock scenes of racial discovery” depict a visual event (Cooke 72), the protagonists perceive less the “fact” of racial difference than its cultural significance. These scenes defamiliarize the subject before reconstituting it. Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic discourses also represent ontogenesis as visual trauma. Freud's “primal scene,” which generates castration anxiety, and Lacan's mirror stage, which instantiates the infant's self-difference, are psychically meaningful elements of subject formation. These visual crises present a juncture from which we can critique psychoanalysis's general inattention to race.

We cannot simply add race to psychoanalysis's conceptual frame. Vectors of racial identification operate differently from those principles of sexuality and gender that we read in classical psychoanalysis. To illustrate this tension, I shall interpret competing identifications in the Narrative's whipping scene by considering this episode paradigmatic for the book as a whole. As Douglass remarks in a notable chiasmus, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (107); the whipping scene clarifies the first transition.


Before comparing the Oedipus complex to Douglass's Narrative, we must explore this complex's alleged universality. Without offering universal or transhistorical meaning, Freud's reading of Oedipus places ontogenesis in a culturally specific (Western, nuclear) drama: the boy's sexual demand for his mother and sexual rivalry with his father. This triangle is but one configuration of kinship structures and symbolic systems that engender subjective desire. Can we extrapolate from Freud's culturally specific narrative other family systems?

Anthropologists have long debated the universality of the Oedipus complex. Bronislaw Malinowski's Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1927) launched this debate by invoking the matrilineal (and patriarchal) Trobriand Islanders of Northeastern New Guinea. Malinowski found that Trobriand kinship represents the mother's brother as a boy's authority figure; correspondingly, the son “develops few ambivalent feelings toward the father” (Obeyesekere 71). Instead of rivalry with the father, the boy directs what we might call oedipal anxiety and aggression toward his maternal uncle, the kin member with most cultural authority over him. Malinowski concludes that since the boy's pattern of sexual and gendered socialization differs greatly from Freud's father-mother-child triad, we cannot simply “transfer” the Oedipus complex across cultures. Nonetheless, Gananath Obeyesekere has used cross-cultural variations in kinship structures to expand conceptions of the Oedipus complex. Without limiting the oedipal drama to Western, nuclear families, Obeyesekere argues that various configurations of kin members do determine the child's erotic and aggressive objects. These kinship structures comprise an Oedipus complex by inserting the child into its social order. In this respect, the Oedipus complex, while varying across cultures according to different models of kinship, is nonetheless constitutive of different formations of subjectivity (see Parsons 278).

Obeyesekere uses “the Oedipus complex” to denote how identity varies in kinship systems, but he expands Freud's framework by addressing power, not sexuality: “The centrality of the Oedipus complex lies in the structure of authority in the family, rather than in its sexual interrelations; consequently the Oedipus complex … varies with the type of family structure, especially in relation to the allocation of authority” (71). Obeyesekere reconceptualizes this complex as a drama about kinship, in which the child encounters affective ties and social authority. In this respect, Malinowski clarified the importance of power and authority for the subject's identifications—dimensions that Freud's emphasis on “the erotic nature of the son's ties with the mother and the sexual jealousy he has for the father” largely underplays (71). If authority and domination emerge from the shadow of sexuality as important (but not separate) components of the Oedipus complex, this paradigm is relevant to articulating dynamics of subject formation in slave societies.

Uncoupling links between authority and sexuality in family units not only gives the Oedipus complex more cultural specificity, but usefully severs this unit from biology. As Parsons writes, “Human societies do structure family patterns in different ways according to laws of kinship, or particular phrasings of the incest taboo, that by no means can be derived directly from the biological facts of mating and reproduction” (281). That the authority figure to whom the boy addresses his oedipal demand is not always physically present suggests that cultural symbolism can substitute psychically for “actual” experiences. For example, a Trobriand boy may internalize images of his maternal uncle in ways that resemble Freud's oedipal structure, though the same boy may have little contact with this uncle if they do not live in the same household. Additionally, that a child's identifications are often unconscious means that psychic conflicts can occur without people living in proximity. In this respect, we should not consider identification as a literal rendition of interpersonal relations: A child may identify with someone s/he has never met or who is no longer even alive.

Freud's recourse to the primal scene as an explanatory motif of masculine desire helps us gauge the intangible, unconscious processes that orient desire. At the same time, that Freud tried to universalize the Oedipus complex meant that he downplayed the significance of local, cultural factors such as the extended family. According to Obeyesekere, the Oedipus complex signals not the specific story of a boy's erotic demand for his mother and sexual rivalry with his father, but rather a child's general internalization and projection of desire, authority, aggressivity, and identification (24): “Sexuality, nurturance, domination and so forth are not simply engendered in the child's body; they are primarily products of his social relations in the family” (73).

Lacan's interpretation of the Oedipus complex focuses usefully on the constitutive basis of unconscious desire. Instead of describing the instinctual, universal content of man's unconscious desire, the Oedipus complex for Lacan indicates a structure, a “symbolic constellation underlying the unconscious of the subject,” which causes the desire that must always be newly discovered in each case (Felman 103). For Lacan, Freud's Oedipus complex signifies a crucial metaphor of the West's familial structures.

If the Oedipus complex inaugurates a subject's desire relative to a specific social order, transposing it to Douglass's historically situated text does not reduce his desire to a question of incest and its prohibition. Since Douglass writes within and even aspires to the norms of the Euro-American social order from which psychoanalysis arose, his account usefully anticipates the Freudian/Lacanian paradigm of subjectivity. The Narrative's similarities to European psychoanalytic models underscore that the social order not only regulates sexuality through mechanisms such as the incest taboo, but radically intervenes between the subject and its desire. Seen in this way, sexual desire for one's parents would indeed resist “formulaic universality” (Butler 76).


Douglass introduces the oedipal whipping scene in Narrative with a statement about his family origins. Although such a statement is typical of his autobiographical models, Douglass's beginning atypically represents his father's name and his mother's body as absent: “My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant” (48; see Niemtzow 117-18 and McDowell 198). For Cunningham, Douglass represents “his enslavement as the ontological dilemma of negation and absence” (112). We could consider this dilemma as a crucial element of slavery, or “natal alienation,” from the legal decree that children of slave women do not inherit the name of their father, but rather “follow the condition of the mother”:

The whisper that my master was my father may or may not be true, and, true or false, it is of but little consequence to my purpose whilst the fact remains, in all its glaring odiousness, that slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.


Douglass argues that slavery is wrong because it leads white Americans to violate their laws of kinship: In cases of miscegenation, slavemaster fathers do not recognize their children. This law of kinship disenfranchises African-American slaves, since the cultural terms of citizenship and property depend on paternal recognition.1 Douglass's personal circumstances therefore highlight one of the many material structures perpetuating slavery.

Slavery entails a symbolic and fiscal economy that exchanges African-American men and women as property; this economy intersects with the “traffic in women” that consolidates male groups. The circulation of slaves—perhaps especially of male slaves—as nonsubjects also suspends actual and symbolic laws regulating paternity. This suspension affects especially African-American males because laws of inheritance apply principally to men. As Spillers notes, “The notorious bastard … has no official female equivalent” (65). Thus Douglass's masculine identity allows him to desire the authority of white men and to locate the cause of slavery in a loss of inheritance rights; the lack of his father's name signifies Douglass's overall disempowerment.

While this lack of paternal sanction has material effects on Douglass, it also greatly excludes him from symbolic meaning; his status as illegitimate deprives him of a lasting discursive position within “paternal Law.” For Lacan, the child acquires language only by acceding to the symbolic order; the child must take up a masculine or feminine position in relation to that order. Whether male or female, however, the slave has no claim or clear relation to the phallus. Thus Douglass's lack of established paternity compounds his distance from the Father's name, frustrating his claim to masculine identification and his ability to speak from within his oppressive social order. His illegitimate status recurs discursively, for while slavery excludes blacks from political representation as citizens, it also excludes them from symbolic representation as subjects: “The master as a figure in discourse reserves to himself the masculine authority to generate meaning” (Cunningham 114). In this way, the Name-of-the-Father parses authority according to race and gender. Douglass must compensate for this lack to authorize his voice.

Douglass initially occupies no socially intelligible ground from which to speak: “To be a subject or ‘I’ at all, the subject must take up a sexualized position, identifying with the attributes socially designated as appropriate for men or women” (Grosz 148). In the Lacanian schema, an individual who does not accede to the paternal metaphor—that is, who is locked within the closed circuit of the mother-child dyad, and who remains outside social, linguistic, and economic exchange—is psychotic. Douglass clearly is not psychotic, but he nonetheless suggests that slavery confines the individual to a self-referential unit that obstructs the exchange necessary for symbolization and self-consciousness. In his famous comment on slave songs, he writes: “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear” (57). Here Douglass claims that the subjectivity he acquires as a slave differs radically from the subjectivity he achieves after literacy and liberation. Initially under slavery, his identity is nonreflective and presubjective. Following his master's explanation of why slaves are kept illiterate and from his own reading, however, Douglass begins to reflect on his unjust status; he acquires what Du Bois called a “double consciousness.” Hearing Master Auld forbid Sophia Auld to teach him to read, Douglass “awakens” to consciousness; his master's words “sank deep into [his] heart,”

stirr[ing] up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.


This awareness of the operations of racial power, or double consciousness, is a defining condition of African-American subjectivity (Du Bois 2).

Under slavery, literacy assumes the role that language performs in the symbolic order: The ability to read paradoxically generates the sense of lack that positions the subject in relation to its social structure. While Lacan uses the paternal metaphor to explain the child's initial capacity for linguistic symbolization, Douglass uses it to explain the subject's access to discourse, particularly written language. As an African-American slave, he is not authorized to speak or write as such, much less to denounce slavery. By representing his exclusion from signification, however, Douglass begins to articulate his subjectivity; he appropriates symbolic dictates and thus partly subverts them. Indeed, by describing himself as a slave, Douglass resists the widespread assumption that slave identity is outside or beyond representation.

To authorize his slave subjectivity—an oxymoron in slave law—Douglass endeavors to appropriate normative masculinity. According to Jenny Franchot's superb analysis, Douglass authorizes his voice by fostering an ambivalent relation to the spectacle of his aunt's abuse: His “rhetorical exposure of the black woman's suffering body is crucial to his lifelong mission of disclosing the sins of the white fathers by turning slavery's hidden interiors into the publicized exterior of prose” (141). More important, however, “Douglass's description of [Hester's] whipping serves finally to make visible his heroic attainment of control, irony, and distance in the narrative voice” (148). Douglass vacillates between identifying as a slave to authenticate his narrative (and African-American identity) and shedding that identity to authorize his voice as a man. He authenticates his voice as Representative American Negro Man by temporarily aligning himself with his aunt. Yet his mimetic mastery of writing also allows him partly to suspend his enslavement: Inscribing the Name-of-the-Father displaces his humiliation as a slave onto an African-American woman. Hester's “suffering provides him with his credentials as victim—critical to his self-authentication as fugitive slave-orator; her femininity enables him to transcend that identification” (Franchot 144).

Douglass equates his journey to freedom with a transition from slave to man, an achievement contingent upon his literacy. Literacy, in turn, generates a textual subject that largely requires an absence of feminine agency and speech: Hester does not speak; she only screams. Douglass's intended wife appears only after he has narrated his escape from slavery; he omits that her money financed his escape. Douglass also omits from his 1845 text incidents that illustrate his emotional vulnerability. In My Bondage, Douglass's “first introduction to the realities of slavery” is not the sight of Hester's tortured body, but rather his separation from his grandmother. After learning that he will no longer live with the woman who raised him, Douglass writes that he “fell upon the ground, and wept a boy's bitter tears, refusing to be comforted” (37). The image of a prostrate and “heartbroken” child, bereft of maternal love, replaces the 1845 account's image of a child silently witnessing his aunt's vulnerability. The 1855 text does narrate Hester's whipping some pages later, but the grandmother's loss is clearly formative: “The reader may be surprised that I narrate so minutely an incident apparently so trivial, and which must have occurred when I was no more than seven years old; but as I wish to give a faithful history of my experience in slavery, I cannot withhold a circumstance which, at the time, affected me so deeply. Besides, this was, in fact, my first introduction to the realities of slavery” (Bondage 37).

In Narrative, however, Douglass's self-appointed relation to patriarchal authority allows him to articulate the unrepresentable subjectivity of male slaves. In this respect, a gap emerges between his recognition of the place that paternal Law accords him and his acceptance of that place. Douglass indicates that beating the slave-breaker, Covey, widens this gap that literacy opened: “However long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact” (113). This gap between an African-American's sociosymbolic position and his actual subjectivity offers some agency and resistance before the Law, though obviously he remains limited by laws. This psychic gap also suggests a foray into the inner workings of double consciousness, in which one can submit to the law while rehearsing for later defiance.


Douglass's introductory discussion of paternity articulates how the symbolic order can regulate a slave society, but the whipping scene dramatizes the process by which Douglass learns his place in that order. This pairing, in the first chapter of Douglass's autobiography, of a description of the symbolic mechanism inscribing racial difference (the absence of the father's name) with an account of its enactment (the whipping scene) corresponds to the relation in psychoanalysis between the paternal metaphor as a mechanism of symbolic control and the oedipal drama that clarifies the subject's submission to that metaphor. While psychoanalytic theory explains—by way of the Oedipus complex—how the subject apprehends sexual difference, Douglass's whipping scene demonstrates how an individual also learns racial difference.

Slavery fragments kinship structures and precludes the type of nuclear family that Freud describes in the oedipal triangle, but Douglass's triad of master-aunt-self nonetheless composes a “family” unit in slave society. The white master is overdetermined as an oedipal father; he is the agent of a racist social order prohibiting Douglass not only from satisfying sexual desire, but also from achieving basic autonomy, normative masculinity, self-determination, and access to language (literacy). The father/master also possesses sexual access to the mother. That Douglass speculates that his father is his master, irrespective of historical accuracy, forges a “family romance” that reproduces the patriarchal authority of American slave society.2 Like the mother she replaces, Douglass's aunt is subject to the master/father's sexual demands. The whipping, Douglass implies, begins from the master's sexual jealousy; Hester would not stay away from a male slave with whom she was romantically linked. Consequently, the master

took [Hester] into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back entirely naked. … After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. … Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, “Now you d—d b—h, I'll learn you to disobey my orders!” and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon, the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.


These interrelations among master, aunt, and boy stage a scene that resembles Freud's account of the Oedipus complex. The whipping scene functions like a primal scene that triggers Douglass's “recognition” of racial difference from within the matrix of slavery's “family.” The familial structure of Douglass's brutal scene ironically reinterprets proslavery rhetoric that likened the “peculiar institution” to the nuclear family. Douglass's nuclear “family” tells us something about the structures that legislate slavery, but it also signals Douglass's desire to represent himself within the frame of this legislation.

The whipping scene is primarily a visual event; that Douglass witnesses the whipping renders it formative:

I remember the first time I witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I shall never forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with an awful force. … It was a most terrible spectacle. … I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over. I expected it would be my turn next. It was all new to me. I had never seen anything like it before.

(51, 52; my emphases)

The scene makes Douglass recognize his enslaved state; until this moment, he had been “out of the way of the bloody scenes that often occurred on the plantation,” but he now “expected it would be [his] turn next” (52).

The function of sight bore other meanings in the nineteenth century, but I want to read this scene against two pivotal moments of seeing in Freud's account of ontogenesis to help clarify the role of fantasy and ambivalence in all sexual and racial identifications. According to Freud, the first crisis is when a boy sees female genitals; rarely does this “convince” him of women's castration. The second is the primal scene, in which a boy sees or imagines intercourse between his parents and again “discovers” women's castration. Douglass's whipping scene complicates this oedipal framework by placing racial difference crucially among the psychodynamics of sexual difference. To clarify this dynamic, we must revisit Freud's account of feminine and masculine castration.

According to Freud, castration anxiety usually assists the boy in “dissolving” his oedipal conflict and thus attaining masculine identification. The boy, however, does not at first believe that castration is a threat; he begins to fear it only after he comes to accept female castration: “To begin with the boy does not believe in the threat [of castration] or obey it in the least. … The observation which finally breaks down his unbelief is the sight of the female genitals. … Now his acceptance of the possibility of castration, his recognition that women were castrated, made an end of both possible ways [i.e., desire for each parent] of obtaining satisfaction from the Oedipus complex” (“Dissolution” 175, 176). We can infer from Freud that masculine identification hinges on a psychic understanding of female castration. The girl's assumption of a feminine identity also hinges on her “acceptance” of women's castration, though this recognition initiates, rather than resolves, the feminine version of the Oedipus complex. For both genders, however, normative identification seems contingent on the belief that women are inferior to men; this belief appears to derive from the “fact” of their castration (that they don't have a penis).

This fact devolves on a visual event. In Freud's account, the sight of a woman's genitals precipitates castration anxiety in boys. Though this sight makes no immediate impression, the boy subsequently recalls this memory when his oedipal desire is impeded; he retroactively “realizes” that women are castrated:

When a little boy first catches sight of a girl's genital region, he begins by showing irresolution and lack of interest; he sees nothing or disavows what he has seen. … It is not until later, when some threat of castration has obtained a hold upon him that the observation becomes important to him: if he then recollects or repeats it, it arouses a terrible storm of emotion in him and forces him to believe in the reality of the threat which he has hitherto laughed at. This … leads to two reactions, which may become fixed and … permanently determine the boy's relation to women: horror of the mutilated creature or triumphant contempt for her.

(“Psychical” 21)

By contrast, the girl is supposed to “recognize” her lack immediately; we recall these now notorious lines: “She makes her judgement and her decision in a flash. She has seen [the penis] and knows that she is without it and wants to have it. … She begins to share the contempt felt by men for a sex which is the lesser in so important a respect” (21). In this scenario, assumptions about feminine inferiority are projected onto the female body, making gender difference a matter of sight and observation.

In the whipping scene, not only does the father figure represent the Law and the mother figure represent castration, but slavery and femininity seem to correspond as do freedom and masculinity. The aunt's powerlessness before the master mirrors the mother's castration relative to paternal Law. Seeing his aunt stripped to the waist, bound and beaten by his master, Douglass can disavow neither her lack nor her passivity. Although this scene's sexual content involves Hester's gender, it also implicates her race and status as a slave. As in Freud's account, Douglass discovers “lack” in Hester's body. However, Douglass clarifies better than Freud that the interpretation of sexual difference as lack derives from social context and its tyrannies.

Along what lines does Douglass identify? His perspective as “witness and participant” suggests that spectatorship is an active, even transformative, experience; the ambiguity of “participant” nonetheless begs a question about his precise role. What conclusions does Douglass draw from this sight of feminine humiliation? Does he identify along racial lines and perceive himself as similarly castrated—that is, as occupying a similar, “feminine” position—or does he distance himself from the slave's fate by identifying with his master's power? Douglass's gender implies identification with the master's authority; his race suggests identification with his aunt and her powerlessness. Like the boy who fears castration by his father, Douglass dreads that he will be whipped next; like the girl who internalizes a sense of inferiority, however, Douglass recognizes the slave's powerlessness as he passes through “the blood-stained gate” (51). Franchot puts this dilemma succinctly: “To achieve ‘manhood’ … is to forsake not only the mother but her race, whereas to achieve ‘blackness’ is to forsake the father and his virility” (142). How does Douglass resolve these cross-identifications?

Douglass's account of his spectatorship suggests that he identifies with and distances himself from his aunt's position. Like Freud's boy, Douglass is “horror-stricken” by the sight of her lack. This phrase implies sympathy and anxiety—a paralyzing fear of “seeing” femininity that recurs most clearly in the myth of Medusa. To distance himself from subjugation in slavery, and to avoid a sexual relation to the master/father by substituting for his aunt, Douglass appears to repress his identification with his aunt. All the same, slavery's racial structure runs counter to the “normative” oedipal dynamic, since it requires Douglass to identify with his “mother.” Freud defines this psychic configuration as the “negative” Oedipus complex, or “feminine attitude,” because the boy deems the father an object of desire, not a rival. Douglass's identification with the father is also blocked because, as a slave, he cannot claim the full benefits of masculine identity; this also endorses his “feminine attitude.” Accordingly, the Narrative's triangulated scene partly implies a homoerotic structure that requires enslaved African-American men first to identify with, then to desire, and always to fear, white men.

It is tempting to associate Douglass's “negative” or “feminine” Oedipus complex with the extenuating circumstances of slavery's mixture of race, sex, gender, and power. Yet Freud also interprets this “inversion” in a white European patient known as the Wolf Man. At one point in his tortuous way through the oedipal maze, the Wolf Man takes his father as an object of desire, thus identifying with his mother. Though Freud attributes this “feminine attitude” to an earlier “seduction” by his older sister—traumatic not because of a premature introduction to things sexual but because his sister's active behavior usurps the boy's gender role (“History” 210)—Freud explains that the Wolf Man's desire for his father is possible because he has not yet grasped the “fact” of women's castration. If the boy accepted women's castration, he would probably relinquish this “feminine” relation to avoid a similar fate. This argument clarifies that masculinity tends to equate male homosexuality and femininity with passivity. Although popular conceptions of the Oedipus complex assume that the boy's central task is to renounce the mother as an object of desire, fear of castration, in this case study, seems necessary to make the boy renounce his father as a comparable object.

Rerouting the Wolf Man's sexuality onto a masculine, heterosexual track seems to depend, as it does for Douglass, on appreciating the “fact” and price of women's castration. The Wolf Man grasps this price by witnessing (or fantasizing) his parents having sex: This primal scene “was able to show him what sexual satisfaction from his father was like; and the result was terror, horror of the fulfillment of the wish, the repression of the impulse …” (“History” 221). Freud claims that the Wolf Man initially “misinterprets” this scene as an act of violence performed by his father against his mother, but he later “realizes” that his mother's passive, receptive position is normal and that castration is “a necessary condition of intercourse with the father” (231). This shift from “misinterpreting” coitus as violence to “realizing” that women's receptivity signifies castration does not eliminate associations of violence from the sexual scene, but it does ground them in natural law. This means not that heterosexual sex is tantamount to violence against women, but rather that in scenes in which coitus is psychically commensurate with gender inequality, women's disadvantage can appear as sexual victimization. Before the boy sustains his masculine identification, he sees the father's dominance as unjust and coercive. To assuage his terror of this domination, the Wolf Man renders the woman a natural receptacle for patriarchal force; after he discovers that she is castrated, the father's dominant posture appears psychically inevitable. In this way, the boy rescinds his identification with his mother to avoid following her condition.

This account of masculine identification tells us a great deal about Douglass's comparable dilemma. For instance, Douglass's account of his horror at the whipping resonates with Freud's description of the Wolf Man's initial horror at witnessing his parents having sex. Although fantasy clearly frames both scenes, violence in the first example is explicit; in the second, it is implicit (Cunningham 123). Douglass's Narrative stages the violence and coercion of the relationship between master and slave woman as an act of violence with a strong sexual undercurrent. Slavery may therefore partly realize what is implicit in other social and sexual arrangements. Like the Wolf Man, Douglass wards off the terror of the master/father's authority by confining vulnerability to the (African-American) woman and by adopting a masculine identification. By revisiting the whipping scene as its author, Douglass controls the spectacle of the woman to confirm her status as a slave. While Freud's Wolf Man finally interprets the primal scene as proof of woman's castration, Douglass seems to attribute Aunt Hester's violation to her gender and race.

In this respect, the slave woman is an embodiment of slavery; indeed, her abused body is a standard motif of abolitionist literature. Although the Narrative states that men were also the victims of corporal abuse, with one exception Douglass describes horrific violence only against women. In addition to his account of Aunt Hester's humiliation, Douglass recounts that the “head, neck, and shoulders” of a young slave woman named Mary were “literally cut to pieces”; her head was “nearly covered with festering sores, caused by the lash of her cruel mistress” (80). Another “lame, young woman” was whipped “with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip” (99). About the abuse he received, Douglass says only that he had been given “a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose”—apparently, they did nothing to temper his defiance.

By depicting the bodies of abused slave women, Douglass conforms to a convention of abolitionist literature. Furthermore, Douglass clearly sympathizes with the tortured women and eschews self-indulgence by abbreviating descriptions of his own suffering. Yet he also defines agency as masculine by considering slave women as passive victims. Describing his fight with Master Covey, to whom he had been sent in part for disciplining, Douglass contrasts his defiance with the other's passivity: He describes in detail his own whipped body to justify his violent response, which attests to physical power and self-control (Leverenz 109). Adding physical mastery to that of literacy, Douglass's pugilistic resistance “revive[s] within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood” and “inspire[s him] again with a determination to be free” (113). Christlike, Douglass undergoes “a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom” (113); his sisters remain hung from their crucifix-like joists. Since “‘manhood’ and ‘freedom’ function throughout Douglass's discourse as coincident terms,” Franchot remarks, the black woman is left behind in bondage (153). Douglass's notable chiasmus—“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall now see how a slave was made a man”—seems to consign the woman to the position of slave in the slave/man binary.

Douglass's repeated accounts of slave women's—especially his Aunt Hester's—abuse in his three autobiographies have incurred charges that he is complicit with the master: For McDowell, he takes voyeuristic pleasure in recalling this abuse (203), while for Franchot, he “simulates the slaveholder's sexual abuse” by representing it (154). Douglass's compulsion to repeat this scene may indicate his partial identification with the master, but it may also attempt to control the loss of his aunt/mother as an object of desire and possible identification. As in Freud's account of the child who substitutes the presence and absence of an object for the mother's comparable appearances and disappearances, Douglass seems to diffuse his anger at slavery's abuse of women by attempting to create textual control. Thus while I have explored how Douglass's identity seems to require the passivity of black women, I do not mean that Douglass was insensitive to women's oppression, whether black or white: He strongly opposed the abuse of enslaved women and supported female suffrage. However, Douglass did break later with the suffragists when it seemed that black men would get the vote before black or white women. When forced to choose, he argued that black men needed such rights more than women did. He performed a similar triage in his Narrative, albeit unconsciously and indirectly.

If Douglass partly displaces his disempowerment as a slave by reducing slavery to his aunt's abused body and by engaging in compensatory linguistic representation of her abuse, he seems to cope with subjective lack by insisting on female castration and by deploying linguistic authority to maintain this truth. That Hester is castrated for Douglass may exemplify a psychoanalytic model in which all subjects are constituted by lack but male lack is usually repressed by mistaken assumptions that the father simply is the Law and that the penis is the phallus, et cetera. Douglass hints at this assumption and its symbolic compensation when he writes, “My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes” (72). In contrast to Hester's silent suffering, Douglass's abused body authorizes his speech (Franchot 154-55).

That Douglass's text seems to need women's castration and humiliation, in which women are reduced to a literally mutilated body, helps clarify a shift in psychoanalytic theory from Freud to Lacan. Douglass's Narrative uses the image of a castrated woman to foster fantasies of masculine control over meaning. The link between a woman's damaged body and a man's ability to make meaning demonstrates Lacan's claim that what Freud sometimes explained as anatomical fact (female castration) is really a symbolic condition for signification. Freud's oedipal drama of castration, in which the boy identifies with his father on the condition that he see his mother as castrated, is, for Lacan, an allegory for the lack that signals the subject's entry into language.

Under conditions of slavery, in which white men seem to approximate paternal Law, whiteness has a privileged relationship to meaning. In such social formations, the symbolic order is linked to the phallus and to whiteness. That psychoanalysis privileges the phallus as signifier of desire highlights its presumption that the order of symbols is determined by gender and sexuality, and not by race.

Douglass's Narrative manipulates contradictory identifications of gender and race according to political determinants. By comparing his account to Freud's accounts of the Oedipus complex, I have stressed that Douglass claims American citizenship by rewriting his relation to the Name-of-the-Father. I do not mean that Douglass's revisions imply that he has subverted categories of race and gender, but rather that he has altered his relation to the Law. Mapping out these identifications clarifies not only how race inflects the subject's relation to language and sexuality, but also how Douglass and Freud circulated various myths of masculinity. My reading of the Narrative indicates that racial identifications constitute and frustrate gender identifications. The coexistence of these identifications can help us rethink the terms and stability of symbolic Law.


  1. In one of many observations on Douglass's uncertain beginning, Gates writes: “[F]or Douglass, the bonds of blood and kinship are the primary metaphors of human culture.” Family ties are more than a metaphor in this text, however; “laws” of kinship structure human society on symbolic and sociolegal levels, both of which have material effects on individuals. Gates himself notes, in the case of slavery, that “patrilinear succession of the planter has been forcibly replaced by a matrilinear succession for the slave” (“Binary” 70).

  2. “The profound ambiguity of this relationship between father and son and master and slaver persists, if only because the two terms ‘father’ and ‘master’ are here embodied in one, with no mediation between them” (Gates, “Binary” 70).

Works Cited

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cooke, Michael G. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Cunningham, George P. “‘Called Into Existence’: Desire, Gender, and Voice in Frederick Douglass's Narrative of 1845.” Differences 1.3 (1989): 108-36.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. 1910. New York: Gramercy, 1993.

———. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. 1845. New York: Penguin, 1986.

———. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Felman, Shoshana. Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987.

Franchot, Jenny. “The Punishment of Esther: Frederick Douglass and the Construction of the Feminine.” New Literary and Historical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 141-65.

Freud, Sigmund. “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis.” 1918 (1914). Vol. 17 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 24 vols. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953-74. 3-122.

———. “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex.” 1924. Vol. 19 of SE [The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.]. 173-79.

———. “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes.” 1925. Vol. 19 of SE. 248-58.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. “Binary Oppositions in Chapter One of the Narrative.” In Bloom. 59-75.

———, ed. “Race,Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1978.

Johnson, James Weldon. Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. 1912. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.

Leverenz, David. Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Sex and Repression in Savage Society. 1927. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

McDowell, Deborah E. “In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition.” Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Ed. William L. Andrews. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. 192-214.

Niemtzow, Annette. “The Problematic of Self in Autobiography: The Example of the Slave Narrative.” In Bloom. 113-30.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. The Work of Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” The Slave's Narrative. Ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. 148-75.

Parsons, Anne. “Is the Oedipus Complex Universal?” The Psychoanalytic Study of Society 3 (1964): 278-328.

Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987.

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81.

Stone, Albert E. “Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass's Narrative.” In Bloom. 62-78.

Patricia J. Ferreira (essay date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Ferreira, Patricia J. “Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Dublin Edition of His Narrative.New Hibernia Review 5, no. 1 (spring 2001): 53-67.

[In the following essay, Ferreira discusses how Douglass developed his position as a visionary and a leader during a six-month stay in Ireland.]

The year 1845 was pivotal for Frederick Douglass. With urging from friends in the Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, he published his autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Although already recognized as the preeminent antislavery authority on the abolitionist lecture circuit, when Douglass issued his life story as a book, he gave his life a further measure of lasting influence. Without a doubt, publication further advanced Douglass's reputation as a formidable campaigner for African-American freedom. Despite such acclaim, however, his capacity to be a leader was hard won. In 1845 Douglass was also embroiled in circumstances aggravated by both proslavery and antislavery proponents that hampered his ability to move the United States in the direction he envisioned. Eventually, physical attacks by the public, unjust organizational practices of the Anti-Slavery Society, and fugitive slave laws, which instigated and codified prejudicial behavior and beliefs, necessitated Douglass's departure from the United States for Europe to continue his work for slavery's abolition. Douglass hoped to win Europeans over to the abolitionist cause in greater numbers and they, in turn, could exert an influence on American domestic policy that sanctioned slavery.

The hostile environment that Douglass lived in was also beginning to take a toll on his morale. In one of his first letters to William Lloyd Garrison from abroad, he specifically alludes to his state of emotional distress as well as to his hope that, in leaving the United States, he would achieve the liberation necessary to lead the nation toward change. Douglass wrote, “You know one of my objects in coming [to Europe] was to get a little repose, that I might return home refreshed and strengthened, ready to be able to join you vigorously in the prosecution of our holy cause.”1 He hoped that interaction with Europeans who were committed to antislavery objectives would life his spirits with regard to human values and replenish his energy so he could eventually return home to continue to fight.

Although it is common knowledge that, with the publication of his Narrative, in 1845, Douglass left for Europe, what is less recognized is that his first port-of-call, outside of a night spent in England, was Ireland. Indeed, Douglass stayed for nearly six months and found in Ireland supporters who were more than willing to encourage him and his mission in constructive ways. Such interest ultimately helped to instill in Douglass the assurance that enabled him to formulate and articulate a democratic vision for the United States. Specifically, in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison, which was subsequently reproduced in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Douglass wrote about the impact of Ireland on his morale as he detailed his journey through the country. While recounting his experiences as he traveled from Cape Clear in Munster to the Giant's Causeway in Ulster, Douglass said he had spent some of the “happiest moments” of his life. “I seem to have undergone a transformation,” he explained. “I have a new life.”2 These words were later reproduced almost verbatim by Douglass in the Dublin edition of his Narrative published in 1846 where he credited his “new life” as the reason he so fearlessly argued against slavery while touring Europe. Although from a young age he possessed the inclination to be a leader, Ireland was the site where this trait blossomed, free of the concern of retribution.

That Douglass's experiences in Ireland were both personally beneficial and professionally productive might be regarded with certain degree of suspicion, given the popular assumption that African-American and Irish relations contain more rancor than goodwill. It is important to note, however, that Douglass's direct contact with the Irish at fundamental moments during his childhood and adolescence at times bolstered, and perhaps sparked, his resolve to become a free man. For instance, the Irish are often introduced in his writing during crucial moments when he sought his own freedom as well as an end to slavery throughout the United States. When the Irish first appear in the Narrative, they are instrumental in prompting some of his early desires to escape bondage. While working at the Durgin and Bailey shipyard in Baltimore for his master Hugh Auld, Douglass describes how he noticed “two Irishmen” unloading “a scow of stone” one day and offered his help. While they worked, one of the men asked “Are ye a slave for life?” When Douglass replied that he was, the “good Irishman seemed […] deeply affected” by his response and said “it was a pity […].” Both advised him to run north and said he would find friends there and be free.3 Although Douglass partially distrusted their advice, for fear they were part of an oft-used ploy to encourage slaves to escape in order to reap a fugitive reward, his conversation with the two Irish laborers caused him to resolve “from that time to run away” (A 44).

Almost simultaneous with Douglass's direct contact with the two men on the wharf, another experience occurred that equally influenced his yearning for freedom and similarly involved the Irish. While he secretly practiced reading in the attic of the Auld house after his work day in the shipyard, he came upon a speech in the Columbian Orator on Catholic emancipation in Ireland which had been delivered by Arthur O'Connor in the Irish House of Commons.4 Douglass was impressed by O'Connor's sentiments and his declaration that he would “risk everything dear to [him] on earth” for Ireland's independence. Douglass wrote that O'Connor provided him with a powerful vocabulary to voice beliefs within his “own soul” which “boldly” vindicated human rights and “enabled” Douglass “to utter thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery” (A 42). O'Connor demonstrated to Douglass the powerful way that language can provoke a nation toward change.

While his contact with the Irish profited Douglass during his formative years, his abolitionist speaking tour through Ireland later in his life gave him firsthand experience with the indigenous Irish and also rejuvenated his sense of the valuable contribution that words can make to larger political transformation. Douglass was particularly taken with the skillful oratory of Daniel O'Connell, a lawyer who had effectively mobilized masses of poor Catholics into a political force that ultimately called for the repeal of Ireland's union with England. In Life and Times (1893), the third version of his autobiography, Douglass recalled that, prior to his own experience witnessing O'Connell speak, he thought his power was “greatly exaggerated.”5 However, when O'Connell invited Douglass to Conciliation Hall in Dublin, Douglass wrote, “his eloquence came down upon the vast assembly like a summer thunder-shower upon a dusty road” (A 682). He especially marveled at the way O'Connell's delivery captivated his audience and influenced its actions. Douglass wrote, “[O'Connell] held Ireland within the grasp of his strong hand, and [he] could lead it whithersoever [sic] he would […]” (A 682). It was an example worth emulating.6

Beyond the incidental moments described in his autobiographies, Douglass's letters and speeches indicate that, throughout his life, his association with the Irish functioned as a critical component to his own liberation. Furthermore, his relationship with members of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society, considered the most ardent abolitionists in Europe, and his contact with ordinary Irish citizenry in Ireland, who for the most part heartily received him and his mission, assisted his capacity to write of his own experiences in slavery. Their impact on his life becomes especially evident in a variant edition of his Narrative published in Dublin. Scholarship concerning Douglass has only briefly alluded to this 1846 text and never in a way that connects it with its Irish origins. Archival research in both Ireland and Boston, as well as scrutiny of Douglass's letters, reveals how Douglass's association with the Irish resulted in a new preface and appendix to the Narrative which ultimately demonstrate a shift in the author's sense of self that bespeaks his emerging position as a world champion of human rights.

From the outset, when Douglass accepted the invitation of leaders from the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society to visit Ireland, the treatment he was given by everyday Irish men and women as well as the receptions he received during his lectures was a welcome change. Even on the Cambria, which Douglass sailed aboard to Europe, there was evidence that his reception in Ireland would be different from the treatment to which he was accustomed in the United States. When an unruly mob threatened to throw him overboard for speaking against slavery, “a noble-spirited Irish gentleman” stepped up to Douglass's defense and said “that two could play at the game” (LWFD 1:118).7 Later, in another letter to Garrison, reprinted in My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass wrote that with the passing of “eleven days and half” and the crossing of “three thousand miles of the perilous deep,” he went from being “shut out from the cabins on steamboats” and “refused admission to respectable hotels,” to sharing cabs with white people and eating at the same dinner table (A 374). No longer did Douglass have to enter establishments through the back door or wait in back rooms.

In another letter to Garrison, Douglass said that one of the most “pleasing features” of his visit to Ireland was that there was “a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my color.” As he traveled the country, he wrote that no matter where he went there was not “the slightest manifestation of that hateful and vulgar feeling against me” (LWFD 120). He also had no problems finding churches that would admit black worshipers. And within his first days in Ireland, he toured the city of Dublin without incident and had dinner with the mayor. In the letter to Garrison reprinted in My Bondage and My Freedom, he wrote, “No delicate nose grows deformed in my presence” (A 374). The people of Ireland, he said “measure and esteem men according to their moral and intellectual worth, and not according to the color of their skin” (A 375). He also told Garrison that in Ireland he was “not treated as a color, but as a man—not as a thing, but as a child of the common Father of us all” (LWFD 120).

Several of the people that Douglass spent the most time with while in Ireland also contributed to his profitable experiences there. While in Cork, he stayed with Thomas and Ann Jennings and their eight children for a month. Because the family were Church of Ireland members and Cork was largely Roman Catholic, William S. McFeely, in his 1991 biography Frederick Douglass, explains that Douglass took comfort in the fact that the Jenningses knew what it felt like to be different. He was also impressed by their lack of insecurity regarding their difference and the way they carried on as if “everyone else was out of step.”8 Because the Jennings family was large, there was also no time to treat Douglass with any particular favoritism. He spent evenings in their company, gossiping, arguing about reform, and enjoying music. He welcomed the honesty of the Jenningses especially when compared with the sometimes disingenuous behavior of American abolitionists. After leaving Ireland, Douglass and Isabel Jennings corresponded with one another for the rest of their lives.

In addition to the Jenningses, Douglass's association with an Irish publisher Richard D. Webb was another crucial relationship that he established while in Ireland. More than other members of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society, Webb was responsible for organizing and scheduling Douglass's speaking engagements. As with the Jenningses, Douglass valued Webb for his frank honesty. According to McFeely, Douglass was accustomed to the way abolitionists often concealed their disagreements with blacks for fear that they would seem racist. Webb, on their other hand, was extremely candid with Douglass, to the point that the two often had heated arguments with each other. Race was of no consequence. “[Webb] was one of the few,” McFeely says, “who did not prefer to smile benignly and then do [his] undercutting offstage. [He] was brave enough to disagree with Douglass to his face.”9 Such open and sincere interaction between people was a refreshing change for Douglass and it worked to instill within him a more precise vision of attitudes and behavior that he hoped could be replicated in the United States when slavery was outlawed.

Although Irish efforts to end slavery were crucial, the uplift of Douglass's spirits while he toured Ireland was pivotal in his transformation into an esteemed national leader. In his letter to Garrison, he himself said, “Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breath, and lo! the chattel becomes a man” (A 374). Douglass left Ireland for Scotland and England with his sense of self-confidence restored. Moreover, Douglass's experiences in Ireland ultimately contributed to the revitalization of his energy, enabling his return to the United States and his ability to fight for slavery's end at home.

Since the 1845 printing of the Boston text, Douglass's Narrative had held a special place in American literature. It also provided pragmatic benefits for its author. Money raised from its sales helped support Douglass and his family and defrayed the cost of his first trip to Europe, from August 16, 1845 to April 4, 1847. Toward that end, Richard D. Webb, the abolitionist printer from Dublin, also agreed to publish additional quantities of the Narrative so Douglass could readily obtain copies to sell at his various speakings engagements throughout Ireland, Scotland, and England. As with the Boston edition, the Dublin edition sold exceptionally well. An initial run of 2,000 copies in 1845 was quickly bought up. In a letter to Webb, Douglass himself expressed delight over his book's success and the pace of its sales. After a speech in Belfast, during December of 1845, he wrote that all the copies he had on hand were bought “at one blow.” He told Webb, “I want more. I want more.” In a letter to Maria Weston Chapman, Webb reported that Douglass earned $750 from sales of the first Dublin edition. When the version sold out, Webb began production of 2,000 more copies for the 1846 edition.10

The Irish printer, however, did not have a free hand in publishing the text. Correspondence between Webb and Douglass suggests that Douglass was intimately involved in the Narrative's printing. On at least two occasions during the publication of the Dublin editions Douglass is known to have invoked his authority directly in the printing process. The first involved Douglass's dissatisfaction with a portrait of himself that was used on the frontispiece of the text. He had directed an engraver to make it “shorter,” yet after viewing it was still unhappy. Nonetheless, he told Webb to use it, feeling nothing more could be done (LWFD 5:22). The second, more contentious instance involved direct confrontation with Webb, who disagreed with Douglass over the inclusion of endorsements in the second variant by Thomas Drew and Isaac Nelson, two Presbyterian ministers from Belfast. Apparently, Webb objected because he thought they would frame the Narrative within a “sectarian” bias. Douglass, however, believed to leave the ministers' endorsements out because they were clergy “would be to show oneself as much and more sectarian than themselves” (LWFD 1:66). In fairness to Webb, his objections were the result of his acute sensitivity to Douglass's Irish audience, whose strident religious sentiments could obfuscate other concerns.11 Douglass, however, was unwilling to bend and, by the time the text went to print, the two clerical endorsements followed eight others by newspapers such as the New York Tribune and the London Atlas.

Douglass's involvement in the production of his Narrative in Dublin, especially the 1846 text, is important for reasons that reach beyond the cosmetic and marketing concerns that he had in relation to the volume. In particular, the second Irish version contains a new preface and appendix that were not part of the Boston printing and that demonstrate an attitude of self-confidence and self-possession that was not apparent or even available for Douglass to invoke before his stay in Ireland. Although Douglass often expressed his belief that he had a right to have a say in decisions that directly related to and reflected upon his life, his status as a slave negated opportunities to act on such convictions. In Ireland, however, where he was free to behave and speak as he desired, Douglass's capacity to manage his own affairs flourished. Because the amendments to the second Dublin edition of his Narrative are significant, and were placed within the text by Douglass himself, the text is one of the first material manifestations of the control he sought in staking out his place in the world.

While the Dublin variant of the Narrative signifies Douglass's personal aspirations, the text is also inextricably linked to his antislavery objectives, objectives that would have an impact on the entire United States. Douglass viewed individual human will and action as the primary agents of social change. Because the two are so intimately related, one had to continually assess whether one's actions benefited the greater population. Consequently, the right to control his own destiny was as much a part of Douglass's democratic vision for the entire United States as it was a personal conviction. In turn, the inclusion of the new preface and appendix in the second Dublin edition of his Narrative are emblematic of the political and social changes that he sought to engender throughout the United States.

In particular, Douglass's use of specific discursive methodologies in the Dublin text tacitly demonstrates his assertion of command over his own destiny. Part of the preface and the entire appendix are devoted to an exchange between Douglass and A. C. C. Thompson, which initially had occurred in the form of letters made public through national newspapers.12 The rhetorical technique that Douglass employed in creating a dialogue out of the letters with Thompson fundamentally speaks to his desire to seize and manage his own affairs. In short, the form secured “evidence” of a slave's “manhood” because it enabled him to exercise and exhibit the human capacity to reason.13 This is not to say that, prior to Thompson's initial letter, Douglass did not conceive of himself a man. Indeed, much of his Narrative is devoted to such an assertion. The value of the dialogue between Thompson and Douglass was that through it, Thompson, a supporter of slavery, unwittingly corroborated such an assertion of “manhood.” When it came time for the second Dublin edition to be published, Douglass could not resist the chance to expose such evidence to the world. The dialogue format allowed him to assert his own humanity; it served to heighten the fact that the very premise upon which slavery was based—the dehumanization of the slave—was faulty.

The profound lucidity Douglass exemplified in the Dublin Narrative also proved effective beyond the customary function of a slave narrative which was, in part, to condemn slavery's supporters. In the 1846 edition, he exposed the hypocrisy among his more liberal-minded countrymen and women, including abolitionists. Prior to Douglass's trip to Ireland, he was surrounded by racist circumstances that were a consequence of accepted ways of life, modes of behavior, and manners of speech in the everyday American world: the enforcement of Jim Crow practices on boats and trains and in churches from New York to New Hampshire, as well as racist jokes, cold handshakes, slips of the tongue, and the spurious side-comments that accompanied Douglass as he traversed the country to speak of his experiences as a slave.

Abolitionists, themselves, were not immune from promulgating such indecorous behavior, although their conduct was usually accompanied by patronizing elements and notions of paternalism. In Douglass's correspondence, an experience with Maria Weston Chapman of the Boston Anti-Slavery Society illustrates such tendencies. Prior to Douglass's arrival in Ireland, Chapman wrote a letter to Richard D. Webb, the publisher, warning him to “keep an eye” on Douglass, afraid that he would be “won over” by those in the English anti-slavery movement who did not support William Lloyd Garrison. Maria Chapman's comments suggest that Douglass, even with all of his expertise, was incapable of thinking for himself and would be unable to maintain the “proper” course of action advanced by the American Anti-Slavery Society without the constant guardianship of white people involved in the movement. Webb later showed the letter to Douglass, who, in turn, became “furious” with Chapman and said that her “suspicions stuck in [his] crop” and that he could not “get [them] ‘down’ no how.” He wrote Chapman a “sharp” reply saying that he would not “tolerate any efforts to supervise and control his activities” (LWFD 1:65, 142-44, 431). The exchange demonstrates the insidious ways that abolitionists sometimes imposed themselves upon former slaves. Likewise, it indicates the lengths that Douglass was willing to go in order to assert a sense of himself on his own terms. Even though Douglass was abroad when he learned of Chapman's letter, it reminded him of the ways that racism pervaded the United States.

The production of the second Dublin Narrative provided Douglass with an opportunity to challenge the less blatant practitioners of discrimination, such as Chapman. Again, Douglass's skill with the rhetorical conventions of the day infused his chastisement with his particular brand of tenacity. In addition to using the artifice of a dialogue, which had been so effective with Thompson, he used the habit of prefacing a slave narrative to expose the prejudicial practices of abolitionists and their supporters. Usually the ancillary documents attached to slave narratives, like a preface or appendix, were authored by white people as a means to guarantee the credibility of the featured text. Since African Americans were granted an inferior status which was maintained even by abolitionists, blacks were deemed unsuitable authors in their own right. To remedy—as well as reinforce—such beliefs, such white voices Garrison's and Wendell Phillips's in Douglass's text, functioned “as seals of white approval.”13 Even though it was desirable for ex-slaves to write their stories, dominant racist doctrine still mandated that relationship be established whereby whites functioned as those who sanctioned black voices.

Prior to the publication of the second Dublin edition, Douglass had expressed displeasure with the practice of including the words of white people solely to establish a narrative's credibility. Moreover, it is also possible to see that Douglass possessed an effective ability to subvert such practices. In fact, many scholars have accorded his Narrative distinction, without reference to the second Dublin variant, because Douglass undermines, to use Linda Alcoff's distinction, the “discursive authority” granted to particular speakers because of their place in the social hierarchy.14 With the Boston edition, however, scholars had to ferret out the way that Douglass's eloquence intrinsically eclipses the endorsements of his white champions.15 In the Dublin variant, Douglass himself boldly draws attention to the practice of privileging one speaker's words over another's and mocks the power accorded specific social markers such as race.

In the appendix, Douglass sarcastically praises Thompson for doing “a piece of anti-slavery work, which no anti-slavery man could do.” Because abolitionists are believed to be “fanatical, and apt to see everything through a distorted medium,” Douglass chides that “cautious and truth-loving people in New England” do not believe their testimony. On the other hand, “slaveholders, or their apologists,” such as Thompson, are believable because they are somehow credited with being “impartial, dispassionate, and disinterested witnesses.”16 Douglass also demonstrates his sense of irony as he credits Thompson's whiteness, even though it is bathed in the treachery of slavery, as the force that lends the new appendix authority.

Douglass's relentless scoffing ultimately renders Thompson's undeserved privilege, as well as that of Garrison and Phillips, impotent alongside his own more commanding deftness. Douglass usurps Thompson's words and manipulates the rhetorical conventions such as dialogues and ancillary texts to his own advantage. These tactics allowed him even more room to speak for himself, wresting authority from those who sought to deny his right to wholly define his own situation. Acting as a definer rather than the defined, Douglass asserted that blacks were capable of thinking and acting on their own behalf. Furthermore, to position Thompson's words alongside his own was entirely Douglass's decision and signified his heightened sense of self-determination. At the end of the preface, Douglass himself boldly proclaims, “I am an American slave, who has given my tyrant the slip. I am in a land of liberty, with no man to make me afraid” (NLFD vi). In Ireland, no longer literally shackled by slavery and the de facto bonds of fugitive slave laws, Douglass was able to dictate his own actions and speak for himself.

Because the first printing of Douglass's Narrative in Boston has been credited as the authoritative version, interest in the second Dublin edition has been minimal, despite its significance. In fact, the insignificant attention paid to the Irish text has rendered it little more than a footnote in Douglass's literary accomplishments. Even so, the author himself revered the edition. The new preface in the second Dublin variant is especially crucial because Douglass makes explicit the reasons why he left the United States, offering proof of the way that fugitive slave laws had limited his ability to remain free and to help end slavery. He tells his readers that with the publication of his Narrative in Boston, his “owner” [sic] could find out where Douglass resided and return him to “his ‘patriarchal care.’” He writes that although “it may not be generally known in Europe, […] a slave who escapes from his master is liable, by the Constitution of the United States, to be dragged back into bondage […]” (NLFD iii). He explained that, by fleeing overseas he avoided being captured and re-enslaved.

The Dublin variant is also significant because it assisted Douglass in broadening the influence of the antislavery mission in Europe, which ultimately strengthened the American movement. Douglass's tour also had an impact on European anti-slavery organizations in and of themselves. Richard D. Webb, who helped found the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society and published the Irish editions of the Narrative, wrote about the positive influence of Douglass on those in Ireland who were initially reluctant to condemn slavery. In a letter to the Daniel O'Connell, Webb said that Douglass had “occasioned deep interest in the anti-slavery cause, and many who never thought on the subject at all, are now convinced that it is a sin to neglect” (NLFD lvii). Isabel Jennings, of the Jennings family of Cork with whom Douglass stayed for a month, confirmed Webb's observations. In a letter to Maria Weston Chapman, she wrote that Douglass's work resulted in contributions from the Church of England whose clergy had previously remained “silent” when appealed to by abolitionists. “They have got our old anti-slavery papers and are determined to understand the subject,” she said (NLFD lv).

Even without the Church of England's encouragement, however, Douglass's impact in Europe was profound. “Never before have I known anyone who has excited such general interest as Frederick,” wrote Jane Jennings, sister of Isabel. Likewise, John W. Blassingame notes, “Working men contributed their labor to prepare halls in which Douglass spoke, attended his lectures in significant numbers, sent antislavery petitions to the United States, and sang ballads about him.” Moreover, in the second Dublin variant of his Narrative, Douglass appealed to those who thronged to hear him on the European lecture circuit. While recounting the tenets of fugitive slave laws in the edition's preface, he entreated his Irish readership to “co-operate with the noble band of American abolitionists” and work for “the overthrow of the meanest, hugest, and most dastardly system of iniquity that ever disgraced any country” (NLFD iv). The written plea was integral to abolitionist efforts to gain worldwide support to end American slavery.

The Dublin variant's new preface reinforced Douglass's public message, while the Irish text's new appendix had implications of a personal nature. In order to understan