Voice & Identity in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
This essay discusses the book NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS, AN AMERICAN SLAVE: WRITTEN BY HIMSELF, by Frederick Douglass, John W. Blassingame, John R. McKivigan (Editor) and Peter P. Hinks (Yale University, 2001).
Frederick Douglass was an early-19th century American slave who escaped the South and found freedom in the North. Seven years after his escape, Douglass published “Narratives of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,” his story of his life under the brutal system of American slavery, as well as his ability to prevail under and escape such difficult circumstances. It has become an American classic.
Narrative of the Life,” published in 1845, was the first book of Douglass’ writing and journalism career. He went on from “Narratives” to become an accomplished speaker and journalist, arguing passionately for the abolition of slavery, and describing in detail the terror and oppression suffered by slaves and Blacks in the South. He became the preeminent spokesperson in the abolitionist movement.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1817 in the South. His father was most likely his white slave owner. Douglass was sold and resold to various white owners multiple times. A highly intelligent and curious boy, he taught himself how to write and read despite laws forbidding slave literacy, risking severe punishment at the hands of his slaveowners.
After escaping to the North, he was asked to speak at an abolitionist conference he attended and spoke so well and so convincingly that he was soon being asked to speak at other conferences. Eventually, he became well-known nationally as an eloquent orator.
After the publication of “Narratives of the Life,” which quickly became a national bestseller, many former pro-slavery Americans changed their minds about the moral correctness of slavery. “Narratives” also provided further inspiration and support for the abolitionists. Indeed, it was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Douglass was still a fugitive slave, however, and therefore still had to hide from his slaveowner. He fled to England upon the publication of “Narratives of the Life” and subsequently managed to raise the money from newfound friends to buy his freedom from his master.
After Douglass returned to the United States, the Civil War started. By this time, Douglass was fed up with the constant moral battle with pro-slavery advocates, as he realized that their minds would not easily be changed.
Hence, he had become more and more defiant over the years. In fact, he had a feud with one of his closest allies and friends, William Lloyd Garrison (who wrote the preface to “Narratives of the Life “) and parted ways with him because Douglass felt Garrison was not militant enough.
The North won the Civil War, and the Black slaves were freed, causing most white Americans to lose interest in the plight of Blacks. But Douglass continued to fight for the rights of Black Americans, opposing the Jim Crow South, its attendant brutalities (including routine lynchings) and post-Reconstruction racism.
Douglass died in 1895, a famous national figure and an accomplished writer and orator.
Narrative of the Life” is a vivid portrayal of slavery and the tragic conditions of slave life. Douglass describes the vicious brutalities committed by the white slaveowners and shows how the institution of slavery de-humanizes both slave and master. (Douglas regards so-called “religious” slaveowners as the worst, most hypocritical masters of all.)
Frederick Douglass wrote “Narratives of the Life ” as part of quest to establish his own voice and identity as a Black man. Part of the art of domination and oppression is masterfully stripping the subjugated of their original identity and replacing it with a carefully crafted, carefully scripted identity conceived by the oppressors. Of course, this psychological terror only works if the larger societal structure is such that it supports the message of inferiority being received by the subjugated class.
As the twenty-first century scholar Leon Higginbotham, Jr. wrote in his article “The Ten Precepts of American Slavery Jurisprudence: Chief Justice Roger Taney’s Defense and Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Condemnation of the Precept of Black Inferiority”: “[f]or centuries, the perceived inferiority of blacks and the superiority of whites provided the justification for European and American enslavement of Africans.” Even to this day, the quest for identity pervades the work of people of color in the United States, because historically, white America has silenced their unique voices and forced their own version of “identity” on the minority races of this country and out into the world.
History, it is said, is written by the victorious.
Before “Narratives of the Life ” was published, the prevailing image of the Black American in America was of a shiftless Negro who was ignorant, lazy, and happy to be taken care of by the white man because Blacks were unable to take care of themselves. The myth that was perpetrated was of a simple, dim-witted, child-like group of people who were one step below whites and just one step above animals.
As Higginbotham writes in “The Ten Precepts,” “[o]ne rationale for the presumed inferiority of the African slave was that the African was not presumed human at all.” Therefore, it was morally acceptable to own Blacks as slaves, and it was equally acceptable to beat them and treat them cruelly because as childlike dim-wits who were not quite human, they required severe punishment to understand the rules and customs of their masters’ households.
These stereotypes were white Americans’ own narratives designed to entrench the vicious system of slavery in the American South and in the minds of white Americans as a just and proper system of social order.
Indeed, because these stereotypes were so deeply ingrained in the 19th century American consciousness, many people doubted that Douglass was the author of “Narratives of the Life.” They simply could not believe that a Black man – and a former slave at that! – could have the mental or literary ability to write such a masterful, convincing book.
They argued that the abolitionist movement had hired a ghostwriter to pen the manuscript. This illustrates the point of how deeply ingrained the mythology of the shiftless, ignorant slave was in the consciousness of white Americans. Even when the contrary evidence was right in front of their face, they resorted to all sorts of mental shenanigans to rule out the possibility that the world order and mythology they had so carefully constructed was nothing but a house of cards.
No other pervasive narrative existed at that about Black Americans. The abolitionists were fighting hard to end the system of slavery, but they didn’t have a narrative, a compelling story to tell to justify the abolition of slavery.
And as all great trial lawyers know, the facts of the case may be 100% on your side, but you must have a story, i.e., a narrative, to convince people as to why your version of the facts is the correct one.) In white Americans minds’, therefore, Black Americans truly were second-class citizens and a different race of people, and although their plight elicited some sympathy even among non-abolitionists, white Americans had not been given any story that would truly convince them that it was morally wrong to enslave Blacks.
Incredibly, the American legal system accepted this narrative as jurisprudence.
Under the federal law, a slave was literally only a fraction of a person; indeed, he or she was merely the property of the master.
As Higginbothwm explains: “the precept of property described a right of the master. According to that precept, the master owned the slave much in the same way was he owned his horse.” Moreover, in the legal system, the white slaveowners’ testimony was deemed more credible than any slaves’, as any white person was deemed superior to any Black person. Finally, the legal system treated slaves not only as fractions of a person, but also as property. Imagine the strength of a dominating classes’ narrative that propagates the myth that each member of the oppressed class is not only a mere fraction of a person, but is also the mere property of a member of the ruling class. Such myths are bound to have tragic consequences for the members of the subjugated class and their progeny for many, many generations. Indeed, we are witnessing the effects of these mythologies to this day, and can expect to bear witness to them for many years to come.
Narrative of a Slave” marked the first public narrative coming from the voice of a slave. In that regard alone, it was historic.
Even more significantly, as mentioned, it had the effect of changing white American’s attitudes towards Blacks and towards slavery in general. And it was the instigator for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal work, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
But even more profoundly for Black Americans and the slaves themselves, it was the first time a slave had claimed the right to give voice to his own identity and to the true plight of the slaves.
In “Narratives of the Life,” Douglass wrote:
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.”
Doing such was no small feat or abstract act. It was an act of enormous symbolic and psychological importance for slaves – akin to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in the South in the 1960’s a century later, thus sparking the civil rights movement.
William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass’ former friend and political ally, wrote in the preface to “Narratives of the Life ” that for slavery to be effective it must obliterate the ability of the captive to read, write, reason effectively and moralize at a high level.
Indeed, any system of domination must suppress the ability of the oppressed to gain access to education, give voice to their opinions, and construct their own identities.
We can see the truth of this statement in systems of domination around the globe today. Any effective tyrant and any insidious system of subjugation keeps the oppressed class segregated geographically and economically and either allows them limited access to education or ensures that their education is sub-par. Moreover, their freedom of speech is either limited or their speech goes unheard by the majority class. Finally, if they do try to speak in their own voice – for example, Mexican-Americans attempting to construct a uniquely Mexican-American identity and speaking in Spanish on a routine basis in their art and with each other, etc. — they are often ostracized and/or penalized.
Thus, even today we can see the power of “Narrative of a Slave.”
Not only did Frederick Douglass literally risk his life to gain an education while still a slave, but also he rejected the mythology of slavery from the beginning.
Keep the black man away from the books, keep us ignorant, and we would always be his slaves… Come hell or high water – even if it cost me my life – I was determined to read,” Douglass wrote in “Narratives of the Life.” A proud young boy, he was sent by his master to a notorious slave breaker, who couldn’t manage to corrupt Douglass’ spirit. Even more astounding is that Douglass risked an escape after being caught trying to escape a first time – this time making it to the North. So that by the time Douglass published his first book and gave voice to his own story, rejecting the black mythology that had reigned supreme for so long, he had already overcome a powerful psychological system of domination and terror in several significant ways.
The message of “Narrative of a Slave” is that once we give voice to our own history and our experiences, and refuse to allow others to shape our identities for the history books, not only do we perceive ourselves differently, but also the world perceives us differently. But to do this, for oppressed people around the world, is no easy matter. As Douglass did over a century ago, the tools of power – primarily education and speech – must be somehow obtained, if only inch by inch. These tools allow an individual to begin to speak out to those in power around the world and vocalize what has not been said before.
As long as the dominant class is allowed to give their version of history and of the present, and as long as they are able to impose their constructed notions of identity and stereotypes on subjugated classes, economic and military resistance is largely futile. Claiming one’s identity, therefore, is one of the most significant weapons in the worldwide fight against oppressions in all forms, and “Narratives of the Life ” was a seminal work instructing us in the deployment of that weapon.
17 Cardozo Law Review 1695 (1996).