Audience, Nationalism, Race in Douglass

Audience, Nationalism, Race in Douglass


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A mere look, word, or notion, — a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters

for which a slave can be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied?

It is said, he has a devil in him, and it must be whipped out.



Books by and about Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself  / My Bondage and My Freedom

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass / Frederick Douglass: Selected speeches and Writings 

The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader Frederick Douglass by Booker T. Washington

The Mind of Frederick Douglass   /  Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass

Black Hearts of Men Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity

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Reconciling, Audience, Nationalism, and Race

in the Writings of Frederick Douglass

By Raymond Brookter

In Chapter 11, and the Afterword of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, a notable literary event occurs. No longer choosing to be acted upon as he navigates his readers through the hostile landscape of Slavery, it is in this last chapter of his work where Douglass initiates action. Although the fight between him and Slave breaker Covey, which Douglass describes in the preceding chapter in lavish detail and is often anthologized in American literature collections as the moment where Douglass breaks the binds of dehumanization to in his words, “revived within me a sense of my own manhood,” Douglass remained chained to the debased system of servitude.

In Chapter 11, Douglass who has served admirably as narrator and interlocutor now dissembles, in fact, conceals the route of his escape, and risks the authenticity of his story for his own sense of battling injustice. Here, Douglass speaks to his slave-bound brothers who, like him, seek physical and political liberty in this “land of the free.” Can a narrative by a 19th century Negro writer “speak” to the reader as both an independent document of personal autonomy as an American citizen, while in concert addressing the authenticity of a document of racial identity and repatriation for a community?  

In this paper, I will examine how in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself  and in other writings by the abolitionist, Douglass accomplishes multiple objectives depending upon the ethnic authorship and racial designation of the audience. In the “Address of Frederick Douglass at the Inauguration of Douglass Institute, Baltimore, October 1, 1865,” Douglass sounds more like a fiery black pan-Africanist than a Garrisonian as he convinces his audience of mostly black males to eschew the mind manacles of self-hatred, and to look to Africa or Hayti (later spelled Haiti) for examples of civilization in the black or colored nations. It is suggested that once the lived experience “goes public” and is compartmentalized, the loss in translation that occurs disassociates and dislocates the “authentic black experience” (Franklin 1). However, Douglass’s writing provides for its audience a text demonstrative of editorial control, political purpose, and consumer desire for an ideal product.

The meshing of form and content marks the narrative as a valued social artifact. Unlike the captivity narratives of colonial settlers or of the North African memoirs of Whites captured by Islamic Arabs, the recollections of the fugitive slave spoke of persons intimately linked with their former enslavers. The language of difference that often permeated the adventurous flight from captivity by whites was seldom present in the narratives that served the abolitionist’s movement. In many literary works where the Black American is the subject, themes of national identity and ethnic experience often clash either in the perspective of the author/writer, in the action of the characters and the omnipresence of racial antagonism in the novel, or in the environment where the maturation or degradation of the main figure occurs. Two “warring bodies” were coeval in a fugitive slave narrative; that of the enslaved African and that of the black citizen in America, and both sought recognition within white and black readerships.

Who is Douglass’s audience? Some scholars may assert that through the work of the author to create or authenticate a lived experience or historical event establishes a covenant with the audience to convey a particular message. Another view may reveal that the work of any literature is not to work, for it invariably rises to form, not function, and fulfills its role in its content. As done in the work of V. P. Franklin in Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of the African-American Intellectual Tradition (1995), the author referenced throughout his thesis that “life writings” of authors, abolitionists, fugitives, political leaders and other “race” men was a “major activity for black intellectuals” in the 19th century (1). Examples from Douglass’s writings demonstrate Douglass’ attention to his national and international readership and audience while giving his race environment voice through his works of the strength, possibility, ambition, and hope.

In the Preface of Douglass’s Narrative by famed Abolitionist William Garrison, we as audience discern what Douglass has accomplished through his learning, and this standard of literacy by the staunch abolitionist Garrison is a tacit endorsement for reading Douglass’s work. Do we as audience experience dislocation between the writer as subject and the writer as the authentic voice of Douglass as the author yields to the political and concurrent editorializing that sanction the captivity story for a white audience? It was often evident in the prefaces of several narratives; from the first recorded slave narrative of Briton Hammon in 1760 (Adam Tryall’s was published in 1703 but isn’t canonized) to the celebrated work of Frederick Douglass that a white person endorsing the authenticity of the black writer, lent itself to a tacit approval of the Negro in social intercourse. This “marginal being,” through the letters and language of his captor, begins to assemble for him or her self an identity to displace psychological barriers of dehumanization by having their say.

In the Narrative, Douglass gives an example of typing the slave and the slave master when he speaks of treatment by the Reverend Rigby Hopkins whose maxim was noted as “Behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master to occasionally to whip up a slave, to remind him of his master’s authority (Douglass 73). The advantage of the narrative is intimacy between the writer and his or her audience. Douglass, a professed Christian, an activist for the America’s promise of equality, and a survivor of the Slavery’s inhumanity, weighs facts against the audience’s reactions based upon their patriotism and their morality. Consider the protocol between the slaver and his captive in what Douglass describes to those “unaccustomed to a slaveholding life” (73).

A mere look, word, or notion, — a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave can be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has a devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty (73).

Douglass demonstrates his gifts for argument in citing such “charges” against the slave as dissatisfaction, demonstration, deference, and disagreement are all cause for a beating that would shame the owner of a horse or cow, but were completely expected of the owner of this domestic chattel.

William Stanton in The Leopard’s Spots cites John Locke as the “great prophet of natural rights” as an antithesis toward his own reasoning about generating and conducting a scientific approach to race, in particular an environment morally, politically, and emotionally favored to the White race. In his examination of races in America, Stanton writes in the chapter titled “An Universal Freckle” that

Locke knew that men were of the same species because they descended from the same creation. But Locke had never lived in proximity of Negroes or Indians. Americans did, and many wondered just how far the concept of equality extended (Stanton 2).

In the face of cultural genocide and self-abnegation through a lack of information, the work of abolitionists like Douglass would counter assertions that the nation of dark men and women were not worthy of the consideration of inclusion in the human race. While many devices of slave narratives seem formulaic in that a white writer like Harriet Beecher Stowe could incorporate its pathos to create a novel that Abraham Lincoln would credit as “the little book that started this big war,” writers like Douglass would not be readily restrained in their rhetoric and propaganda, and racial uplift invariably rises to the work of activist American and Black art.

While it is often a futile exercise to determine what level of “Americanism” is inherent in a particular literary work or text and what is evidenced in those particular creations, it certainly is not in question that many scholars and critics are quick to give cause as to whether a work is authentically “black.” In what Houston A. Baker, Jr. calls the “locus classicus of African American literary discourse,” the slave narrative that arose through the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States for scholars “constitute the first, literate manifestations of a tragic disruption in African cultural homogeneity” (169). The writings of this time spoke to beliefs rooted in the American scene, so while Douglass is often celebrated for his eloquence, one reading “What is American Slavery,” or his objections to the Fourth of July would see a being reflecting change in his status as an enslaved African and a human being in America denied the basic rights afforded to a human being.

To this end, much debate over the degree to which the African American subject is writing from anger, aggression, jubilance, ebullience or protest within the text often determines whether the material is taught and researched in academic journals and on college campuses. The familiarity of college readers with excerpts from Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X in relation to composition, literacy, ethnic studies, history, sociology, and cultural anthropology demonstrate the extension to which the lived experienced serves as both art and polemic of Malcolm’s development as a statesman for Black America and a social commentator of American policy.

Frederick Douglass’s writings weigh an understanding of audience and with the knowledge of certain tropes established in American Literature. History is rife with the subjugation of non-white peoples around the world. Erased from debate and discussion, students and instructors pledge each semester in secondary schools and college campuses to overlook the “historical relic” of the component of racial exchange for what remains; a document intrinsically linked to values and criticism that in its era did not blanch from practices of racial exclusivity.

There were those who came not from only the religious community, but political and scientific communities as well, and their rhetoric also spoke to an “American” audience. Even a century later, there are those who asserted their claim of supremacy as an act of Nature. One infamous writer noted that “Though some stiff-necked New Yorkers or Charlestonians might cavil at the notion, most Americans probably admitted that all white men were created equal. But did the phrase in their Declaration mean that the Negro was the equal of the slaveholder or the Southern poor white” (Stanton 2)?

The question was certainly settled in the mind of the author of the quasi-scientific tract/anthology, titled from the racist text The Leopard’s Spots by Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman, a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan that would be immortalized in infamy in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Stanton gathers research from the slavery and antebellum era. In his writing, while not anti-abolition, addresses an view often refuted in Douglass’s life work, and that is of the conduct and moral fitness of the black captive. Stanton writes

The slaves, not one of whom had ever written a book, worked with brush or palette, or, in fact, done anything requiring more mental application than suckering tobacco, hoeing corn, or perhaps in a burst of endeavor, shoeing a horse or waiting table–were these slaves the white man’s equals? What of the Indian? The Indian who stalked the plains and forests of the West in search of food like the veriest beast, who was taciturn and vindictive and stubbornly shunned the blessings of civilization–was the Indian created the equal of the white? (Stanton 2).

The charge against and designation of “protest literature” in most African American writing is not a charge often leveled at “majority” writers such as Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser whose works have often challenged and changed policy and practice the United States. It is in such works as the poem “America” by James Whitfield in 1853, where the relationship between the “lowly slave” and his “Christian” master are celebrated in verse, and the poem becomes a pro-slavery polemic.

In a poem of the same title by Jamaican immigrant Claude McKay in the 20th century, views of national pride and ethnic awareness also converge to collaborate to form art and history as one, but this poem speaks of inclusion, of the awareness of a slave/Negro as a human being, and the poet exclaims that his pledge is upon American soil as a citizen. This is the work of the slave narrative and of 20th century autobiographical “novels,” such as  Black Boy  by Richard Wright. Writers such as William Faulkner, James Baldwin, and critic Irving Howe have cried “Alarum” at the work of nationalism connected to race in works by Black writers such as Richard Wright; yet these celebrated writers cum social theorists sought to believe that any ideology, particularly that of race, invariably colors people’s judgments and delays the universalistic idea of a colorblind, or moreover, a colorless society.

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Frederick Douglass

                         By Robert Hayden

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air, usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all, when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole, reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians: this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted, alien, this man, superb in love and logic, this man shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric, not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 23 September 2007



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Related files:   Fourth of July Speech    Douglass’ 1845 Narrative  Writings of Frederick Douglass

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