David Stalder
English 341: Nation & Narration
Reed College
May 6, 1997

Life of the Narrative of
Frederick Douglass,
an American Man


Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment -- from whence came the spirit I don't know -- I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose.
(Douglass 112, chapt. 10)


In Chapter 10 of Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of... an American Slave, Douglass describes an important incident in which he forces backward the standard master-slave hierarchy of beating privileges against his temporary master, Mr. Covey. The victory proves for Douglass a remarkable source of renewed yearning for freedom and of self-confidence; as he "rose" physically, standing up to fight, he "rose" in spirit. Covey did not "have" Douglass in the sense of either fighting or ownership, and could not "do what he pleased." The description of the internal and external results of the fight displays a clear degree of signification in order to convey to the reader the highly personal nature of the triumph--signifying being described by Roger D. Abrahams as a "technique of indirect argument or persuasion" and "a language of implication" (Gates 54). Douglass explains, "He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery" (113, chapt. 10). The overt statement describes a unique feeling arisen from relatively unique circumstances; but the implication tacked on to the statement might be phrased as: "Such a one is most probably not you, the reader." What is the use of constructing this implied distance between the narrator and the reader? The fact that Douglass has taken up writing as an articulate method of communication seems in many ways to indicate an adoption of the "white" voice, but ultimately he stands on his own, apart to a controlled extent from his white audience. An examination of the Narrative through a signification-sensitive lens, as defined by Abrahams and discussed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Signifying Monkey, with attention to narrative detail, will reveal how Douglass both achieves and reflects through his Narrative a powerful independence of self and spirit which itself is independent of both Northern allies and legal and bodily freedom.

Many would argue with justification that Frederick Douglass has adopted, to forge his narrative voice, a strong tool of the white, educated society which, in its Southern substantiation, has held him captive. Douglass in part takes the reins of his destiny by (eventually and initially nervously, according to the Narrative) addressing an audience which would once have been unaddressable. When Douglass was a slave the most contact he had with the abolitionists was, at best, their addressing of him, in small, distant doses, through the literature of which Douglass managed to get a hold. A slave can take orders from Southern whites and occasionally receive information or ideas from Northern whites (or abolitionists), but a certain degree of power or status, springing out of ability and freedom to articulate, is required to address them in return. The power to address is, in a small way, a sign of equal intellectual and social footing.

Literacy and articulation are very closely linked for Douglass. During his struggle to learn how to read, he says, some anti-slavery arguments "gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance... The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts" (84, chapt. 7). The acts of reading and writing, together one of the major explicit themes of the Narrative, are even more important than audience, for while the latter develops for Douglass once he is free, the former are necessary for that freedom. Upon having learned what literacy is, Douglass "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" (78, chapt. 6). The pathway, that of learning to read and write, is paved with the ability to address through the written medium, the potential to gain vast stores of knowledge and ideas, the opportunity to clarify thought and reflect, the possibility of forging one's own free pass, and other wonderful prospects. The importance of literacy is not at all subjectively delineated; the very idea was sparked by Mr. Auld, who "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" (79, chapt. 6).

The mutual recognition of the "advantage" of literacy held by the white slaveholder over the black slave is but one indication that, when Douglass takes the reins of this vehicle to freedom, he is adopting the voice of a white society. Another such indication is that Douglass has ostensibly published an abolitionist tract in the form of his narrative. Abolitionist literature, while speaking on behalf of the black oppressed, is still a "white" voice, coming as it does primarily from white Northerners and addressed to an educated audience made up mostly of other whites. Furthermore, the very act of writing is a public act, and participating in the world of literature sets Douglass up as a player in a world dominated by whites, as opposed to the literarily silent, experiential world of the black slave; as Houston Baker, Jr. explains, "By adopting language as his instrument for extracting meaning from nothingness, being from existence, Douglass becomes a public figure" (Baker 251).

To end, however, with the statement that Douglass adopts the voice of a white society in order to achieve and reflect upon his freedom would be both an oversimplification of the Narrative and an undermining of the true nature of independence. Douglass says that winning his fight with Covey "rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood" (113, chapt. 10). His association of freedom with both developing manhood and the aspiration to literacy, present throughout the Narrative, turns a public fight for a socially and politically determined freedom into a private one. The quest for liberty is parallel, and even dependent on, the quest for self-definition.

Baker says that the whole of the Narrative "serves to illustrate the black autobiographer's quest for being" (Baker 245). He argues the importance of the definitive, reflective and expressionistic aspects of the language control attained by Douglass in his move towards freedom and self-awareness:

When clarified and understood through language, the deathly, terrified nothingness around him reveals the grounds of being. Freedom, the ability to chose [sic] one's own direction, makes life beautiful and pure. Only the man free from bondage has a chance to obtain the farthest reaches of humanity. From what appears a blank and awesome backdrop, Douglass wrests significance. His subsequent progression through the roles of educated leader, freeman, abolitionist, and autobiographer marks his firm sense of being.
(Baker 248)

Baker here defines freedom as "the ability to choose one's own direction," sentiments expressed well by the first point of the original Black Panther Platform and Program; "We believe that black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny" (Seale 66). Douglass was an important abolitionist, but if the Narrative demonstrates that he simply escaped from slavery and joined the "other side," to what extant has he actually determined his own destiny? It is true that his decisions were all entirely of his own volition (it must be assumed), but must he confined, then, entirely to the voice of an abolitionist in the white tradition? In the preface to the Narrative William Lloyd Garrison praises Douglass to no end almost entirely in terms of ideals most common among educated, upper class whites. Baker notes that Douglass, as described by Garrison, "Obviously... was of inestimable 'public usefulness' to the abolitionist crusade," and becomes "part of [the abolitionist audience's] conceptual, linguistic and rhetorical repertoire" (Baker 252).

This image of Douglass would point towards an assimilation of his voice into that of the white abolitionist movement, which is dangerously close to undermining the struggle for self-definition and internal independence. He does, of course, gain a great deal from the transition from slavery to freedom no matter how one looks at it, but Baker explains that "the roles he projects for himself in the latter part of his Narrative... are all in harmony with a white, Christian, abolitionist framework" (Baker 250). He wrongfully determines that Douglass develops these roles at the cost of an older, less literate identity; "...once literacy has been achieved, the black self, even as represented in the Narrative, begins to distance itself from the domain of experience constituted by the oral-aural community of the slave quarters" (Baker 253).

Douglass does not in the narrative submit so wholly to such distancing. A writer is always a certain distance away from the written subject, even if that subject is the earlier writer, but Douglass demonstrates a continued attachment to his personal history in ways which are not done justice solely by Northern abolitionist sentiments. The imagery Douglass evokes to describe the conditions of slavery demonstrates the tangible and emotional, if saddening, connection of continuous experience the literate black man has with his past as a slave: "My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes" (72, chapt. 5). Douglass' pen, or his self as defined by literate communication and thought, does find a painful foundation in the "gashes" left by slavery.

Douglass thus displays a mature sense of his own continuing association with the Narrative's subject; namely, Douglass himself in his "Life [as]... an American Slave" (title). Ellwood Parry describes black auto-artistic expression of the Civil War era, compared to white depictions of black subjects, as potentially much freer from stereotypes and strategy, the latter being the editing of subject to "suit [one's] own purposes." Regarding the black artist who created a wood carving of a Boy holding a Bucket, "the free Black man who created the statue was transmitting a cultural image of much greater dignity through the sober, erect, and self-contained posture of his subject--without the slightest trace of caricature or social distance between maker and subject" (Parry 100-101). Such a description can well be applied to Douglass' study of his own life.

Parry's claim of a lack of distance between the black subject and the black artist contrasts sharply with Baker's view. Douglass himself closes the gap in many places in the Narrative between himself at the time of his writing and freedom and his previous, experiential self. In Chapter 2 he discusses the importance of the slave song, examining an oral form of communication through a written medium. He does not deny a certain separation, consisting of temporal distance, impartial reflection and situational subjectivity: "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, chapt. 2). The songs are emotional communication, and relied more on both signification and tacit perception than on the overt "understanding" associated with writing. Douglass may, at the time he writes the Narrative, "understand" them better, but the experiential effects of the songs carry over into his post-slavery life. In his youth, "The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness," and when free, "The mere recurrence of those songs, even now, afflicts me... Those songs still follow me" (58, chapt. 2). Even though years may separate him from these songs, Douglass is permanently attached to them by the bittersweet cords of experience and emotion he wore under the chains of slavery.

The songs Douglass discusses represent a world quite distant from a Northern abolitionist audience while still close to a former slave. They themselves are a form of signification which implicitly excludes whites; "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" (57, chapt. 2). Gates explains that the singers "were literally defining themselves in language, just as did Douglass" (Gates 67). The signification and exclusiveness inherent in the songs and present in the Narrative in the context of these songs help delineate a type of defining language which is free from obedience or allegiance to "white" language.

The songs are, of course, powerful enough so that anyone should be able to feel their message upon analyzing them, but it must be done "in silence" (58, chapt. 2), which may signify a method of passive understanding not normally embraced by activists who, by definition, speak out on topics of import, either to understand or combat. Douglass' audience appears to be composed of those who seek narration, discourse and action, not silence, to learn and spread the whole truth about slavery. Douglass also speaks of the shock of finding Northerners who believe the songs to be signs of contentment. Doing so, besides simply remaining true to his own discourse, functions as an effective signification aimed indirectly (through the third person) at any members of his readership who have been fooled or convinced by the mistaken belief.

Rather than a developing between Douglass and his "black" self, a distance begins to grow between the audience, for the most part presumably white, Northern, and subject to shortcomings of interpretation, and that same "black" self and his world. This plays against a basic function of a narrative--namely, to bring the reader closer to the subject. Douglass' strategies further distinguish themselves from sentimental literature and anti-slavery propaganda such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and advertisements for the education of former slaves (Parry 108-109). It was these types of writing, usually representing a "white" Christian abolitionist voice, which tended to edit depictions of blacks to "suit their own purposes"; those purposes being to strategically draw open sympathy from white readers. Such methods included an emphasis of social distance between writer and subject, portraying of slaves as undereducated victims who would be able to think, act and pray just as whites do, if only they were allowed freedom and proper learning. Social distance was therefore used to gain sympathy and draw the audience closer to the subject in sentiment. While Douglass makes no definite assertions as to any inherent differences between ethnicities, he moves the subject of his narrative in the opposite direction from his audience and towards the writer, showing that black slaves are more than merely underdeveloped, socially alienated, darker-skinned whites.

The distance is made explicit by the assertion alluded to earlier that, regarding the triumph of "whipping" Covey, "He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery" (113, chapt. 10). The message is, in a subtle, accepting fashion, one of "You weren't there and therefore can not truly know." Being in the affirmative, however, this sentence is not reproachful of its audience, and even encloses a double signification: it refers to the potential reader who is him- or herself an ex-slave who may have once tangled with a master. In this way Douglass signifies in a positive sense, directed at one who might already come from "his world," a world which presumably excludes most of his readers. Such signification points to the importance of the slave and slave experience as active guiding forces of the Narrative, rather than being confined to the passive display cage of white-oriented sentiment present in much abolitionist literature. Although Gates, in his discussion of the "Trope of the Talking Book," sees Douglass' voice as fully garbed in abolitionist clothing, what he says of Douglass' freedom from traditional Christian sentiment and images of naïve blacks can be broadly applied:

Because Douglass and his black contemporaries wish to write their way to a freedom... they cannot afford [the] luxury of appealing... primarily to the Christian converted. Douglass and his associates long for a secular freedom now. They can ill afford to represent even their previous selves--the earlier self that is transformed, as we read their texts, into speaking subjects who obviously warrant full equality with white people--as so naive as to believe that books speak when their masters speak to them.
(Gates 167)

The slave's narrative independence of white standards, demonstrated by the distance between audience and subject, reflects upon the narrator, who bridges the gap between the two and can signify back and forth, demonstrating a controlled loyalty to the latter even while physically removed from it. Independence is asserted in part by denial of the audience, such as in the withholding of the satisfaction of the details of Douglass' escape from the South. His reasons are important ones, and quite regrettable in more than one way. He must protect with his silence both those who helped him escape and those who may try to escape in the future. These reasons are but one more restatement that slavery is still in effect at the time the Narrative is written, and is also frustrating to the "curiosity, which I know exists in the minds of many" (137, chapt. 11).

Even though revelation of the details would be a "pleasure" for the writer as well as the reader, when Douglass does describe them in an article written some time after the Civil War, he notes that "even since the abolition of slavery, I have sometimes thought it well enough to baffle curiosity by saying that while slavery existed there were good reasons for not telling the manner of my escape, and since slavery had ceased to exist, there was no reason for telling it" (Douglass 1881:126). In a small way Douglass is signifying on his audience, by effectively telling them, "You don't need to know, you could never really know, and ignorance rather suits you." Douglass' personal world of experience, while painful, has given him a certain autonomous superiority over the removed, ignorant yet curious white audience. When he does reveal his methods of escape, therefore, it is entirely on his own terms.

Even while surrounding himself in and utilizing the articulate "white" medium of writing, Douglass continues to hold on to his roots, which in opposition to articulation are encoded as a particular, meaningful silence. The silence adhered to out of honor and loyalty to slaves and friends from the slave's world mirrors the "silence" necessary during analyzation of slave songs in order to grasp their message. By raising the issue of the continuing plight of slaves in the South, Douglass proclaims his own connection to them despite his own deliverance: "We owe something to the slaves south of the line as well as to those north of it" (138, chapt. 11).

The Narrative depicts as much of an internal struggle for freedom and manhood as a social one, and similarly, the above insistence reflects both a publicized faithfulness to other human beings who are where Douglass has been, and an individual identification with those human beings. In a sense, Douglass works towards his ends as a Northern black man but also owes something to his own, internal Southern slave. He honors the non-literate (although far from dumb) silence of the slave as well as the continuing presence of emotions rooted in his Southern experience; the latter being revealed by his reaction upon hearing slave songs.

The broad implication of this continued identification with the slave is that Douglass at the time of the Narrative's writing has not, in fact, "switched voices," or adopted a completely new one, but speaks through an old, long-developing voice with additional perspective and articulation. He is, after all, the same person as he once was, only more literate, mature, fully-realized and free to choose his destiny. He is free to signify back and forth between two worlds, and although he addresses the newer one, many of his loyalties, both personal and narrative, still lie with the older.

The distinction is even slightly blurred on occasions. The main body of the Narrative ends with the beginning of Douglass' free, abolitionist, oratory and public life--basically, the one which he leads as he writes (much as though the Narrative took place in a sort of semi-mythic past which continues in a semi-mythically distant realm). At this turning point, Douglass admits an understandable hesitation: "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" (151, chapt. 11). The lingering slave-like feelings are not perpetrated by those around him but come from inside, in a place that has been under construction since he was born. He still feels like a slave and dreads speaking because the person he always was and voice he always had are still with him, and he must set about the task of updating and broadening them. The "degree of freedom" he feels is not the exact freedom Douglass has always sought, for that was not to be attained ultimately be a speech, although it is related, and may be a "degree" of that freedom. It is more simply a freedom from self-inhibition after years of the societal inhibition of slavery, and an entrance into the active side of a world of articulate communication.

Douglass stands before a white audience, feeling somewhat a slave, his "black self" (in the words of Baker) not in fact terribly distanced from its past experience. He seems to stand, in both identity and narrative voice, with one foot on each side of the Mason-Dixon line. Because the division between the slave Douglass and the writer Douglass is not absolute, the question is raised of how much the physical escape to the North affected the division. Becoming free seems to have added a new dimension to his voice rather than having caused him to adopt a new one. Indeed, learning to read and write while still a slave was a much larger step towards freedom of the intellect than is addressing a crowd of abolitionists as a free man. Numerous other such steps are taken in slavery, and a the very nature of freedom is called into a positive questioning. Using powerful imagery to describe his victory over Mr. Covey, Douglass says, "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" (113, chapt. 10).

This victory, combined with the achievement of literacy and other factors, such as the will to escape and attempt to teach others, point to a sense of inner, "factual" freedom which develops while Douglass is still a slave according to the law and in the public eye. Just as the Narrative is a personal story set within a framework of social relevance, the striving for freedom is personal before it is physical and external. In spirit and sense of self Douglass becomes free while still a slave, even if that freedom makes his more tangible bonds all the more painful. Because he fought for this freedom long before being ranked among free Northerners, Douglass maintains, in his narrative for the white abolitionist movement, an inner independence of social and legal definitions of slavery and freedom.

Bibliography


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