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 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.
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.
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