"Why am I called upon to speak here to-day?" The jeremiad in the speeches and writings of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X.
As two of the most important and highly sought public figures of their respective eras, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and human rights advocate Malcolm X staked out and maintained their respective reputations via public and private speaking engagements that allowed them to display their skills as master orators. Both speakers' fame and desirability as speakers depended upon their abilities to address their audiences using a combination of the techniques of traditional rhetoric and the sermonic styles of American politics, mainstream American Protestantism, and African American churches. Simultaneously, their efficacy as speakers and activists depended upon public images that were elaborate (re)constructions of their true identities--(re)constructions that depended upon highly charged and masterful rhetorical turns. Whereas Douglass addressed the evils of slavery and those who passively or actively allowed the institution to flourish, Malcolm X decried the segregation and brutal violence of American racism and what he perceived as the intellectual dishonesty of his white and black contemporaries. Both speakers argue in their early speeches and writings that America's inability to exorcise the evils of their respective eras would end in its destruction, whether through social unrest or divine intervention. Both thus transformed the rhetorical tradition of the American jeremiad to address crises that threatened to destroy the nation, thereby offering hope even as they lamented the nation's failed promise and predicted its destruction. Their characterizations of the nation are, as a consequence, deeply connected to their personal and political backgrounds; the jeremiad depends heavily upon the speaker positing himself as a prophet.
In this article I take a closer look at the rhetorical strategies and logic each author uses in selected speeches and writings as he developed his religious, political, and ideological bases. I argue that both Douglass and Malcolm X use the jeremiad in its uniquely American form primarily to embody a frequently apocalyptic vision of the American landscape even as it allows for the redemptive possibility of achieving social equality between white and black Americans. This latter allowance forces us to revisit the way we read both speakers, especially Malcolm X. Douglass' championing of social equality serves as a counterpoint to his predictions that America would meet its destruction because of its failure to uphold the promises of the Constitution and of democracy. His 5 July 1852 address in Rochester, New York--better known as "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"--traces the historical processes that led to the foundation of the United States and the writing of the Constitution, then condemns the nation for slavery, concluding with William Lloyd Garrison's poem, "The Triumph of Freedom," which declares that freedom, civil rights, and fraternity shall prevail (Douglass, Papers 2:387-88). Relatively few of Douglass' addresses and writings, in fact, end pessimistically, while his final autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, actually ends on a cheery note, claiming an incomplete but inevitable "victory" for himself and his people (487). By the same token, we would be well served by avoiding simplistic readings of Malcolm X as the eternal pessimist of the Civil Rights Movement era. Close analysis of his use of the jeremiad reveals that he conceded the possibility of salvation within America, rather than apart from it. In that sense, Malcolm X is a direct ideological descendant of Douglass, who alternately believed in and was skeptical of the promises of American democracy. Both posit the pursuit of justice and equality as the only path by which America will escape the apocalyptic moment. Moreover, Douglass and Malcolm X are the prophetic figures or Mosaic leaders of their people who possess the message containing salvation. This befits the characteristics of the jeremiad tradition into which they have inserted themselves.
In his classic study of the jeremiad's American form, Sacvan Bercovitch defines it as a "political sermon--what might be called the state-of-the-covenant address" that frequently berated the iniquities of Puritan colonists who fell short of their Divine errand: to make a new and better world in America and purify themselves of the world's wickedness in order to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven (4). Before it was brought to America, the classic jeremiad lamented the waywardness of the people and predicted that God's wrath and the destruction of the people were imminent, not unlike the condemnations of the biblical Jeremiah himself. In America, however, the jeremiad became an ambivalent instrument of ecclesiastical restoration. Instead of merely predicting the populace's doom, the clergyman would first remind them that they were the chosen people, then offer the hope and promise of redemption if they would only repent their sins and return to the errand God had assigned them. Once they repented, they would fulfill their destiny and be guided to salvation and the "New Jerusalem" (Bercovitch 9). As a result, the jeremiad works toward opposite purposes: it predicts destruction, but guarantees salvation at a price. According to Bercovitch, this is closer to the original content of Jeremiah's prophecies: it is simultaneously an illustration of a founding component of European immigrants' belief in a manifest destiny, an impetus for the creation of the United States, and the practices, policies, and institutions that supported the fledgling nation.
One of those institutions, of course, was chattel slavery, the existence of which flew in the face of the idealistic principles of individual liberty upon which America was founded. This glaring hypocrisy provided more than enough rhetorical fodder for the American abolitionist movement. Abolitionist leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison, who helped found the Massachusetts and New England Anti-Slavery societies in 1831, and Frederick Douglass exploited this dilemma repeatedly and successfully, so far as the growth of abolitionism was concerned (McFeely 83-84). This egregious contradiction did not die, of course. Once slavery was abolished via the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution, America's continuous exploitation and oppression of African Americans via segregation, lynching, and peonage provided Black activists sufficient causes and material to decry America's resounding failure to live up to its ideals. This seeming intractability gave rise to various forms of Black Nationalism in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. American Black Nationalism by definition rejects the idea of mainstream America (read as a white and particularly racist mainstream) being African Americans' true nation, in favor of a "national" identity based upon "race," culture, and a glorious African heritage. More precisely, the perception and reality of common oppressions help define this nation as one unique in the American milieu. This uniqueness and the cultural riches it implies lead Black Nationalists to remain traditionally skeptical of any arguments in favor of African Americans' social, cultural, or political assimilation. Given the fact that America has repeatedly enslaved, oppressed, disenfranchised, and murdered people of African descent, it stands to reason that this behavior will continue in perpetuity. Between the centrality of slavery and peonage to the American economy, the argument goes, and cultural differences between Caucasians and African Americans, equality and prosperity for African Americans seems but the remotest possibility. This argument is one that Douglass rejected out of hand, especially late in life. Despite this uniqueness, however, American Black Nationalist figures frequently share rhetorical techniques and important ideological tenets with their less militant compeers.
Thus militant abolitionist, early Black Nationalist, and devout Christian David Walker could proclaim in his 1829 Appeal ... To the Coloured Citizens of the World, on the one hand, that "the black man, or man of colour, who will leave his own colour ... and marry a white woman, to be a double slave to her, just because she is white, ought to be treated by her as he surely will be, viz: as a NIGGER!!!!" (9, emphasis in the original). Such inflammatory statements are, however, primarily rhetorical, invoking a strategic stance in favor of cultural pride and separatism to ease the inevitable assault upon slavery and slaveholders Walker prophesies. That is to say, adulation of whites qua whites and supposed superiors is but one weakness that Walker believes has undermined and will continue to undermine the cause of complete emancipation. Paradoxically, the entire argument within Walker's Appeal rests heavily upon the Christian ideal of the brotherhood of humankind under Christ: "Have they not to make their appearance before the tribunal of Heaven, to answer for the deeds done in the body, as well as we? Have we any other Master but Jesus Christ alone?" (16). It is precisely this bond, though, that American whites have broken for the express purpose of "enriching them and their country" (14).
Similarly, the call for slave insurrection found within the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet's 1843 "Address to the Slaves of the United States of America" argues that the equality between Europeans and Africans in all respects justifies violence in the name of emancipation. Although this position was ardently opposed by moral suasionists--most notably by Douglass himself--when brought before a convention of twenty-four black abolitionists, it lost their support by only one vote (Pasternak 47). The reason for his wide support might be seen in his plain appeal of his ethopoeia, as he asks his audience to see themselves in the same place as their ancestors:
Brethren, it is as wrong for your lordly oppressors to keep you in slavery, as it was for the man thief to steal our ancestors from the coast of Africa. You should therefore now use the same manner of resistance, as would have been just in our ancestors, when the bloody foot prints of the first remorseless soul thief was placed upon the shores of our fatherland. The humblest peasant is as free in the sight of God, as the proudest monarch that ever swayed a scepter. Liberty is a spirit sent out from God, and like its great Author, is no respecter of persons. (Garnet, "Address" 93)
Like fellow militant Walker, then, Garnet supported using any means necessary, violent or otherwise, to destroy slavery, anticipating the impetus underlying Malcolm X's famous slogan, "Freedom by any means necessary." Unlike many Black Nationalists, however, Garnet refused to endorse the notion of racial separatism. In fact, he joined other major black abolitionists in opposing efforts to repatriate formerly enslaved Africans back to the continent, arguing that such schemes were not only "utopian," but also a denial of the already "colonized" status of the enslaved African and the inevitability of racial amalgamation" (Garnet, Past and Present 25-26). Garnet did, however, help lay the foundations for the general rhetorical approach for all future Black Nationalists by using his extensive knowledge of African and biblical history to argue for the cultural equality and occasional superiority of the African Diaspora) Therefore, in his 1848 essay, The Past and Present Condition and Destiny of the Colored Race, Garnet points out that Africans were civilized when Europeans were still practicing pagan rituals, that many ancient Egyptians were black Africans, and that African Americans should dismiss their disputes in favor of a unified front that would be better equipped to destroy slavery (12; 7; 18-19). (2) Despite his apocalyptic and bloody vision for the end of American slavery, Garnet concludes with his belief that the "storm and clouds" of the coming battle against slavery shall be followed by "light and glory" in the form of a hopeful, prosperous future for the African in America.
In their use of apocalyptic and biblical imagery, then, both Walker and Garnet share many rhetorical bases with their less militant contemporaries, not unlike their ideological descendants. Malcolm X, for example, was the son of a Baptist preacher who also espoused the Black Nationalism of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which also had a charismatic, messianic leader in Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940). (3) As E. Franklin Frazier asserts in his contemporary analysis of Garvey and the UNIA, Black Nationalist organizations have an almost religious appeal to many African Americans, given the preponderance of hopes "that some Moses would appear among them and lead them to a promised land of freedom and equality" (467). Although Garvey's efforts to establish a separate African state for African Americans were unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, (4) he was inarguably a major influence upon all Black Nationalist organizations that came after him, including the fledgling Nation of Islam (NOI), whose co-founder, Elijah Muhammad (ne Poole), was once a member of the UNIA (Lincoln 63; Evanzz 57). Black Nationalism has largely appealed to those African Americans who believe that the injustices of American racism will eventually incur some form of retribution, whether it be America collapsing when its exploited labor force--African Americans--leaves permanently, social revolution, or divine destruction. As E. Franklin Frazier notes in his 1926 analysis of the UNIA, it gave meaning to the lives of many African Americans who no longer found "the promise of the heavenly abode to compensate for the woes of this world," but instead identified "with something that makes them feel like somebody among white people who have said they were nobody" (470-71).
Certain charismatic forms of Black Nationalism, then, provide at least an equal amount of comfort and a refuge for the spirit of the adherent as for her or his political being. In C. Eric Lincoln's succinct analysis of Black Nationalism's structure and role, "it is a way of life" that "is an implicit rejection of the 'alien' white culture and an explicit rejection of the symbols of that culture, balanced by an exaggerated and undiluted pride in 'black' culture," including "a drastic reappraisal not only of present realities but also of the past and future," a future in which "the inherent superiority of [blacks] will triumph and they will again rule the world" (41-42). Black Nationalism thus contains a vision that is at once messianic, apocalyptic, and deterministic. Its emotional appeal, however, cannot be underestimated; the only major difference between the emotional appeal of Black Nationalism and the African American church is that most denominations of the latter do not believe in or preach racial supremacy, opting instead for the power of redemptive love (Dailey 347). The vision of divine redemption and salvation from worldly suffering and evil--including racial persecution--is an intrinsic part of both and had a heavy influence on their particular leaders and concomitant rhetoric. Lawrence Levine notes, for example, that for African American Christians in "freedom as in slavery, the Devil--over whom blacks generally triumphed in their songs--often looked suspiciously like a surrogate for the white man" (160). This helps explain why the Nation of Islam's core belief that whites are by nature "blue-eyed devils" was not so far-fetched to new converts; it was not without precedent. (5)
Hence Louis Lomax asserts in To Kill a Black Man that Malcolm X resembled his Christian contemporary, Martin Luther King, Jr., in more than a few ways. "Both men," Lomax notes, "came from deeply religious backgrounds, the Negro Baptist church; both ... sat in pews as their fathers preached.... went on to enrapture hundreds of thousands as they themselves preached," and eventually lost much of the support they had once enjoyed as they transformed and expanded their respective lives and philosophies (Lomax 9). In addition, Bruce Perry's argument that Malcolm X "was not nearly as 'bad' as he claimed" rings true, given Malcolm X's reluctance to follow his rhetoric advocating physical self-defense for African Americans with concrete action (Perry 285). With a few modifications, we could substitute the name of Frederick Douglass into Lomax's summation of King's career and Perry's assessment of Malcolm X's rhetoric. Like King and Malcolm X, Douglass quickly embraced his religion--Methodist Christianity--and went on to preach it fervently, in part because he saw religion as a means to freedom (Douglass, MBMF 168-69). The difference is that Douglass managed to keep most of the support he gained throughout his career as an abolitionist, primarily through his impeccable rhetorical skills that resonated with his almost exclusively Christian audience.
Unlike King, however, both Douglass and Malcolm X later rejected the dominant mode in which Christianity was understood in their respective eras as they realized that neither personal nor ideological fulfillment could be found therein. Whereas King devoted himself to being a Baptist minister, Douglass, a lifelong Methodist, devoted much of his energy and many of his public speaking engagements to a round condemnation of what he called the "slaveholding religion" of the United States, or its version of Christianity. In the process, Douglass embraced and professed the tenets of a new "faith," one holding that the "morality of free society can have no application to slave society" since "[s]laveholders have made it almost impossible for the slave to commit any crime, known either to the laws of God or to the laws of man. If he steals, he takes his own; if he kills his master, he imitates only the heroes of the [American] revolution" (Douglass, MBMF 190-91).
Like Douglass, Malcolm X spurned the redemptive, passive Christian faith of his youth in favor of the Nation of Islam's sectarian Islam and incendiary Black Nationalism. Yet Malcolm X also rejected the latter faith late in life, when its tenets became too restrictive for him. Louis A. DeCaro notes, however, that despite Malcolm X's conversion to the Nation of Islam, he took his rhetorical idiom largely from his early Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Pentecostal influences, influences that are part of larger African American discursive traditions (75-77). Like his mother, Louise Little, who "moved easily from sects to churches, selectively appropriating what she felt were the essentials" and ignoring rigid dogma, Malcolm X was able to embrace the monotheism of Christianity while rejecting the explicit emotional rhetoric of the denominations with which he was most familiar (DeCaro 78-79). These denominations' traditions, however, owe as much of their structure to American Christian oratory as to West African and Eastern types. This is in keeping with the religious legacy from which the Nation of Islam's earliest leaders and members sprang, making it an attractive ground where Malcolm X could flourish. As C. Eric Lincoln noted in his landmark study, The Black Muslims in America, the Nation of Islam's predecessor, the Moorish Science Temple founded and headed by Noble Drew Ali, "considers itself Moslem, but ... retains many of the familiar markings of Christianity. Jesus, for example, remains a prominent figure in the worship services; and hymns, although revised to appropriate the new teachings, retain the rhythmic chant forms of the familiar black spirituals" (50).
On the other hand, Nation of Islam worship services, like those of the Moorish Temples before them, are marked by a conscious avoidance of the emotionalism within the congregation that is an integral part of most traditional African American Christian churches. Muslim ministers are similarly less demonstrative than their Christian counterparts, although the force of their rhetoric may carry them away. (6) To Nation of Islam adherents, the reason for avoiding traditional Black Christian emotionalism is clear: the Nation is devoted to "saving" its members and African Americans as a whole from both the various forms of wickedness found within both secular society and the traditional Black church. The Nation of Islam accuses the Black church of enabling the continued enslavement of African Americans to various vices--alcohol, drugs, ignorance, licentious sexual behavior, and other expressions of the id--and white supremacy (Lincoln 151-53). Nation of Islam members disdain most traditional components of Black church services, such as speaking in tongues, ecstatic or emotional demonstration in the aisles, and other forms of jubilation, although they are known to shout affirmations at some services and rallies, especially when nonmembers are present (Lincoln 112-13; Goldman 86). This is in keeping with the strict, elaborate moral code Nation of Islam adherents are expected to uphold, in part to discourage them from the type of behavior they might have been accustomed to prior to conversion. In this respect, both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X found themselves part of religious movements that valued a puritanical lifestyle. Methodism began as a reformative movement in which the adherents "were to exemplify their salvation by refraining from drunkenness, slave trading, fighting, buying smuggled goods, charging excessive interest, or enjoying any self-indulgence" (Mathews 5). It is therefore not insignificant that Douglass spoke against intemperance and for women's rights frequently as part of his anti-slavery lectures. (7) By the same token, Malcolm X not only preached the prescribed line of the Nation of Islam, but deprived himself of almost all pleasures, leading to an ascetic and "almost completely joyless existence" (Perry 149-50). Both speakers, therefore, believed in a more holistic view regarding their respective causes; freedom from oppression could not be obtained in the absence of asceticism.
Yet the Nation of Islam, like other Black Nationalist organizations that preceded it, eschews the alleged lifestyles of Christians, and it is as deeply invested in an apocalyptic vision as the African American Christian denominations it derides. More specifically, its vision is millenary, insofar as one cornerstone of the Nation's teachings is the destruction of America by the "Mother Plane," a revision of the biblical prophet Ezekiel's vision of God as a destructive wheel. As Michael Lieb argues, the Nation of Islam transforms this vision, "an impulse through which the will to power finds expression in the wonders of technology that define the modern world" (3), into the ultimate apocalyptic phenomenon (7). Appropriately, the Nation of Islam's rhetoric leans heavily toward this vision, thereby keeping it close to the black church even as it shuns it. It is a perfect illustration of the effects of the rhetorical mode with which the adherents have become familiar, a mode that Malcolm X inarguably mastered and transformed to make the Nation's rhetoric and beliefs more palatable to the world outside the Nation's insular circles. More specifically, Malcolm posited himself, via both his rhetorical strategies and ideological content, as the classic prophet patterned after Jeremiah. This particular comparison is ironic if only for the fact that while in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X deferred continuously in public and private to the Nation's acknowledged prophet, Elijah Muhammad. He also acted as an intermediary between the masses and their prophet, insisting that African Americans would "one of these days wake up and find out that you must unite under the leadership of [Muhammad] for your own salvation" (Malcolm X, Autobiography 388). After he broke with the movement, Malcolm X's jeremiads retained a small portion of their ecclesiastical focus, but otherwise became almost purely political addresses predicting the end of white world supremacy via social revolution.
Frederick Douglass similarly posits himself as a prophet, alternately in the molds of Jesus Christ and Jeremiah. In one of the more celebrated passages in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), Douglass makes an explicit reference to the Book of Revelation l, verses 8 and 17 (8) when he declares that of all the slaves who could have been chosen to leave Colonel Lloyd's plantation to go to Baltimore, be "was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice" (Narrative 47). For Douglass, this moment "laid the foundation and opened the gateway, to all [his] subsequent prosperity," including his role as an abolitionist and advocate of women's rights, since his experiences in Baltimore first allowed him to see the full significance of slavery's immorality and brutality (Narrative 46-47). Given other biblical references peppered throughout the Narrative, it is clear that Douglass' positioning of himself as a "chosen" one, which he repeats in his later autobiographies, places him within the Judeo-Christian tradition of prophets chosen to be the conduits to God. Besides being a thorough condemnation of American slavery's physical brutalities, much of the Narrative focuses upon America's immorality, hypocrisy, and wickedness both in God's eyes and in the face of its Christian hegemony and Constitutional standards. Douglass' interpretation of his position as the "chosen" destined to expose a great evil also keeps him squarely within the rhetorical traditions of the jeremiad. One of the foundational ideas of the jeremiad is that "[n]ow as always, many were called but few chosen; and for the many, who willfully strayed from God (though He begged them through His prophets to return), there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth," the suffering of those who refused to heed God's final call (Bercovitch 7).
The prophetic imperative of Douglass' Narrative is but a written extension of his public speeches as an abolitionist, in which he connected racism and slavery to intemperance and the oppression of women (Douglass, Papers 2:109, 249). In both his speeches and writings, he frequently decries American "sins" by creating a complex morality play in which Americans are cast as hypocritical Babylonians doomed to God's judgment if they do not relinquish their wicked ways. Douglass avers in "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" that if Americans repent, they will fulfill the promise, the covenant, of an earthly paradise created by their founding fathers. "Your high independence," Douglass declares, "only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich heritage of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine" (Douglass, Papers 2:368). In this passage, Douglass repeatedly uses antithesis to highlight the differences between the status of the African and the European American, questioning whether American citizenship even applies to those of African descent. It is but one illustration of the rhetorical questions Douglass asks in his opening: "[W]hy am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?" (Douglass, "Fourth of July" 367).
Douglass' questioning of African Americans' citizenship status came five years before the United States Supreme Court's infamous 1857 Dred Scott v Sanford decision, which declared that people of African descent were in fact not citizens, and thirteen years before the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which declared they were. His questions, however, have continued to haunt African American activists until the present, almost invariably receiving affirmative answers among the factions interested in claiming full participation in American life for African Americans. In Black Nationalist circles, however, Douglass' questions have repeatedly received negative answers. Thus Malcolm X could proclaim in "The Ballot or the Bullet" (3 April 1964), "No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy.... And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare" ("Ballot or Bullet" 26). Although this speech took place a month after Malcolm had been effectively ousted from the Nation of Islam, this categorical rejection of American citizenship was a stock element of his public speeches for many years prior to the break. Thus he ridicules blacks calling the American government "our government" in "Message to the Grass Roots," which also draws a parallel between the conditions necessitating Black Nationalism and revolutions such as the one upon which America was founded (Malcolm X, "Message" 10-12). In the paradiegesis opening the speech, Malcolm X draws heavily upon several of his favorite rhetorical techniques, including epimone and palilogia, repeating his questions and phrases in order to create devastating antitheses, as in this example: "You don't catch hell because you're a Baptist, and you don't catch hell because you're a Methodist.... [Y]ou don't catch hell because you're a Democrat or a Republican ... and you sure don't catch hell because you're an American; because if you were an American, you wouldn't catch hell. You catch hell because you're a black man. You catch hell, all of us catch hell for the same reason" ("Message" 4). Later, Malcolm incorporates a parody of the famous Pauline epimone describing "charity" in order to debunk the then-popular notion that the Civil Rights Movement was a bloodless revolution: "Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way" ("Message" 9). He then ends the parody with one of his more famous paromoioses, or parallelisms between the sound and length of subsequent clauses: "You don't [lock arms] in a revolution. You don't do any singing; you're too busy swinging" ("Message" 9).
Malcolm X composed "Message to the Grass Roots," like so many of his other speeches prior to his break with Muhammad, as a rejection of the possibility of African Americans buying into the American mainstream and vying for individuality transcending "race." He mastered argumentum ex concessis, admitting freely the white racist's assertion that America was a "white man's" country, one which would never admit African Americans as equals. The alternative, then, was to escape to an all-Black utopia either "in the East" (Africa), or a separate state within America. This vision of a Promised Land or Heaven on Earth, which Elijah Muhammad began promising his followers in the 1960s, proved to be a source of extensive ridicule. (9) Even if we concede that the vision is improbable, we find that it is but a reflection of the Promised Land that comforted Christian enslaved Africans and their descendants, the same Promised Land the Nation of Islam ridiculed as "pie in the sky." Although Muslims declared that there was no heaven except what mankind made on Earth, (10) their fatalistic belief in America's eventual destruction led to a degree of complacency that chafed at Malcolm X's natural activist spirit (Goldman 106). Even as he pronounced that the Muslims "believe that God is angry with America and that God will continue to whip America with rain and snow and hail and floods and drought ... with sickness, disease and plagues like America has never known before," Malcolm's time in the Nation was growing short, inasmuch as he realized that the prophecy of a Promised Land of Allah's designation could not replace a clearly delineated plan for the present. Malcolm had to reject the Muslim jeremiad, then, if he was to embrace a less provincial outlook, which he barely touched before his assassination (Goldman 183-84; Perry 335-37).
Douglass, on the other hand, relies more heavily upon moral suasion in most of his early speeches and autobiographies than Malcolm X, since his most common rhetorical goal was not simply to condemn his audience, but to recruit it into his cause and therefore save it. Douglass typically opens his rhetorical strategy by combining argumentum ex concessis, argumentum ad verecundiam and cohortatio, in which he appeals to his audience's senses of tradition, outrage, and indignation to determine whether it will support the moral side of the argument. Early in his 12 May 1846 "Reception Speech" at Finsbury Chapel in Moorfields, England, Douglass concedes that "the slave must be brutalized to keep him as a slave. The slaveholder feels this necessity. I admit this necessity. If it be fight to hold slaves at all, it is right to hold them in the only way in which they can be held; and this can be done only by shutting out the light of education from their minds, and brutalizing their persons. The whip, the chain, the gag, the thumbscrew, the blood-hound, the stocks, and all the other bloody paraphernalia of the slave system, are indispensably necessary to the relation of master and slave" (MBMF 411). These remarks were echoed closely almost 120 years later when Malcolm X wrote that "[t]he white man's brains that today explore space should have told the slavemaster that any slave, if he is educated, will no longer fear his master. History shows that an educated slave always begins to ask, and next demand, equality with his master" (Autobiography 268). Douglass follows his own argumentum ex concessis, however, for a slightly different purpose. Whereas Malcolm X granted that America was from its conception a "white man's country," Douglass uses graphic descriptions of slaves reduced to empty spiritual shells and literal corpses by the "necessary" brutality of slavery. One of his fondest images is that of the slave stripped of both clothing and dignity for the sake of the slaveholder's brutality, an image that is predominantly feminine. As William McFeely argues, Douglass "knew that ... lusty stories could arouse a Northern antislavery audience," and was more than willing to use sexual degradations of the human body to demonstrate how far American slaveholders deviated from American ideals and their own religious missions (159).
In contrast to the slaveholder, Douglass maintains that he is true to his faith, arguing that a purified version of Methodism is the key to redemption for both himself and the nation. To be specific, the possibilities of redemption, asceticism, transcendence, and a restoration of the Divine order--with God as the supreme arbiter of men's lives and souls--are his goals, which a sincere belief in Methodism in its original form would imply. Just twenty years prior to Douglass' estimated birth date of February 1818, (11) late eighteenth-century Methodists were preaching that "refusal to give Negroes the freedom which belonged to them as a human right was contrary to reason, charity, and the enlightened standards" (Mathews 15) of the time, in accordance with church founder John Wesley's General Rules, which forbade "drunkenness, slave trading, fighting, buying smuggled goods, charging excessive interest, or enjoying any self-indulgence" (Mathews 5). The Methodist church's stress upon asceticism and implicit belief in the brotherhood of man appealed to Douglass, who learned to "[love] all mankind--slaveholders not excepted" upon his conversion (MBMF 167). Despite his belief in the brotherhood of mankind, Douglass expresses deep doubts about Christianity's efficacy in America, due to the extensive perversion of its original precepts to rob men of their "manhood" and women of their virtue and humanity through slavery.
The "Appendix" to Douglass' Narrative challenges the reader to recognize the faults within American Christianity via a thorough intellectual critique, advocating "true" Christianity vis-a-vis "the slaveholding religion of this land ... with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked" (Narrative 75). Douglass' antithetical comparison embodies the rhetorical strategy used throughout the Narrative, which depends upon ironic chiasmus--the mirror inversion of a clause within a sentence--and sardonic zeugma, or the yoking of dependent clauses and words to a single verb. With both methods, Douglass demonstrates that the perpetuators of the slave system are inured against any passive change or inner salvation. Thus in describing Mr. Gore, a plantation overseer, Douglass writes that "[h]is words were in perfect keeping with his looks, and his looks were in perfect keeping with his words.... He spoke but to command, and commanded but to be obeyed; he dealt sparingly with his words, and bountifully with his whip, never using the former where the latter would answer as well" (Narrative 23). Douglass therefore completes a picture of Gore as a perfectly corrupt slaveholder ensconced within a closed, intractably cruel system.
In the Narrative's central episode, Douglass repeatedly inserts chiasmus as the linchpin securing his escape from the "sin" of slavery and entry into the promised land of psychic freedom, a state adjacent to physical freedom from slavery. Douglass' decision to engage in a dramatic and victorious battle with the brutal "slave-breaker" Edward Covey, raises him from the psychic nadir he'd reached after a long string of disappointments and bodily violations that reduced him to the level of a chattel: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (Narrative 47). Symbolically, this is the moment when Douglass feels his manhood has been redeemed from the damnation of slavery. The conflict teaches Douglass the importance of possessing a fighting spirit in order to obtain his freedom as well as the inevitability of a righteous faith's triumph over the wicked. Rhetorically speaking, it is not mere coincidence that Douglass mentions that Covey "was a professor of religion--a pious soul--a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church," which "added weight to his reputation as a 'nigger-breaker'"; it is an intentionally ironic moment designed to highlight the ubiquity of the corrupt Christianity that will lead to the Apocalypse (Narrative 70). The fighting spirit Douglass gains against this symbol of wickedness simultaneously embodies one of the virtues commonly praised in the jeremiad: the resolve to remain loyal to God's laws and to the independence from the world's corruption found within those limits. With the help of a magic root his friend Sandy Jenkins gives him, Douglass returns to the errand that he discovered when he declared that he was the first and last; his status and voice as prophet are confirmed, thereby justifying the Narrative's very existence and purpose.
This root, moreover, is simultaneously a synecdochal reference for the "roots" of American and Methodist principles and Douglass' own cultural roots. The root shows Douglass, in one sense, the psychic and political limits of the Methodist Christianity that he had already begun to doubt insofar as Christianity limited Douglass' ability to actualize his ideal notions of "manhood" and a stable sexual identity. The root, therefore, is the metonymic origin of Douglass' unbridled critique of Christianity in the Narrative and more subdued, but no less incisive, critiques in the later accounts. In the symbolic schema of each of Douglass' autobiographies, the root provides him with a link to his cultural roots, thereby enabling him to stave off the enslaving powers of nineteenth-century Christianity, especially Methodism.
This structural and ideological pattern is duplicated within Malcolm X's own Autobiography, insofar as he also relates his "salvation" from the hell that was slavery to a life of crime and white definitions of Black self-worth. In the words of Maxine L. Montgomery, the journey both authors undertake is an "archetypal" one "deriving its sociocultural consciousness from the group experience of black Americans and its mythopoeic force from the interplay of Eurocentric and Afrocentric mythological systems" (2). In the archetypal African American autobiography, the rhetorical structure traces that of the plot, beginning "in physical or psychological bondage and [ending] in some ambiguous form of deliverance or vision of a new world of mutual respect and justice for peoples of color" (2).
In constructing their autobiographies, both Douglass and Malcolm X offer themselves as exemplars of the psychic, moral, and ecclesiastical transformations they have demanded America undergo in order to fulfill its promise. Their lives are emblematic of the distance between the promised new world and the present fallen one in which they remain. Although Douglass, for example, remains a fugitive slave at the conclusion of his Narrative, he closes the main portion of the text with an account of his entry into saintly abolitionist circles, thereby explicitly suggesting that activism will engender the promised land. Near the conclusion of his own narrative, Malcolm X declares that although "it would be almost impossible to find anywhere in America a black man who has lived further down in the mud of human society than I have; or a black man who has been any more ignorant than I have been; or a black man who has suffered more anguish during his life than I have," it is "only after the deepest darkness that the greatest joy can come" and "only after slavery and prison that the sweetest appreciation of freedom can come" (Autobiography 379). Despite these claims, however, some of Malcolm X's biographers have noted that while his life was clearly marked by oppression, deprivation, exploitation, and despair, his actual suffering under these conditions hardly came close to his claims. Malcolm X's hyperbolic claim to such suffering is indeed rhetorical; it casts him into the role of martyr, one his death certainly secured. Peter Dailey argues that Malcolm X's death "rescued him from his own inconsequentiality," making him, in death, a more resonant representative of the frustrations of the Northern black urbanite (347). Even more important than Malcolm X's role of martyr, however, is his and Douglass' need to cast themselves as the ideal representatives of African American suffering in their respective times. To become Jeremiahs for their people, both Douglass and Malcolm X must insert their rhetorical techniques into a larger structure that fuses the jeremiad with the narrative of redemption and conversion.
Both begin their autobiographies, as Montgomery notes, with one additional, crucial element: they are not only in physical and psychological bondage, but also innocent and faultless through the ignorance that is a result of extreme oppression. Douglass, for example, emphasizes that from his birth until the time of writing, he has had "no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it." Later, Douglass relates his pre-adolescent memory of the savage beating of his Aunt Hester (Esther), his entrance into the "hell of slavery," and therefore the moment he was excluded from innocence forever (Narrative 25-26). Otherwise, Douglass tells us, he suffered only from hunger and extreme cold while on Colonel Lloyd's plantation, and was expected to do very little (Narrative 43). Malcolm X also tells us of a youth that, while harsh and impoverished, was relatively innocent before a teacher told him that he should not expect to become a lawyer because of his race (Autobiography 36).
These early blows to the authors' respective states of innocence are the beginning of long descents into the hell of slavery and oppression. Once Douglass learns that he is a slave and that the status of a slave means that he is considered a "brute" unworthy of education and humane treatment, he descends into a rapid depression; Malcolm X reacted to his lowered self-esteem by rapidly becoming a petty criminal, procurer, and convicted prisoner. Both find salvation in moments that reaffirm both their manhood and the possibility of salvation. Douglass' encounter with Covey was his personal epiphany, whereas Malcolm X's was the revelations of Elijah Muhammad's teachings, the first to help him organize his resentments into a cogent, if deeply problematic, political agenda. This helps Malcolm X to reform himself morally, thereby leading to his early release from prison and eventual position as the Nation of Islam's National Minister. (12) Both thus move from slavery through a period of purification and reformation, and finally into a moment of redemption.
In organizing their autobiographies around this particular plot, Douglass and Malcolm X make convincing arguments that their audiences, ranging from the enslaved or oppressed and their sympathizers to the oppressor, might inductively translate their experiences from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. To return to Douglass' 5 July 1852 speech, in the crucial middle section he traces America's descent into hell and predicts its demise: "Whether we turn to the declarations of the past [that is, the Declaration of Independence], or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future" (Douglass, "Fourth of July" 368-69). Yet this passage combining palilogia and antithesis is particularly notable for its final clause, which creates a subtle aporia regarding the nation's fate. In lieu of declaring that America "has bound herself to be false to the future," or "will be false to the future," Douglass casts doubt upon the idea of America's destruction by declaring that the nation is in the process of binding herself to the future betrayal of the principles of freedom, justice, and equality found in the Declaration of Independence, a process that can be reversed. The evidence of Douglass' willingness to entertain this possibility may be seen in numerous passages preceding the present one. Douglass opens the oration by remarking that "the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation.... According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood" ("Fourth of July" 360). Douglass is clearly reducing America to the level an immature child, a diminutio of the nation's revered history he follows with several exempla of nations and states either destroyed by slavery or scarred by revolutions initiated by the struggle for freedom. This includes a recounting of the Hebrews' liberation from Egypt and, most poignantly, an extensive history of the American Revolution, including Douglass' concession that "America was right, and England wrong" ("Fourth of July" 361). The purpose of both the diminutio and Douglass' concession is to construct an elaborate irony. The oration's centerpiece is a series of rhetorical questions about whether Douglass needs to prove that slavery is unjust, when a mere antinomial comparison between the principles that sparked the revolution yet allow America to enslave others provides a preponderance of evidence to condemn the institution ("Fourth of July" 368-71). One of the most powerful bits of evidence is Douglass' argument that the existence of dozens of laws circumscribing the lives of slaves is sufficient proof that the slave is "a moral, intellectual and responsible being; [t]he manhood of the slave is conceded" ("Fourth of July" 369). Thus America is a child compared to the people it has consigned to the position of chattel, yet it is arrogant enough to believe that it will not suffer the fate of prior nations. Douglass concludes the section with a long stream of "biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke" that stands metonymically for the punishment America may bring upon itself in the absence of a dramatic alteration of its social structure ("Fourth of July" 371). The hope Douglass then offers the nation in its process is a thin, but potentially strong strand. If America as a nation is indeed a child, it is a child of an era unlike any before it. "Nations," Douglass suggests, "do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference" ("Fourth of July" 387). A more global perspective, then, will be the catalyst preventing the apocalypse.
This same perspective is the metonym Douglass and Malcolm X utilize to posit themselves as symbols of hope for America. If they are able to find connections between the lessons of history, their respective deities, the composition of the American body politic, and their own personal salvation, America may have that capability. In an ironic revision of the autobiographical form Benjamin Franklin perfected, Douglass and Malcolm X compare their experiences and bodies to America itself, especially the trials it must overcome to fulfill its professed ideals. The necessary basis of this transformation will be America's willingness to alter and revise its assumptions about itself. Both Douglass and Malcolm X found themselves unable to endure psychically the hypocrisy found within American slavery and oppression and, later, the restrictions of the movements for which they labored. (13) The solution in each case was to redefine the self according to the times, rather than languish in a hell, whether the product of oppression or self-made.
In concluding the jeremiads found within their lives and words, Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X indicate that America's salvation might be found within the experiences of those African Americans driven by a divine errand. Thus Douglass declares that "I have felt it to be a part of my mission--under a gracious Providence--to impress my sable brother in this country with the conviction that, notwithstanding the ten thousand discouragements and powerful hinderances [sic], which beset their existence in this country ... progress is yet possible" (MBMF 405). By the same token, Malcolm X closes by reiterating the errand of his own God: "And if I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America--then, all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine" (Autobiography 382). Both authors therefore precede and echo James Baldwin's argument in The Fire Next Time: select African Americans' views, experiences, and rhetoric past may be used "to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!" (106).
Florida State University
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(1) Gamet's rhetorical strategy dovetails nicely with that of David Walker himself. It is hardly a coincidence that in 1848 Garnet republished Walker's subversive Appeal himself and added his "Address to the Slaves" in one of the appendices.
(2) These arguments offered in support of the fact that African peoples did in fact have rich cultures have been the foundation for African American scholars and activists ranging from historian J.A. Rogers in the 1920s, to the Nation of Islam, to such founders of Afrocentric scholarship as Molefi Kete Asante.
(3) Garvey's middle name is derived from "Moses," a significant fact for Garvey's followers, including members of the Black Zionist Ras Tafarian religion of Jamaica, which considers the native Jamaican a prophet who foresaw the reign of its Messiah, Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie I. For more information on Garvey's life and influence, see E. David Cronon, Black Moses." The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Second Edition (U of Wisconsin P, 1969), Leonard E. Barrett, The Rastafarians (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), and Karl C. Evanzz, The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad (New York: Pantheon, 1999).
(4) See David Levering Lewis' discussion of Garvey's flaws in When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Knopf, 1981).
(5) David Walker utilizes a similar demonology to characterize white slaveholders in 1829, comparing them first with Egyptians who were like "devils" and later declaring that they are the "natural enemies" of African Americans (Walker 8-11; emphasis in the original).
(6) Malcolm X recalls, for example, that "I would become so choked up [by my own sermons] that sometimes I would walk in the streets until late into the night. Sometimes I would speak to no one for hours, thinking to myself about what the white man had done to our poor people here in America" (Autobiography 202). The two most infamous remarks of Malcolm's career were first, his rejoicing over the deaths of 120 whites from Atlanta, Georgia in a 1962 airplane crash after several Nation of Islam members had been killed by police, and his comment that President John F. Kennedy's assassination was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." For detailed analysis of the impact of these remarks, see Goldman 97-100.
(7) See the following examples of Douglass' speeches, available in his Papers: "Intemperance and Slavery" (20 October 1845); "Intemperance Viewed in Connection with Slavery" (18 February 1846); "Let Woman Take Her Rights" (24 October 1850), "The Property Rights of Women" (1 December 1853). Douglass uses these occasions to argue that drunkenness aids and abets slavery by making the slaveholder crueler and dissipating the will for justice in freedom for both the free and the enslaved. In his speeches on women's rights, Douglass compares the status of woman to that of the slave and argues for women to receive their just due.
(8) Verse 8: "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty." Verse 17: "And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last."
(9) The demand for a separate state continues to be a cornerstone of the largest Nation of Islam faction led by Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has continued teaching the beliefs of Elijah Muhammad with little alteration. The faction's entire program may be found every month in its official tabloid, The Final Call (Chicago: The Final Call). See also Goldman, 89-90, Lomax, 79, and Lincoln, 90-93.
(10) This is a direct contradiction of the Holy Qur-an and orthodox Islamic teachings, one of the many that has driven a wedge between the Nation of Islam and orthodox Moslems. See Evanzz, 447 and Holy Qur-an: English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary, revised & edited by the Presidency of Islamic Researches, IFTA, Call and Guidance (Al-Madinah Al-Munawarah, Saudi Arabia: King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Quran, 1994), Sura 23, Ayat 100-103:
"Before [the people] is a Partition Till the Day they are Raised up. Then when the Trumpet Is blown.... those whose balance [Of good deeds] is heavy,-- They will be successful. But those whose balance Is light, will be those Who have lost their souls; In Hell they will abide.
(11) McFeely 294. Douglass' master, Thomas Auld, rumored to be his father, remembered Douglass being born at this time, which Dickson Preston later confirmed.
(12) Incidentally, Malcolm X viewed his entire life, including his prison sentence, as an indication of a divine purpose: "Brother, I am the seventh son of a seventh son. I spent seventy-seven months in prison--which is seven months less than seven years--and became the minister of Muhammad's Temple Number Seven.... There is a sign in all that" (Perry 216).
(13) In his final autobiography, Douglass recounts the conflicts between himself and his abolitionist friends, especially William Lloyd Garrison. See The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881) (Seacaucus, N.J.: Citadel P, 1983). See also McFeely 146-47.