Printer Friendly

Christianity and individualism: (re-)creation and reality in Frederick Douglass's representation of self.

The question of religious belief prompted by Douglass's impassioned utterance regarding the relation between the existence of God and his own status as a slave was not raised by him alone. Reverend Charles Colcock Jones, a white, Southern slave missionary, wrote in 1842, "He who carries the Gospel to them ...discovers deism, skepticism, universalism ... all such strong opinions about the truth of God, objections which he may perhaps have considered peculiar to the cultivated minds of critics and philosophers" (qtd. in Raboteau 176). Raboteau also reports the response of a recently freed black woman who was questioned about her religious belief. "It has been a terrible mystery to know why the good Lord should so long afflict my people and keep them in bondage to be abused and trampled down without any rights of their own, with no ray of light in the future." Though she had sustained her own faith, others had not. "Some of my folks said there wasn't any God, for if there was he wouldn't let white folks do as they have done for so many years" (314). The most interesting aspect of this response, and of Douglass's questioning of God's existence, is the ambiguity occasioned by the context. Each expresses belief, yet raises the issue of disbelief in the face of felt knowledge and experience.

Douglass's response to the question raised by theodicy, the recognition of the problem raised by the co-existence of a just God and evil, had a profound effect on Douglass's thinking, for the question was basic to his sense of self and thus to the extraordinary sense of individualism that he clearly possessed. That Douglass should, in the epigraph above, in the same breath implore God to deliver him and then question his very existence points to an implicit line of reasoning: If there were a God, then I would not be a slave, since I am a slave, the possibility exists (hence the question, not a positive assertion) that there is no God. Also implicit in his reasoning is the assumption that, if there were a God, he would "save me," "deliver me," "let me be free." It is of significance that this expression of ambivalence occurs in the Narrative prior to Douglass's fight with Covey, the "nigger breaker," for it is my contention that such ambivalence was resolved with the outcome of that confrontation, a moment that also witnessed the birth, in the consciousness of the "former" (as he sees himself at the time) slave, of an extraordinarily intense and ardent individualism.

Douglass's sense of individualism is inextricably bound to his psychological sense of self. When sent to Covey's farm, Douglass was sixteen years old and verging on adulthood. He had experienced life as a slave in Baltimore, and as we know, city slave life was on the whole comparatively less restrictive.(1) His recalcitrance and his wilfulness were attributed by his then present owner, Thomas Auld, to his sojourn in the city.(2) His defiance and intractability were immediately occasioned by the necessity to fulfill his needs (he allows Auld's horse to run away to Auld's father-in-law's because the underfed Douglass knows he will get food there), but he as well challenges patriarchal authority. The "severe whippings" he receives as a result of his fractious behavior are "all to no purpose."

Douglass, out of psychological necessity, perhaps, or out of instinct, struck at the very core of slavery when he challenged the authority of white males, especially when he rendered Auld's punishment futile by refusing to modify his behavior. Kenneth Stampp says about punishment that, "without the power to punish, which the state through the black codes conferred upon the master, bondage could not have existed. By comparison, all other techniques of control were of secondary importance" (171). Eugene Genovese puts the issue in another way in quoting the opinion (State v. Mann, 1829) of North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Thomas Ruffin: "The end of slavery |is the profit of the master; the task of the slave is to toil that another may reap the fruits.' Such services, he added, can be expected only |from one who has no will of his own; who surrenders his will in implicit obedience to that of another.' The power of the master over the slave's body must be absolute" (200). Douglass strikes at the heart of slave society, at its very center which, as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese asserts, requires white-male dominance (99). The system requires not only that slaves be obedient to their masters but that women and all others related to a particular household should exist in subservient relation to the patriarch's authority (101). To challenge that center is to challenge the whole structure of antebellum Southern society.

Unable to control or discipline Douglass, Auld turned him over to Covey, who by virtue of the system's patriarchal structure, becomes a surrogate father who will do to rebel against just as well as Auld. Auld is not Douglass's biological parent, but he is, in the mythology of slave society and psychologically, a father, as is suggested when Douglass, at odds with Covey during his tenure with the "nigger breaker," turns to Auld for protection, much as a child might expect protection from a parent.(3) The issue becomes more complicated if we recognize that Douglass's appeal to God to "save him," to "deliver him," is psychologically an extension of his appeal to Thomas Auld to "save him," to "deliver him," from the wrath of Covey. Covey, Thomas Auld, and Captain Aaron Anthony, reputedly Douglass's biological parent, are all conflated into one conception of authoritative male parent. That male parent and his character are evoked in the ambivalence of Douglass's address which serves as an epigraph to this essay. Initially an invocation to a loving and caring savior, the invocation becomes soliloquy as the possibility is raised that, if there is a God, He is a cruel, sadistic entity. The two conceptions are embedded in the portrait of Douglass's reputed father, drawn in the second, revised autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). William L. Andrews points out the ambiguity of the representation in the introduction to his edition of the second autobiography. The portrait reveals a man, Aaron Anthony, who is at once a barbarous, vindictive, merciless, bloodletting brute and a "complex character" who could be, in Douglass's words, "almost fatherly" and who could refer to his Frederick as my "little Indian" (Introduction xix; My Bondage 54).(4)

Little did Thomas Auld know when he turned Douglass over to Covey for "breaking" that he was in effect creating the conditions that would eventuate in Douglass's freedom and the loss of his property. Shortly after Douglass comes to Covey, he is seemingly "broken." He is worked extremely hard and is frequently beaten severely. The desire to read departs; he seems constantly in a daze, torpid. The immediate cause of his conflict with Covey occurs when Covey strikes him on the head with a barrel stave after he has collapsed while working, presumably (since he soon recovers after he has had rest) from exhaustion. Douglass runs away to his owner Thomas Auld, where he seeks support and protection but is simply sent back to meet his fate. His crime is disobedience, since he did not obey Covey's order to return to work after he fainted, and again on two subsequent occasions he does not return when Covey orders him to. Saturday passes and then Sunday. The fight occurs on Monday. Douglass prefaces his narration of this noteworthy event, as will be recalled, with this word to the reader: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (Narrative 107).

The implication of Douglass's statement is that some change of supersignificant proportions is about to occur. Clearly he has in mind, as the alteration of grammatical tense in the sentence signals, changes in a transformation: Transformation from slave to man means, in the language of the antebellum South, radical transmogrification, for the change from slave to man simply does not exist in nature. It is a metamorphosis which has no place in the psychobiology or the ideology of antebellum thought. There is no way in the mythology of Southern thought that a slave can be a man. Men can be patriarchs, but slaves can never be patriarchs, for slaves are by nature and definition children.

Douglass insists on not only challenging but demolishing Southern slaveholding ideology: "You shall see how a slave was made a man," an argument not to be presented abstractly, but as physically felt experience. The whole effect of the Narrative is intended to be achieved through making the reader both think and feel slavery is wrong but especially to feel it. The metamorphosis from slave to man is no less incredible, from the ideological perspective of the slaveocracy, than Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis into a beetle in Kafka's tale. That is exactly the sense that Douglass means to convey. "You shall see how a slave was made a man" - not a transformation but a transmogrification, a radical attack upon and departure from the received assumptions and discourse of antebellum slaveholding thought

On the Monday morning following Douglass's disobedience, his failure to do as he is told, Covey sets about reenacting the enslavement of the whole race, capturing the African and binding him in order to subject him to white, male, patriarchal will and authority. That Douglass is thinking in such broad terms is implicit in the Narrative but explicit in the 1855 revised autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. In fact the terms of Douglass's conception are even broader, extending as they do, to basic Western mythology, particularly to the Bible:

My religious views on the subject of resisting my master, had suffered a serious shock, by the savage persecution to which I had been subjected, and my hands were no longer tied by my religion. Master Thomas's indifference had severed the last link I had now to this extent "backslidden" from this point in the slave's religious creed; and I soon had occasion to make my fallen state known to my Sundaypious brother, Covey. (148)

The reference here the use of religion and the Bible to control slave conduct. In a sermon delivered at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1850 on the occasion of the dedication of a church built by Presbyterians for slaves, the Reverend J. H. Thornwell said, "This church will prove a stronger fortress against insubordination and rebellion than weapons of brass and iron" (7). Countless slaves and others (I think especially of Frederick Law Olmsted 473-74) have testified that most sermons directed at slaves were based on one or both of two passages: "He that knoweth his master's will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes" (Luke 12:47) and "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and tremboling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ" (Ephesians 6:5).(5) Thornwell in his sermon explicates the meaning of St. Paul's utterance: "He [Paul] says to them [servants] in effect that their services to their masters are duties which they owe to God - that a moral character attaches to their works, and that they are the subjects of praise or blame according to the principles upon which their obedience is rendered" (21). If we consider that Douglass, by setting his agon with Covey in a broader context, intends to intensify and expand the meaning of his own particular experience, then our attention is drawn to the mythological meanings implicit in his description of it. We might also consider that the text Douglass knows best is the Bible and that it only makes sense that he would naturally, given his understanding of the meaning of that book, have filtered his experience through it; for initially religion, along with the strength of his own hand, while he is a slave and before he encounters abolitionism, offers his only bulwark against slavery. What first settles into focus, given the two references in the Narrative to Jacob and the explicit reference to the fall, is Genesis. Interestingly enough, the angels in Jacob's dream (Genesis 28:12) go up and down the ladder: "The angels of God were ascending and descending on it." Hence Douglass's going down the ladder in the earlier version (1845) and up the ladder in the later version (1855) does not constitute a revision of his experience. Rather it represents his situating his experience within the boundaries of the universe as defined in the biblical text.

Perhaps the suggestion of climbing Jacob's ladder as he climbs up to the barn loft led to the further association with Jacob. Jacob's long struggle with "a man" who turns out to be the angel of God, or perhaps God Himself (Genesis 32:24-32), is reminiscent of Douglass's long struggle with Covey insofar as the struggle is a literal power struggle in which Douglass prevails, as does Jacob. The angel is not only unable to prevail against Jacob, but he, like Covey, cannot escape Jacob's hold. Jacob is victorious as he forces a blessing from the angel and announces his victory: "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved." That the struggle has meaning beyond its apparent surface meaning is revealed when the angel says to Jacob, "You have striven with God and with men and have prevailed." The scope of Douglass's conception of the meaning of his fight with Covey is revealed in his comment afterwards: "He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery" (113). It is not only Covey whom he repels but every slave owner, every overseer, every white male and female, and perhaps even God, given Douglass's reference to his "fallen state" and the implicit reference to that archetypal account of rebellion against patriarchal authority, the Fall.(6)

Douglass tests authority, as does Jacob, and withstands the test. His sense of the meaning of that victory is reflected in the terms of his description of it. This is no mere besting of a tough in a barroom brawl; this is truly an agon, a contest of mythic, epic proportion. Douglass indicates as much when he chooses the second most quintessential moment in the saga of the central myth of Western culture Christianity (the first being the creation), the crucifixion, as a lens through which to view his achievement and status, not hyperbolically but actually. His victory over Covey, after he has singly, individually, ALONE "himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery" - the whole damned bloody arm! - is analogous to the crucifixion and the resurrection: "I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom." His treatment at the hands of Covey, being "broken," was his "crucifixion"; his defeat of Covey was his "resurrection" and "ascension."

He is willing to be crucified for cause. He in fact puts the world on notice that under certain circumstances he will have to be crucified: "I now resolved that, however long I remained a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me" (113). His statement means that he is serious, and his subsequent life leads us to believe that he indeed meant what he said. During the years of his lecturing and life in general, he was faced with the possibility of being beaten or killed more times than we know, for he did not enumerate in detail all of the personal threats to his physical well being. But he had undergone them (Life and Times 230-31, 453-63; McFeely 111-12). Who was going to beat him, to reduce him to the level to which Covey had reduced him? Nobody.

We witness what Peter Walker in Moral Choices, David Leverenz in "Frederick Douglass's Self-Refashioning," and Paul de Man (supplying the theoretical underpinning) in "Autobiography as De-facement" have called, or implied is, a conscious construction on Douglass's part of an inauthentic self, a fictionalized version of actuality. These critics either ignore or belittle Douglass's political purposes in writing his autobiography in a manner appropriately in tune with his ends. They cast aspersions because Douglass did not associate with, adopt, or sustain the values of blacks who were not members of a black bourgeoisie, he rejected black expressive culture. Unlike Houston Baker in The Journey Back ("Had there been a separate written black language available, Douglass might have fared better" [39]), these critics do not qualify their position by realizing that Douglass had no language other than standard English to adopt, no models of thought or conduct available other than those existing in the general culture. Waldo Martin in the epilogue of his book and elsewhere discusses this issue in a sensitive, respectful, and non-accusatory manner (see esp. 282).

To say outrageously, as Peter Walker does, that Douglass nursed a "hopeless secret desire to be white" (247) exposes at best uncommonly extraordinary naivete about the relation between race and culture for Afro-Americans and for anyone elge issuing in the United States from another culture. What should Douglass's language have been? How should he have acted? Are all blacks the same? Are blacks exempt from the class divisions that beset whites in this capitalistic society? Walker assumes so; a black is a black. Frederick Douglass did not think so. He thought that he needed to talk to Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln's own language if he was to make any change in the character of the life of Afro-Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is utterly ahistorical to suggest that he might have privileged the expressive culture belonging to Afro-American slavery. He could not possibly have done otherwise than he did, anymore than Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. Du Bois could have. Perhaps he should have "kept more of the plantation in his speech"; perhaps he should have simply "told his story," as Douglass was advised early in his career, rather than attemptiog to theorize about issues of slavery.(7) Elizabeth Fox-Genovese points out the necessity Douglass felt to identify "himself with the triumph of manliness and individualism that slavery suppressed. In doing so, he explicitly called upon his northern readers to recognize that the sufferings and inequities to which he had been subjected by the very condition of enslavement directly contravened their deepest principles of individualism" (375).(8)

Whether that self of the Narrative is constructed, and therefore in some sense inauthentic (as Anne Frank's in her Diary?), it certainly accounts for the political man we later know, a man who champions individualism not only by his words, by his public expression of support of individualism in his often-delivered oration "Self-Made Men," but also by his acting out of individualism in the conduct of his own life. The seed of such individualism germinates, whether in fact or as imagined, in the fight with Covey. The roots of Douglass's psychology, philosophy, and theology begin there. To put this another way, we might say that Douglass's knowledge and understanding of the world begin not with his perception and understanding of "the word," of literacy, but with his ability to be, as St. Paul instructed, a "doer of the word."(9) Literacy means nothing per se, Douglass's text tells us. Its meaning is tied to action, to function. This is the pragmatic Douglass; the Douglass responding to those same influences that produce Charles Sanders Peirce and William James.

Douglass goes to great lengths to spell out this relation. When he is in a good situation, when he is not badly treated, he wants to be free; he suffers from the restraints of captivity; when he is maltreated by Covey, reduced to the status of beast of burden, the desire for freedom departs, he no longer desires to read or to exercise the higher functions of mind and consciousness. Finally he responds to his situation in an appropriate way, a way having nothing directly to do with the life of the mind, but a way prepared for by his hard-earned literacy: He responds physically; he (I repeat here again what I said earlier from another angle) "himself... [repels] by force the bloody arm of slavery." That response, the fusion of his psychological and somatic responses to the whole system of slavery, a response of mind and body, of the whole of Frederick Douglass's being, is the centermost, innermost experience of his life. It is through the fight with Covey that Douglass "escapes" slavery (at least insofar as he understands his experience). Seen from this perspective, his peculiar pronouncement of his status after the encounter makes sense: "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; emphases added). A "slave in form" is one who is held in bondage against his will but who no longer himself a slave. A "slave in fact" is one who is held in bondage but who sees no disparity between his owner's sense of him as property and his own sense. A slave is one who consents to be a slave, who participates in the dynamic of the relationship. One who is not a slave ruptures the bond between master and slave by refusing to participate in the transaction defining master-slave status. "He who would be free must strike the first blow" (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Byron's lines describe Douglass's sentiments exactly. Indeed, Douglass's whole intellectual orientation follows along these lines. In his distinction between "slave in form" and "slave in fact" he seeks, following his confrontation, to wrest physically the meaning of language out of the grasp of tradition and into the realm of an emerging developing discourse.

He has struck at the very core of "the peculiar institution," and in so doing Douglass establishes the whole grounding of his philosophical and theological disposition. Douglass's views on individualism and on the relation of man to God stem from the anti-authoritarianism expressed in the fight with Covey. Individualism was his cup of tea because he felt that he himself escaped the clutches of slavery through the exertion of his own incdividual will, strength, and power. Whether this is indeed true is not at issue. The fact is that he felt it to be so and hence, following the dominant ideology of his time, pursued the implications of thinking that the individual is responsible for his own situation. He needed to do this in order to contravene institutional authority, for institutional authority declared him a "slave in fact." He needed to become his own authority, to derive truth, finally, not from established, accepted, institutionalized norms, not from what the whip and its laid on authority dictated, but from his own literally "felt," and hence "known," experience.

During the course of his life, the manifestations of his commitment to individuality and to individualism after his fight with Covey are clearly shown. Initially his commitment is to the freedom of himself as an individual; eventually that sense of self is expanded into principle as "individualistic" becomes "individualism." (In Life and Times, the final revision of his autobiography, he says, "When I ran away from [sic] freedom, it was for myself, when I advocated emancipation it was for my people" [479].) The point of such an exchange is marked by Douglass's turn, long before the question of slavery is settled, to a more general topic within the domains of his discourse - "self-made men," a speech and essay analyzed in considerable detail by Martin (253-78).

According to John Blassingame's brief note introducing an 1860 transcription in The Frederick Douglass Papers, the first versions of this speech were delivered in 1859. Douglass's opening remarks on the occasion of the 1860 delivery refer to the fact that his subject is a novel one: "I usually speak in public on the subject of American slavery, and it is supposed by some in my country that a coloured man has not thoughts worth listening to on any other subject" (Papers 2:260). (Does speaking on another subject manifest a "hopeless, secret desire to be white"?) The disavowal by virtue of the fact of its existence, raises the question of why Douglass is speaking on this subject. Might he have spoken on such current subjects as animal magnetism, or daguerreotypy? I think not. He spoke on this topic innumerable times from 1859 to the end of his life. It is clear enough that the topic, "self-made men," was in some sense fundamental to his thinking and not unrelated to "American slavery."

The implication is that the ideology of the culture regarding the possible establishment of the relationship of the individual to the larger group requires that the individual act within certain boundaries, constraints. These limits are defined by the ideology of individualism and its counterpart, self-reliance. As Douglass saw it, as his knowledge and understanding led him to believe, the only way that blacks after slavery would be able to survive and rise was through accommodating themselves to the presently existing modes of progression, through established societal channels. Black people of whatever gender needed to become "self-reliant men." He felt that as early as 1859, and he voiced the conviction until the end of his life. Had Douglass had anything of the black nationalist in him, he might have thought differently. But as it was, Douglass was a thorough believer in equality through integration. He did not feel that there should be separate churches for blacks (Meier and Rudwick 89). He believed that the end of slavery would come about when blacks could act freely, when blacks could act like middle-class whites, since, after all, being white (middle- or upper-class) seemed to be being free. (Nobody, who ever knew what poor white was, ever wanted to be one.) Douglass's ostensible "secret desire to be white" readily turns out to be a not so "secret" desire to be middle-class and free.

But again, Douglass's connection to the ideology of his time was through the medium of his own experience. He did not simply think, as Emerson did and as Thoreau set up test conditions to confirm, that self-reliance, and the individualism attendant upon it, was a desirable state, he knew through his experience of its efficacy, for he alone at sixteen years of age and with his own hands "himself repelled the bloody arm of slavery." This understanding of Douglass's relation to his past is implied by James M'Cune Smith, black physician, civil rights activist, and abolitionist, in his introduction to Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Smith is aware of the connection between Douglass's battle with Covey and his later life: "The same strong self-hood, which led him to measure strength with Mr. Covey, and to wrench himself from the embrace of the Garrisonians ... has borne him through many resistances to the personal indignities offered him as a colored man"(23).

I have maintained that Douglass's theology, a theology not unrelated to his individualism, stems from his encounter with Covey. Douglass was a religious man, though not in a conventional sense. Prior to his escape, we learn in My Bondage and My Freedom, he fell under the influence of an older slave and father figure, Uncle Lawson, one of the many fathers that Douglass eventually needed to repudiate. Uncle Charles Lawson told Douglass that "the Lord had a great work for [him] to do," that he should prepare to preach the gospel. "If you want liberty," he told the young Douglass (then thirteen years old), "ask the Lord for it, in faith, AND HE WILL GIVE IT TO YOU" (106). These two pieces of advise Douglass needed to weigh over the course of time. Uncle Lawson believed that the two were one and the same. Douglass needed to thread his way between them to differentiate one from the other. Yes, he had a great work to do. No, he need not become a minister to do it. After his escape from slavery and just before he joined the abolitionist movement, Douglass was well on his way to becoming a minister. He was living in New Bedford and earning his living catch as catch can. The ministry seemed a way to rise up in the world, and he had gone a great way in that direction. After attempting to unite with predominantly white Methodist churches, and finding himself subject to prejudice and discrimination, he joined the New Bedford Zion Methodists, a local black branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. He rose in that church from sexton to preacher. He had faith, and he had the skills that would undoubtedly have allowed him to succeed in the ministry (Wilmore 123-24).

When he received his true call, it was truly a "call" and not simply an inclination to pursue a livelihood. He heard no voices in his head; he was not moved by strange forces. He was nonetheless "called," as true and literal a call as was ever voiced:

While attending an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, on the 11th of August, 1841, I felt strongly moved to speak, and was at the time much urged [called] to do so by Mr. William Coffin, a gentleman who had heard me speak in the colored people's meeting at New Bedford. It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. 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. (Narrative 151)(10)

At this moment he distinguishes, through exercise of intellect, and by means of his experience, between Uncle Lawson's two pieces of advice. Yes, he has a great work to do. No, faith in God will not free him. If he is to be free, he must free himself. Contrary to Uncle lawson's assertion, the Lord will not free him. "Who would be free must strike the first blow" (Life and Times 480). His "degree of freedom" and "considerable ease" are comparable to his earlier "resurrection" from "the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom."

A direct reference to his fight with Covey contained in the final moment of the Narrative occurs in his defining his situation: "It was a severe [Mr. Severe (in fact, |Sevier') being the name of a former overseer] cross," suggesting again, when he "felt a degree of freedom," a new ascension. Once again he experiences a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom." He is "called" to abolitionism. The terms in which he couches his "call" typify his whole understanding of his relation to society and the universe. The final paragraph of the Narrative defines his break with Uncle Lawson, for he redefines his relation to authority - black or white. Uncle Lawson tells him that the Lord must free him; he says on the contrary in that final paragraph of the Narrative that he must free himself. As Douglass sees it, he is slave to none. The Lord must not and cannot free him; he must free himself. The final paragraph of the Narrative witnesses the final stage of the birth of his individualism. Thereafter we see its manifestations in many ways.

Let me in concluding describe two of the more interesting of these manifestations: one, the refusal to thank God for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment; the other, Douglass's testament of his theology and philosophy regarding the relation between God, fate, and humankind, issues discussed directly or implicitly by Martin (175-82). Behind both hes the thinking articulated in one of the most famous of Douglass's powerful utterances, a statement expressing the notion that human fate rests in human hands and, by implication, the power and significance of individualism:

If there is no straggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. (qtd. in Holland 261)

With this thinking as backdrop, and with our understanding that it stems from a direct reaction and response to the agon with Covey, it is not at an difficult to understand Douglass's position regarding who is responsible for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. It was, after all, Douglass, as he saw it, who "repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery" and not God. He was accused by the powerful black Philadelphia ministry of infidelism, a charge which he never wholly shook (Holland 219). He said at the American Anti-Slavery Convention on 19 April 1870, following religionist speakers, "I like to thank men .... I want to express my love to God and gratitude to God, by thanking those faithful men and women, who have devoted the great energies of their soul to the welfare of mankind. It is only through such men and women that I can get a glimpse of God anywhere" (Aptheker 278-80; emphasis added). The implication is that faith in the presence, the existence of God, is not easily maintained. A few days later in Philadelphia, speaking from within the jaws of the lion, and expressing his individualism against the claims of the group, the black Philadelphia religious institution being the most solid representative of black group cohesion, he throws a challenge into the throat of the enemy, the "enemy" being whoever contradicts or denies in any way the significance of his fight with Covey. "I dwell here in no hackneyed cant about thanking God for this deliverance" (Aptheker 279). His thinking here stems from his own experience. He freed himself, whatever freedom accrues from the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment issues from the efforts of individuals and not from God.

His final statement regarding the relation between affairs of nature and those of humankind, essentially, if not factually so, occurs in 1890, five years before his death. Douglass's statement may come out of disconnected reflection, but I think it comes, as he sees it, out of his specifically literal experience, out of his fight with Covey. He wants and needs to distance himself from God for the sake of maintaining his faith as well as for the sake of maintaining psychic integrity. God must be distanced from slavery, for it is unpalatable to make God responsible for slavery. His psychic integrity requires that he locate and define the character and degree of his own responsibility for his slave or free state. As far as he knows and understands, he is responsible for his independence and freedom. This sense is conveyed in a statement, years beyond his "wrestling" with Covey, defining the meaning of the earlier experience, an interpretation of the past that shows Douglass's understanding of his life as more than exemplary life. Out of his fight with Covey comes an understanding of his life experience, of the relation of humankind to God and nature.

It seems to me that the true philosophy of reform is not found in the clouds, in the stars, nor anywhere else outside of humanity itself. So far as the laws of the universe have been discovered and understood, they seem to teach that the mission of man's improvement and perfection has been wholly committed to man himself. He is to be his own savior or destroyer. He has neither angels to help him, nor devils to hinder him. It does not appear from the operation of these laws, nor from any trustworthy data, that divine power is ever exerted to remove evil from the world, how great soever it may be. (qtd. in Holland 336)

To show something of the degree to which Douglass's thinking was of a piece, that "self-made men" is cut from the same cloth as his thinking about the most basic relations between humankind and the universe, and that this thinking is not unrelated to his ideas about slavery and the relation of the individual to that institution, I quote from the conclusion of the 1881 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. This statement reveals the nexus between "self-made men" and the situation of the enslaved and the free. The enslaved is to exert all effort to free himself; the freed is to make himself into an ideal entity.

I have written to assure [black people) that knowledge can be obtained under difficulties ... that neither institutions nor friends can make a race stand unless it has strenght in its own legs - that there is no power in the world which can be relied upon to help the weak against the strong or the simple against the wise - that races, like individuals, must stand or fall by their own merits - that all the prayers of Christendom cannot stop the force of a single bullet, divest arsenic of poison, or suspend any law of nature. (479)

Such being the nature of things, it stands to reason that the individual is pretty much on his own and is responsible ultimately for the nature and character of his existence. The institution of Christianity has no meaning whatsoever. The "word," the concept, or idea of Christianity - except as that word, concept, or idea is brought into actuality - has no meaning. Religion, Christianity, God have meaning only insofar as the concepts are concretized in the acts of people, and in the acts of people their reality is rendered. True Christianity reveals its actuality through the right actions of Christians, for it is only through such actions that Frederick Douglass "can get a glimpse of God anywhere." Individualism, for Douglass the individualism of right-thinking people, is the mode through which God reveals himself. Individualism reflects the will of God in that it encourages the individual to fulfill her/his highest potential.

I personally think, from my twentieth-century vantage point, that this is a terribly wrong conclusion to come to. We might wish that Douglass had not bought into an ideology that would result in simply a new and generally more acceptable form of exploitation than slavery. We might also wish that he had found some model for thought and behavior other than that belonging to the white, male patriarch. But we must remember that his options were severely limited, that he was, as are we, a captive of his time and circumstance. He did what he could, and what he could do was more than most others could conceivably have done. How could he possibly have stood as a foe of laissez-faire capitalism? How could he possibly have privileged women's rights to a greater extent and degree than he did (to a greater extent than practically any other nineteenth-century male)? How could he have spoken any language other than that of the dominant discourse and expected to be heard? He mediated a position less radical than that of Toussaint, Vesey, Turner, or John Brown, yet infinitely more radical, because defined through action, than that of most. A black hero, a man to be respected and admired, Douglass through his sense of the meaning of individualism, through his sense of the meaning of his life experience, and through his sense of the relation between humankind and God, was surely a

"doer" of the word.


(1) Frederick Douglass makes this point in the Narrative: "A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation" (79). (2) "My city life, [Douglass's owner Thomas Auld] said, had had a very pernicious effect upon me. It had almost ruined me for every good purpose, and fitted me for every thing which was bad" (Narrative 99. (3) William S. McFeely, Douglass's recent biographer, suggests that Douglass's owner Thomas Auld, along with his wife Lucretia, had related to Douglass in a somewhat parental fashion (23-25). Douglass's Narrative does not suggest the possibility of such a relation, but the final version of his autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, gives McFeely's version greater plausibility. See also Logan's "Introduction" to his edition of Douglass's autobiography (17). (4) On the whole issue of representation, see also Leverenz. (5) Many others have made this self-same observation, among them Henry Bibb (69), and Peter Randolph and Lunsford Lane (both qld. in Blassingame 63). See also Thornwell (20). (6) "All by himseff he literally overcame |The Vicissitudes of Slave Life,' humbled |Covey, The Negro Breaker,'and ran away to freedom' (Walker 274). The description in the Narrative of Colonel Lloyd's garden as clearly informed by the description of Eden in Genesis. One cannot get at the fruit in the Colonel's garden without being "stained," and once one is "stained" (with sin), punishment, as with Adam and Eve, inevitably follows (59). (7) "|Give us the facts,' said [John A.] Collins, |we will take care of the philosophy.'" "|Be yourself,' said Collins, |and tell your story. Better have a little of the plantation speech than not,' was said to me; |it is not best you seem too learned'" (Life and Times 217). Douglass undoubtedly was being seen then as he is seen in our time by Peter Walker as expressing "a hopeless, secret desire to be white" (247). (8) She continues: "Slavery defied the principle of individualism itself. An insult to his manhood was an insult to theirs; a violation of his innate rights was a portential violation of theirs. Thus did Douglass locate himself squarely in the mainstream of universalist and individualistic thought and repudiate Southern particularism and hierarchy" (375). Fox-Genovese's perspective serves as a corrective, an antidote to thinking in the Peter Walker vein. The issue of Douglass's construction of a self is cogently discussed by Valerie Smith (20-28). (9) Robert Stepto's emphasis on the Afro-American's search for freedom and literacy is in some sonse supported by Douglass's narrative and by the narratives of others whom he discusses in his eminently useful and valuable book on black narrative. Douglass and others who themselves wrote their stories might misdirect our thinking unless we recall the fact that the great majority of slaves who escaped were not literate, and that many of those who told their stories told them to others who possessed sufficient skill to write themdown. We might expect some distortion, however, if one places too great an emphasis on the necessity and desirability of literacy from a culture emerging from a centuries-old oral tradition. In Douglass's case the quest for freedom merges with the quest for literacy in that Douglass's achievement of freedom after his fight with Covey is as much the resul of literacy (as he shapes his life through narrative) as of any other factor (Step to 3). (10) This version of Douglass's initial address to the Abolitionist Society is at odds with the biographer McFeely's version (84). What the two versions have in common is that in both there is a literal call for Douglass to assume a role as abolitionist speaker.

Word Cited

Andrews, William, ed. "Introduction." My Bondage and My Freedom. By Frederick Douglass. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. xi-xviii Aptheker, Herbert. "An Unpublished Frederick Douglass Letter." Journal of American History, 44 (July 1959):278-80. Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. Ed. Gilbert Osofsky. New York: Harper, 1969. Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in do Antebellum South. New York: Oxford UP, 1972. -, ed. The Frederick Douglass Papers. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979-95. de Man, Paul. "Autobiography as Self-Defacement." modern Language Notes 94 (1979): 919-30. Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. 1881. Boston: DoWolfe, 1892. -, My Bondage and My Freedom. New York. Miller, 1855. -, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. An American Slave. Boston: Boston Anti-Slavery Office, 1845. Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988. Genovese, Eugene. The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation. New York: Vintage, 1971 Holland, Frederick May. Frederick Douglass: The Colored Reform. New York. Funk and Wagnalls, 1891. Leverenz, David. "Frederick Douglass's Self-Refashioning." Criticism 29 (1987): 341-70. Logan, Rayford, ed. Nerrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. By Frederick Douglass. 1845. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960. Martin, Waldo E., Jr. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984. McFeely, William S. Federick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1990. Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick From Plantation to Ghetto. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976. Olmsted, Frederick Law. The Cotton Kingdom: A Travaller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States. 1948. New York: Knopf, 1953. Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Smith, James M'Cune. "Introduction." Andrews 9-23. Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987. Stampp, Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Vintage, 1971. Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. Thornwell, Rev. J. H. The Rights and Duties of Masters: A Sermon Preached at a Dedication of a Church Erected in Charleston, S.C. for the Benefit and Instruction of the Colored Population. Charleston, 1850. Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1964. Walker, Peter. Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1978. Wilmore, Gayrand S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism. New York: Doubleday, 1972.

Donald B. Gibson is a Professor of English at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.
COPYRIGHT 1992 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gibson, Donald B.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Previous Article:Uncle Beasley's courtship.
Next Article:"Sis Cat" as ethnographer: self-presentation and self-inscription in Zora Neale Hurston's 'Mules and Men.'

Related Articles
James Corrothers reads a book; or, the lives of Sandy Jenkins.
The process of literacy as communal involvement in the narratives of Frederick Douglass.
Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity.
Frederick Douglass: Freedom's Voice, 1818-1845.
Road to Africa: Frederick Douglass's Rome.
Changing the course of history.
Picturing the Mother, Claiming Egypt: My Bondage and My Freedom as Auto(bio)ethnography.
"He made us laugh some": Frederick Douglass's humor.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters