Introduction to the City Lights edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederic Douglass, An American Slave
It has been more than a century and a half since Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was first published. The text garnered a broad readership among Douglass’s abolitionist contemporaries in the United States and Britain and later came to be regarded as the paradigmatic American Slave Narrative.
It is well known that Frederick Douglass wrote his first autobiography in 1845 in part to dispel doubts about his status as a fugitive slave. In the abolitionist circuit, white audiences were often so impressed by his literacy and eloquence as a speaker that they assumed he must have been a free black person who was formally educated. According to an article in the Liberator, the most important abolitionist journal of that period,
Many persons in the audience seemed unable to credit the statements which he gave of himself, and could not believe that he was actually a slave. How a man, only six years out of bondage, and who had never gone to school a day in his life, could speak with such eloquence—with such precision of language and power of thought—they were utterly at a loss to devise.14
Some scholars have also argued that William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders expected Douglass to confine his remarks to his own experience as a slave, leaving the analytical dimension to white speakers. By writing his autobiography, Douglass felt that he would not only be able to present irrefutable evidence of his background, but he would also be able to focus more freely on analyses of slavery and the abolitionist cause in his speeches and articles.15
H. Bruce Franklin has called the slave narrative the first distinctively American literary genre.16 Several dozen slave narratives had been published in North America before the appearance of Douglass’s first autobiography, and altogether two hundred have been identified as having been issued and reissued during and after the period of legal slavery in the United States. This includes two more autobiographies by Frederick Douglass—My Bondage and My Freedom and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass—as well as multiple autobiographies by other authors.
The earliest example of the genre is Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Others include Nat Turner’s Confessions, Moses Grandy’s Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America, Henry Box Brown’s Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide, and Booker T. Washington’s well-known Up From Slavery. As many feminist scholars have remarked, the slave narrative as genre is thoroughly gendered. Not only were few narratives produced by women—one thinks of Sojourner’s Truth’s Narrative, but most important Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—they also disclosed the way gender structured the telling of stories about slavery. Jacobs’ Incidents, for example, reveals that she both sustained and worked against the influence of the sentimental novel of the era. She closed her book with an address to her readership that reminded them that her objective was liberation and therefore did not conform to the conventional denouement of sentimental novels and the anticipated aspirations of white women: “Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way with marriage.”17
Of the countless editions of Douglass’s Narrative that have been published over the last fifty years, some have attempted to help us grasp the gendered framework of his story—and, by extension, of the genre itself. Random House published Douglass’s Narrative and Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl together in a Modern Library Classic edition in 2000 with an introduction by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Highlighting the role Douglass’s violated masculinity plays in shaping his conceptualization of freedom, Appiah points out that “the driving energy of the book is Douglass’s need to live not just as a free person, but as a free man. And he becomes a man . . . in part by besting another white man—Covey the slave-breaker—in a fight.”18 What is not so clear in Appiah’s claim that for Harriet Jacobs, the author of the narrative accompanying Douglass’s, “the escape from slavery was a search for life not just as a free person, but as a free woman,”19 is that lurking within the definition of black freedom as the reclamation of black manhood is the obligatory suppression of black womanhood.
Deborah McDowell provided an insightful introduction to the Oxford University Press’s 1999 edition of Douglass’s Narrative in which she called attention to the patriarchal assumptions in the text. Any reader of Douglass’s autobiographies—whether the Narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom, or The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass—is familiar with the gripping scene of Douglass battling the slave--breaker Covey. Douglass wrote that in the period preceding the battle,
Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered above my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!20
His later description of the fight with Covey is prefaced by this message to the reader: “You have seen how a man was made a slave: you shall now see how a slave was made a man.”21 According to McDowell, the aim of this passage is:
. . . to underscore that “slave” and “man” are as mutually contradictory as “American” and “slave” . . . Douglass . . . leaves untouched the structuring opposition: male and female, for subject and object are thoroughly and conventionally gendered throughout the Narrative. In other words, inasmuch as “manhood” and “freedom” function throughout Douglass’s discourse on slavery as coincident terms, his journey from slavery to freedom leaves women in the logical position of representing the condition of slavery. Douglass’s refusal to be whipped represents not only an assertion of manhood but the transcendence of slavery, an option his Narrative denies to women.22
One of the implications of the definition of “freedom” in terms of “manhood” is that the closest black women can come to freedom is to achieve the status not of a free man, but rather the unliberated status of the white woman. Harriet Jacobs may well have been intentionally troubling this idea when she decided to draw attention to the fact that her book closes with the attainment of “freedom” rather than “marriage.”
McDowell makes the point that in Douglass’s Narrative, maimed, flogged, abused black female bodies are the anchors of his description of slavery.23 “The Narrative,” she writes, “is literally populated with the whipped bodies of slave women.”24 One of McDowell’s references is to the beating of Aunt Hester, which Douglass describes at the very beginning of his book. (“I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he [the overseer] used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood.”)25 This was what Douglass referred to as “the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery.”26
Of course Frederick Douglass was not alone in his evocation of women’s bodies as objects of slavery’s appalling violence, and it would be unfair to single him out individually for using this convention or for failing to apprehend how literary representions of black women’s bodies as targets of slavery’s most horrific forms of violence might also tend to objectify slave women and discursively deprive them of the capacity to strike out for their own freedom. Abolitionists—both black and white—were well aware of the way audiences could be expected to respond to evocations of slavery’s violences against women and thus frequently used examples similar to those in the Narrative. They also assumed that emancipation from slavery would entail in the first place, freedom for black men. Moreover, they assumed that the violent repression of black women was indirectly an attack on black men, who were not allowed to protect “their” women in the way white men might be expected to protect “theirs.”
As twenty-first-century readers, our historical vantage point can be more complex and our reading can be more nuanced. Just as we know and applaud the accomplishments of the nineteenth-century Women’s Rights movement, while recognizing that despite the best intentions of its participants, the movement was thoroughly saturated with racism, we are also able to hold Frederick Douglass in the highest regard, while also acknowledging his and his era’s inability to imagine the full equality of women—especially those women who were subjugated by virtue of race and gender.
McDowell’s analysis does not in any sense diminish the significance of Frederick Douglass’s work. Indeed, even though he, like all of his contemporaries, was a product of his times, and was shaped by many of the prevailing ideological assumptions, he was able, more than most, to critically apprehend the fallacious ideologies justifying black inferiority and women’s inferiority. As McDowell emphatically points out, Douglass played the most prominent role among all the men present at the first women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 and chose as a slogan for his newspaper “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color.”27 Yet, it could not be expected of him to recognize all of the ramifications of the male supremacist ideas that permeated the institutional and ideological landscapes of his time. Thus, even as McDowell critiques what she perceives to be a rhetorical exploitation of the black female body, she also highlights the important role Douglass played in the nascent Women’s Rights movement. The edition of the Narrative for which McDowell provides an introduction also includes several articles from Douglass’s newspaper urging the public to support women’s rights, including woman suffrage.
When I first read Douglass’s Narrative, I had not yet learned how to recognize the extent to which the equivalence of “freedom” and “manhood” meant that women were excluded by definition from enjoying the full benefits of freedom. In fact, today I find it simultaneously somewhat embarrassing to realize that my UCLA lectures on Douglass rely on an implicitly masculinist notion of freedom, and exciting to realize how much we have matured with respect to feminist analysis since that period. Thanks to my training in German philosophy, I had acquired conceptual tools that allowed me to analyze the complex trajectories from bondage to freedom (using, for example Hegel’s approach to the relationship between master and slave in The Phenomenology of Mind,), but it was not until I began to work on “The Black Women’s Role in the Community of Slaves” (a year later during the time I was imprisoned) that I began to recognize the fundamental importance of developing gender analyses.
As I revisit the lectures that accompany this current edition of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, I am surprised by how much I did not know at the beginning of an era that witnessed the rise of Black Studies and Women’s/Feminist Studies. In 1969, when I was hired by UCLA’s Department of Philosophy to teach courses in Continental Philosophy, I welcomed the opportunity to teach courses in the tradition forged by Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Such courses would allow me to put to good use my training as a student of Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno. But I was also deeply interested in the emergence of Black Studies—at UCLA, the Center for Afro-American Studies was founded shortly before I joined the Philosophy faculty—and wanted my teaching to incorporate these new developments. At that time there was no available body of literature on black philosophy, nor was there a significant group of philosophy scholars who worked on issues of race and ethnicity. Consequently I decided to design a course that I called “Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature” that would entail examining black literary texts with the aim of identifying the major philosophical questions they posed.
The overarching question I considered in the course was that of liberation. I intended to think about liberation both in broad philosophical terms and in the way the theme of liberation is embedded in the literary history of black people in North America. Although current events were beyond the scope of the course, I expected the students to take note of the wide-ranging engagements with theories and practices of liberation in movement circles. After all, it was 1969, barely a year and a half since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, which had rekindled popular discussion and organizing around strategies of liberation. Internecine strife within the black youth movement pitted cultural nationalists against socialists and internationalists, and it had been a little less than a year since Black Panther leaders John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were killed by members of the cultural nationalist association known as US Organization during a Black Student Union meeting on the UCLA campus. Moreover, I, myself, had been under intense political pressure since California Governor Ronald Reagan and the Regents of the University of California had announced shortly before I began to teach that they were firing me because of my membership in the Communist Party USA. I taught this course on philosophy and black literature while seeking and eventually receiving a court ruling enjoining the Regents from firing me based on my political affiliation.
I should point out that even though there was no formal incorporation of gender analyses into my first courses, my activist experiences involved intense battles over the role of women in such black community organizations as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party. The patriarchal structure of the cultural nationalist US Organization left no space for contestation. Moreover, I had personally come under attack by some members of the community who did not think that I deserved to take a leadership position given the fact that I was a woman.