Frederick Douglass

Introduction to the City Lights / Open Media Series edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

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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.


The approach to the question of liberation I pursued in “Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature” linked philosophical understandings of freedom with histories of black political struggle and cultural production as they resonated with contemporary efforts to extend and enlarge the meaning of freedom. What better text to begin with than Frederick Douglass’s autobiography? Students would follow a trajectory from bondage to liberty that would help them to better apprehend the nature of freedom as forged by those who have had most at stake in the struggle for liberation. The first two lectures—based on rough transcripts of my remarks, which referred to the later autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass—accompany this edition of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. They are published here in the form in which they were circulated in 1970 after I was arrested on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, which included a strong letter of support from faculty members at UCLA. When I taught this course, I did not realize that less than a year later, I would be in jail awaiting trial on what were initially three capital charges.


In the 1960s and ’70s, the perceived urgency of the political moment led many readers of Douglass’s narrative to reflect on the prospects of liberation in the twentieth century as they read about his quest for freedom in the nineteenth. Douglass’s status as the preeminent voice of the black anti-slavery movement led many people to search his writings for clues about how to conduct twentieth-century liberation struggles. One of the most recognizable passages from his writings, which continues to be frequently quoted today, comes from a speech he delivered in August 1857 on the occasion of West India Emancipation Day, marking the twenty-third anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

If there is no struggle 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 the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and 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. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.28


This message resonated with activists and supporters of the various liberation movements of the 1960s—from the African, Asian, and Latin American liberation movements to the movements inside the United States that called for a definitive end to racism.


Given that Douglass’s insistence that progress always requires struggle and that freedom must be fought for and won, not offered as a gift, has, in fact, been repeated often by movements since the 1960s, it should be possible to make fresh connections with Douglass’s life and works today.


What, then, might be the resonance of Douglass’s writings—and the Narrative, in particular—as we experience the first administration of the first African American president of the United States? Barack Obama certainly posited a connection between Douglass’s political quest and his own. In a number of campaign speeches, he made implicit references to Douglass’s words, often emphasizing that “power concedes nothing without a fight,” and, referring in his victory speech, for example, to “struggles and progress” over the last decades.


Intriguingly, I write this introduction as President Obama returns from his first official trip to Ghana, during which he and the First Family visited Cape Coast Castle. The media coverage of his family’s encounter with the historical African slave trade—including a walk through the tunnel at the end of which was the door of no return—has spun multiple ruminations on slavery, including an inquiry into Michelle Obama’s slave past. Coincidentally, shortly before the Obamas traveled to Ghana, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution delivering an official apology for slavery, concurring with House resolution of 2008. (At the same time, the U.S. government—along with other Western governments—boycotted the 2009 World Conference Against Racism, thus failing to recognize the links between slavery, colonization and the current situation of the Palestinians.)


How then do we read Douglass’s narrative today? How do we think about slavery’s inheritances that continue to shape contemporary institutions and practices? What have we learned in the many years since the first publication of the Narrative that might assist us in developing richer, more layered, more complicated readings of this text on slavery, resistance, and liberation? What, for example can we say about the obsession with black women as objects of the most unspeakable forms of violence? In assenting to the critiques proposed by feminist scholars, we also recognize that portrayals of suffering black women were widely used to convey the horrors of slavery. Because of prevailing hierarchies of gender—which also influenced black people—the suffering woman was interpreted as an implicit assault on the black man. The instrumentality of violence against enslaved women was such that it could be materially effective in maintaining the system, but it was also ideologically effective in sustaining gendered hierarchies of power even in black abolitionist circles.


Thus, in criticizing the text’s abundance of images of enslaved, thrashed, and battered black women, we should not read these images as needing to be excised from the Narrative, but rather we should try to develop a framework that foregrounds both the complexities of gendered violence under slavery and possible gendered strategies for freedom. We might begin by examining the instrumentality of slavery’s gendered violences, which were not the product of inherently evil individual actors, but rather were designed to further the system of slavery itself. In numerous slave narratives, we discover descriptions of special forms of punishment relegated to pregnant women, who could be compelled to lie down over a hole in the ground designed to “protect” the pregnancy as the slave-owner’s future property, while an overseer flogged them. Moses Grandy’s words indicate that the violence was such that it sometimes exceeded its own purpose and led to the death of both mother and fetus.

A woman who gives offense in the field, and is large in a family way, is compelled to lie down over a hole made to receive her corpulency, and is flogged with the whip or beat with a paddle, which has holes in it; at ever stroke comes a blister. One of my sisters was so severely punished in this way that labor was brought on, and the child was born in the field. This very overseer, Mr. Brooks, killed in this manner a girl named Mary. 29


At the same time we should not be so overwhelmed by the enormity of this violence that we forget that its target is a subject who deserves to be free. In other words, we should not allow such emotions as pity to foreclose possibilities of solidarity. Real stories today of the sexual coercion and abuse of women prisoners reveal the inheritances of slavery and our responses often recapitulate those of nineteenth-century abolitionists.


How, then, can we read Douglass’s Narrative in a way that will help us to understand slavery as Douglass experienced it and to understand the legacies of slavery as they are crystallized today in multiple regimes of violence against women and men? Moreover, what are the links between modes of institutional violence—such as that inflicted on women in prison—and the pandemic of intimate, domestic, individual violence against women? Understanding the inheritances of slavery helps us to better grasp the complex challenges of the present.


Theories of liberation during the 1960s and ’70s, as important as they were at the time, failed to grasp the extent to which slavery left indelible marks on both institutional and individual practices. Many of us thought that liberation was simply a question of organizing to leverage power from the hands of those we deemed to be the oppressors. Frederick Douglass certainly helped us to conceptualize  this, but this was not, by far, the complete story. Today readers of Douglass, scholars and activists alike, do his text justice by bringing a much more expansive sense of what it means to struggle for liberation, one that embraces not only women of color, but also sexually marginalized communities as well as those subject to modes of containment and repression by virtue of their resident status as immigrants. Equally important, as we recognize the extent to which Douglass sustained the influence of the ideologies of his era, we might better learn how to identify and struggle with those that limit our imagination of liberation today.



Angela Y. Davis is the author of many books, her most recent are: Abolition DemocracyAre Prisons Obsolete? and a new critical edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, all published in the Open Media Series.


Davis recently gave an interview with Amy Goodman to discuss her latest work and the 40th anniversary of her arrest in New York City – http://www.democracynow.org/2010/10/19/angela_davis_on_the_prison_abolishment

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