References are to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Yale University Press, 2001).
There are many fascinating things about Douglass’s text and his technique, but I should like to focus on a few of the episodes in which Douglass sheds the decorum he was shackled with by his position in arguing with, and for, a white crowd. Douglass’s first attempt at autobiography was written as an argument, plain and simple. Closely held by the abolitionists, what we might call Douglass’s curbing of authenticity is also just smart rhetorical policy—one has to be very subtle and very smart in how one goes about exploding deeply held assumptions.
Perhaps the first example of a subtle rebuke to the white culture he seeks to rationally convince occurs on page 19:
“The competitors for this office sought as diligently to please their overseers, as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people. The same traits of character might be seen in Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, as are seen in the slaves of the political parties.”This is no mere figuration—there were actually slaves, so using that figure is no slight thing. It is always easy, then as today, to take pot-shots at politicians. But abolitionism itself was something of a political movement and I can’t help but see here a slight rebuff to his own compatriots. Another prominent example, now far less subtle, was his explicit rebuke of the famed underground railroad at the head of Chapter 11, suggesting that it might as well be called the “upperground railroad.” (71) We, as children, still learn about the underground railroad and the good it performed (it even featured in the origination of the Bat Cave in the recent remakes of the Batman myth), but one can’t help but feel, given Douglass’s very sensible remarks about its publicity “enlightening the master,” that the fame the underground railroad still receives might be in part to white people trying to emphasize their own contribution.
Be that as it may, Douglass’s comments about religion are still by far the most shocking, even today. He’s right in every word, its obfuscation of morality and intensifying of the slaver’s cruelty appearing consistently throughout the latter half of the narrative, but the intensity and explicitness that occurs in the Appendix still surprises. (Enjoying these kinds of rhetorical provocations, I still remember with pleasure my first reading of Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, which, if memory serves, is even more scathing than the Appendix, and on more fronts.) Our reading is severally conditioned: first, Garrison prefaces by commenting, “The effect of a religion profession on the conduct of southern masters is vividly described….” (9) Here, impropriety might be thought circumscribed to the south. Second, the first appearance of religion ambiguously affects those of the south: Captain Auld became worse, but Mr. Cookman was a “good man” and Mr. Wilson tried to teach them to read. (44) Thirdly, and most importantly, the first generalizing comments Douglass makes about religion are introduced with “the religion of the south” (57) This is, in effect, a designed seduction. When we get to the Appendix, we are used to just glossing the comment about religion as “southern religion.” That way northerners won’t get their panties in a bunch. But that’s when Douglass hits us really hard. He introduces his real topic as “slaveholding religion,” (81) which we might naturally by this point gloss as “religion of the slaveholders,” and then go on to gloss “this land” as the South. Not so, it turns out. In a tremendous reversal, Douglass begins a paragraph about “professed Christians,” which we are still reading as only Southerners, though perhaps with a little growing apprehension, until we get to “They love the heathen on the other side of the globe. … while they despise and totally neglect the heathen at their own doors.” (83) One can almost hear the bubble-breaking, and even I was so caught up that I scrawled, “Wait, is he talking about the North now?” Which he makes explicit a few lines later: “those bodies, north and south.”