Friday, March 20, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Douglass

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Yale University Press, 2001).


Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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.”


  1. Considering I’ve never read Douglas, my take here is considerably obscure…

    It was stated:
    ” 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”

    So shootin’ from the hip here; any language that includes religion in the above context I’ve always found a bit short sighted. “it’s obfuscation”, “[it’s] intensifying of the slaver’s cruelty”, so on. With emphasis of course, on “it’s”, as if we can blame religion as some outside source or evil demon with it’s own hidden agenda. It’s the same sort of reason that says, “Guns kill people”, if we didn’t have any guns, blah blah blah; however such claims have never been substantiated and statistics show (further) that it isn’t actually the case.

    It seems to me that Douglas is (rightly so) an angry black man and is attacking a piece of “white culture” which just so happens to be, in this case, religion – and for no other reason then that he associates with the whites.

  2. Yeah, I would in this case say that you should perhaps stay your weapon.

    Mind you, this was a short comment upon Douglass with not a lot of elaboration of my own, but the "religion" I was taking for granted was the one that functioned in his narrative, roughly the one we should (as scholars have unearthed the relative truth of) take as sincerely reported. (And so not even close to being "for no other reason" than guilt by association.)

    What Douglass is pissed off about is hypocrisy. It's like Emerson's "Divinity School Address," when he says, "The idioms of [Jesus'] language and the figures of his rhetoric have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes." Emerson felt himself a Christian, but was appalled by what went by the name of sermonizing, what happened in the pulpits.

    Emerson wanted to provoke Christianity from the inside to a new level. Emerson was quite comfortable with a religious vocabulary and used it quite frequently, as I believe Douglass does, too. Douglass believed in Jesus' teachings, but his point in the Narrative is that the "religion of America," insofar as it does not strike at the heart of the institution of slavery, betrays Jesus at that very point.

    I think it a little crass to say Douglass was an "angry black man," even if he has a right to it. Douglass was the first great African-American intellectual, far more reflective and deliberative in his thoughts and astute in his moral vision than most writing today. One can't simply assume that an attack on religion, or anything else one cares deeply about, isn't only not justified, but it is sometimes required for the thing you love to actually be the thing you love. Without Douglass, there is no Martin Luther King, Jr., who embodied the spirit of Christianity as no other had for some time. Christianity in America in the 19th Century needed a cleansing, and without that cleansing, it is nothing. And it is only in that context of cleansing something sullied by bad people that Douglass should be read.

    You should really read the Narrative. It's pretty short, a pretty quick read, and I still find it extraordinarily powerful today. I think it is one of the most finely crafted pieces of rhetoric I have ever read, one that is still effective (as I wrote in my final for this class, which I'll be posting soon).

    p.s. It was supposed to be "its," as in "religion's obfuscation of morality...."

    p.p.s. Correct, technically bullets kill people, which is why Chris Rock is so funny on that point. But I'm not sure what statistics you're looking at, 'cuz the ones I hear about suggest a pretty strict correlation between gun regulation and murder rates (though naturally we're talking about bigger cultural issues at the same time).

  3. My comment was most certainly crass, but I'm merely trying to show my ignorance on the matter, i.e. it was intentional. Whether or not it was appropriate or not isn't something I particularly care about - at least not in this setting.

    As for reading the "Narrative" - you bet, I have it already.

    I have those statistics somewhere and will throw them up. The problem is, the way they publish statistical data to the public is a bit shady, and people dno't readily have the tools on hand to decifer correlations.

  4. So yeah, my weapons are stayed.

  5. Oh, sorry.

    I don't get that.

  6. Well,
    therein lies the problem which arises out of not being able to converse with people face to face, and/or the issue of not really knowing people.

    In other words, if you’re talking with a good friend over lunch about Douglas (and he knows nothing of him) and he comments, “Sounds like one angry black man to me”, while at the same time giving you a bit of a smirk and half chuckle, you don’t take it as him just being an idiot, but giving you an invitation to expound on the matter.

    You want the rest of my fries?


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