Frederick Douglass and the Master/Slave Dialectic

In Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, he describes his first six months with “master” Covey, a well-known “slave-breaker” to whom he had been sent due to his so-called “disciplinary” issues.  Douglass was about sixteen years old during his stay with Covey, and in spite of significant obstacles, had learned to read.  Though his literacy opened up new worlds for him and allowed him to express himself and even to know himself more profoundly, it also brought about a deep sense of loss—a realization of all that he could have been had he been a (white) freeman rather than a (black) slave.  In other words, Douglass’s literacy indeed produced in him a kind of freedom within the oppressive, racialized society in which he lived, but it wasn’t sufficient—after all under the white gaze, no matter how educated he became, he remained a mere thing, property, chattel.  The insufficiency of this “inner” freedom is seen in Douglass’s famous account of his fight with Covey.Frederick Douglass

When Douglass’s former owner, Thomas Auld, could no longer deal with Douglass, he sent him to Covey.  Douglass describes his time with Covey as follows:  “the first six months, of that year … scarce a week passed without his whipping me.  I was seldom free from a sore back” (p. 56).[1] He then recounts how Covey worked him day and night and in all weather conditions and how at last Covey’s “discipline” broke him.

I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me.  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 about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute! (p. 58).

Although Douglass had attained a level of freedom through literacy—an accomplishment that was itself an “argument” against the white hegemonic discourse which claimed that blacks were subhuman, incapable of “higher” rational reflection, and thus in need of (white) masters—and thus had within himself moved from an animal-like existence to a more human existence, he as an embodied being was still in bonds and subject to the (irrational) whims of  white society.  In fact, Douglass indicates in the passage above, that Covey’s “disciplinary regime” (i.e. torture and inhumane work routines) transformed him back into a beast-like existence.

After one particularly brutal and near-death beating at the hands of Covey, Douglass decides to flee.  He returns to his former owner, Mr. Auld, who rather mercilessly commands him to go back to Covey.  As Douglass’s “dark night of slavery” continues, he contemplates suicide, living in the woods until he eventually dies for lack of food etc., or returning to Covey.  At last he decides to go back to Covey’s plantation, knowing that a bloody beating awaits him.  As Douglass is climbing over a fence to enter Covey’s field, Covey runs out to meet him with whip in hand.  Douglass manages to escape again and hides in the woods where he meets another slave named Sandy.  He and Sandy discuss his situation, and Sandy convinces him that he must return to Covey’s house.  However, before Douglass departs, Sandy gives Douglass a root with supposed magical, protective powers.  Sandy claims that if Douglass carries this root on his ride side, Covey will not come near him.  Douglass is highly skeptical but takes the root to please Sandy.  Douglass heads out a second time, this time returning on Easter Sunday.  Once Douglass enters his master’s property, he passed Covey, who, as a good Southern “Christian” is on his way to church.  To Douglass’s surprise, Covey interacts positively with him, which makes Douglass think that there might be something to Sandy’s root.  However, Monday is a different story; with Monday, we’re back to business as usual.  While laboring that morning in a stable, Douglass catches sight of Covey approaching with a long rope in hand.  Covey tackles Douglass and attempts to bind him with the rope.  Rather than remain a docile slave, Douglass decides to resist and fights back.  “At this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose” (p. 64).  Douglass’s response took Covey by surprise, and Douglass could see for the first time fear in Covey’s eyes.  The two struggled for over two hours until Covey finally gave up.

If we bring Douglass’s narrative (as a hermeneutical “tool”) into conversation with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, some rather interesting insights surface.  After Douglass’s act of physical resistance or more strongly put, his act of violence, Covey never again physically abuses Douglass.  Here contra Hegel’s account of the docile slave who cared more for his life than his freedom, the slave is willing to risk his life for freedom.  Douglass himself interpreted the fight with Covey as a decisive moment in his struggle for freedom.

The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave.  It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.  It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.  The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself.  He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery.  I felt as I never felt before.  It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.  My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and 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.  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 (p. 65).

Here it seems that something beyond intellectual freedom (i.e. literacy and what I’ve called “inner freedom”) was required for Douglass’s “resurrection.”  As an embodied, political being, Douglass’s experience of freedom was necessarily limited so long as Covey and the socio-political slavery apparatus had dominion over his body.  According to Douglass’s account, some kind of physical resistance or force was needed not only for his own sense of freedom but also so that Covey might recognize him as an Other with volitional and rational faculties capable of producing deliberate and purposeful acts of resistance.    (Though my knowledge of Marx is quite limited, I suppose that a Marxist would be delighted with this reading).  My final point is to highlight the fact that in Douglass’s narrative, the slave does not gain freedom or bring about a reversal in the master/slave relationship through his labor (The Marxist would not, however, find this point delightful). To the contrary, Douglass says that the excruciating labor he endured under Covey’s supervision crushed his spirit—“ 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 about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (p. 58).   Although acquiring skills through labor does not bring about a reversal in the master/slave relationship, the master’s identity is (as Hegel claims) dialectically related to the slave’s.  How so?  Covey chooses not turn Douglass in for a public “whipping.”  Douglass’s explanation for Covey’s seemingly inexplicable decision is that Covey’s reputation as a slave-breaker was on the line.  He failed to break Douglass, and to turn Douglass in would be to admit that failure and lose his reputation. In short, Douglass worked within the power mechanisms of an oppressive slave society, and his resistance proved successful on multiple counts.  Power relations, as Foucault emphasizes, are not merely oppressive.  Rather, when power relations obtain, genuine resistance is possible.


[1] Douglass Autobiographies, ed. by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York:  The Library of America, 1994.

5 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass and the Master/Slave Dialectic”

  1. There is a typos: now should read no in the first part of this article. I am an avid follower of your blog and it is my honor to Buzz about this piece to my friends. I am not a Christian but your writings forced me to read everyone from Gadamer to Balthsar. Thanks.

  2. Cynthia,
    Thank you for this article. The story reminds me of this quote by James Baldwin, “Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people [white people] to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough.” From “Down at the Cross”
    Take care!


  3. My eight year old son was Frederick Douglas in his Great American school play. My dad, a Covey, was visiting us from out of state and while showing him the video of my sons play he said “we are the descendants of that “Covey”, he was a mean son I a gun”. My dad strongly opposes any type of racism and was embarrassed to say this. I researched Frederick Douglass a little more deeply and stumbled upon with this blog. It’s horrifying, and makes me sick to my stomach. I believe, with all my heart, that God had a hand in that last fight. I am grateful for Douglass’ strength, for without him, I wouldn’t have the beautiful friends and “hopeful” daughter-in-law in my life. Thank you for sharing.


Comments are closed.