Part I: Frederick Douglass and Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic: The Un-Liberating Effect of Slave Labor

In order to deal with Douglass’s “disciplinary issues,” his master at the time, Thomas Auld, sent the young boy of sixteen to Mr. Covey, a man known in the community as a slave-breaker. Prior to his arrival and in spite of overwhelming obstacles, Douglass had already learned to read. Though his literacy opened up new worlds for him and allowed him to express himself as well as to know himself more profoundly, it also produced discontent and a deep sense of loss having realized what he could have been had he been a (white) free man as opposed to a (black) slave.  In other words, Douglass’s literacy no doubt afforded him a freedom of sorts within the oppressive, racialized society in which he lived; nonetheless, his newly found mental freedom was not sufficient.  After all under the all-pervasive white gaze of a racialized society, no matter how educated he became, he continued to be viewed and treated as less than a person, as property, as a tool for the white man’s projects and economic gains. The insufficiency of this “inner” freedom is seen in Douglass’s narration of his fight with Covey.

Describing his first six months with Covey, he writes, “scarce a week passed without his whipping me.  I was seldom free from a sore back.”[1] He then recounts how Covey worked him day and night and in all weather conditions and how at last the brutal, inhumane work schedules and regimented violence broke him.

Frederick Douglass SpeakingI 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![2]

Although Douglass had attained a level of freedom through literacy—an accomplishment that was itself an “argument” against the white hegemonic discourse pronouncing blacks as subhuman, incapable of “higher” rational reflection, and thus in need of (white) masters—he, as an embodied, incarnate being remained bound and subject to the (irrational) whims of white society.  No matter how literate, educated, and articulate he became, the dominant discourse scripted him as subhuman while the racialized social apparatuses—including Covey’s panoptic plantation—actively sought to suppress his intellectual achievements and to crush his spirit, reducing him to a beast-like existence in order to “prove” the veracity of their narrative.

After one of Covey’s particularly cruel, near-death beatings, Douglass decides to flee. Reluctantly and out of necessity he eventually returns to Covey’s plantation.  His return leads to a physical confrontation with Covey, who, with rope in hand tackles Douglass in a stable and attempts to tie him up.  Rather than remain a docile slave, Douglass decides to defend himself and to fight even if his action results in his own death. “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.”[3] His resolve took Covey by surprise, and Douglass could see for the first time fear and uncertainty in his master’s eyes.  The two struggled for over two hours until Covey finally gave up.

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative as a Challenge to Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic

If we bring Douglass’s narrative into conversation with Hegel’s discussion of what is commonly called the master/slave dialectic, some rather interesting insights as well as challenges surface.  Hegel devotes several paragraphs (178-196) in the Phenomenology of Spirit to the master/slave or, as Miller translates the terms, the “lord” and the “bondsman” relationship. Recognition by the other is central to Hegel’s account of the actualization of self-consciousness.  The self requires the recognition of another “I” which corresponds to itself with respect to equality, freedom and independence, as neither recognition of one’s own existence nor consciousness of a mere independent external object provides the requisite certainty Hegel claims is needed for the full actualization of self-consciousness.  The recognition among the “I’s”, in other words, must be mutual—each self must recognize the other as an independent, equal, free “I.” As the struggle for self-consciousness unfolds, a problem arises because at first each “I” sees the other “I” only as an object, a thing external to itself and to be used for its projects and plans.  As Hegel puts it, at this stage they exist as two conflicting manifestations of consciousness; “one is the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be for itself, the other is the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be for another.  The former is lord, the other is bondsman.”[4] According to Hegel’s narrative, in this initial struggle between the two consciousnesses, the bondsman shows his servile nature in that he would rather preserve his life than lose it and thus submits to the lord or master becoming a tool for the latter’s “pure enjoyment.”[5] In such an arrangement, the relationship and recognition involved is clearly asymmetrical, unequal. Ironically, this one-sidedness which seems to benefit the master, according to Hegel’s dialectical logic, turns out as advantageous to the slave.  Because acquiring full selfhood requires the other, if the other is servile, dependent, enslaved, and so forth, then the self who seeks recognition becomes these things as well.  The situation is much better for the bondsman, as his essential reality has been the lord, an “I” existing for-itself not for-an-other.  Keeping with Hegel’s logic, because the slave and master are integrally connected, the truth of the master has been from the beginning implicit in the slave.  As Hegel explains,Slaves Working in Fields

It [servitude] does in fact contain within itself this truth of pure negativity and being-for-self, for it has experienced this [in] its own essential nature. For this consciousness has been fearful, not of this or that particular thing or just at odd moments, but its whole being has been seized with dread; for it has experienced the fear of death, the absolute Lord. In that experience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations.[6]

Hegel goes on to state that this radical uprooting and disruption of one’s stability is “absolute negativity, pure being-for-self” and as such is implicit in the bondman’s consciousness.[7] As the dialectic demands, this “moment of pure being-for-self” does not remain implicit but becomes explicit for the slave “for in the lord it exists for him [the slave] as his object.”[8]

Then Hegel begins to focus on the role of labor and how this too sets the slave free. Having achieved self-consciousness through his experience of “the fear of death, the absolute Lord” in which the master’s free, self-consciousness becomes his ideal object, the slave’s relation to labor is transformed. In short, through his labor, the slave “becomes conscious of what he truly is,” another “I” and not a mere thing. The master was moved by desire to gain recognition through an other, the slave, and thus to overpower him.  However, the master’s relationship with the slave was unequal, distorted, and reduced the slave to a mere tool for his enjoyment. Given this arrangement, the master’s relation with the material realm is mediated through the slave. The slave, in contrast, works directly with the material realm, cultivating it and infusing it so to speak with his own creative ideas and mental energy. In so doing, the slave comes to respect the material realm on its own terms, working creatively with it and leaving something of himself in it as a gift to others. Thus, through his labor, the slave, in contrast with his master, experiences nature as having its own independence and integrity, its own permanence and objectivity.  Why? Because the master’s desire compelling him to conquer and treat the slave as a labor-machine operates by way of destruction, negating the other and leaving only lack and unfulfilled desire—an instance of Hegel’s bad infinite.  “[T]hat is the reason why this satisfaction is itself only a fleeting one, for it lacks the side of objectivity and permanence.  Work, on the other hand, is desire held in check, fleetingness staved off; in other words, work forms and shapes the thing.”[9] With the permanence provided intelligent shaping or “formative activity,”[10] the object produced via the slave’s labor acquires a lasting quality, a form or design that is both intelligible and transferrable over time—using Aristotle’s language inflected through a Hegelian grammar—we might say, it has become in-formed matter and possesses its own integrity.  “It is in this way, therefore, that consciousness, qua worker, comes to see in the independent being [of the object] its own independence.”[11] In addition, because he has had to labor neither for himself nor his own projects, the slave has learned to suspend his desires.  Having habituated himself this way, he works creatively with nature, respecting and valuing it rather than seeing it as a means to satisfy his insatiable desires.  What at first seemed to produce only alienation—perpetual labor for an other and never for oneself—ultimately came to be understood as “formative activity,”[12] a distinctively human activity involving cognitive capacities to creatively shape, form and interact with the material world, valuing its integrity, and allowing it to be other. In short, with the triple complex:  fear of the master de-stabilzing the self, service for the master’s sake denying one’s own desires, and labor as “formative activity” resulting in a free relationship with the material realm—together enable the slave to discover himself as an “I” in harmony with the world.  It is not by accident that the next section of the Phenomenology transitions into Stoicism—a view emphasizing inner freedom, a rationally ordered universe, detachment from and indifference to external realities and occurrences outside of one’s control, and an acceptance of one’s place within the larger ordered, rational whole.


[1] Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.  Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.  New York:  Library of America, 1994, 56.

[2] Ibid., 58.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 115, paragraph 189.

[5] Ibid., 115–6, paragraph 190.

[6] Ibid., 117, paragraph 194.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 118.

[10] Ibid., 119.

[11] Ibid., 118.

[12] Ibid., 119.

*The first image was copied from this website:

*The second image was copied from this website:

Frederick Douglass on Loss, Longing, and the Making of an Instrumentalized Non-Rational Homo Economicus

In the opening chapter of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass immediately introduces the reader to a theme that he will develop and elaborate throughout his autobiography, namely, the reduction of slaves to the status of (non-rational) animal or beast.  As Douglass explains, he, like most slaves, was uncertain as to his actual age and had never seen any record of his own birth.[1] “By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.”[2] To inquire of one’s master concerning records, one’s birth date, and related matters was to show signs of a “restless spirit.”[3] Not only was Douglass kept ignorant of his own age, but he had to rely on what he could weave together from fragmented conversations and bits of gossip he had overheard regarding the identity of his father.  “My father was a white man.  He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage.  The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father.”[4] Liaisons of this sort between masters and female slaves were common and point (among other things) to the irrationality of the hegemonic, pro-slavery discourse and the self-deception in which its participants engaged.  That is, on the one hand, slaves were said to be non-persons, sub-human, more or less beasts; yet, masters regularly raped and sexually abused their slaves, indicating that they themselves did not believe their own narrative but were unwilling to give up their place of privilege and the “benefits” that came with it.  The institution of chattel slavery, founded upon bio-behavioral racial essentialism and maintained through various legal, cultural, and economic structures and strictures, created a lawless space for white, male slaveowners.   Like Gyges hidden from sight when sporting his magical ring and bent on satisfying his desires at the expense of others, these men used the “invisibility powers” of institutional and systemic racism and their privileged place within that system to exploit and destroy fellow human beings.

by John W. Jones
by John W. Jones

The other side, so to speak, of the dominant narrative’s construction of the slave’s subjectivity is its active erasing or re-scripting his or her history and culture.  One way to engage in this erasure is to dis-integrate, divide, and ultimately destroy familial bonds.  Douglass’s account of his own experience of forced separation from his mother suggests that the practice was common, and highlights its negative impact.  “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. […] Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it.”[5] The child is then moved to a different location, perhaps a different plantation altogether and is placed with an elderly female slave, who, given her frailty and age, is neither profitable to the master nor pleasurable.  As Douglass observes, this practice renders virtually impossible the emotional bonding that ought to occur between mother and child, and resulted in many women suppressing their affections for their children.[6] Although he was able to spend a few hours with his mother in the evenings—after she had worked a full day and walked twelve miles to visit him—Douglass was not allowed to visit her when she fell ill, nor was he permitted to be present when she died and was laid to rest.[7] “Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.” Significant temporal markers that most of us take for granted—one’s own birth date—as well as the spatial presence required for familial cohesion to occur, were denied Douglass.  His spatio-temporal existence, like the other beasts of the field, was disciplined, shaped, and determined by the work day and work season—“planting-time, harvest- time, cherry-time, spring-time.”[8]Here we have the forced reduction of man to homo economicus; however, the term is infused with new meaning.  The slave as economic being is in no way motivated by self-interest and is treated as a non-rational animal, a mere means benefitting the master’s self-serving ends.


[1] For an interesting discussion on this topic, see, Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Frederick Douglass and the Language of the Self,” in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the ‘Racial’ Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 98–125.

[2] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 15, 16.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 15.

* John W. Jones’s  painting, “Slave Mother and Child” was taken from this website:

Mos Def and Social “Mathematics” from the Remnants of the Ghetto: Giving the Numbers a Voice

Actor and hip hop artist, Dante Terrell Smith, better known as “Mos Def,” grew up in Brooklyn and exhibited musical and acting talents at an early age.  Mos focused on musical theater in high school, attended New York University, and went on to establish himself as both as an actor and a significant voice in the world of hip hop, recording several solo and collaborative albums.  Mos’s lyrics are filled with layers of socio-political and religious commentary and critique, allowing for multiple interpretations and dialogic interdisciplinary engagements.  Below I offer one possible way to enter into dialogue with a song called “Mathematics” from his 1999 debut solo album, Black on Both Sides.Mos Def

The body of the song opens with a six line stanza rhythmically interweaving the numbers one through ten in between concrete, historical particulars (Pete Rose—i.e. “Charlie Hustle”) to more abstract, universal, and religious allusions (e.g., “Seven firmaments of heaven to hell, 8 Million Stories to tell”).  Then in the next stanza, Mos moves away from the abstract and becomes more personal.  In these nine lines, he highlights how the poetics of a socially conscious hip hop—in particular the voice that it gives to the voiceless— lifts the “powerless up” from the social sinkholes of stigmatized spaces (ghettos, prisons, and “streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing”) and, in his case, has allowed him to overcome some of the socio-political obstacles faced by African Americans so that he might speak on behalf of suffering others.  Yet, as the last three lines indicate living in a condition both created and abandoned by the state—not to mention a socially ostracized, stigmatized “space” (projects, no-go zones etc.)—breeds violence, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness among those forced to occupy those infernal spaces.

The body of my text posesses extra strength
Power-liftin powerless up, out of this, towerin’ inferno
My ink so hot it burn through the journal
I’m blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle
Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles|
like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex
Broken glass wall better keep your alarm set
Streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing
Say evacuate your sleep, it’s dangerous to dream

The next section begins to develop and elaborate the kind of “mathematics” Mos has in mind.  Having to live in such inhumane circumstances of course takes its toll on a person’s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being, and often paradoxically, accelerates and intensifies the construction of the subjectivities that the hegemonic class had hoped to eradicate. As Mos explains, those who internalize the stigma and negativity imposed on them by the dominant narrative—the “chain cats”—end up dead, crushed in spirit and ground to dust for the economic gain of the (largely white) elite class.

But you chain cats get they CHA-POW, who dead now
Killin’ fields need blood to graze the cash cow
It’s a number game, but shit don’t add up somehow

When your world—the social space into which you have been thrown by forces outside of your control—is created, founded, and built upon injustice and exploitation, even something as supposedly clear-cut, steady, dispassionate, and uncontroversial as mathematics becomes a site of socio-political polysemous meanings.  So how does the “shit” not add up? Here are a few examples.

Like I got, sixteen to thirty-two bars to rock it
but only 15% of profits, ever see my pockets
like sixty-nine billion in the last twenty years
spent on national defense but folks still live in fear
like nearly half of America’s largest cities is one-quarter black
That’s why they gave Ricky Ross all the crack
Sixteen ounces to a pound, twenty more to a ki
A five minute sentence hearing and you no longer free

First, Mos critiques the music industry whose sights are set not on artistry and beauty but on profits.  Then he highlights the government’s out of control spending on national defense while simultaneously creating an atmosphere of public panic of the socially constructed “terrorist” as the new “other” to fear. Lastly, he offers his interpretation of the Ricky Ross case.  In a series of controversial articles in 1996, Gary Webb argued that the new all-out war on drugs had a disproportionate impact on blacks, particularly young black males on the lower end of the socio-economic and educational spectrum.  In the Ross case, as Webb explains, you have on one side, “Ricky Donnell Ross, a high school dropout, and his suave cocaine supplier, Danilo Blandon, who has a master’s degree in marketing and was one of the top civilian leaders in California of an anti-communist guerrilla army formed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.” Both men were arrested for major drug trafficking offenses; however, according to Web’s story, even though Blandon testified in court that “the first kilo of cocaine he sold in California was to raise money for the CIA’s army, which was trying on a shoestring to unseat Nicaragua’s new socialist Sandinista government,” and admitted that his modus operandi was to employ guys like Ross, “a South-Central teen-ager who had the gang connections and street smarts necessary to move the army’s cocaine, a veritable blizzard engulfed the ghettos,” after all the deals were made in the “justice” system, guess which one ends up in the hole after his “five minute hearing”?—Ricky Ross.[1] The section ends with a jab at the new big brother State with its surveillance techniques now legalized and expanded beyond panoptic prisons.

The next seven lines continue to describe life in the urban hellholes, the ghettos and hyper-ghettos where people become hardened and turn to crime and other parallel economic (and often illegal) structures carved out in response to socio-political and economic ostracism and spatial confinement.  Note again the hopelessness and the sense of human potential wasted.

Rock your hardhat black cause you in the Terrordome
full of hard niggaz, large niggaz, dice tumblers
Young teens and prison greens facin’ life numbers
Crack mothers, crack babies and AIDS patients
Young bloods can’t spell but they could rock you in PlayStation
This new math is whippin motherfuckers’ ass
You wanna know how to rhyme you better learn how to add
It’s mathematics

Next we have a structural mirroring of the opening stanza playing off the one through ten number theme and closing with an eleven line description of the “numbers” problem where dead-end low wage (non-salaried and hence no benefits–health insurance, retirement fund, etc.) jobs and poverty-stricken living produce and give rise to drug use, trafficking, and other criminal activities.

Yo, it’s one universal law but two sides to every story
Three strikes and you be in for life, manditory
Four MC’s murdered in the last four years
I ain’t tryin to be the fifth one, the millenium is here
Yo it’s 6 Million Ways to Die, from the seven deadly thrills
Eight-year olds gettin found with 9 mill’s
It’s 10 P.M., where your seeds at? What’s the deal
He on the hill puffin krill [crack cocaine] to keep they belly filled
Light in the ass with heavy steel, sights on the pretty shit in life
Young soldiers tryin’ to earn they next stripe
When the average minimum wage is $5.15
You best believe you gotta find a new ground to get C.R.E.A.M.[2]

The white unemployment rate, is nearly more than triple for black
so frontliners got they gun in your back
Bubblin crack, jewel theft and robbery to combat poverty
and end up in the global jail economy
Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence
Budget cutbacks but increased police presence

From the hopelessness of the ghetto, you move to the hopelessness of the prison and the cycle continues; however, along the way, should you survive the prison camp, the panoptic gaze makes sure that the negative narrative inscribed in your body and indelibly marking your soul stays with you—no bars needed as confinement, stigmatization, segregated spaces, and negated freedom operate on the outside through a network just as rigidly structured and socially impermeable as the hierarchical social strata of the carceral system. Lastly, Mos doesn’t mince words about the role race plays in this deadly numbers game.  Whether chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the ghetto, or hyper-incarceration, “blackness” continues as the mutable target socially constructed in the past as (subhuman) “thing” and now as the “dangerous other” whom, since we can no longer legally lynch, must be destroyed by more socially acceptable means.

And even if you get out of prison still livin’
join the other five million under state supervision
This is business, no faces just lines and statistics
from your phone, your zip code, to S-S-I digits
The system break man child and women into figures
Two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggaz
Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings
but you push too hard, even numbers got limits
Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret:
the million other straws underneath it
It’s all mathematics


[1] The full article, as well as others on the topic, can be accessed here:  The quotations above are taken from this link.

[2] I had no idea what C.R.E.A.M. meant, but after a bit of searching here I found out that it is an acronym which stands for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” and was made famous “by the Wu-Tang clan […] to describe money. Ever since the Wu-Tang commenced their rap reign in the early 90’s, CREAM has become the universal hip-hop word for money.”

Part II: Joerg Rieger and Frederick Douglass on the “Myth of Individualism” and the Eruption of Alternative Subjectivities From the Underside

Slave Revolt Published in The Abolitionist 1802Although elsewhere I bring Douglass’s insights into conversation with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, here I want to focus on how Douglass’s observations converge and resonate with Rieger’s thoughts on the myth of the (autonomous) individual. Rieger is in no way suggesting that the humanity, subjectivity, or agency of a marginalized or oppressed person is or can be totally eradicated by the dominant culture, narratives, or “master” subjectivities.  Rather, like Douglass, Rieger’s point, which presupposes and affirms human solidarity, is that we are both socially constructed and self-constructed.  Thus, on the one hand, Rieger emphasizes how under the current rule of Empire “subjectivity is being actively colonized at the level of the cultural, the emotional, and even the spiritual,” and those in the dominant position of privilege can “happily encourage others to take things into their own hands—to become active subjects, in other words—without having to be too worried that this will ever become a reality,” thus strengthening “the myth that the powerful have gained power by becoming active [autonomous] subjects themselves […] and putting blame on all others who fail.”[1] Yet, on the other hand, Rieger stresses the agency and creative possibilities of human beings, even when they find themselves in demoralizing, inhumane, and oppressive socio-political contexts like chattel slavery or colonialism.

The good news […] is that, despite all its efforts, Empire is never able to control and co-opt subjectivity and desire totally and absolutely. A first sense that subjectivity cannot be co-opted grows entirely out of an observation of the ambivalence of the status quo. The Empire’s power and influence may be substantial and all-encompassing, but are never absolute, never without ambivalence. Even subjectivity that has seemingly been erased by Empire keeps erupting, at times in unexpected places. It is a significant datum of history that even slaves—people who were not supposed to have any subjectivity at all—were able to reassert their subjectivity, rise up, and challenge the Empire. The Judeo-Christian traditions are founded on such a slave uprising in the Exodus and on many other stories of resistance by people who were considered lacking subjectivity in the ancient world.[2]South Carolina Slaves Unknown Artist

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and countless other “erupting” subjectivities refused the pre-scripted (racialized) narrative of the dominant culture and chose instead various paths of resistance, (re)scripting their identities, (re)asserting their humanity, and gifting us with living memorials of hope to encourage us in times of doubt and despair.  In light of the double construction of subjectivities—that is, our social and self-construction—there are no autonomous self-made subjects; yet, there is no reason to conclude that social construction and agency are mutually exclusive or that the former necessarily eradicates the latter.


[1] Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key, 138.

[2] Ibid.

Part I: Joerg Rieger and Frederick Douglass on the “Myth of Individualism” and the Eruption of Alternative Subjectivities From the Underside

In the context of discussing Lacan’s distinction between “realism” as that which the dominant group takes as reality—master narratives, nationalisms etc. belong here—and the real, the underside of “realism,” Joerg Rieger highlights the “myth of individualism.”

Individualism is the sort of master narrative that those in power who share in the dominant subjectivity tell about themselves in order to cover up and repress the real—that is, all those who have contributed to their success and those on whose backs their success is ultimately built.  This repressed world of the individualist includes teachers, parents, and peers, but also housekeepers, workers who produce at low ages, and all the other service providers and subordinates in the command structure.[1]

Rieger continues, accenting the ways in which the narrative of individualism is intimately connected with the construction of dominant subjectivities.

The seemingly self-made dominant subject must tell realism’s story of individualism and repress the real; this is the only way to avoid being challenged by another kind of subjectivity that is part of the real.  The Lacanian notion of the repressed real helps us see that there is no autonomous subject.  Individualism is merely the myth of the powerful; even the dominant subjectivity cannot exist in isolation.  Oppressors who seek to safeguard their own subjectivity by perpetuating the master narrative of individualism simply fool themselves because their identity is invariably built in relation to others and, more specifically, on the back of others.[2]South Carolina Slaves Unknown Artist

Here Rieger highlights the fact that the so-called “self-made dominant subject” is always already in relation to others.  More to the point, such “self-made” individuals—particularly those quite content to live within rather than beyond the “spirit of the Empire”—constitute their subjectivities and identities in relation to those whom they script, oppress, exploit, marginalize, and confine to urban and (to borrow Glenn Loury’s term) other “nether” non-spaces of existence.

In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass captures our heteronomous (rather than autonomous) way of being in the world in his narration of the reciprocal nature of the master/slave relation.  Covey, a particularly merciless slave owner, was renowned for his “ability” to break slaves, and Douglass, unfortunately, became existentially acquainted with Covey’s “skills” in cruelty on a regular basis.  After one of Covey’s near-death beatings, Douglass decided to flee; however, feeling trapped, hungry, and having no permanent place to reside, he eventually returned to the plantation.  Recognizing that his return will result in some form of violent “discipline” at Covey’s hands, Douglass experiences a “conversion” of sorts.  That is, rather than remain a docile slave, he chooses the (active) path of resistance; when Covey attacked him with rope in hand, Douglass—at that time a teenager—defended himself and took his “master” to task.  “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.”[3] Douglass’s response caught Covey completely off-guard, and for the first time Douglass saw Covey tremble—the myth of the autonomous “self-made dominant” subject began to unravel.  The two struggled for over two hours until Covey finally gave up.  Rather than hand Douglass over to the authorities or have him severely beaten or hung—all common and accepted practices in that day—Covey does nothing.  For the remainder of his “disciplinary training” on Covey’s plantation, Douglass receives no further violent treatment from his “master.”  How are we to understand Covey’s response?  As Douglass explains,

Slave Revolt Published in The Abolitionist 1802Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first-rate overseer and negro-breaker.  It was of considerable importance to him. That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me—a boy about sixteen years old—to the public whipping-post, his reputation would have been lost; so, to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished.[4]

Covey, as a member of the elite slave-owning class, was in fact not an autonomous subject, whose supposed “success” might serve as an exemplar for other aspiring (white, male) members of society.  Instead, Covey’s identity, his sense of self, his subjectivity was deeply connected to those whom he sought to “break.” When the socio-political status of the underclass changes, the mythmakers tend to awaken from their contented slumber and new myths must be crafted to keep the public in a state of alarm and uneasiness, fearing the hegemonic-scripted “other,” who, after all, wants to take what rightfully belongs to them (i.e. the dominant class and those imbibing their myths).  (Does this story sound familiar?)[5] Stay tuned for Part II…


[1] Beyond the Spirit of Empire:  Theology and Politics in a New Key, 48.

[2] Ibid., 48.

[3] Frederick Douglass, In Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave/ My Bondage and My Freedom/ Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.  Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Library of America, 1994), 64.

[4] Ibid., 65-6.

[5] The forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod (July 2010) is one contemporary variation on this rather worn out theme. Consider, for example, the “chapters” in this story— the N.A.A.C.P. challenges the Tea Party leaders to expel the racist elements from among their ranks resulting in Tea Party member Mark Williams’ expulsion; Andrew Breitbart posts a highly edited video clip of Ms. Sherrod’s alleged “reverse racist” speech at a N.A.A.C.P. meeting, which was immediately aired on Fox News and later shown to be an excerpted clip from a speech in which Ms. Sherrod was recounting her own story of racial reconciliation.  These events (not to mention others) suggest that race (and, given the context, race relations in the United States in particular), race-baiting, and the media’s role in constructing racial identities continue as significant socio-political problems that must be engaged.  These issues are in no way resolved or behind us simply because Barack Obama holds the highest public office in America. See, for example, Frank Rich’s assessment of the Sherrod incident in his New York Times editorial, “There’s a Battle Outside and It is Still Ragin’.” The New York Times, July 24, 2010. (accessed  7/26/10).

* The first image, South Carolina Slaves, by an unknown artist was copied from this website:   The second image, Slave Revolt, was published in The Abolitionist in 1802 and was likewise copied from the same website.