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: