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

With a basic sketch of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in place [see part I], I want to bring Douglass’s account into conversation with Hegel. After Douglass’s act of physical resistance or more strongly put, his act of violence, Covey never again physically abuses Douglass.  For Hegel, the master/slave relationship comes into existence when one person chooses to preserve his life rather than fight the other and risk his life. The one opting for life over death becomes the slave. Contra Hegel’s account of the docile slave who surrendered himself to his master’s will, Douglass confronts his master and is willing to risk his life in order to gain freedom. In his narrative, Douglass himself interprets the fight with Covey as a decisive moment in his struggle for freedom.Slaves Working in Fields

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.[1]

According to Douglass, something beyond intellectual freedom—literacy and so-called “inner freedom”—was required for his “resurrection” from “the tomb of slavery,” his on-going social death experienced from sunrise to sunset. As an embodied, political being, Douglass’s experience of freedom was necessarily limited so long as Covey and the all-pervasive socio-political apparatus of chattel slavery had dominion over his body, controlling, monitoring, and defining his every spatio-temporal move. As I highlighted earlier, Douglass’s personal history including significant temporal markers and events—his birth date, the identity of his father, the death and burial of his mother—was erased, covered up, and controlled by the white other. When he resolved to stand up to Covey—an embodied representative of the larger socio-political racialized apparatus—Douglass began to re-write his own story and to forge his own historical and temporal markers.  His preface to the Covey episode indicates that he himself understood the fight as momentous, historic, and transformative. “The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”[2] In short, Douglass’s re-narration of this event suggests that not only was some form of physical resistance or force needed for his own sense of freedom, but it was also needed so that Covey might recognize him as an other, as a human being with volitional and rational faculties capable of producing deliberate and purposeful acts of resistance.[3] The (white) panoptic gaze inscribed in his body through multiple lashes of the whip and forced inhumane labor, the gaze internalized through his brokenness and reduction to an animal-like state, was at last cast off, deflected, turned aside.  In Douglass’s words, “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.”[4]

Frederick Douglass SpeakingMy final point with respect to the Hegel/Douglass dialogue is to highlight the fact that in Douglass’s narrative, the slave does not attain freedom or recognition of his humanity through his labor for the master. To the contrary, Douglass says that the excruciating labor regime and brutality he endured under Covey’s supervision tormented his body and soul and depressed his 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!”[5] Rather than unveil over time the truth of his humanity, Douglass’s forced labor for the master’s sake, worked in a systematic and calculated way to extinguish—or at least attempt to extinguish—his higher capacities and thus to reduce him to an animal-like existence.[6] His work for Covey produced neither indifference to nor detachment from desire, but instead ignited and augmented a desire for freedom, a spatio-temporal existence defined and fashioned by his value as a (rational, volitional) human being and not by the economic value or any other benefits extracted from his subjugated body only to be handed over for the enjoyment of his master. Although on Douglass’s account acquiring skills through labor does not bring about a reversal in the master/slave relationship, he is quite cognizant of the way in which the master’s identity is (as Hegel claims) dialectically related to the slave’s. How so? Covey decides against turning Douglass in for a public whipping. Douglass’s explanation for Covey’s seemingly inexplicable decision is that his master’s reputation as a slave-breaker was on the line.  The master had failed to break the slave; consequently, for Covey to surrender Douglass to the civic authorities would be to admit his failure and to lose his highly valued reputation.


[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, 65.

[2] Ibid., 60.

[3] I personally have no desire to promote acts of violence; however, if we take Douglass’s account at face value, we must wrestle with his claims that violence was a necessary component to his freedom.

[4] Ibid., 65.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] In fact, Douglass describes his first six months of Covey’s work regime as one of the most difficult periods of his enslavement.  “If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey.  We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail or snow, too hard for us to work in the field.  Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night” (ibid.).

7 thoughts on “Part II: Frederick Douglass and Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic: The Un-Liberating Effect of Slave Labor”

  1. Douglass’ claim that his act of violence was necessary is echoed by others like Frantz Fanon who, in The Wretched of the Earth, says that the oppressed must kill their oppressors for their psychological healing. But Douglass doesn’t make that claim–He needs to assert his personhood. He needs to resist his oppressor, Covey, but he doesn’t need to kill him.

    After escaping slavery, Douglass adopts nonviolence as his belief while an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. (He later abandons this and supports the Civil War.)

    I think it was MLK,Jr.’s genius to see that the psychological liberation Douglass experienced by fighting Covey, could be achieved by nonviolent confrontation with the likes of Bull Conner. He praised the “new Negro” and the “straigthened up backs” that happened long before any concrete results were achieved by the movement. Passive nonresistance, on the other hand, is too close to Hegel’s “embrace your slavery” view.

    Thanks for these continued reflections.

  2. Hi Michael,

    If I remember correctly, John Brown tried to get Douglass to back him, and even to go and fight with him when he (Brown) and his group of armed men attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Their plan was to take the weapons and free all the slaves in that area. The plan didn’t work, and he and his men were captured and eventually were executed (by hanging). Brown had a history of violent opposition to slavery (i.e. his attach on the proslavery settlement near Osawatomie Creek).

    Douglass at first was reluctant to support these kinds of endeavors and declined to go with Brown. However, because the system was so entrenched and progress was not moving forward yet his people continued to suffer greatly, he eventually came to support violence in struggles against oppression. Here’s an excerpt from a later address, “No progress Without Struggle,” his gave in August 1857.

    “Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle […] If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters. The struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one, or it may both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will. Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted in the North, and held and flogged at in the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppression and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and, if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others” (F. Douglass, from an address on West India Emancipation, August 4, 1857).

    While I do not want to advocate violence and greatly respect the path taken by MLK Jr., Douglass’s account really challenges me (and his context was very different from MLK’s—both were no doubt oppressive, but chattel slavery was exceedingly so; one is living in a “state of exception”, a lawless space where whatever the white society says more or less goes. How long can a people be expected to live like that?). Who knows what one might do if forced to live in his situation.

    Thanks for your interaction, Michael. It is always a pleasure to discuss these issues with you.

  3. You’re right, Cynthia. Douglass refused to go with Brown, but later championed him against the attacks on his character after his raid failed.

    When Douglass finally abandoned the nonviolence of the American Anti-Slavery society, Sojourner Truth–who had suffered under slavery worse than he had–asked, “Frederick, is God dead?”

    I agree that there must be struggle, but nonviolent struggle is consistent with the gospel–and violent struggle, even in resistance to violent oppression, simply continues the spiral of violence.

    But Douglass is a challenge to me, too.

  4. I love your new post/challenge, but I notice that here our topic shifted. It became: Was the Civil War justified or is violence justified in similar contexts? That’s an important question, but is not what I was addressing or why I brought in Fanon and King.

    I was trying to show that whereas Fanon identified killing the oppressor as necessary for the PSYCHOLOGICAL liberation of the oppressed, Douglass only says that resistance/struggle is necessary–which can be “physical” (i.e., violent) or “moral” (i.e., through nonviolent struggle).

  5. Hi Michael,

    I’m not sure that I follow you. I was not asking about whether the Civil War was justified–where do you see that in my comments (just curious, because I honestly didn’t even have that in mind)? The question that Douglass raises (to my mind) via the Covey event is whether physical struggle or some act of physical violence (expressed in individual or corporate acts) might be required in an oppressive context such as chattel slavery given that the system is entrenched and no “reasoning” or other means is helping the cause for freedom.
    As to Fanon, I’ve not read _The Wretched of the Earth_but I have read _Black Skins, White Masks_ In BSWM, Fanon does not say that the colonized person must kill his/her oppressor in order to gain psychological freedom; he is open to violence for the cause if necessary. Does Fanon say in the WOE that killing the oppressor is the only way to gain such freedom? I wonder what the relationship is between BSWM and WOE? At any rate, in BSWM, Fanon says a number of things that are very much in harmony with Douglass (i.e. internalizing the “white gaze”).

    Best wishes,

  6. OK, I misunderstood your discussion of John Brown’s raid and Douglass gradual move from opposing slavery through nonviolent agitation to supporting violence–the violence which became the Civil War.

    I haven’t read BSWM, on WOE. In WOE (at least, if my memory is correct) Fanon worries that physical freedom from the oppressor achieved without violence will still leave the colonized mind intact.

    I think Douglass, and to a greater extent, King, agrees with the need to decolonize oppressed minds and see the role of struggle as part of that decolonization. But for Douglass, the resistance can be either physical or moral–and for King, nonviolent direct action is actually superior: more people can participate (revolutionary guerilla armies seldom include the aged, the infirm, etc., but all these can be involved in boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, marches, work slow-downs, etc.) and the oppressed do not become the new oppressors–and there is more room for reconciliation with the former oppressors.

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