CFP: Solidarity, Striving, and Struggle: The Moral, Political, and Religious Thought of Frederick Douglass

Cambridge Scholars Publishing has issued an advance contract for an edited volume that offers scholarly insight into the moral, political, and religious thought of Frederick Douglass. The co-editors, Dr. Timothy Golden and Dr. Cynthia R. Nielsen, seek essays serving as book chapters that address Douglass as a moral philosopher, political philosopher, theologian, and a philosopher of religion. Essays are also welcome that engage Douglass’s thought vis-à-vis moral philosophy, theology, social and political philosophy, and feminist philosophy.Frederick Douglass Studying

The co-editors recognize that such critical reflection on Douglass may assume several forms. For example, an essay may examine Douglass’s moral, political, theological and religious thought from within his own work, either by emphasizing the evolution of Douglass as a philosopher throughout his works, or by indicating tensions internal to Douglass’s texts; an essay may also present a study of Douglass alongside other 19th century African-American, abolitionist, or political thought (i.e., Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, Martin Delany, David Walker, Maria Stewart or Ida B. Wells); or an essay may discuss Douglass and U.S. Constitutional hermeneutics, emphasizing the complex relationship between a textualist interpretation of the Constitution on the issue of whether the Constitution is a slave document, and contemporary, un-enumerated rights interpretations that are non-textualist that Douglass may sanction. Finally, an essay may also examine the moral, political, religious and theological problems that Douglass raises in his work in relationship to canonical philosophical figures that range from Ancient Greek Philosophy (i.e., Douglass and Plato (perhaps either justice in the Republic or political obligation in the Crito), or Douglass and Aristotle (slavery and the will), through modern philosophy (i.e., Douglass and modernity in general, or Douglass and Kant), and into the 20th Century (i.e., Douglass and his relationship to Analytic and Continental Philosophy generally or to any of their major figures such as Quine, Wittgenstien, or Nietzsche, Fanon, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, de Beavoir, Irigaray, or Derrida). These examples are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather they point to what the editors of this volume believe are the many ways to expand scholarly discussions of Douglass.

Please submit a 500–750 word abstract to [email protected] no later than August 15, 2014. Also submit a contributor’s biography of no more than 200 words, detailing your qualifications for a contribution to this volume. Authors will be notified of acceptance by October 15, 2014. If accepted, contributors will be contacted with a due date for their completed chapters.

Douglass’s Political Philosophy of Mutual Responsibility or “Each for All and All for Each”

Frederick Doulgass Statue (1)As scholars such as Bill Lawson and Nicholas Buccola have observed, Frederick Douglass embraced and advocated for many of the central tenets of “classical liberalism” (e.g. individual rights, freedom, equality, and so forth). However, his liminal experience as a slave compelled him to articulate and develop a more consistent, inclusive, and robust liberalism. As Buccola explains, “In order to close the gap between the promises of liberalism and the realities of American life, Douglass infused his political philosophy with an egalitarian ethos of inclusion and a robust conception of mutual responsibility” (The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, p. 12). For Douglass, freedom is not understood merely negatively as the ability to act without constraint; true freedom must be construed positively as the freedom to flourish and to develop one’s potential in community with others. Thus, human freedom entails a social dimension; it is expressed and lived concretely in relation with others and requires citizens, legislators, and all who participate in our communal life to live an “I am my brother’s [and sister’s] keeper” ethos.  In short, Douglass argued that as members of a common human family we must embrace our obligation to stand for those suffering injustice and to stand against institutions and practices that promote and maintain social, political, and economic inequalities.

Although Douglass had been scripted as subhuman property, he refused from a very early age to accept white society’s discourses and engaged in creative and strategic acts of resistance. Such acts included transforming mundane (and extremely harsh) workspaces into educational sites for hisown betterment. Well before Foucault foregrounds the knowledge/power complex, Douglass emphasizes the intimate relation between knowledge and power, knowing firsthand how masters maintained their dominating role by denying slaves formal educational opportunities. In other words, Douglass is acutely aware of the fact that the dominating master/slave relation requires knowledge to flow unidirectionally—from master to slave. The slave must be rendered mute and docile; the master must maintain continually the delicate and unsteady balance between creating a completely passive slave subjectivity and a slave with just enough agency to remain useful to the master. Douglass likewise grasped the co-constitutive character of the master/slave relation. That is, he saw that the master’s authority and socially constructed superiority depends in part upon his ability to keep the slave ignorant. Such an arrangement, of course, allows the master’s dominance in the relationship to rigidify on the personal and societal level. For example, since the master has denied the slave educational opportunities, he will de facto possess more knowledge than the slave. This is in no way to affirm any inherent intellectual inferiority on the part of the slave; it is rather to highlight the concrete, “on the ground” situation, given the fact that slaves were denied access to formal education. Likewise, in light of the structural racism prevalent in nineteenth-century America, the master was able to exercise local as well as socio-political and legal disciplinary actions should the slave choose to rebel.

Given Douglass’s context, he had to devise and “perform” improvisational resistance maneuverings in order to advance his education. For example, as a young boy of twelve, he was required to carry out various errands for his master. In order to make the most of his errand-runs, Douglass made sure to carry along two important items: a book and extra bread. Having completed his task with lightening speed, he would approach poor and often hungry white schoolboys playing along the roads and surrounding areas. He would then offer them bread in exchange for incognito “reading lessons”—unbeknownst to them, of course, as they had no clue that they were working to further his educational program. Through such intentional subversive acts, Douglass was able to transform mundane activities and otherwise socially prohibited activities—i.e. whites teaching slaves to read—into classrooms “on the fly” (see also, Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue).

Douglass engaged in similar subversive acts of resistance for his writing lessons. For instance, he was acutely aware of the fact that white schoolboys would find it particularly humiliating to be “shown up” by a black slave. Consequently, Douglass put his social astuteness to work and challenged them to write a letter of the alphabet, stating that he could “out-write” them. As he expected, the white lads took the bait, and Douglass’s ability to write improved with every duel.  From the day he overheard Mr. Auld’s commentary on keeping slaves ignorant, Douglass determined to “level the playing field.” Having created improvised classrooms wherever he went, Douglass achieved his goal of literacy over the course of his seven-years with the Auld family.

However, Douglass’s literacy becomes a double-edged sword, piercing his heart with the master’s (Mr. Auld’s) seemingly prophetic words: an educated slave is a discontented slave. On the one hand, Douglass’s ability to read allows him to devour texts such as The Columbian Orator. There he encounters powerful speeches and arguments against slavery. In particular, Douglass singles out a man named, Sheridan, whose speeches he read repeatedly. As Douglass explains, Sheridan’s writings “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for wont of utterance” (Narrative of the Life, p. 42). Continuing his commentary on Sheridan, Douglass states that his speeches articulated not only “a bold denunciation of slavery,” but also “a powerful vindication of human rights” (ibid.). On the other hand, however, Douglass’s intellectual achievements heightened his sense of lost opportunities—or more accurately, opportunities intentionally blocked, closed off, stolen from him and other slaves, just as his captors had stolen them from their homeland.

In some ways analogous to the “knowledge of good and evil” Adam and Eve gained through their transgressive act of attaining “knowledge” that produced great sorrow—Douglass’s hard-earned intellectual virtues intensified his awareness of his wretched, unjust condition. His inability to return to his former state made him at times envy his uneducated counterparts (ibid.). If only his mind would cease its churning and allow him a reprieve. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it” (ibid.). Describing in eloquent prose the cruel paradox of (inner mental) freedom amidst (outer socio-political) unfreedom, Douglass writes:

Freedom now appeared, to disappear […] forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed (ibid., p. 43).

In short, Douglass’s literacy, while no doubt providing him a new and invaluable mental freedom, nonetheless, was insufficient for a concrete, embodied human being to flourish in this world. As philosopher Lewis Gordon puts it, Douglass’s initial effects to gain freedom through literacy fail to translate into a full-orbed freedom. These early attempts “create an epistemic rupture, but without a material/historical rupture, there is a gap that must be closed” (“Douglass as an Existentialist,” 218).1

Yet his personal experience of unjust suffering did not result in a spirit of resignation or an acceptance of the status quo; rather, just a few years after his escape from slavery and his resettlement in New Bedford, Douglass not only participated in the abolitionist movement but became one of its leading and most profound voices. His own experience of brutal suffering and the social death he and countless others endured fueled his social activism and compelled him to develop and defend a political philosophy whose central components consist in mutual responsibility and a sense of obligation for the other’s good. Stated otherwise and drawing from an instance of Douglass’s reverse discourse par excellence entitled, “What is the Slave to the Fourth of July,” he writes: “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday” are today “rendered more intolerable by […] jubilant shouts”—misplaced, triumphalist shouts proclaiming America’s tainted, blood-stained history as something of the past and that true democracy had finally arrived. For Douglass, the “mournful wails of millions” never grew faint but resounded repeatedly in his soul, piercing him with an existential memory that refused to celebrate half-freedoms, partial rights, and second-class citizenship.

In closing, by embracing a positive, full-orbed view of freedom, Douglass was compelled to insist upon a political philosophy of social interdependence and obligation. For Douglass, genuine freedom cannot turn a blind eye to those suffering injustice; my freedom to flourish as a human being is intimately tied to your freedom for the same. Our belonging to one another and the maintenance of our individual moral character require that we act on behalf of others. Failure to do so injects a pollutant into our shared “moral ecology” (Buccola’s phrase), and this pollutant can in turn poison the social body as a whole. Douglass’s experience as an ex-chattel slave made him acutely aware of the detrimental effects of overexposure to a contaminated moral environment. We today would do well to tune our ears and our hearts to Douglass’s political philosophy of mutual responsibility and, as he so aptly and ardently urges us, to live a philosophy of “each for all and all for each.”

1. Gordon goes on to say, “Douglass recognized at a certain level his situation by learning to read and write. But what is more telling is the crucial moment when he fights for his self-respect in his encounter with the slave-breaker Edward Covey” (ibid.).

Frederick Douglass: The Paradoxes of Literacy in Liminality

Frederick Douglass StudyingThose familiar with Douglass’s Narrative of the Life will readily recall his creative, improvisatory maneuverings as he strove toward his goal of literacy. Given that the authoritative discourses did not even permit serious discussion of the possibility of a slave being formally educated, Douglass employed his creative intellectual and imaginative powers to create his own “school” by transforming his daily tasks into opportunities to improve his reading and writing skills. Whether it involved playing on white boys’ pride in not wanting to “lose” a writing game to a slave or bringing extra bread on an errand to gift impoverished white children in exchange for a “stealth” reading lesson, Douglass created educational sites out of mundane tasks—and more extraordinarily, he created these within a context of oppressive, unjust, and demeaning social relations. [1]

Douglass takes advantage of this antagonism and creates educational sites wherever he goes. Having utilized fences, brick walls, and pavement as make-shift copy-books,[2] Douglass states that his writing lessons were at last completed when could copy “the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book” by memory. [3].  In addition to improvising with the objects just mentioned, Douglass notes that he had also make good use of little Master Thomas’s (Mr. Auld’s son) old and quite used copy-books. As Douglass explains, while Mrs. Auld attended her weekly Monday afternoon meeting, he would “spend time in writing in the spaces left in [little] Master Thomas’s copy-book, copying what he had written.” [4]. After seven long years with the Auld family, Douglass achieves his goal of literacy through intentional, creative acts of resistance. In other words, Douglass, well before Derrida and other deconstructionists, seeks those left over spaces, the in-between, silenced, erased and already “written” spaces in order, as Sisco puts it, “to exploit their rich potential.”[5]

However, Douglass’s attainment of literacy, just as Auld predicted, proves painful given Douglass’s status as a slave—one living yet socially dead. Having read and studied various essays and speeches arguing against slavery and promoting universal human rights, Douglass’s anger and hatred toward his oppressors intensified. As he explains, his new found ability to articulate with the utmost clarity why slavery was unjust and his increased knowledge regarding matters of justice and human rights gave rise to a deep discontentment—the “very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow”[6]. Commenting further on the double-sidedness of literacy for a slave, Douglass writes:

The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. […] I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. [7]

Douglass goes on to say that he at times wished himself ignorant or a beast—in short, he preferred any condition that would rid him of his incessant thinking. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me.” [8] However, he could not make his mind stop. “It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.”[9] In other words, wish as he may, there was no turning back to blissful ignorance. Douglass’s literacy made him aware of his wretched condition as a slave in a way that was not possible before. Listen, as Douglass continues his eloquent description of how his deep longing for freedom was ever before him, bidding him draw near yet leaving him bound, boxed in, and unable to reciprocate.

[Freedom] was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed [10].

At this stage, Douglass came to the painful realization that for the slave, literacy, how ever good and necessary its attainment may be, is not sufficient for true freedom. True freedom requires the ability to participate as a full citizen and to have equal opportunities for education, employment, housing, and other rights granted fully functioning citizens qua social and political agents.  This realization in no way diminishes Douglass’s extraordinary achievements in the midst of a hostile and oppressive society. As we have seen, Douglass’s resistance to and reharmonizations of the authoritative (white) discourses and unjust socio-political practices highlight his creative ability to reconfigure his environment and re-narrative his subjectivity. However, Douglass’s freedom through literacy was partial, and, paradoxically, the limited nature of his freedom become painfully apparent as a result of his literacy.


[1] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 41.

[2] Ibid., 44.

[3] Ibid., 44–45.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 201.

[6] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 42.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 42­–3.

[10] Ibid., 43.

Black Face, White Gaze: Encoding Bodies and De-humanizing the Face

Like a voice crying out in the wilderness, Frederick Douglass speaks both eloquently and powerfully to the brutality and injustice of chattel slavery. For example, in his 1852 oration, “The Internal Slave Trade,” Douglass offers his own analysis and stringent condemnation of America’s participation in the trafficking of human beings for economic gain. He begins by drawing our attention to “the practical operation” of America’s slave industry, an industry “sustained by American politics and American religion! Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market.”[1] Driven around the country like mere animals, these men, women, and children are beaten, prod, and whipped, as they process in dirge-like fashion toward the New Orleans slave market. Douglass then zeros in on a few of these infelicitous, iron-clad souls—an elderly, gray headed man, a young mother with sun-scorched back and teary eyes carrying her infant child, a teen-aged girl mourning the violent separation from her mother. Tired and exhausted from hours of exposure to the blistering sun, the young mother begins to lag behind. Then you hear it—“a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul.”[2] What was this awful sound, followed by a high-pitched, piercing scream? The sound was a whip striking the young mother’s bare shoulder; the scream needs no explanation. As the slave traders drive this human herd to the auction block, where the males will be “examined like horses” and the women ”exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers,” Douglass implores us not to forget “the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude.”[3]

This is simply one among many scenes depicting the hardships African American slaves endured on a daily basis as a result of the institution of chattel slavery. Enslaved by the love of money, the master’s vision becomes distorted. Not only does he see human beings as things, but the sounds of suffering fail to reach his muted ears. Deafened to the wailing of mothers torn from their children and children torn from their mothers, he transposes the dissonance of clanking chains into golden keys, which like the dual cut of a double-edged sword open the door to his future and secure the bonds of his brother.

To add to their humiliation and degraded status as mere property of the white man, slaves were subjected to public auctions where they were ordered to stand, often naked or nearly so, allowing the potential buyers to examine their bodies to ensure their suitability for long-term servitude. If a slave’s body showed signs of illness, disease, or possible weaknesses, they were passed over as bad investments, unprofitable for the master’s business. Scar tissue on a slave’s back—the number of scars, whether a scar was old or relatively fresh—became the subject of a mythology employed to determine a slave’s character. Too many scars indicated a rebellious spirit, whereas having few scars meant the slave possessed a docile, obedient spirit. “As they worked their way from inflicted scars to essential character, buyers fixed slaves in a typology of character according to the frequency, intensity, and chronology of the whipping apparent on their backs.”[4] While the slaves stood humiliated, exposed and wondering what kind of master might purchase them on that particular day, the slave buyers paraded themselves before the crowds as augurs who “could read slaves’ backs as encodings of their histories.”[5] The slave’s face, however, with its expressive capacities spanning the spectrum of human emotions—from compassion to agony, ecstasy to alarm—the face as the display case crafted to exhibit the eyes is of no interest to the slave buyers. Provided that it is free of work-hindering defects, the slave’s face is utterly insignificant to the purchase. “It was the instrumental value of these bodies that mattered to the buyer, their size and shape, the color and the ages, the comparability of parts and durability of attributes—not the faces.”[6]

[1] Douglass, “The Internal Slave Trade,” 436.

[2] Ibid., 437.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Johnson, Soul by Soul, 145.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 142–3.

Frederick Douglass: Between the Scylla of Structural Racism and the Charybdis of Entrenched Patriarchy

In his essay, “Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass’s ‘The Heroic Slave’,” Richard Yarborough highlights how 19th century, white bourgeois constructions of masculinity and “manhood” influenced early African American writers. We see evidence of the influence of socially constructed notions of gender in Frederick Douglass’s writings and speeches. For example, commenting on his fight with the reputed slave-breaker, Mr. Covey, Douglass describes the victory as having reawakened in him a sense of his own manhood.[1] As is true today, notions of masculinity and femininity, like notions of “blackness,” are shaped socially and culturally, shifting over time as a result of various changes in legal, religious, political and other practices and discourses. Douglass—as is the case with every other human being—is not immune to social forces. In fact, in many ways he accepts the (white) hegemonic view of what it means to be a successful, autonomous, self-made male.[2]  However, Douglass is acutely aware of what his white audience can hear and what they refuse to hear. In other words, as I shall argue, while Douglass succumbs to dominant (white) constructions of masculinity he also employs gender essentialist and gender subversive narratives in a rhetorico-rebellious key. To be clear, none of what follows should be taken as making excuses for Douglass’s participation in promoting a patriarchal social order or for overt affirmations of gender essentialism; however, it is to claim that advances in social progress—especially in oppressive contexts such as 19th century America—typically require for a temporary period a special deployment of the dominant cultural tropes for the purpose of reshaping cultural consciousness. The danger lies, of course, in allowing the strategic discourses—essentialist or otherwise—to sediment; instead, they too must be interrogated once the oppressed group’s political aims have been sufficiently achieved.

Yarborough enumerates several characteristic traits or features encountered in 19th century white narratives of masculinity. Among these “masculine” traits mediated through the white hegemonic narrative of Douglass’s day, we find: courage, self-control, rational excellence, nobility, verbal mastery, and autonomy.[3] Aware of such dominant tropes and realizing that they had to work against entrenched negative notions of blackness, Douglass and other black writers such as William Wells Brown crafted their autobiographies and their fictionalized black protagonists with white discourses of masculinity in mind.[4] Thus, we find in Brown’s novel, Clotel, depictions of black male heroic slaves as “hardly distinguishable from bourgeois whites” in speech, behavior, and appearance.[5]

On the one hand, African American writers were constrained by white narratives, whose influence affected the creative freedom and extent to which black writers could develop their plots and construct their heroes and villains. On the other hand, Douglass and others used the pre-formed white-masculinst tropes in creative and subversive ways to challenge prevailing views of black inferiority. Given that the white conceptions of ideal masculinity in Douglass’s day portrayed males as independent, courageous, powerful, self-reliant, reason-bearing individuals, who through perseverance and strength forge their own destinies, it is not surprising that Douglass describes his physical struggle with Covey as having restored his sense of manhood. Would his narrative have had the impact that it did among white (male) readers if he would have employed culturally “feminine” tropes? The most likely answer is an emphatic “no.” In short, black male writers were faced with a difficult balancing act in their attempts to create “successful” black male characters. That is, given both white views of ideal manhood and the negative depictions of black males as unreasoning “savages,” black authors had to justify incessantly every move their black protagonists made.

In his 1853 novella, “The Heroic Slave,” a fictionalized retelling of Madison Washington’s lead role in a slave revolt aboard the American ship, Creole, we find Douglass’s attempts to strike this impossible balance. For example, similar to his description of his own restrained use of physical force qua self-defense against Covey, Douglass depicts Washington as having exercised reasoned restraint in his heroic lead role in the slave insurrection. No doubt Douglass chooses to work within these white-formed literary limitations; however, in so doing he plays an active role in re-forming the white imaginary with respect to their false construal of blackness. Continuing his subversive rhetorical strategies, Douglass draws a parallel between the slave revolt aboard the Creole and the American Revolution.  As his drama unfolds and the revolt gains steam, Washington proclaims to his white antagonists (and here white readers are implicated): “We have struck for our freedom, and if a true man’s heart be in you, you will honor us for the deed. We have done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murderers, so were they.”[6] In other words, Douglass appeals to socially approved (white) male acts of violence—the violence enacted by the white revolutionary “fathers” in their struggle for freedom—to justify the violence of Madison Washington and the other slaves in their quest for freedom.[7]

Again, none of the above is meant to promote a status quo position with respect to gender or race. Feminist and womanist theorists, as well as other critics concerned with gender equality are right to highlight the tensions in Douglass’s various freedom narratives—in particular, his failure to challenge the patriarchy of his day and his embrace of white masculinist ideals. Granting these tensions, Douglass’s imperfect attempts nonetheless challenged the white imaginary both to rethink their views of blackness and to confront the contradictions of their own violent, irrational practices. Douglass’s literary battles, both his victories and his defeats, mirror his struggles to break free from white constraint not only in the form of slavery but likewise in his relations with white abolitionists, in particular, his complex relationship with William Lloyd Garrison. As Eric J. Sundquist observes, Douglass’s ongoing identity formation was constituted in relation to a series of both white and black father figures. Douglass’s revisions to his autobiographies is in part motivated by his struggle to grapple with not only his present/absent white master/father (Aaron Anthony) but with the black rebel Nat Turner, the black hero Madison Washington, the white Founding Fathers, and white abolitionists such as Garrison. Through creating his own version of Madison Washington and his multiple versions of himself, Douglass engages in an act of self-fathering. In this stage of his life, Douglass refuses his role as Garrison’s “text” and creates a new, living, ever-revising “self-text,” or as Sundquist puts it, a “self-fathered figure combining black and white ideals.”[8]

Through his mastery of “the codes of Anglo-American bourgeois white masculinity,” Douglass sought to create a black male hero “who would both win white converts to the antislavery struggle and firmly establish the reality of black manhood.”[9] By choosing to birth his black male characters through white masculinist “codes,” Douglass’s successes on one front become failures on other. Nevertheless, given his context of oppressive structural racism and entrenched patriarchy, it is difficult to imagine how he could have navigated an error-free path. Perhaps an all-out frontal attack on both racism and patriarchy would have resulted in alienating those (males) possessing the political power and cultural capital necessary to bring about significant social change. Such is the complexity of our human condition and the difficulty of outmaneuvering both Scylla and Charybdis.


[1] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 65.

[2] For a helpful analysis of how 19th century black males (and the majority of black females) accepted and helped to promote a patriarchal social order, see hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, 87–118. Hooks also argues that 19th century black male social activists “supported the efforts of women to gain political rights but they did not support social equality between the sexes” (ibid., 91).

[3] Yarborough, “Race, Violence, Manhood,” 168.

[4] For a discussion of the various instantiations of William Wells Brown’s novels, Clotel and Clotelle, see Yarborough, esp. 169–179.

[5] Ibid., 170.

[6] Douglass, “The Heroic Slave,” in Three Classic African American Novels, 66. See also, Wilson, “On Native Ground: Transnationalism, Frederick Douglass, and “The Heroic Slave.” In addition to highlighting Douglass’s strategic use of the Declaration of Independence and the principles of 1776 to win over his white audience, Wilson foregrounds the irony of the novella’s ending, viz., the slaves do not find a home in theUnited States but remain inNassau.

[7] See also, Sundquist, “Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism,” in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, 120–132. In addition to his fascinating discussion of Douglass’s self-fathering through various rebellious literary acts, Sundquist presents a compelling case for understanding Douglass’s novella, “The Heroic Slave,” as an important hermeneutical link between his first and second autobiographies.

[8] Sundquist, “Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism,” in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, 124.

[9] Yarborough, “Race, Violence, and Manhood,” 179.

Douglass as the Quintessential Public Intellectual or How to Make Plaintive Lament Preach

Undeniably, the United States has come a long way from the days of chattel slavery, and we can be encouraged by the positive strides made in racial relations and equality; yet, it is important to remember whence we came in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and so that we might become critically alert to new manifestations of racism and racial bias.[1] Here we would do well to heed the words of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Having accepted an invitation to speak to a predominately white audience in celebration of Independence Day, Douglass, as master orator and rhetorician, turns to a Psalm of lamentation—a passage with which his audience was thoroughly familiar—and interprets it as analogous to the situation of American slaves.

Douglass begins with the following lines:  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song.”[2] The captors, having accomplished their mission, now command their Jewish captives, whose eyes still tear up when they recall Zion, to sing one of their native songs. To this obtuse, insensitive demand, Douglass, speaking the “plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people,”[3] asks, “[h]ow can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem […] let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”[4] Always poised and ready, like Socrates of old, to turn his public speaking invitations into opportunities to provoke and to challenge the ethico-political status quo, Douglass condemns his fellow citizens’ superficial “national, tumultuous joy” in celebration of America’s so-called “freedom” and independence. In fact, earlier in his speech, Douglass emphasizes the great “disparity” and “distance” separating him and his fellow citizens. The good fortune and “blessings” celebrated on this day do not apply to those of a darker hue. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”[5] Beyond the surface civility, the fanfare, and the laudatory refrains, Douglass remembers, Douglass hears “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are to-day rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them.”[6]

With this example of what Foucault calls “reverse discourse,” Douglass uses the familiar words of Scripture and says in effect, just as the Jews were taken captive by their oppressors, forced to dwell in a land not their own, similarly African American slaves find themselves as strangers in a strange land where they have been constructed as the savage, as the intellectually-inferior other in need of the white man’s culture, “superior” reasoning abilities, and “moral” direction. Like the Jews exiled in Babylon, the most suitable song, the song corresponding to the violent, unjust, degraded existence of an African American slave is not a song of triumphalist jubilation, but a song of sorrowful lament. For Douglass to gloss over this all-too-recent contemptible American history because he is no longer in chains would be to turn a deaf ear to the “mournful wail of millions” and to once again allow the white, hegemonic culture to write the black story. Moreover, Douglass reminds his audience—who, after all, function as analogues to the captors of God’s people of old—that God’s heart bleeds for the weak, the humble, the downtrodden. Though a merciful and forgiving God, divine justice unlike human justice will not, in the end, be mocked.


[1]  Race, race-baiting, race relations in the United States, 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).

[2] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 431–32.

[3] Ibid., 431.

[4] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 432. The psalm on which Douglass improvises is Psalm 137.

[5] Ibid., 431.

[6] Ibid.