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.).