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.).


Max Roach Freedom Now 1960Free jazz, the New Thing, or the New Black Music as it was variously called exploded on the scene in the latter part of the twentieth century.[1] As is widely known, several prominent musicians such as Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Archie Shepp were influenced by the philosophy and teachings of the Black Power movement, which departed in important ways from earlier civil rights groups. As John D. Baskerville observes, the rallying cry of the black nationalists was not King’s “We Shall Overcome,” but “Black Power.” This new generation of black activists boldly proclaimed black pride and were outspoken advocates for the political and economic empowerment of black people. For example, black nationalists argued that America’s capitalistic (and racist) system “was a colonial system in which the colonized people are the Blacks.” Given this unjust social context, they urged African Americans to “gain control of the economic institutions in their community to build a Black economic power base.”[2] Through establishing black leadership and economic power, African Americans could better determine their futures and resist white exploitative practices.

Jazz musicians attuned to the message of Black Power devised innovative strategies to subvert and transgress white-imposed barriers. Having experienced for some time their own “colonized status” in America’s white-owned music industry, they developed what is often referred to as the “loft movement.” White club owners had little interest or patience with the New Black Music, as it was ill suited for their chief goal, namely, to turn the highest profit possible. For example, a single free jazz composition might last an hour or more depending upon the length of each improvised solo. Such extended forms and prolonged solos allowed the performers to develop and expand their musical ideas “in real time.” However, the club owners preferred shorter, “prepackaged” sets, as they “made their money by requiring a minimum number of drinks per set per customer. The more sets a group played, the more drinks could be sold.”[3] Additionally, quite often the drinks were highly priced, making it difficult for political activists, students, less affluent African Americans, artists, and others interested in the New Thing to support the musicians’ efforts. Not only were the profits funneled to the club owners, but the musicians also had little control over the direction of their art and over the audiences they wished to reach. Consequently, the loft movement was born as a way around the white dominated club scene. In short, musicians opened up their lofts (large apartments) as performance sites and charged their audiences modest fees. Thus, they were able to create a space where artistic expression (rather than profit) was foremost and to establish their own leadership and economic priority. Moreover, since by and large the lofts were located in black communities, the musicians had more say in determining their audience.

My second example of how jazz musicians transgress boundaries is more explicitly musical in nature. Here I focus on John Coltrane’s transformation of the popular Broadway tune, “My Favorite Things.” In order to grasp the cultural and sociopolitical dimensions of Coltrane’s version of the tune, we must consider some of the racialized musical discourses at play at the time. White control of the music industry meant that highly talented black jazz musicians were underpaid and were often denied prestigious performance venues. Moreover, it was frequently the case that black musicians’ talent exceeded their white counterparts, as is displayed by the fact that white musicians openly sought to imitate and internalize African American musicians’ melodic lines, rhythmic phrasings and patterns, and literally memorized improvised solos by jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and McCoy Tyner.[4] Given this background, when Coltrane’s version with its sophisticated structural, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic modifications musically surpassed the original and culturally popular tune, the ramifications went beyond the aesthetic sphere and likewise impacted the sociopolitical realm.

Musically speaking, for example, the multilayered, polyrhythmic “feel” created by the drums, piano, and bass resulted in a complete alteration of the tune’s character. In Coltrane’s version, the construction and placement of rhythmic motifs in the vamp section superimposes a six metric feel rather than emphasizing the tune’s original ¾ time signature. In addition, the vamp section’s six feel contrasts with a different rhythmic pattern in the A section, which both supports the melody and returns the groove to a strong ¾ emphasis.[5] Such rhythmic complexity is completely absent from the original tune whose form and overall rhythmic quality come across as pedestrian. Rather than bind themselves to the original tune’s formal limitations, Coltrane and his group take the composition’s oversimplified and constricting structures as their point of departure and then bend, explode, and re-create them, producing something far more interesting musically than the original. The fact that African American jazz musicians of the Civil Rights Era actively transformed mainstream European-American compositions—not to mention artistically upstaged their white counterparts—carries with it social, political, and cultural significance. Such actions are, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. would say,  “signifyin(g)” acts.  In brief, Gates’s idea of musical signification is that the music itself has the capacity to “speak” ironically and strategically to social, political, and economic concerns and thus to function as musical expressions of “black double-voicedness” and repetition with a “signal difference.”[6] Lastly and building on Gates’s notion of signifying, Monson highlights how Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” employs European American musical standards for its own strategic aims. In other words, Coltrane’s transformed piece with its extended harmonies and polyrhythmic textures—both of which are musical qualities esteemed by modern and contemporary Western classical composers—not only outshines the original when evaluated by jazz aesthetical standards but also illustrates how jazz musicians can “invoke selectively some of the hegemonic standards of Western classical music in their favor.”[7]

My final example of a musical transgressive act with sociopolitical overtones is found in the freedom of improvised jazz solos—a freedom that promotes both individual expression and that enables one to alter structures. For example, turning again to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” the musicians’ extended solos allow for high levels of individual creative expression, yet the solos themselves are both constituted in conversation with the other performances (rhythm section, pianist, etc.) and have the ability to modify the structural parameters of the tune. After all, an improvised jazz solo can continue (at least in theory) as long as the improviser (and the group) desire. Moreover, a solo can take a tune in completely unexpected and “unwritten” directions via melodic superimpositions and rhythmic motifs introduced extemporaneously and taken up by the group as a whole. Not only does the kind of improvisation associated with jazz make each performance of the same tune unique, but it also highlights the capacity of jazz to create a flexible rather than rigidly static and restrictive form. Here we have a musical act of freedom analogous to and expressive of African Americans’ desire for social, political, and economic emancipation from the white-imposed, constraining structures that daily dominated their existence.


[1] See also, Robin D. G. Kelley, “Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde.”

[2] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 487.

[3] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 488.

[4] I do not mean to suggest that imitation in itself automatically translates into the superiority of the imitated over the imitator. Rather, the idea in this context is that African Americans were the both the key leaders and innovators of jazz and that their musical contributions fundamentally shaped a musical aesthetic that was (and still is) sought by their white counterparts. For a detailed discussion of the “blackening” of American mainstream music and the dominance of African American aesthetics in jazz, see Monson, Freedom Sounds.

[5] Monson, “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation,” pp. 296–97.

[6] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, p. 51. See also, chapter 2 of the same work.

[7] Monson, Saying Something, p. 120.


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.


Pontius Pilate famously asked Jesus Christ, “What is truth?” Perhaps given the recent, senseless bloodbath at Aurora, we Americans need to ask ourselves, “What is freedom?” That is, does freedom mean that we should have as few constraints as possible on our wants and desires? Pro-gun activists and those in support of the “freedom” to view, for example, pornography might answer in the affirmative. Or does freedom involve more than a lack of impositions or constraints on my personal desires? In other words, does it have something to do with the kind of people—both collective and individual—we are conditioning and actively shaping ourselves to be?

The tragedy of the Aurora massacre has now been before our eyes for a few days, piercing our hearts and unsettling our minds as we attempt to comprehend how and why this horrible event occurred. George Zornick and others have tackled (and rightly so) the issue from the perspective of the ease with which Americans can obtain assault rifles, handguns, and other high-powered weapons—not to mention explosives readily available through the mail. As Jack Healy and Serge F. Kovaleski reported in their July 21, 2012, New York Times article, having dropped out of his doctoral program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Mr. Holmes had been stockpiling weapons for the past two months—handguns, an assault rifle, and “6,000 rounds of ammunition,” which the police have indicated were purchased online and delivered to his home and his university.  According to several news reports, not only did Mr. Holmes enter the theater with an assault weapon, but also he is said to have been decked out in full body armor.

Although what follows is merely a working hypothesis, it is nonetheless worth considering given the horrific violence recurring day after day and year after year in the land of the free and home of the brave. (Recall the not-too-distant publicized instances of innocent blood shed and lives lost at the hands of armed men: Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s open fire on students at Columbine High School, Seung-Hui Cho’s shooting spree at Virgina Tech, Jared Lee Loughner’s gunfire unleashed upon an unsuspecting crowd in Tuscon, and George Zimmerman’s bullet snuffing out young Trayvon Martin’s life.) Sociologists, cultural theorists, and feminist scholars have written tirelessly of how our culture has become a culture of violence—not only violence but glorified and celebrated violence fed to our children and young people via video games, television, film, and various cultural narratives and gender stereotypes.

Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, taught that cultivating proper habits is crucial to one’s moral and intellectual development. According to this theory, a virtuous person is, among other things, one who has made intentional choices and who has engaged in purposed activities that enable him or her to both grasp (1) what it is to be courageous, generous, temperate, and the like, and (2) to actually live courageous, generous, and temperate lives. Do we really believe that young people who spend six or more hours per day playing video games in which they sexually assault and physically mutilate other characters will not be negatively affected by such activities on at least some level? Certainly not all or even most will become rapists or mass murders, but how is one’s view of women, for example, shaped when one acts out sexual or other violence against her repeatedly in some virtual reality? Robert Jensen, in his introduction to an excellent scholarly work entitled, Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality, provides a succinct summary of how pornography is not simply an isolated personal expression of “free” choice affecting only oneself, but rather mediates social values and solidifies harmful social, cultural, and gender narratives. As Jenson, explains certain feminist critiques of pornography highlight how “the sexual ideology of patriarchy eroticizes domination and submission and that pornography is one of the key sites in which these values are mediated and normalized in contemporary culture” (ibid., 2).  In a similar vein, to be “masculine” is scripted in American culture—whether in fundamentalist religious narratives or via popular media venues—as somehow to be “by nature” aggressive, physical, forceful, conquering, and the like. Males who reject such stereotypes are often labeled nerds, effeminate, “queers,” and are often the recipients of ridicule and, you guessed it, physical violence. What if we as a culture valued the cultivation of human virtues, intellectual, moral, and spiritual, rather than promoting essentialized views of masculinity and femininity that advance impoverished views both of males as brutes controlled by mere instinctual drives and females as inherently inferior rational creatures or mere objects existing for male sexual pleasure? Humans are far too complex for these oversimplified, facile, generalizations, whose supposed universal and “natural” properties are all-too-often the particular and constructed script imposed by those possessing the economic, political, and cultural “capital.”

So where do we go from here? Perhaps we should at least begin by asking the following questions: “What is freedom? How do our cultural, political, social, and “personal” habits shape us, and what kind of people are these structures, narratives, and personal choices shaping us to be?” Debate regarding the current gun laws is, no doubt, needed and tragedies like Aurora highlight why such dialogue must take place. However, we also need to interrogate the cultural narratives and socially acceptable forms of “entertainment” shaping the hearts and minds of Americans both young and old, as we engage in our mundane, so-called “normal” activities.


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.


For those interested, my essay, “Resistance Through Re-narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities: Journal of  Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Dec. 2011): 363-85. DOI:  10.1080/14725843.2011.61441o, is now available for online viewing


Frantz Fanon offers a lucid account of his entrance into the white world where the weightiness of the ‘white gaze’ nearly crushed him. In chapter five of Black Skins, White Masks, he develops his historico-racial and epidermal racial schemata as correctives to Merleau-Ponty’s overly inclusive corporeal schema. Experientially aware of the reality of socially constructed (racialized) subjectivities, Fanon uses his schemata to explain the creation, maintenance, and eventual rigidification of white-scripted ‘blackness’. Through a re-telling of his own experiences of racism, Fanon is able to show how a black person in a racialized context eventually internalizes the ‘white gaze’. In this essay I bring Fanon’s insights into conversation with Foucault’s discussion of panoptic surveillance. Although the internalization of the white narrative creates a situation in which external constraints are no longer needed, Fanon highlights both the historical contingency of ‘blackness’ and the ways in which the oppressed can re-narrate their subjectivities. Lastly, I discuss Fanon’s historically attuned ‘new humanism’, once again engaging Fanon and Foucault as dialogue partners.