Frederick Douglass and Reverse Discourse as an Act of Resistance

I will soon cross the ocean to participate in the 2010 Biennial Conference of the International Society for Religion, Literature, and Culture.  For those interested, I have posted my abstract in order to give you an overall sketch of the paper, followed by a few passages from the last section of my paper dealing with Frederick Douglass’s critique of “the Christianity of this land.”Frederick Douglass Painting


In his first autobiography Frederick Douglass describes how his socio-political identity and his spatio-temporal existence were defined, constrained and circumscribed by the white other. Nonetheless, Douglass was able to assert his humanity through various acts of resistance. In what follows, I explore the ways in which the strategies of resistance described and performed by Douglass can be mapped onto Foucault’s elaboration of power relations and resistance possibilities. In addition to complementing Foucault’s analyses of power and resistance, Douglass’s account of his struggle with Mr. Covey proves an excellent critical dialogue partner for Hegel. Lastly, besides socio-political anti-black narratives, Douglass also encountered pseudotheological racist narratives.  Though himself a Christian, because of the way in which the Christian narrative was taken up to bolster proslavery arguments and to construct blacks as inferior, Douglass also became an ardent critic of (white) American Christianity. Recognition of the existential strain American Christianity placed on Douglass, provides an opening to view him as a socio-political, as well as religious critic “from below,” one whose prophetic voice cries out from the underside of modernity in order to expose the exclusivity, injustice, and monochrome hue of “We the People,” as well as the utter irrationality and duplicity of the whitewashed necropolis proclaiming itself “The City Upon a Hill.”[1]

Douglass’s Critique of White American Christianity

An important layer in Douglass’s multivalent text is his critique of American Christianity. Douglass himself identified as a Christian. Yet, because his local experience of Christianity was a distorted, deformed facade masquerading as Christianity, he experienced a great deal of existential and spiritual strain.  Having both endured his own lashings, and having witnessed countless cruelties performed by so-called “religious” men on the bodies of other slaves, Douglass was compelled to speak out against this rampant hypocrisy.  With the same frankness Jesus expressed toward the Pharisees, Douglass minces no words concerning these self-proclaimed “religious” men. Were he to be reduced again to slavery, next to enslavement itself, Douglass states, “I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.”[2]

These religious masters, many of whom were ministers, appealed to selected Scriptural passages, which, when interpreted through their patriarchal, racist hermeneutical grid, supposedly provided biblical justification for the institution of slavery.  Knowing that his readers were thoroughly familiar with biblical stories, Douglass regularly draws upon Scriptural language and imagery in his critiques of slaveholders and the injustice of the slave system.[3] Realizing that some may misinterpret his remarks, take them out of context, or turn them against him in order to claim that his Christianity is disingenuous, he adds an appendix to stave off such criticisms. There he states explicitly that that his disparaging comments “apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper.”[4] Carefully crafting his condemnatory remarks into a rhetorical tour de force, Douglass sets “the Christianity of this land” in opposition to “the Christianity of Christ.”[5] Having developing his themes, set forth his contrasting, opposing voices, Douglass begins a movement composed of line after dissonant line detailing the inconsistencies of America’s so-called Christianity.

We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit in Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of the week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for the purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. […] We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls! The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.[6]

With the examples cited in this section, we have Douglass taking up familiar Scriptural language and images, reinterpreting them in order deconstruct the religious arguments alleged to sanction slavery and the slave’s “natural” inferiority. Douglass’s creative re-scripting of his subjectivity and his reclaiming of the Christian narrative for emancipatory purposes are variants of what Foucault calls “reverse discourse.” In such discourse the very same discursive elements can be employed for opposing, even contradictory purposes.[7] Since it was the case that in Douglass’s context, the dominant discourse of American Christianity, had become firmly established with relatively fixed meanings, recognized metaphors, and common applications, Douglass was able to re-appropriate these elements to create a powerful counter-hegemonic discourse.

In short, Douglass worked within the power mechanisms of an oppressive slave society, and his acts of resistance proved successful on multiple counts. His narrative helps us to see concretely and feel dramatically Foucault’s emphasis on the productive rather than merely oppressive dimensions of power relations. Likewise, the often grim picture associated with Foucault’s conclusion that there is no outside to power is given a brighter hue. If power and resistance are correlative, then the all-pervasiveness of power necessarily entails the all-pervasiveness of resistance, and thus the hope that we might become other than what we are at present.


[1] This phrase comes from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” The sermon was given to his fellow Puritans while still at sea and served as a rallying call, urging them on to their future destiny as a city upon whose eyes the entire world shall be fixed.

[2] Frederick Douglass, in 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), 68.

[3] For example, in his description of Rev. Rigby Hopkins, whose slave “management” techniques included “whipping slaves in advance,” Douglass compares Hopkins to the Pharisees whom Jesus scathingly denounces in Matthew 23.  Just like hypocritical Pharisees of the New Testament, who “do all their deeds to be seen by others,” yet neglect “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:5, 23, NRSV), these slaveholding Pharisees, whom Rev. Hopkins typifies, are likewise exposed as “blind guides” and “whitewashed tombs.”[3] Hopkins who would draw blood from a slave’s back for a mere wrong look, movement, mistake, or improperly inflected word, was also one of the most active men in revivals, prayer and preaching meetings, and other church-related activities. In Douglass’s words, “there was not a man any where round, who made higher professions of religion, […] that prayed earlier, later, louder, and longer,—than this same reverend slave-driver, Rigby Hopkins” (ibid., 70).

[4] Ibid., 97.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 97–8.

[7] Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 100.