Per Caritatem

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.

Notes

[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.