God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign,
To man his plundered rights again
-William Lloyd Garrison
Today I will be discussing the identity of the African-American Slave in regards to Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative. I will be exploring Douglass’ journal in order to show how he was able to gain his identity back through his desire to educate himself, and gain both self-respect and respect from Americans citizens.
When slavery started in the early 1700’s, America shipped almost 300,000 African citizens to the New World to be bought and sold as slaves. The transatlantic slave trade brought over 12.5 million slaves from the year 1501-1866 (Gates 49). To the Americans, the black people were nothing more than animals meant to be put to work with the goal of creating a profit. Even if an American was a kind-hearted and moral person, they were often socially conditioned and taught to view the slave population on the same level as cattle, with no human rights or dignity. In the journal, ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’ the white population of America displays extreme bigotry toward the Africans by preventing them from gaining intellect and self-respect. Together, they formed a nation-wide opinion that slaves should never be entitled to an education or any other human rights. They want to keep the slaves inferior to them in hopes that they will never be anything more than a commodity and profit for themselves, and their country.
Though the American slave Frederick Douglass was robbed of his identity as a human being, he was determined to gain it back as we see in his slave narrative. The first way in which Frederick Douglass establishes his identity is his ability and desire to attain an education. The Americans deprive intellect and education to the black slave population in fear that they might realize their dismal, undeserved conditions and fight against them. Frederick Douglass is bought and sold to many different slaveholders over the course of his life and he does not understand the white man’s power and control over the slaves until his arrival at the Aulds residence. At first, he describes Mrs. Auld to be “a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings” (Douglass 44). When Mrs. Auld begins to teach Douglass the alphabet, Mr. Auld stops her, telling her that it is “unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read . . . A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world . . . from that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (44). Mrs. Auld had a kind heart for the slaves until she was taught and conditioned otherwise. All of her loving and emotional qualities toward the slaves vanished, her heart became of stone and she began to treat Douglass with violence and anger (Douglass, 45). This is a turning point for Douglass because it was then that he realized his path to freedom. Douglass has realized that in order to overcome the control of the white population, he must learn how to read, write, and educate himself. This is something the Americans have taken away from the slaves, and he was determined to get it back. Frederick then engages in his desire to gain his intellect back and after many years of practicing, he finally succeeds. Striving to attain a goal on his own, is the foundation of his identity. He no longer is suppressed by the Americans, but is able to rise up and achieve something on his own. His success in gaining this new found identity within himself proves his ability to rise above the white slaveholders, and overcome their control.
The second way that Douglass is able to overcome his slavery is through his ability to gain self-respect against his toughest slaveholder, Mr. Covey. Douglass suffers countless whippings and beating for minor offenses throughout his life as a slave. Douglass becomes angered with how his master treats him, and he decides to take these harsh punishments and conditions no longer. Douglass writes, “[Mr. Covey] had used me like a brute for six months, and I was determined to be used so no longer” (74). Douglass refuses to have all equality and rights taken away from him. Now that he knows that he is an intellectual human being, capable of knowledge and education, being used and treated as less than an animal was an act that he would no longer submit to. Douglass acts in violence in order to break free from the masters’ control, being a prominent act in the emancipation of his enslavement as well as a turning point in gaining his own identity. Here, Douglass realizes that he has to gain confidence, self-respect and masculinity in order to be a free man. After his fight with Covey, Douglass writes:
a man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity . . I was no longer a servile coward, trembling under the frown of a brother worm of the dust, but my long-cowed spirit was roused to an attitude of manly independence. I had reached a point at which I was not afraid to die (93).
Douglass is inspired and has a renewed sense of determination to free himself from the bondage of the American control. This is a turning point for Douglass in becoming a free man because he has now developed inspiration and determination to discover his own identity. He then uses his intellect, motivation and skill to make himself a successful man living in the city of Baltimore.
In the early 19th century, New York and Baltimore had the largest number of free black populations living in the city with more than 10,000 people. Most of the men had work, education, homes and success. Many free black men such as Tarrow Mamout, James Forten and Frederick Douglass began to establish wealth and success in the free cities around the year 1836 (Gates 48). Frederick Douglass developed a publication of his narratives in 1845 which shocked and astonished the white society. They protested that a slave could not write such an intellectual and powerful piece of writing. Frederick Douglass however, did not have an enslaved mind, though he was a slave for most of his life. Douglass gave the black race an independent voice. His antebellum newspaper the ‘North Star’ read, “right is of no sex – truth is of no colour” (Gates 49). As Douglass begins to gain respect, relationships and success in the city, he proves his identity as a black man and his ability/desire to be a free, intellectual, and respectful man.
I have included this powerful speech by Frederick Douglass at the Rochester Corinthian Hall on the Fourth of July, 1852. Douglass presented many lectures all over the city and took part in many abolitionist events. This speech was one of the most powerful given by him as he explains the meaning of the 4th of July for the African population in America. Douglass makes it publically known that he and his fellow country-men, do not celebrate with the country, but millions mourn and wail at the jubilee. The American’s try to associate him with their identity, but Douglass will not stand before them in mockery. He will not stand before the Americans in their celebration and pretend to be a part of it when his identity is not American. The Americans have changed his African heritage into the new ‘African-American’ identity. Douglass’ self-respect shines through with his fierce words as he publicly sets himself apart from the triumphs of the celebration. Douglass does not put his opinion forth lightly, but goes on to say that, “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” Douglass here establishes his own identity by firmly outlining the reality of the Negro American on this day.
American’s of the 19th century truly saw the black race as not only inferior, but on the same dignity level of a brute. Douglass, however, was determined to gain his own sense of identity, rather than accept the identity that the white population has given to him and millions of other American slaves. He knew that he was more than the menial character he was given and refused to accept these miserable conditions of enslavement. With his capacity to learn and gain knowledge of both the Americans as well himself, he was able to overcome his barriers toward freedom and recreate a determined, intelligent, masculine identity.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Life Upon These Shores”. Looking at the African American History. Alfred A Knopf. New York: 2011. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave”. The Modern Library. New York: 2000. Print.