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  • The Poem

  • "how a slave was made a man":
    The Conversion to "Manhood" in the
    Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

    In the first chapter of From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, Robert Stepto sets forth a generic scheme for categorizing slave narratives, based on the "power relations" between the African American protagonist's story and the inescapable accompanying testimonials of his or her white friends and acquaintances [1]. For Stepto, the key term in this schematization is "authentication," and the big winner (so to speak) in his analysis is Frederick Douglass. In his discussion of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Stepto asserts that "Douglass's tale dominates the narrative because it alone authenticates the narrative" (17).

    In this paper, I take issue with the notion that Douglass is the clear victor in the struggle with the white abolitionists for control of his own narrative. Stepto is obviously right in pointing out that Douglass's Narrative is home to a multitude of other voices—a Preface written by William Lloyd Garrison, a letter from Wendell Phillips, a poem by an unnamed Methodist minister, and so on. Yet I would contend that, at best, Douglass comes away from the struggle for textual authority with a stalemate. As a result, at one key juncture, we find Douglass reaching for an intertextual connection which will at once "trump" Garrison and Phillips and cement the structure of what he has fashioned as a narrative of conversion to "Manhood" paralleling contemporary accounts of religious conversion.

    At various points throughout the Narrative, Douglass does indeed assert his right to act as authenticator for his own text. In one such instance, Douglass describes the manner in which slaves are lined up, examined, and assigned monetary values. Following the description, in an appeal to personal experience as a repository of truth value, Douglass adds his own evaluation: "At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder." [2]

    In spite of moments such as this, however, there is no mistaking the heavy-handed editorial presence of Garrison and Phillips, the white abolitionists who have provided Douglass with a public forum for expression. Their most notable intrusions come in the Narrative's Preface and Appendix.

    In his Preface, Garrison claims authority for himself by doing to Douglass what an earlier editor/amanuensis figure, Thomas Pringle, had done to the History of Mary Prince, appending unrelated material which purports to certify the veracity of the writer/speaker's testimony but which in actuality does nothing so much as remind everyone of the (im)balance of power between editor and ex-slave. This is most clear in the Preface in relation to Douglass's accounts of two murders of slaves: "Mr. Douglass states that in neither of these instances was anything done by way of legal arrest or judicial investigation. The Baltimore American, of March 17, 1845, relates a similar case of atrocity..." (251) which Garrison then proceeds to reproduce. [3]

    Perhaps more striking in illustrating Garrison's bid for textual authority is Douglass's Appendix, and its unexpected turn toward matters religious. Over the course of the narrative, Douglass has virtually nothing good to say about either Christianity or individual Christians; in fact, one gets the impression that religion is not something that weighs heavily on his mind, except when he sets out to show how the conversion experience makes slaveholders that much more tyrannical. As Douglass writes:

    I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, 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. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others (301-302).
    In the Appendix, Douglass's profuse explanation of the difference between "the slaveholding religion of this land" and "Christianity proper" (326) registers nothing so clearly as the anxiety of Garrison and Phillips as they try to mold a spokesman to champion their brand of (apolitical pacifistic) abolitionism before a mainstream white Protestant reading public. Their actions follow directly in the footsteps of those earlier editors/amanuenses who felt moved to apologize for Olaudah Equiano's perceived Calvinism and reassure readers (by way of footnote) that, despite his verbal mannerisms, Solomon Bayley was not a Quaker.

    On top of this, an unnamed white Methodist minister is awarded the last word in the entire Narrative (excluding Douglass's formulaic sign-off), in the form of a profoundly silly poem that recalls the ending of Johnson Green's criminal confession narrative. While Stepto's contention that Douglass's surrounding commentary serves to authenticate the poem is not completely without merit (Stepto 26), the fact remains that white men have the first and last words in the Narrative. Furthermore, Douglass's own final words before the poem parrot the Garrisonian "leave the slaveholders to God" party line: "'Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord. Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?'" (329).

    Along the way, Douglass drops hints that a struggle over textual control is in progress; for instance, one may read the possibility that he has been coerced into writing the Appendix in his statement that, after reading over the narrative, "I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation" (326). What he specifically does not say is "I feel an explanation is necessary."

    At bottom, the editorial anxiety over the black person's religion that we have seen in the narratives of Douglass and others amounts to an anxiety over black subjectivity and agency. The subversive potential of religion is obvious: only in the eyes of God could African Americans hope to be recognized as being on an equal footing with their white counterparts—certainly not in the eyes of the law. What is particularly interesting about the Narrative of 1845 is how Douglass appropriates the structure of the religious conversion experience to tell his own revolutionary story of conversion, of "how a slave was made a man" (294), and, in so doing, shows up Garrison's deep investment in a paradigm of blacks as helpless victims, dependent upon enlightened whites (as God's stand-ins) to effect their emancipation.

    Douglass works from the triform structure of Christian conversion as outlined in the spiritual autobiography of Jarena Lee. Recounting the instruction she received from her spiritual mentor, William Scott, Lee writes: "He told me the progress of the soul from a state of darkness, or of nature, was threefold; or consisted in three degrees, as follows:—First, conviction for sin. Second, justification from sin. Third, the entire sanctification of the soul to God." [4]

    Of these three "degrees" of conversion, the most conspicuous in Douglass's Narrative is that of justification, which Jarena Lee describes (in Christian terms) as coming into "a knowledge of the being and character of the Son of God..." (32). Substituting "Manhood" for Christ as that which Douglass comes to place his faith in, we find the confrontation with the slavebreaker Covey functioning (in a passage laden with overt Christian imagery) as the moment when he attains a life-altering experiential "knowledge of the being and character" of "Manhood":

    This 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. ...The gratification afforded by the triumph [over Covey] was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. ...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 (298-299).
    What Douglass has come to believe in can be thought of as a "Cult of True Manhood"—what Richard Yarborough has in mind when he writes of "a mythology of masculinity analogous to the Cult of True Womanhood." [5] In other words, Douglass has "converted" to a white male bourgeois paradigm of gender identity. [6]

    As a black man in antebellum America, there are certain specific constraints on his ability to express himself as a votary of the Cult of True Manhood. Yarborough encapsulates the dilemma confronting Douglass as follows:

    Simply put, blacks were not granted the same freedom of action as whites, and yet they were condemned for not meeting popularly held norms of behavior. Black men were viewed as unmanly and otherwise inferior because they were enslaved; at the same time, they were often viewed as beasts and otherwise inferior if they rebelled violently. Moreover, black writers like Douglass must have realized at some level that to make their heroic figures too independent, too aggressive, might permit white readers to evade acknowledging that they themselves must intervene in order to end the horrors of slavery (174).
    Yarborough notes that the need to navigate between depictions of "unmanly" and "beastlike" behavior results in Douglass's bending over backwards in order not to appear the aggressor in the fight with Covey (174). Thus displays of forceful physicality are not a viable avenue for the free assertion of Douglass's status as convert.

    Instead, we find Douglass's "Manhood energy" (if you will) channelled in another direction, a polished display of textual manipulation which is simultaneously a reengagement with the structure of the conversion narrative. In Chapter VII of the Narrative, Douglass speaks of a key text in his intellectual development:

    I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book entitled "The Columbian Orator." Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book. Among much of other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master—things which had the desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master (278).
    In terms of the conversion experience, the first stage, "conviction for sin," may be read in Douglass's recognition of his own "fallenness" in a legal/political register—"the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart." Through the rest of the paragraph, Douglass the writer (post-confrontation/justification) demonstrates his (offstage) sanctification through the manipulation of written texts, upholding his "Manhood" in the process. For if, as Yarborough posits, the dominant culture constructs the Cult of True Manhood (like its female analogue) in a "genteel, bourgeois" mode (174), and, moreover, if, "as Robert Staples puts it, 'Masculinity...has always implied a certain autonomy over and mastery of one's environment,'" [7] then the manipulation of texts can be read as a sign that Douglass has been sanctified—infused with the indwelling Spirit of True Manhood. (What could be more emblematic of mid-nineteenth-century bourgeois gentility than the written text?)

    To appreciate what Douglass means to achieve by his strategic deployment of intertextuality in the above passage, some background information is in order. The text which Douglass cites, The Columbian Orator, was one of the most popular schoolbooks of the early republic: "[f]or a quarter century, especially in the district schools, these readers [The Columbian Orator and its companion volume, The American Preceptor] surpassed in popularity all their competitors and made their author nationally known." [8] Thus, by the time of Douglass's writing, the "Dialogue between a Master and Slave" had long since achieved a wide circulation in American classrooms.

    Although Caleb Bingham is credited with authorship of The Columbian Orator, in actuality, his role was that of compiler. And, as compiler, Bingham had a specific agenda: "many of [the selections] are of a deeply religious sort...[o]thers [are] strongly patriotic, and were both expressions and developers of the growing enthusiasm for the young American republic." [9]

    The "Dialogue between a Master and Slave" was actually written by Dr. John Aikin, a British man of letters of the early nineteenth century "whose political and religious opinions were those of the dissenters...." [10] If we turn to consider Aikin's "Dialogue" in relation to Garrison's Preface to the Narrative, Douglass's invocation of the "Dialogue" emerges as a gesture beyond the boundaries of his own editorially-constrained text towards an antislavery argument more compatible with his own feelings than Garrison's apolitical pacifism. [11]

    Like Garrison's Preface, Aikin's "Dialogue" presents a moral suasion argument against slavery. In each case, white men are told to end slavery because of its immorality, or else they will suffer dire consequences. However, the consequences posited behind the "or else" differ significantly between the two. Garrison figures the wages of slaveholding as divine retribution, or, on a more immediate plane, conflict with righteously indignant white male abolitionists: "Reader! are you with the man-stealers in sympathy and purpose, or on the side of their down-trodden victims? If with the former, then you are the foe of God and man. If with the latter, what are you prepared to do and dare in their behalf? (251)."

    In the Garrisonian model, slaves are stripped of agency and cast as "down-trodden victims" in whose behalf white men must take action. Aikin's "Dialogue," on the other hand—and despite some (let us hope intentionally) ludicrous pro-slavery arguments forwarded by the Master—makes it clear that, if slavery is allowed to continue, slaveholders will have the slaves to pay for it. As the emancipated Slave declares at the "Dialogue"'s end:

    You can rely on no kindness on your part, to soften the obduracy of [the slaves'] resentment. You have reduced them to the state of brute beasts; and if they have not the stupidity of beasts of burden, they must have the ferocity of beasts of prey. Superior force alone can give you security. As soon as that fails, you are at the mercy of the merciless. Such is the social bond between master and slave! [12]
    It is not difficult to see how, for a man who identifies a physical confrontation as the defining moment of his existence, such a stirring outburst of oratory—through the citation of which Douglass is able to (silently) reinsert the threat of (justified) black male violence into his Narrative—would prove infinitely preferable to anything issuing from the mouth or pen of William Lloyd Garrison.

    Thus Douglass has asserted his "Manhood" the only way he can—narratively—by yoking his story to the radical potential of the religious conversion narrative and outflanking his editors by means of intertextual reference. [13] What, precisely, he has gained from this assertion (beyond individual satisfaction)—and the more fundamentally vexing issue of the utility of the project of proving oneself in the dominant paradigm on the dominant paradigm's terms—are topics which most certainly merit detailed future investigation.

    Works Cited

    Aikin, John. "Master and Slave." In Evenings at Home; or, The Juvenile Budget Opened. Consisting of a Variety of Miscellaneous Pieces for the Instruction and Amusement of Young Persons, vol. 2, 2d ed. Philadelphia: A. Bartram, 1802. Reprinted as "Dialogue between a Master and Slave," in Caleb Bingham, The Columbian Orator: Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces Together with Rules; Calculated to Improve Youth and Others in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence, 240-242. Boston: Privately printed, 1817 [1810].

    Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself. In The Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 243-331. New York: Penguin, 1987 [1845].

    Johnson, Allen, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929. S.v. "Bingham, Caleb," by Wayland J. Chase.

    Lee, Jarena. The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, a Coloured Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel. Revised and Corrected from the Original Manuscript, Written by Herself. In Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women's Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century, ed. William L. Andrews, 25-48. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986 [1836].

    Staples, Robert. Black Masculinity: The Black Male's Role in American Society. San Francisco: Black Scholar, 1982. Quoted in Richard Yarborough. "Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass's 'The Heroic Slave'." In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed. Eric J. Sundquist, 168. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    Stephen, Leslie, and Sidney Lee, eds. Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1908. S.v. "Aikin, John," by Arthur Aikin Brodribb.

    Stepto, Robert. "I Rose and Found My Voice: Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control in Four Slave Narratives." Chap. in From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

    Yarborough, Richard. "Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass's 'The Heroic Slave'." In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed. Eric J. Sundquist, 166-188. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    In Memoriam, F.D.

    "There's a word for what you fellas are."
    "Asian American?"
    "No, passive-aggressive."

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