Frederick Douglass the Narrative Term Paper

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Frederick Douglass

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself appeared in May 1845. William Lloyd Garrison wrote the preface; Wendell Phillips wrote an introductory letter. Douglass's stark rendering of his torturous slave experiences, however, was the smash. By 1848, eleven thousand copies had been published in the United States; French and German translations had appeared; and in England, it had already experienced nine editions. Ecstatic praise for Douglass's eloquent and touching narrative was widespread. "The book, as a whole, judged as a mere work of art, would widen the fame of Bunyan or Defoe," wrote the Lynn Pioneer reviewer. This reviewer added: "It is the most thrilling work which the American press has ever issued -- and the most important. If it does not open the eyes of this people, they must be petrified into eternal sleep." A British reviewer marveled at Douglass, "a fugitive slave, as but yesterday, escaped from a bondage that doomed him to ignorance and degradation, [who] now stands up and rebukes oppression with a dignity and a fervor scarcely less glowing than that which Paul addressed to Agrippa" (Pioneer, 1845; pg. 59-60).

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Douglass's slave narrative was part of an important black literary tradition that flourished between 1840 and 1860 and reached at least as far back as 1789, with the London publication of the Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Among the plethora of slave narratives published between 1840 and 1860 was not only Douglass's first autobiography, but his second: My Bondage and My Freedom ( 1855). These and the many other highly popular and evocative black autobiographies were trenchant abolitionist polemics. As abolitionist propaganda, they were unparalleled. Douglass's narratives, arguably the best, exemplified not only the highly political nature of these autobiographies, but also the traditions from which they sprang: black abolitionism, black activism, and social reform (Nichols, 11-89).

TOPIC: Term Paper on Frederick Douglass the Narrative of the Life Assignment

Whites became abolitionists out of choice; blacks were abolitionists out of necessity. This sense of exigency was part of the signal contribution of black abolitionists to the abolitionist struggle: a gripping analysis of slavery and its ramifications from an experiential perspective. They and their people had been and still were slaves and, as a result, plainly perceived the imperative of emancipation. Those like Douglass, whose experience and perception exceeded the merely personal, could and did offer analysis as well as description. Douglass's abolitionism skillfully combined the subjective and objective dimensions of description and analysis. He cast his searching net as widely as he possibly could and endeavored to catch the significance and compulsion of abolitionism in their myriad complexity.

Besides stressing the immutable bond between slave and free blacks, he also emphasized the often implicit psychological and emotional identification of the black slave with the abolitionist, white and black. Perhaps only a former-slave-turned-abolitionist could truly invoke the spiritual and ideal level on which slaves and abolitionists communed. He thus remarked that among the slaves, the existence and activities of the abolitionists were known throughout the South, and cherished with gratitude. It has increased the slave's hope for liberty. Without it his heart would faint within him; his patience would be exhausted. On the agitation of this subject he has built his highest hopes. My friends, let it not be quieted, for upon you the slaves look for help. There will be no outbreaks, no insurrections, whilst you continue this excitement: let it cease, and the crimes that would follow cannot be told (Blassingame, 1:4).

Much more than propaganda, rhetorical exaggeration, and wishful thinking, this idea expressed a metaphysical reality to which Douglass was particularly sensitive. White and black abolitionists alike theoretically agreed on two basic principles: "First, the freedom of the blacks in this country, and, second, the elevation of them." The American Anti-Slavery Society's original Declaration of Sentiments, adopted in December 1833, enshrined these twin goals. The dedication of white abolitionists to emancipation and improved race relations graphically set them apart from the vast majority of whites. Nonetheless, white abolitionists were clearly less committed to racial equality than black abolitionists, who possessed a personal and thus more profound perception of the need to reform the racist character of American society. Douglass maintained that the truest test of a white abolitionist's commitment to black liberation and racial equality was to observe how he treated his northern black neighbor. Those who viewed abolitionism as applying ideally, actually, or both only to enslaved southern blacks and neglected the elevation of their free northern black neighbors were, according to Douglass, "sham abolitionists." The abolition of slavery alone would be a necessary though insufficient victory. The full abolitionist victory demanded the abolition of racism. Consequently, Douglass and most black abolitionists agreed that the most viable and gratifying antislavery tactic in northern communities was to promote the numbers of "the intelligent and upright free men of color." Otherwise stated, "the most telling, the most killing refutation of slavery is the presentation of an industrious, enterprising, thrifty and intelligent free black population" (Douglass' Paper, 1853).

The tandem battles against racism and slavery signified, on one hand, Negro alienation from the disillusioning reality of America and, on the other, Negro attraction to its engaging ideal. Racism and slavery obviously violated the American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality that Negroes, slave and free, believed in and built their faith in and optimism for America upon. Nonetheless, the depth of the Negro's idealism outspanned the depth of his alienation. Black abolitionists, notably Douglass, personified this pivotal conflict. On the one hand, Douglass could condemn America for its slavery, especially from "the slave's point-of-view." He could righteously declare, from that perspective: "whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future" (Griffiths, 1969).

In the same speech, he could also insist that he did not despair because "there are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery." In addition to his belief in a moral universe ruled by God, he drew hope from " 'the Declaration of Independence,' the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions." His "spirit" was cheered, too, "by the obvious tendencies of the age": ever-growing civilization, progress, and internationalism. 22 the intensifying contradiction of the increasing worldwide trend toward enlightenment as against the barbaric relic of slavery plainly ensured slavery's demise. Progressive idealism as a mechanism for constructive social change and reform buttressed Douglass's lifelong dedication to the eradication of slavery and racism. His representative black critique of America's hypocritical idealism constituted an indispensable perspective toward America.

White abolitionists were obviously less racist than most of their white contemporaries. Nevertheless, they still tended to see and to treat blacks as less than equal. For example, very few blacks ever rose to prominent positions in the two major, national, white-dominated antislavery organizations: the Garrisonian American Anti-Slavery Society and the political abolitionist American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. This exclusion helped to fuel separate black organizations. When Douglass declared his ideological independence from his Garrisonian mentors, their vituperative opposition revealed not only deep disappointment and regret, but an unwillingness to allow Douglass, a black man, to speak his own mind. At bottom, the issue in Douglass's case was less his ideological purity and disloyalty than his race and his importance as the representative Negro (Griffiths, 1969).

Civil Rights

For Douglass and other black leaders, the infamous 1883 Republican Supreme Court decision nullifying the Civil Rights Law of 1875 clearly illustrated the Republican party's accelerating descent. The decision struck Douglass as "one more shocking development of that moral weakness in high places which has attended the conflict between the spirit of liberty and the spirit of slavery." It constituted "a concession to race pride, selfishness and meanness, and will be received with joy by every upholder of caste in the land." Douglass blasted the decision's disingenuous and dubious logic. "What does it matter to be a citizen," he asked, "that a State may not insult and outrage him, if a citizen of a State may? The effect upon him is the same, and it was just this effect that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment plainly intended . . . To prevent" (Weissman, 1975).

Douglass found especially reprehensible the tactic of opponents of the Civil Rights Law wherein they stigmatized it as an attempt to legislate social equality, a bugbear of racist whites. He countered that "social equality and civil equality rest upon an entirely different basis, and well enough the American people know it." The former rested upon condition and, to an extent, choice; the latter upon rights and law (Weissman, 1975). It was misleading to associate social equality, a privilege, with civil equality, a right, for they denoted different things. The threat of black equality, rather than interracial social equality, represented the actual… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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