Frederick Douglass, Southerner

By Ramsey, William M. | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Frederick Douglass, Southerner

Ramsey, William M., The Southern Literary Journal

There is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood-chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people ... by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South.

--Frederick Douglass, 1894

I am an Eastern Shoreman, with all that name implies ... Eastern Shore corn and Eastern Shore pork gave me my muscle. I love Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

--Frederick Douglass, 1877

The greatest obstacle to understanding the life-long dynamics in Frederick Douglass' southern identity is Douglass himself. At age twenty, as the rugged young fugitive escaped bondage, he became forever a southern expatriate--someone who, dramatically and irreversibly, had shed his former condition. His remaking of self was emphatic: to be a flee and autonomous self he could not remain a southern self. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) became a classic text reinforcing the myth of the reborn American self, the freely invented new man. Out of seething adolescent discontent and indignation, Douglass had asserted the manly independence of his spirit. The rage he directed at the South was so great that contemporaries used the word leonine to describe his fierce denunciations of the region as well as his full mane of hair and imposing physique. Because subsequent autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881; 1892), also began with the same core tale of heroic escape, even the inclusion of subsequent northern years continued to key on the young man's repudiation of southern roots. This "before and after" pattern had the structure of a familiar regional binary, the South's portion being bondage (Hell) and the North's being freedom (the Promised Land). Indeed the mature years after slavery suggested a smooth, successful assimilation into the new free identity he had chosen. For thirty-four years Douglass lived in Massachusetts and New York, first as one of the abolitionist movement's, then as one of the freedmen's most effective orators and journalists. His 1872 move to Washington, DC at age fifty-four was less a resumption of southern living than evidence of his assimilated, national commitment to Republican policies in the South's reconstruction. In a word, Douglass' escape from the South at age twenty seemed to have been a complete emergence from the dead chrysalis of his southern identity.

In fact, his journey in southern consciousness was far from over. Long after the climax of his initial struggle for freedom, his psychic response to the South was to be a central, continuing test of character. With each phase of mature psychological development, in the classic shifts of personality arising throughout adulthood, he would continuously evolve. As with thousands of black Americans enduring the psychological duress of his era's racial realities, Douglass' successive reformulations of personality were grounded in a life-long response to oppression. Managing these transformations with cast-iron resourcefulness, he was a heroic, representative black American, and always a pilgrim on the never-ending road leading out of Dixie.

Peter Walker, in his book Moral Choices (1978), was the first critic to break through Frederick Douglass' heroic mask, arguing that no person is a fully formed hero from birth to death. Yet, reading the Narrative, one gains the impression that Douglass' entire childhood prefigured and centered on heroic resistance. Boyhood acts of manipulating white boys into teaching him the alphabet, secretly practicing handwriting in discarded copybooks of his master's son, and purchasing a copy of The Columbian Orator seem to depict a determined, discontented, resourceful youth always intent (as if from birth) on repudiating his slave condition. If one accepts Douglass' manly and defiant self-representation, then he was born an embryonic hero, this early, latent heroism already the touchstone of his entire life.

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