Academic journal article African American Review

Christianity and Individualism: (Re-)Creation and Reality in Frederick Douglass's Representation of Self

Academic journal article African American Review

Christianity and Individualism: (Re-)Creation and Reality in Frederick Douglass's Representation of Self

Article excerpt

The question of religious belief prompted by Douglass's impassioned utterance regarding the relation between the existence of God and his own status as a slave was not raised by him alone. Reverend Charles Colcock Jones, a white, Southern slave missionary, wrote in 1842, "He who carries the Gospel to them ...discovers deism, skepticism, universalism ... all such strong opinions about the truth of God, objections which he may perhaps have considered peculiar to the cultivated minds of critics and philosophers" (qtd. in Raboteau 176). Raboteau also reports the response of a recently freed black woman who was questioned about her religious belief. "It has been a terrible mystery to know why the good Lord should so long afflict my people and keep them in bondage to be abused and trampled down without any rights of their own, with no ray of light in the future." Though she had sustained her own faith, others had not. "Some of my folks said there wasn't any God, for if there was he wouldn't let white folks do as they have done for so many years" (314). The most interesting aspect of this response, and of Douglass's questioning of God's existence, is the ambiguity occasioned by the context. Each expresses belief, yet raises the issue of disbelief in the face of felt knowledge and experience.

Douglass's response to the question raised by theodicy, the recognition of the problem raised by the co-existence of a just God and evil, had a profound effect on Douglass's thinking, for the question was basic to his sense of self and thus to the extraordinary sense of individualism that he clearly possessed. That Douglass should, in the epigraph above, in the same breath implore God to deliver him and then question his very existence points to an implicit line of reasoning: If there were a God, then I would not be a slave, since I am a slave, the possibility exists (hence the question, not a positive assertion) that there is no God. Also implicit in his reasoning is the assumption that, if there were a God, he would "save me," "deliver me," "let me be free." It is of significance that this expression of ambivalence occurs in the Narrative prior to Douglass's fight with Covey, the "nigger breaker," for it is my contention that such ambivalence was resolved with the outcome of that confrontation, a moment that also witnessed the birth, in the consciousness of the "former" (as he sees himself at the time) slave, of an extraordinarily intense and ardent individualism.

Douglass's sense of individualism is inextricably bound to his psychological sense of self. When sent to Covey's farm, Douglass was sixteen years old and verging on adulthood. He had experienced life as a slave in Baltimore, and as we know, city slave life was on the whole comparatively less restrictive.(1) His recalcitrance and his wilfulness were attributed by his then present owner, Thomas Auld, to his sojourn in the city.(2) His defiance and intractability were immediately occasioned by the necessity to fulfill his needs (he allows Auld's horse to run away to Auld's father-in-law's because the underfed Douglass knows he will get food there), but he as well challenges patriarchal authority. The "severe whippings" he receives as a result of his fractious behavior are "all to no purpose."

Douglass, out of psychological necessity, perhaps, or out of instinct, struck at the very core of slavery when he challenged the authority of white males, especially when he rendered Auld's punishment futile by refusing to modify his behavior. Kenneth Stampp says about punishment that, "without the power to punish, which the state through the black codes conferred upon the master, bondage could not have existed. By comparison, all other techniques of control were of secondary importance" (171). Eugene Genovese puts the issue in another way in quoting the opinion (State v. Mann, 1829) of North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Thomas Ruffin: "The end of slavery |is the profit of the master; the task of the slave is to toil that another may reap the fruits. …

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