Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Bold Defiance Took Its Place"-"Respect" and Self-Making in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Bold Defiance Took Its Place"-"Respect" and Self-Making in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Article excerpt

The creative artistic personality is thus the first work of the productive individual, and it remains fundamentally his chief work, since all his other works are partly the repeated expression of this primal creation--Otto Rank Art and Artist (1932)

THE 1845 NARRATIVE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS REMAINS THE BEST KNOWN of the self-representations in which he chronicles his experiences as a slave, obscures his escape to freedom, and sketches the formation of his early identity as child and man. His unforgettable opening declaration, "I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland" (12), situates the text within the narrative context of mid-nineteenth century first-person literary productions--Poe's fictional narrators; the persona of Emerson's essays; Thoreau's journals; Whitman's Song of Myself, Melville's Ishmael; Hawthorne's Coverdale. Identity and origin are the subjects of this essay, which will examine the essential circularity inherent in the exchange between white and black social identity in the South--particularly as it bears on the phenomenon of "respect."

A number of critics have already done interesting work in examining the different strands of identity found in the Narrative: Sterling Lecater Bland, Jr., writes that in the Narrative Douglass "created an individual identity for himself firmly based on the entitling power of biblical precedent" (67). While Robert B. Stepto agrees that the Narrative's "linguistic model is obviously scriptural," he and other more recent scholars have focused on the discursive identity implicit in the work--in short, on Douglass's identity as author. Stepto puts it succinctly: "Douglas is about the business of discovering how personal history may be transformed into autobiography" (22). For William L. Andrews, the emphasis lies in how Douglass may endeavor to tell a "free story" while negotiating the constraints of Garrisonian discourse, that "crucial parameter in the text that dictated ... the range of Douglass's thinking about some key questions and the rhetorical form of his expression of that thinking" (217). Bertram Wyatt-Brown points us in the direction I would like to take with the Narrative in his analysis of the enslavement of the remarkable Abd-al-Rahman Ibrahima. Wyatt-Brown observes of slave behavior that the "identification with the owner's perspective rather than with their own suggests the mimetic feature of dependence" ("Mask" 31) and uncovers in the story of Ibrahima the slave a deployment of the owner's perspective against himself: "an acceptance of the master's power involves adaptation to his ways" ("Mask" 31). The self-representation of the Narrative, however, reveals how Douglass adapts his master's ways in order to deny the master's power. Further, the form of identity articulated in the text, I will argue, has no single point of origin in American culture but arose out of a continuous interaction between owner and owned, a rocking back and forth in the Foucaldian sense between white Southerners who drew on European traditions of personal honor and sought to maintain class position and authority over slaves through violence on the one hand, and, on the other, the ever-present absence of physical liberty and potential for fatal defiance in the experience of the slave. This is the crucible Douglass so ably depicts in the Narrative, and we can trace the emergence of his identity out of the call and response of these two sets of conditions.

We are familiar in contemporary culture with the form of identity that flourishes in the Narrative under the designation "respect," and it is the distinguishing characteristic of what has come to be known, somewhat misleadingly, as inner-city culture. "Respect" is an exaggerated version of ordinary self-respect and has been studied in many historical contexts, from the Mediterranean to Japan. (1) While "respect" uses physical and psychic violence to police the territorial boundaries of the self, in a crucial sense it requires the insult, the offense, as the means for its self-assertion. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.