Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"If Not in the Word, in the Sound": Frederick Douglass's Mediation of Literacy through Song

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"If Not in the Word, in the Sound": Frederick Douglass's Mediation of Literacy through Song

Article excerpt

Frederick Douglass's passage into literacy does not enable him, while a slave, to openly resist his masters. In fact, despite the huge emphasis that both the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and his 1855 narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom, place upon the importance of literacy as necessary to his intellectual development, it is through a physical confrontation with Covey that, "a slave was made a man" (69). Thus, the immense critical attention (1) surrounding Douglass's passage into literacy, though crucial to an understanding of his place within the abolition movement, does not adequately address the modes of resistance that Douglass utilizes while still within the bonds of slavery through expressions of African American folk culture. While some critics have acknowledged the ways that Douglass shows "increased attention to the details of African American folk life on the plantation," my essay aims to demonstrate that Douglass's attention to that folk life critiques not only the southern slave system, but also the very linguistic system upon which that slavery is based (Sundquist 105). Thus, Douglass does not come, as Eric J. Sundquist asserts, to stand "outside the broken language of the surrounding slaves" in order "to appropriate the tools of the master," but, instead, uses the slave "language" to make those tools his own (Nations 105).

In this regard, it is important to realize that even before Douglass resists Covey physically, a moment that critics have addressed almost as thoroughly as accounts of Douglass's literacy, his very first act of open and successful opposition to his masters occurs not through violence nor through literacy, but through his refusal to sing. Douglass relates:

   The exercises of [Covey's] family devotions were always commenced
   with singing; and, as he was a very poor singer himself, the duty
   of raising the hymn generally came upon me. He would read his hymn,
   and nod at me to commence. I would at times do so; at others, I
   would not. My non-compliance would almost always produce much
   confusion. To show himself independent of me, he would start and
   stagger through with his hymn in the most discordant manner.
   (Narrative 67)

Even before he openly resists slavery by proving himself Covey's physical superior, Douglass is able to resist by withholding a superior ability to produce sound. As an abstract, representational discourse, then, it is music, not reading and writing, that acts as the turning point in Douglass's open defiance of slavery. While his literacy enables him, upon his escape from the south, to join the abolitionist cause, his most effective discursive resistance to slavery while a slave depends upon his aural abilities rather than his skills as a literate subject.

The importance of song as a discursive practice capable of resistance, though, does not end with his passage into the North and into the public discourse on slavery. Once Douglass joins the abolitionist movement, musical discourse remains crucial both as a means of furthering abolition and as a way of assuring that, through his entrance into the national debate on slavery, he is not merely exchanging the bodily confinement of the slave system for what Wilson J. Moses calls the "literary confinement of the slave narrative" (67). This last point is crucial to a discussion of Douglass's narratives that addresses the important tension between his acquisition of literacy and his ability to accurately represent and speak for the slave community that he has left behind. Douglass is, in his narratives, necessarily restricted to written discourse as a means of expressing his experiences, but his representations of the slave songs act as a powerful mediating agent that allows him to resist assimilation into a national culture that still condones slavery even as he enters into that culture through its own discursive practices. In this regard, it is important to make a clear distinction between Douglass's use of aurality through the slave songs and his performance of orality as an orator, since the terms of oratorical performance were at least as determined by white culture (2) as those of written language and thus, like his writing, participated in the linguistic and performative (3) conventions of northern elites in a way that the oral performance of song did not. …

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.