Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Trouble with Douglass's Body

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Trouble with Douglass's Body

Article excerpt

In his oratorical appearances on behalf of the New England abolition movement and then of the larger cause of African-American equality, Frederick Douglass found himself judged according to a set of conventions that valued his body as a visual delight. To be sure, his lectures against southern slavery, northern segregation, and Christian hypocrisy found sympathetic ears, but for many of his most ardent admirers, he declaimed the cause of liberty most powerfully with the majesty of his physique. His "very look and bearing," as James Russell Lowell testified, bore down on his audiences as an "irresistible logic" against slavery and oppression (qtd. in Oliver 167). In the scene of Douglass's bodily transformation, Thomas Wentworth Higgins on witnessed the promise of abolition:

   And then there would perhaps come some man stumbling with his heavy slavery
   gait upon the platform, walking as if a hundred pounds of ... chains were
   appended to each heel, and that man afterward, under the influence of
   freedom, developed into the superb stature and the distinguished bearing of
   Frederick Douglass.(76)

The reportage of Douglass's lectures could often neglect the content of his speeches, according to John Blassingame, but rarely the dimensions of his body (lxvii). Armed with the privileges of spectatorship, white audiences seemed to train their "racial gaze," as Herman Beavers has called it, on the physique of the black orator and to enjoy the public spectacle. His "tall and manly form" was said to have "singular grace and vitality"; his "erect carriage" suggested "something majestic." Confessing his admiration more candidly than others, Ebenezer Bassett avowed that Douglass's "physical equipment... left little to be desired" (qtd. in Blassingame xxxix).

Had Douglass escaped the physical tortures of slavery only to become a prized commodity on the marketplace of black abolitionist orators? Though laudatory, his audiences' attention to his body could be said to return him to the embruted state of the slave, or to reduce him to the embruted state of the slave, or to reduce him to the material, corporeal dimensions by which the members of the African race were legally excluded from citizenship.(1) And yet in order to critically analyze the mode of bodily perception and the construction of race that informed Douglass's reception, we would do well to look closer at the conventions that were operative when he ascended the platform and consider them generically, or in their relation to the institution of oratory. These conventions, I shall argue, were responsible for a reciprocal engagement between the black orator and his largely white male onlookers that made Douglass's body a medium of social, even civic, intercourse in a manner consistent with the "normative" -- that is to say, the exclusive--tradition of republicanism. Throughout this essay, I will be laying bare the generic connection between the male body and the republican ideal of literate citizenship in order to implicate its structure of public self-recognition in the visual representation of race.

Despite its association with self-denying, self-transcending civic virtue, American republicanism has proved itself more than ready to accommodate and indeed to visualize the male body in a public setting. One such example can be found in the nineteenth century's public art of statuary, especially as it was devoted to the representation of noble slaves. As the art historian Michael Hutt has shown, the semi-nude black male rising from its chains showed strength of purpose, action in reserve, and perhaps most importantly, the self-restraint which betrayed the republican quality of manliness. Displayed and depicted for public viewing, the statuesque black body served a larger project of civic pedagogy that promoted manliness and "manly form" as self-evident claims upon citizenship (21-3).

Showing similar sculptural proportions, Douglass wanted his body to appear before his audiences according to the form and function of this public art. …

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