Academic journal article African American Review

Picturing the Mother, Claiming Egypt: My Bondage and My Freedom as Auto(bio)ethnography

Academic journal article African American Review

Picturing the Mother, Claiming Egypt: My Bondage and My Freedom as Auto(bio)ethnography

Article excerpt

As many scholars of historical anthropology have noted, in taxonomizing difference, "American School" ethnographers (ca. 1820-1870) were drawing and policing the borders of euramerican racial identity and insinuating prescriptive markers for that euramerican self in identifying the markings of the Other. [1] Johannes Fabian summarizes this formation of a unified euramerican identity in the following manner: "When modem anthropology began to construct its Other in terms of topoi implying distance, difference, and opposition, its intent was above all, but at least also, to construct ordered Space and Time--a cosmos--for Western society to inhabit, rather than 'understanding other cultures,' its ostensible vocation" (111-12). What has gone unnoticed is the way in which slave narratives contributed to and problematized the shaping of a homogenized white readership and culture during this period. Frederick Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), participates in the same descriptive obser vation of difference as ethnography and thus reveals an epistemological similarity between early nineteenth-century autobiography (slave narratives) and ethnography (American School ethnologues). That is to say, the same evidentiary rhetoric in both discourses supplements and establishes the authority of a central "self" and that self's views of otherness. [2]

Many critics have failed to recognize ethnographic discourses in slave narratives. The false assumption that the slave narrative is rhetorically disconnected from ethnography, which has been implied by literary critics and historians in their silence on this topic, is what I hope to correct in this paper by looking at the way in which Douglass blends contemporaneous socio-political controversy with autobiography and makes the turbulent debate over the ethnology of the "Negro" one of the noticeable differences that distinguishes his second autobiographical project from his first, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself (1845). Usually, when My Bondage is critically considered, discussion of its rhetorically suave narrator and comparisons between this figure and the ironic reportorial Douglass of the first narrative tend to overlook or undervalue crucial changes affecting Douglass and the nation between the years 1845 and 1855. In particular, the slavocracy's racial ju stification for human enslavement received pseudoscientific credibility with the publication of Josiah Nott's Types of Mankind (1850), further complicating the self-definition of ex-slaves in the North. While many of these former slaves entered the debate over ethnicity and racial origins in established abolitionist or religious platforms, Douglass combatted racist ideologies by returning once again to his autobiography, therein mythologizing for himself a racial origin that debunks both the arguments and methods of American School ethnography. In the manner of a trickster, Douglass conflates and disrupts his autobiographical role as participant and observer of slavery, and as William L. Andrews notes, refuses "to identify himself wholly or finally with either insider or outsider but only with the freedom to move back and forth across the margin" (To Tell 231).

This paper identifies several engagements with ethnographic discourses in My Bondage and My Freedom, all of which are centrally mediated by Douglass's revision of the portrait of his mother in his Narrative. In My Bondage, the picture that Douglass references as reminiscent of his mother as well as his alteration of her heroic importance in his early life comprise both an academic citation and a sentimental revision. As a citation, the picture allows Douglass to compete discursively against established ethnographers such as Josiah Nott, James Prichard, and Richard Knox for the authority to analyze and taxonomize Africanicity, both ancient and diasporic. Moreover, because the picture is of an Egyptian pharaoh, it also announces Douglass's intervention into the debate over Negro ethnology during a period in which Egyptomania was enthralling America's reading public. …

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