Counter-Discourses on the Racialization of Theft and Ethics in Douglass's Narrative and Jacobs's Incidents

By King, Lovalerie | MELUS, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Counter-Discourses on the Racialization of Theft and Ethics in Douglass's Narrative and Jacobs's Incidents


King, Lovalerie, MELUS


That disposition to theft with which they have been branded, must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral sense. The man, in whose favour no laws of property exist, probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favour of others. When arguing for ourselves, we lay it down as a fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give a reciprocation of right: that, without this, they are mere arbitrary rules of conduct, founded in force, and not in conscience: and it is a problem which I give to the master to solve, whether the religious precepts against the violation of property were not framed for him as well as his slave? (Thomas Jefferson 11; my emphasis).

**********

The subject of racializing crime and criminalizing race has been treated at some length in the juridical enterprise of critical race theory. Cornel West has referred to critical race theory as "an intellectual movement that is both particular to our postmodern (and conservative) times and part of a long tradition of human resistance and liberation" (West xi). The common objective in this area of legal scholarship is to challenge the ways that racism is normalized. Scholars see their work as revealing and challenging the "ways in which race and racial power are constructed and represented in American legal culture, and more generally, in American society as a whole" (Crenshaw xiii). An underlying assumption in this process is that the law has not and does not operate outside of politics. It is not a "determinate, objective, bounded, neutral" enterprise. Rather it is bound up with politics, which is "open-ended, subjective, discretionary, and ideological" (xviii). In other words, the law is "an active instance of the very power politics it purports to avoid and stand above" (xxiv). Scholarship in this area assists in deconstructing myths about race and deviance, and it challenges the idea that deviance, immorality, and criminality are inherently connected to race as that term has been used to refer to a category for hierarchizing humans. (1) It facilitates a response to the question of how American legal and social practice contributed historically to the racialization of theft and unethical behavior, in general, and to the construction of the popular American image of the "thievin' negro," in particular.

For those of us concerned with African American literary history, this raises the question of how African American authors have engaged this particular problem. How do representative literary texts function in relationship to discourses that produced the problem? Scholars in the field of African American literature are well aware that the literature has often functioned counterdiscursively in relationship to American historical and literary narratives. In this context, "counter-discourse" suggests more than a response or reaction to the dominant discourse driving negative stereotypes; it involves a preemptive strike, an overt action that anticipates a continuing future struggle. (2) Just as African American women intellectuals labored in centuries past to counter the evolving stereotype of the sexually available and licentious black woman (see Carby), African American authors of both genders have used their writing to counteract the effects of, among other negative images, the stereotype of the black thief. Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845) and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) provide two such early examples.

In Narrative and Incidents, the authors' positing of self as subject allows them to critique the social and cultural factors that contributed to the development of the stereotype of the black thief. The individual subject (Jacobs or Douglass) becomes a collective subject (black America) speaking on its own behalf, providing its own narrative of events. Both texts not only exhibit their authors' awareness of the developing stereotype, but they also call attention to the ways that legal and other discourses operated to shape the stereotype. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Counter-Discourses on the Racialization of Theft and Ethics in Douglass's Narrative and Jacobs's Incidents
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    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.