Frederick Douglass’s Literary Appendix as a tool of Self-Representation

Frederick Douglass: "Knowledge Unfits a Man to be a Slave" - American System Now

With the publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Frederick Douglass became the representative Black American man. Known for his careful self-representation on literary, oratorical and visual platforms, he was the preeminent abolitionist, women’s rights and civil rights advocate of his time. [i] It is these platforms, used as tools for self-representation, that are evident in Douglass’ second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). The decade between the two autobiographies enabled Douglass to gain authorial control over his own work, reimagining his self-hood as a freeman. Although Douglass’ literary choices in his some sixty-page long Appendix section have frequently been overlooked, I suggest that it is here that Douglass’ desire to wrest control of his own narrative comes clearly into view, as he resisted the efforts of those – slaveholders and abolitionists alike – who wished to represent his story on his behalf, rendering him its object rather than its subject. In this essay, I will examine the Appendices of the second autobiography as well as some of the contemporary scholarly investigation into Douglass’s narratives in order to explore how Douglass employed some of his most well-known speeches to reassert his role as the representative Black man.

Douglass’s first Narrative was plagued by allegations that, as a black fugitive slave, he could not have written the text himself, and was therefore neither literarily authoritative nor authentic – that is, if he could claim to have mastered the letters of Enlightenment knowledge, then equally, and contradictorily, he could not claim to represent the ordinary lives of the enslaved. To counter these accusations of misrepresentation and to cast away doubts of authorship, the foreword to the Narrative was written by the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who also covered the cost of the publication. In reality the foreword served to place Douglass’s first attempt to record his life’s story in a “white envelope.”[ii] This essentially meant that Douglass’s slave experience was packaged by white philanthropists to appeal to the white abolitionist mind, rather than to bring Douglass’s experience to the masses as a radical statement advocating for the abolition of slavery.

With his second autobiography, My Bondage, Douglass wanted to ensure that there would be no room for refuting his authorial authenticity – he wanted to demonstrate that he was unquestionably the true writer of the text, and that it reflected the true experiences of enslaved people. Therefore, he put his seminal autobiography in a new, metaphorical Black envelope. James McCune Smith, a prominent Black doctor and a friend, provided the foreword; that Douglass included the letter in the appendix […] indicates that he still wished to keep up the pressure of his attack on slavery” (345, n.132). This attack on slavery is the key to the collection of excerpts in the Appendix, as the Appendix exemplifies the tone that Douglass adopted in many of his public speaking appearances of late 1845 and 1846 (Levine 71). In My Bondage, Douglass was able to have the authorial control he had been denied in his first “pamphlet” (My Bondage 292), and which he now employed to underscore his attack on slavery.

With the inclusion of the Appendix section in My Bondage, Douglass reinforced a newly acquired empowerment, breaking free from his role as the object of white abolitionism, which pigeon-holed him as the eternal representative slave, and moving towards a public representation of himself as Frederick Douglass, the man. The scholar Celeste-Marie Bernier emphatically notes how Douglass “understood that his soul, and by extension his life story, was […] being traded by white antislavery campaigners” (xxiii) because the enslaved people’s literature, “as a genre […] was sponsored by white publishing houses, editors, and readers, [the Black writers] had to abide by white rules for adjudicating authenticity.” (xx) As such, Douglass’ inclusion in the new narrative of the extracts of the public appearances for which he was known served to assert that the authenticity of his authorship was “uncircumscribed by” — and that he himself was “undictated to” — “white literary traditions.” (Bernier xix). In the Appendix, then, Douglass was able to distance himself from the role thrust upon him as the chattel on the abolitionist circuit, as an “it” that “could speak.” (Douglass 289; Bernier xxii and xxiv)

Encasing his memoirs inside McCune Smith’s foreword on the one hand, and an Appendix of Douglass’s own texts on the other, through the inclusion of several speeches that featured the word ‘slave’ or  ‘slavery’ in the title, Douglass emphasized the impact that his choice of tone, style and performance had on his audiences, thereby ensuring that readers would not misunderstand that the actual purpose of the Appendix was to drive the debate on antislavery and, ultimately, help bring about the abolition of slavery. [iii] By reproducing performances such as the “Reception Speech” (pp. 329-344), which he had delivered during his tour in Great Britain in 1846, Douglass was letting “the slaveholders of America know that the curtain which conceals their crimes is being lifted abroad” (331), and that “some negro of theirs has broken loose from his chains – has burst through the dark incrustation of slavery, and is now exposing their deed of deep damnation to the gaze of the Christian people in England” (332). The curious choice of words, “some negro” rather than first pronoun “I”, emphasized Douglass’s goal of becoming the representative Black man, the voice of the race, which the Appendix came to represent.

As within the body of My Bondage, in the Appendix Douglass similarly articulated a philosophical and metaphorical contemplation of selfhood. “The reader is, therefore,” Douglass emphasized, “assured, with all due promptitude, that his attention is not invited to a work of ART, but to a work of FACTS – Facts, terrible and almost incredible, it may be – yet FACTS, nonetheless.” (MB 5) In re-iterating his numerous public appearances of a decade on abolitionist, political, and women’s rights platforms, he solidified what many attempted to disprove – that he was the author of his own narrative. The Appendix section, therefore, can be seen as an independent piece of literary work in support of Douglass’s political and personal aims. His well-known oratory would, in this instance, serve as evidence of his ability to write his own autobiography.

James Olney, a literary historian who has written on the art of writing autobiographies and slave narratives, has argued that “one should be transformed and different with passing time, yet be continuing and the same, [which is] a phenomenon of obvious and singular importance for the autobiographer and the poet of personal experience” (29; emph. mine). [iv] Olney’s notion of achieving transformation and becoming the “poet of personal experience” recalls Douglass’ declaration that “it did not entirely satisfy” him anymore to “narrate the wrongs”; rather, he wanted “to denounce them.” (MB 289) The request from white abolitionists and audiences that he perform a reiteration of his life as a slave was “a task altogether too mechanical for [his] nature.” (MB 289) . As such, Robert Levine, author of The Lives of Frederick Douglass (2016), notes that “the voice that Douglass assumes [in the first Narrative’s Appendix] jars against the voice of his autobiographical narrative” (Levine 70). Levine is referring to Douglass’ pleading directly with his readers, employing oratory style, rather than the textual confines as dictated by his white editors. And already within the Appendix to his first Narrative, Douglass concluded with a sincere and earnest hope “that this little book may do something toward throwing light in the slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds.” (N 171) This statement was the premise of his second, the more accurate self-representational autobiography, My Bondage.

A key to understanding the Appendix section is recognizing the psychological and philosophical distance that Douglass had attained from the material experience of slavery, but also from the confines of white abolitionism, since writing the Narrative. Separating himself from the Garrisonian type of abolitionism by purchasing, with the help of friends, his freedom in 1846 — an emancipation of not just the body but of the mind — enabled Douglass to reimagine and revisit his oratorical past through reproduction as text in the Appendix to My Bondage. With his new Black-enveloped autobiography Douglass retraced the past ten years of his life, using it to exemplify Black experience beyond slavery.

In the Preface, McCune Smith refers to Douglass as a man who “found himself one of a class – free colored men” (13) and had delivered a “Speech Before American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society Douglass” (May, 1854). In this speech, McCune acknowledges Douglass’s description of the freed colored men as “aliens are we in our native land” (13) and thus affirms Douglass’s public persona as akin to his writing even before the reader had begun to read the updated biography. In acknowledging Douglass’s oratory, McCune Smith validated Douglass’s public appearances as integral to Douglass’s life story, and his attack on slavery.

Douglass’s effort to present himself through textual reproduction is confirmed by “his lifelong conviction regarding the Black author’s right to all forms of experimental textual expression,” (Bernier xix) which is evident in “his prolific outpouring of over seven thousand published and unpublished speeches, essays, letters, and narratives.” (xix) Douglass’s autobiographies, with their Appendices, were designed with multifaceted purpose: to demonstrate one man’s personal and political growth; to repudiate pseudoscientific claims about the reduced intellectual abilities of people of color; and to act as a retort to white abolitionists’ attempts to use him to further their cause over the cause of the black man. Douglass demanded that he “must speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me,” (MB 290) and by no one else. After years of being dictated to about how to tell his story (MB 290), Douglass reclaimed his “right to a freedom of self-expression and self-representation not only as an author and orator but as philosopher, historian, political theorist, social commentator, and, above all, as the literary creator of his own life story.” (Bernier xxiv)

In its inclusion of a preface by a Black scholar and an Appendix comprised of reproductions of his own public appearances, My Bondage, according to the literary scholar John Stauffer, “announce[d] the presence of a confident black intellectual who borrow[ed] from white literary culture to shape his black aesthetic and insists on having his book read alongside classic white literature“ (120). However, Stauffer, like many other researchers of Douglass’s autobiographies, does not fully examine the vital effect that the inclusion of Douglass’s public appearances had on the concept of My Bondage’s Appendices. The concept of the new autobiography was to reframe the liberation of mind and body beyond being an object of white abolitionist object imagination, beyond the story of a slave. Stauffer notes how “of the three forms Douglass used to represent himself (the literary, oratorical, and photographic) and critique American society” – namely, as a writer, speaker, and subject of photography – “he felt most comfortable as a public speaker,” (202) and further concedes that Douglass “believed that oratory was the most effective tool for an activist and his greatest accomplishment as an artist” (202; emph. mine).

By focusing on the body of My Bondage, leaving out the Appendices, Stauffer overlooks the opportunity to examine the conscious decisions made by Douglass in re-appropriating an interdisciplinary abolitionist document, and how, in doing so, he reimagined himself as an artist, rather than object of the white abolitionist platform. With the Appendix, Douglass rescinded himself from the first Narrative that initially brought him recognition, and instead supplanted his preferred role as an orator. As the historian David Blight notes, by the time Douglass was writing My Bondage, many of his speeches added had already become “anthologized classics” (Blight x) – such as the 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (pp. 368-373) – and were embedded in the minds of his supporters and enemies alike, and therefore served as an important means by which the reader could connect the writer of My Bondage to the speaker Frederick Douglass.

The Appendix thus became a means for Douglass to reconstruct his self-representation, to showcase “his prowess as an orator [proving] he had become very much the performer of the abolitionist message, [a] man who had converted his love of words into a weapon of public persuasion” (Blight xii: emph. mine). By including extracts of his speeches, many of which were given after the publication of his first Narrative, Douglass embraced the performer within that accompanied the exploration of his inward as well as outward emancipation after having been used as a text himself. (MB 287) Douglass’s visual rhetoric throughout the body of text – extended to the chosen items in Appendix – “display his newfound independence and his almost uncanny promotional instincts […] to publicize his talents as a black leader and speaker” (Levine 76) In the visual rhetoric of his own slavery experience, painted in the “Letter to His Old Master” (1848), for example, Douglass made it clear that he “mean[t] to use [his master] as weapon with which to assail the system of slavery” (MB 353). Thus, Douglass employed his former master’s cruelty in the treatment of slaves as representative weapon in his struggle for race equality throughout his past decade as a speaker and writer. In the Appendix he would no longer be “a man, a strategist, and a voice […] contained within any one ideological camp” (Blight xvii).

Douglass re-invented the format of slave narrative in his pivotal My Bondage and its Appendix by reproducing, repurposing, and reimagining his public performances – many of which had become “anthologized classics” (Blight x). Douglass actively endeavoured to cast off his status as an object of white supremacist violence and white abolitionist paternalism by emphasizing his life as a freeman as well as his new role as the representative Black leader. To represent this transformation in selfhood, Douglass emphasized his role as a speaker; as a result, the performances included in the Appendix were deliberately and carefully chosen to advance Douglass’ political message. Intended to deconstruct white patriarchal supremacist notions of race through a reversal of the expectations of, and contesting the stereotypes imposed on, enslaved African Americans, Douglass’ speeches, as curated in the Appendix, articulated a bold and provocative vision of freedom.

 

Notes

[i] James McCune Smith in the Preface, interestingly, leaves out color – simply determining that “the secret of his power” is that he is “a Representative American man – a type of his countrymen [who] in like manner [to all forms of organic life] passed through every gradation of rank comprised in our national make-up, and bears upon his person and upon his soul every thing that is American.” (MB 19)

[ii] As Phillis Wheatley had to have the signatories of 18 “of the most respectable characters in Boston” (Brooks 2), so does Garrison confirm with the Narrative, “the testimony of Mr. Douglass […] is sustained by a cloud of witnesses, whose veracity is unimpeachable” (N 88); Sekora “Black Message/White Envelope”; Levine The Lives of Frederick Douglass 32-33,46-47; McCune Smith Preface 14-15.

[iii] “The Nature of Slavery” (pp. 354-360); “Inhumanity of Slavery,” (pp. 361-367); “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (pp. 368-377); “The Internal Slave Trade” (pp. 374-378); “The Slavery Party” (pp. 379-385)

[iv] James Olney has published several books and articles on autobiography and slave narratives. For further reading, see for example “I Was Born”: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature Callaloo, No. 20 (Winter, 1984), pp. 46-73; Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1972

About Aija Oksman

Aija Oksman is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. After an MLitt in Publishing (University of Stirling) and MSc (University of Edinburgh) on radical self-representation of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, her current research focuses on African American women writer’s literary and counterliterary experience with the FBI. Her research interests are interdisciplinary and intersectional with focus on women’s and other marginalised groups’ literary, cultural and socio-economical interactions and counteractions.
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