The life and career of former slave, abolitionist, and social reformer Frederick Douglass effectively debunks myths about the powerlessness caused by the innate cowardice of blacks, perpetuated by racism in American literature. His memoir, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is arguably the most famous of slave narratives and one of the incendiary literary pieces to stoke the abolitionist movement in the years leading up to the US Civil War. A preeminent whistle-blower of racism in American literature, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is as explicit and atrocious as any contemporaneous literature of the time gets. It more than exposes slavery and racism in 19th century United States. It elucidates without abandon how racism and slavery’s vicious cycles contribute to the black slaves’ diminished self-worth, the failure to muster the courage to act to better their condition, and the cultivation of silence and sense of powerlessness.
In “Narrative,” Frederick Douglass recalls his ascent from being the child of a slave mother and a white slaveholder master to leading abolitionist and civil rights leader, and illuminated what he and other slaves endured at the hands of their masters and of society in general. As Douglass authoritatively addresses racism and slavery’s intrinsic evils, he pinpoints at the same time the pervasive sense of powerlessness and submission that it drapes on slaves, in the process instilling in them the helpless resignation to their fate.
For further illumination of the sense of powerlessness with respect to the narrative, it is imperative to acknowledge first that Douglass’s slave narrative radiates torrential rhetoric, but that “strength” of rhetoric actually speaks of forced silence on his part, which originated from when he was a slave looking for freedom. To the reader, the narrative simply details Douglass’s rise from slave to abolitionist leader. But in the rhetorical sense, Douglass has had to undergo painful reminiscence of his past in order to construct the narrative, resulting in his failure to portray himself as actually talking in the early chapters of the book. Fundamentally important to any narrative are the actual exclamations of the narrator (i.e. “I screamed,” “I said,” “I responded”), and these are strikingly absent in his slave chapters, which one can deduce as the “language” of subjugation. These first few chapters are totally devoid of recalled actual conversations and/or Douglass exchanging words with others. Up until his escape and freedom much later in the book, Douglass never quoted himself speaking even a single word, which can be attributed to his deprivation of any chance to voice out anything when he was a slave. Despite the clarity of his recollections, Douglass’s active voice as narrator is silenced just as he was silenced in his slave days - prevented from talking, learning to read, learning to write, and essentially, prevented from taking control of his own life. In all crucial instances in the early parts of the book, he is the silent spectator and storyteller, almost never having any bearing on the outcome of any situation, yet remaining a participant. The silence produced by his being a voiceless narrator is thus amplified by the potency of his conveyance to the reader of the crimes and injustices of racism and slavery that he has seen. His silent suffering as a slave translated to his voiceless yet unambiguous and relentless storytelling.
His sense of powerlessness was forged by horrifying instances that he had to witness, firstly by the whipping that his Aunt Hester was subject to when he was a young boy:
“He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a damned bitch. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, “Now, you damned bitch, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heartrending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over. I expected it would be my turn next. It was all new to me. I had never seen anything like it before.” (Douglass 6).
A thought-defying sight which a young boy no older than ten is subjected to is life-scarring at the very least. Thus, Douglass’s stifled voice in the face of countless humiliations and injustices and his decision early in life to be a mere spectator in moments wherein action or words could have served as mitigating factors can be traced to this horrifying eye-opener. The fear of drawing the wrath of unforgiving white slaveholders inculcated in the young Douglass’s mind the need to resort to silence as a refuge, which manifests itself in “Narrative.” In retrospect, Douglass was a fortunate man, having escaped and bought his way to freedom. But in the other more horrific ordeals in the book, silence and the feeling powerlessness is induced not by the witnessing of violent beatings, but by sheer hopelessness, broken wi