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Monday, 12 September 2011

A Critical Analysis: African-American racism and slavery- Frederick Douglas

Slavery in Frederick Douglas: A Critical Analysis

Race has always been America’s crucible. Observant visitors from Alexis de Tocqueville to Gunnar Myrdal have published stern premonitions. According to Tocqueville, “[t]he most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union arises from the presence of a black population upon its territory” (Tocqueville, 1945).  

This essay tackles the views and philosophy of one of the most influential crusader of African-American racism and slavery- Frederick Douglas. I argue that Douglas’ views on racism and slavery are well-grounded and more realistic than that of other philosophers of his time. Furthermore, his views had helped in the liberation not only of African-Americans but also among Whites and other races. Douglas provided us with a classic and exemplary depiction of slavery. In this essay, I shall evaluate his arguments and provide a critical discourse on the highlights of his premises.

Slavery was a universal institution, it is not confined to the West; what is distinctively Western is the abolition of slavery. Many people have, of course, resisted being captured and sold as slaves, but no society, including all of Africa, has ever on its own account mounted principled opposition to human servitude. in all the literature condemning Western slavery, however, few scholars have asked why a practice sanctioned by virtually all people for thousands of years should be questioned, and eventually halted, by only one. Paradoxically, it is in America and nowhere else in the world where the legacy of slavery is a contemporary issue, the American Constitution is condemned as a document that compromised with slavery, and the Framers are routinely denounced for being racist hypocrites.


Throughout world history, slavery had few defenders for the simple reason that it had few critics. The institution was uncontroversial, and that which is established and taken for granted does not have to be justified. The American South was unique among slave societies in history in that it produced a comprehensive proslavery ideology. In part, this was because slavery was under assault to a degree unrivaled anywhere else in the world. This lack of attention on slavery implies that it is already taken as a given that racism and slavery exists as a norm in the society.

At the height of slavery and racism, a prominent scholar attacked the conception of slavery in the society particularly that of the Western conception of slavery against the Blacks. Though, not purely African, Douglas reiterated several points against slavery.

The first contention of Douglas is that slavery and racism is detrimental to human beings and society. The simplest defense for slavery was economic necessity: Someone has to do the dirty work, and better them than us. This position was based on an implicit premise that whites in the South were in a position to compel blacks to perform menial but necessary tasks. It is force, rather than right, that kept the system of slavery in place. However, Douglas reiterated that slavery is cruel as he have shown in his narrative and experiences as a young boy in living in a community of masters and slaves. Freedom from slavery rests on the basic tenet that individuals are masters of themselves and nobody else. Thus, it is not only morally wrong to enslave human beings, it also violates the sense of being. Moreover, in response to the economic argument, Douglas pursued to study when education was thought by Blacks as dangerous. By not allowing them to be educated, the human capital of the slaves are reduced to a minimum thus, development is one-sided. If this happens, progress cannot be attained.

To deconstruct the slave mentality, Douglas tried to disentangle himself from the Christian teachings whose mentality is that of the Whites. As seen in the various examples that were discussed in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, the cruelty found in slavery was even more intense when placed under the pretense of the slaveholding religion of Christianity. Through Douglass’s deconstruction of Christianity, he learns that the white oppressive version of Christianity is much different from his own beliefs of Christianity. Douglass ultimately realizes that the way to stop the oppressive nature of slavery is through education.

Thus, the analyses of Douglas is both old and contemporary. Until now, education is seen as the most prevalent means of deconstructing a society fraught with inequalities. Thus, Douglas, used his writings to educate the people on the effects of slavery. In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas gives insight about the early stages of Douglas’ life, all the way up until the time that he wrote the Narrative in an effort to show the ignorance, callousness, and cruelty that the white slave-holders had towards their black slaves. Douglass’s experiences may have been a bit more lenient in some respects because he was mixed and, therefore, treated with a little more compassion because his color was closer to the white hierarchical color structure. However, he still used his experiences and remembrances to create his Narrative and use it as a tool to help abolish slavery.

In the first section of the autobiography, Douglass notes instances of slave oppression that he experiences and witnesses in his life. Douglass writes,

he then said to her, “now you d—d b—h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!í and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cow skin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rendering shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horrorstricken at the sight, that I hid myself in the closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over (Douglass 26).

This instance, among many others, Douglass uses to show the brutality and cruelty of the institution of slavery.

In an effort to further appeal to his readers, Douglass uses the American famed “heroic epic” quality in his work. Douglass displays this style when he tells a story about the physical abuse that he received his first time working as a field hand and how he overcame his torment. Douglass also subtlety includes the aspect of African folklore in his writing to uphold his heritage without blatantly stating his pride. Douglass observes the injustices and discrepancies that were prevalent during slavery. One of the most perplexing issues that Douglass tries to understand is how the whites could justify slavery and the brutality that was encompassed in this institution.

My Bondage and My Freedom is particularly rich with indications that Douglass’s life had schooled him in the complex relationship between outward “performance” and inner nature (Anderson, 1997). Douglass developed a taste for exposing the hypocrisy of the slaveholding culture as a form of inept theater. Silence can be an effective slave’s tactic, too, as Douglass himself demonstrates in his refusal to sing hymns at Covey’s behest. Douglass’s acts of dissent are similarly violent and obedient, radical and conservative, sustained and dramatized in a text that reproduces old canons in new language.

Not surprisingly, what used to be called “the Negro Question” or “the Negro Problem” has continued to disturb, and at times dominate, the national consciousness. Frederick Douglass pointed out that the terminology was ungenerous, in that it might be understood to impute blame to the victim. Douglass argued that the problem of racial caste and its attendant ills should more truly be called “the Nation’s Problem.” Nonetheless, the original designation revealed something of substance. As Douglass himself put it: “The destiny of the nation has the Negro for its pivot, and turns upon the question as to what shall be done with him” (Douglas, 1975). Nearly every African American leader since has expressed a similar sentiment. The version by W. E. B. Du Bois not only reiterates his people’s prominence–”Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years”-but also helps to explain why it should be so–”out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst” (Du Bois, 1986).

That is not to say that Americans have always met the challenge well. In every era, there have been concerted attempts to evade and deny, or at least to temporize. For both blacks and whites, the vision of complete escape has beckoned. Some of the organizations dedicated to an African exodus from the United States have been respectable, others not; but in all cases, they have disbelieved in the possibility of racial accord, if not in general, then at least in light of the U.S. specifics. its proponents, Frederick Douglass rightly denounced the project as pernicious. “No one idea has given rise to more oppression and persecution toward the colored people of this country,” Douglass wrote, “than that which makes Africa, not America, their home” (Douglas, 1992).

There have been other thinkers who dreamt not of permanent separation but instead of thoroughgoing amalgamation–a physical solution to the race problem through the slow erosion of complexional distinctness. Frederick Douglass speculated about such a radically assimilationist future. Frederick Douglass saw the outcome a bit differently. He spoke not of absorption but of a blending that would lead to the emergence of a new third race, a mixed race–what he called a “composite American nationality.” As Douglass knew from his own parentage (a fusion of African, European, and Native American), race is a transient quality.

Although slavery ended in the United States more than a century ago, its legacy continues to be disputed among scholars and to underlie contemporary debates about public policy. The reason for this is that slavery is considered the classic expression of American racism, and its effects are still viewed as central to the problems faced by blacks in the United States. Slavery seems to be the wound that never healed–the moral core of the oppression story so fundamental to black identity today. No wonder that bitterness generated by recollections of slavery has turned a generation of black scholars and activists against the nation’s Founding–against identification with America itself.

Douglas had successfully raised the consciousness of the society in their Platonic views of the society- that it is not an obligation of the Africans to serve the Caucasians, that it is wrong to perpetuate a system that is both morally degrading and inhumane. These arguments while it had been concocted centuries ago still holds in contemporary society partly because of the classic premises and also because slavery has yet to be abolished. Today, slavery may have evolved into different forms but the oppression they have suffered years ago still lingers. Both however are accessories to slavery- while the Whites perpetuates that kind of system, Africa had passively accepted it.



Anderson, D. (1997) The textual reproductions of Frederick Douglass. CLIO, Vol. 27.

Douglass, F. (1992) “African Civilization Society” (1859), in African-American Social and Political Thought, 1850-1920, ed. Howard Brotz. New Brunswick: Transaction, 264.

Douglass, F. (1975) The Present and Future of the Colored Race in America,” a speech delivered in the Church of the Puritans. New York, in May 1863, in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers. 1975 ): III. 267.

Du Bois, WEB. (1986) “The Souls of Black Folk”, in Writings. New York: Library of America, 545.

Tocqueville, Ad. (1945) Democracy in America (New York: Vintage Books: I, 370.














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