Frederick Douglass: A Faceless Ex-Slave Strives for an Identity
Belonging to a social group of whatever kind and sharing its respective cultural memory is necessary to build up an identity. But what if you do not belong anywhere? What if you are a stranger to and not welcome in the society you are born into and, at the same time, are prevented from practicing your original culture?
This was exactly the situation of black slaves in America before the Civil War preceding the abolition of slavery. They had been brought involuntarily to America, where they were treated as objects, and as mere working machines. They did not have any rights, and were prevented from any personal contact with their family. Thus they could not develop a cultural memory as a precondition for a culture identity, which would have been necessary for a healthy personal development.
An example for a person who has grown up as a slave in America is Frederick Douglass (1818-1881). He escaped from his masters at the age of 20 and led a life on the run until he became involved in the abolitionist cause.1 Being “the anti-slavery movement’s most eloquent and electrifying speaker” (McDowell vii), he is remembered as one of its most important leaders. In his speeches, he mostly reported his own experience as a slave, showing “slavery’s horrible cruelties” (McDowell vii) and thereby trying to convince people of the abolition. Finally, he wrote three autobiographies, the first of which is called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
The research paper at hand refers to Douglass’s Narrative to examine his personal development in terms of cultural memory and (cultural) identity. In the following, this paper will argue that Douglass, who had been deprived of his own culture by the dominant American system, was able to construct an African American identity for him and his fellow black Americans by resisting that system and by sharing his memories with the public.
The autobiographic memory is the part of one’s individual memory which seeks to ‘write’ a plausible and continuous life story. However, this construction can only take place if there is anything to remember. Douglass, from his childhood on, lacks knowledge about himself to a great extent. In the opening chapter of the Narrative, he says: “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it” (Douglass 15). Autobiographies normally begin with the date of birth and information about the parents, but “Douglass can supply neither” (Matlack 21). This implies that Douglass has not grown up with his parents or his family. In fact, he has been separated from his mother, as he reports: “It is a common custom […] to part children from their mothers at a very early age” (Douglass 15). This is done to “hinder the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child” (16). He describes his “broken genealogy and fragile family ties” (McDowell xvii) as follows: “My mother was dead, my grandmother lived far off, so that I seldom saw her. I had two sisters and one brother that lived in the same house with me; but the early separation of us from our mother had well nigh blotted the fact of our relationship from our memories” (Douglass 35). It is indicated here that his memory and that of his siblings have been manipulated. Memories of their family members have been deleted, or their conservation prevented. They were therefore not able to share the collective memory of the family introduced by Halbwachs. Halbwachs states that “[f]amily recollections […] develop […] in the consciousness of various members of the domestic group” (Halbwachs 54), which also includes that family members share a certain kind of thinking, certain attitudes. Besides, slaves were treated inhumanely, as they had little to eat, were fed like pigs, scarcely wore any clothes and had to sleep naked on the floor, no matter if it was summer or winter (Douglass 34). Such a treatment does not attest to any affection towards the slaves, so they were not able to feel welcome or belonging anywhere.
Individuals derive their identity from the social group they belong to because “[f]rom the people we live with and from the media we use, we acquire schemata which help us recall the past and encode new experience” (Erll 5). Not to know where one belongs to leads to disorientation and a lack of personal identity.“ M. Lee observes that “there are confessions of dislocation and confusion […] Fear, anxiety, guilt, and uncertainty about identity, racial or otherwise, mark this opening chapter” (Lee, M. 33). This sense of confusion is probably caused by the slave’s lack of the possibility to perceive oneself in relation to the people one lives with. Drake, who has examined the problem from a psychological point of view, states that “the child’s ego is initially ‘relational’ and fragmented because s/he is dependent on the recognition of others for his or her self-perception” (Drake 96). If one considers the slave’s inner conflict within a broader context, namely in that of the nation they are born into, one realizes that “the slaves were forced to accept Western models for male and female identity as ‘normal’ even as they were prevented from conforming to those norms” (Drake 92). Slaves were prevented from developing a Western, and more precisely, an American identity, as they were not considered American citizens. The “ideal of the American revolution - that ‘all men are created equal’ - did not extend to the slave” (McDowell xix). Being an autonomous culture, the American nation possesses a cultural memory, which has been influenced enormously by results of the American Revolution. However, as its ideals are not valid for slaves, one can conclude that slaves were denied access to the American cultural memory, and thus they were denied an American cultural identity.
In order to give examples of what slaves were actually denied access to, one should know how cultural memory is defined: it is an archive of materials that carries a certain group’s cultural memory. In extension, it is a “collective concept for all knowledge that directs behavior and experience in the interactive framework of a society” (Assmann 126). At that time, freedom was a very important part of this collective concept in terms of the American nation, for Americans were proud to have achieved their freedom and independence in 1776. However, slaves were not free at all. They lived in bondage, they depended on their masters and were, in addition, treated more as objects than as human beings. They were punished for every misdeed, as insignificant as it might have been, at such a rate that they even had to be careful when complaining about their situation in a loud voice. Douglass reports: “The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head” (Douglass 28). That means that they were also robbed of their freedom of expression, which would have been important to build up a cultural memory because “[e]very individual memory constitutes itself in communication with others” (Assmann 127).
The language as means of communication is English. Speaking English, and also reading and writing it is also a cultural good of the American culture. Literacy, however, presupposes education, which a slave is prevented from, but which again is an important value of the American society. What is more, being literate is the precondition to read books that have been added to the cultural memory. The most prominent book is the Bible, as Christian values are a fundamental part of the American culture. There is a scene in the Narrative, where Douglass had, together with fellow slave children, gone to a church to try to read the Bible and practice Sabbath school. Douglass gives the following account of what happened next: “My blood boils as I think of the bloody manner in which […] Wright Fairbanks and Garrison West, both class-leaders, in connection with many others, rushed in upon us with sticks and stones, and broke up our virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s” (Douglass 74).
1 information taken from the blurb of the indicated edition of Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
- Quote paper
- Michaela Caputo (Author), 2012, Frederick Douglass. A Faceless Ex-Slave Strives for an Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/379364