The Representation of Violence. A Comparison between Frederick Douglass` Slave Narrative and Richard Wright’s Autobiography “Black Boy”

Thesis (M.A.), 2015

129 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Violence – Definitions
2.1 Physical Violence
2.2 Physical Violence in the Era of Slavery and Jim Crow
2.3 Structural Violence
2.4 Structural Violence in the Era of Slavery and Jim Crow
2.5 Power and Dominance - Symbolic Violence

3. The Representation of Violence in Douglass` Narrative
3.1 The Impact of (Sub-) Genre on the Representation of Physical Violence in Slave Narratives
3.2 Physical Violence in Douglass` Narrative
3.3 Symbolic Violence in Douglass` Narrative
3.4 Structural Violence in Douglass` Narrative

4. The Representation of Violence in Richard Wright’s Autobiography Black Boy
4.1 Black Boy – An Afro-American Autobiography and Its Intricacy of Depicting Violence
4.2 Structural Violence in Black Boy
4.3 Physical Violence in Black Boy
4.4 Symbolic Violence in Black Boy

5. The Representation of Violence – A Comparison between Douglass` Narrative and Wright`s Black Boy

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Each of us has a certain notion in mind when we think of the term “violence”. In general, we associate “violence” with harm to one`s body. According to this notion, anybody can in theory become exposed to this physical form of violence. Therefore, many people would agree that a punch can be considered a violent act. However, whether the majority of people would consider an insult to be a form of violence is debatable. It is likewise questionable whether social exclusion or discrimination can be defined as violence per se.

Another general aspect of violence concerns the notions of perpetration and victimhood. In the history of the United States, certain minority groups have been exposed more frequently to violence than the white majority. Traditionally, it was Afro-Americans who were systematically threatened with, exposed to and oppressed by physical violence. The roots of this culture of violence can be clearly traced. Beginning in the era of American slavery, when people were taken captive in Africa to be exploited on American soil, and continued in the era of Jim Crow, structural, physical and symbolic violence was used as a means of oppression and social domination by the white majority to keep black people socially subservient. In these periods of American history, when black people were prevented from publicly raising their voice against their condition, autobiography played an important function. It not only served to narrate an individual Afro-American life but, at the same time, called attention to the general misery of the black people in the United States.

The purpose of this thesis is to illuminate the manner in which violence is represented in two significant Afro-American autobiographies, Frederick Douglass` Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (hereafter shortened as Narrative) and Richard Wright`s Black Boy. As Afro-American autobiography has always been a “mirror” to U.S. society, it will be interesting to see how these autobiographies taken from different periods of American history deal with the race-oriented problem of “violence”. As we will see, the very first Afro-American autobiographies, so-called slave narratives, already included representations of violence that documented the atrocities that black people had to endure. Remarkably, Richard Wright`s Black Boy shares many textual features of the slave narratives, such as the escape from the South after a traumatizing experience of violence.

As a preliminary step, I will provide a general definition of “violence” that briefly outlines the different types of violence that Afro-Americans have been exposed to in American history – physical, structural and symbolic. The mechanisms and functions of these forms of violence will also be dealt with in this section. As we will see, Douglass and Wright addressed the topic of physical, structural, and symbolic violence either latently or overtly in their autobiographies. Subsequently, I will analyze the role that genre plays on the representation of violence in both texts.

In the main part of this thesis, I will provide a textual and stylistic analysis of those relevant textual passages which indicate the authors` representation and perception of violence during the era of slavery and Jim Crow. In this context, I will show that Douglass and Wright pursued different ideological goals when they designed their autobiographies, which is also reflected in their remarks on violence. Afterwards, I will compare the representations of violence in both autobiographies in terms of content and style before going on to summarize the most important findings in my final chapter.

2. Violence – Definitions

2.1 Physical Violence

The term “violence” is rather vague and general. When using this term, we usually refer to violence in its physical form. The fact that our understanding and perception of physical violence is so subjective, makes it difficult to find a clear general definition of it.

To clarify what the term “physical violence” actually denotes, I will first contrast it with similar notions related to it. In this way, I will try to provide some basic differentiation in terminology, and elaborate some general implications of “physical violence” to define this notion in more detail.

Another term most often used in reference to (physical) violence, even in scholarly contexts, is aggression. In some contexts, the terms violence and aggression are often used interchangeably.1 However, this interchangeable use of terminology is ambiguous, as it implies that an individual, who is aggressive, inevitably converts this inner tendency into physical violence towards fellow men. Despite the fact that violence is generally accompanied by aggressive behavior, this assumption is problematic. Alvarez & Bachman, for example, also state that some scholars clearly differentiate between aggression and violence, stipulating that “all violence is aggressive, but not all aggression is violent”2. Thus, to avoid ambiguity, I will draw a clear distinction between the tendency (aggression) and its manifestation (violence) in the following paper when analyzing the representations of physical violence in the autobiographical texts of Douglass and Wright.3

Generally, interpersonal (i.e. physical) violence implies one basic axiom. For the occurrence of violence in its physical form there needs to be a perpetrator and a victim.4 Usually, their roles are relatively clear-cut. Whereas the offender seems to act out of a superior position in terms of superior physical strength, increased aggression, or psychological superiority, the role of the victim is usually characterized by inferior physical strength, reluctance to fight, or psychological inferiority5. Furthermore, physical violence generally implies at least some extent of harm to fellow men (bodies).

Another category relevant to physical violence is intention. When two people accidentally bump into each other, we can hardly speak of a violent act. However, if an offender intentionally pushes his victim, thereby intending to cause harm to the victim`s body, we consider this an act of physical violence.

Another important factor for understanding and evaluating physical violence is its perception, i.e. primarily the victim's perception of violence. In a peaceful environment, an act of physical violence can easily be identified as such. On the other hand, in a state of constant aggression and violence, such as Douglass` and Wright`s depictions of Southern society suggest, it becomes more difficult to properly evaluate acts of violence for the victims.6 As we will see, Wright`s autobiography, in particular, very interestingly illustrates how differently victims perceive violence and oppression.7

In general, the representation of (physical) violence also depends on one`s methodological approach. Anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists, for example, each have their very own way of explaining physical violence. Often, these people try to illustrate this social phenomenon by demonstrating it abstractly, i.e. by means of quantitative research or empirical statistics.8 In contrast to this, an author coming from a poor background who has been a victim of physical violence himself has a totally different approach of illustrating physical violence. Having been humiliated by it countless times, both Douglass and Wright knew the experience of (physical) violence and its effects on the soul. In addition, they were able to put their experiences on paper in a very artful way. In fact, both Douglass` Narrative and Wright`s Black Boy very vividly describe the actual act of (physical) violence. Thus, when using the term “physical violence” in connection with these autobiographical texts, I will refer to those concrete (i.e. visible) and humiliating acts of interpersonal violence, such as blows, slaps, and whippings, that Afro-Americans were often exposed to in the history of the United States.

2.2 Physical Violence in the Era of Slavery and Jim Crow

The United States has a long history of racial violence. Traditionally, it was black people who were confronted with severe physical abuse. In North America, this tendency started in the seventeenth century when Africans were deported from their home soil to serve on the plantations of the British colonies as slaves. Due to the prevailing racial prejudice of the white-dominated society in that era, colored people were generally regarded as socially inferior. Especially in the slaveholding South, people of black color were frequently not even considered human beings, but mere property or beasts of burden. This racist bias made white slaveholders and overseers commit the most horrible atrocities against black servants and slaves. Thus, whipping, beating, and even branding were often common practices by which to oppress slaves and make them work. In addition, when slaves became unmanageable, they risked being mutilated or killed by their masters. In his 1845 Narrative, Douglass vividly illustrated some of these practices of racial violence committed against slaves.9

Before the Civil War, this Southern culture of (physical) violence had even become institutionalized, supported by public authorities and the clergy. Officially established laws, so called slave codes, facilitated and sometimes even encouraged the use of physical violence against blacks. In this respect, the Southern slave codes generally proved to be more rigorous than Northern slave codes. For example, capital punishment was mostly considered appropriate in the South for some offenses by slaves and was de facto not prosecuted. In general, the exploitative system of slavery was grounded on the use of physical violence. This inhuman and atrocious treatment of black people not only left physical scars (as illustrated in Douglass` Narrative ), but also mental scars on individual and collective Afro-American psyche.10

During the era of Reconstruction, i.e. after slavery had officially been abolished, racial violence committed against black people continued to be used in order to maintain the unequal power relation between whites and blacks in the racist South. In this period, the practice of lynching11 reached one of its peaks in the South. This practice of physical violence committed by so-called mobs can be understood as a reaction to the “increasing political and economic power of blacks.”12

This pattern continued in the era of Jim Crow (1890-1965). The Jim Crow laws enacted a de jure segregation in the South, thus supporting white racist bias against Afro-Americans. Throughout this period, racial hatred remained wide-spread in Southern society, leading to violent encroachments on black people. Referring to this, Jordan states that the 1890s alone can be defined as a „reign of terror that resulted in a lynching in America on the average of once every two days. […] [It was] a decade of blood and terror.”13 Between 1882 and 1903, no fewer than 1,985 Afro-Americans were killed by Southern lynch mobs.14 Members of the southern white working class were particularly outraged about the progressive emancipation of blacks during the early twentieth century, which resulted in the emergence of white hate groups and race riots in the South as well as in the major cities of the North and Midwest.15

In this context, racial violence fulfilled a crucial function. As Iadicola and Shupe point out, “violence and the threat of violence are ultimately forms of power used to control people`s behavior.”16 Thus, the threat of racial violence highly conditioned the behavior of Afro-Americans. The racist aim was to make them behave according to the ethics of Jim Crow, i.e. to make them behave like “good niggers”. Generally, white racists desired black individuals to be either entertaining or modest. In case of a violation of these racist ethics, i.e. when a black person behaved inappropriately, for example by becoming too ambitious, self-confident or successful, the consequences could be fatal. Thus, physical violence was used by white racists to “remind” black people of their “proper” position in southern society. In conclusion, physical violence committed against black people was not something that happened randomly. In fact, racial violence in the times of Jim Crow was used by white racists as a means of control and domination to defend the antebellum social hierarchy with whites at the very top and blacks at the very bottom of the social scale. From this point of view, the prevailing culture of violence in the Jim Crow South can clearly be considered a heritage of slavery.

2.3 Structural Violence

Violence can have several facets. The most obvious form is physical violence, as this can be seen when it happens and often leaves visible marks in its wake. However, there are other forms which do not break bones or leave scars on your skin – forms of violence far more subtle and in the long run maybe even more debilitating. One of these forms that will be dealt with in this chapter does not require a single offender, yet often involves many victims. This form of violence is referred to as structural violence.17

Generally, all societies contain invisible structures which organize public and social life. If these structures are constructed in a way that does not secure equal rights and chances to develop positively for all members or groups of a society, one can speak of structural violence. This form of violence does not permit fair life conditions, restricts access to education18 , and, as a result, inhibits opportunities for social advancement for certain groups or individuals. As Baberowski points out:

Die Gewalt [wird] in komplexen gesellschaftlichen Systemen unsichtbar, sie [ist] als strukturelle Gewalt ,,in das System eingebaut und äußert sich in ungleichen Machtverhältnissen und folglich in ungleichen Lebenschancen”. Wenn Menschen so beeinflusst [werden], dass ihre ,,somatische und geistige Verwirklichung geringer ist als ihre potentielle Verwirklichung”, wenn Menschen daran gehindert würden, das zu sein, was sie hätten sein können […], dann [sind] sie Opfer struktureller Gewalt.19

Usually, structural violence is accompanied by social exclusion and discrimination. It implies exclusion from certain areas of life, such as government, politics, or sports, to mention a few. Often ethnic minorities tend to be particularly exposed to structural violence.20 Even if certain groups may be structurally repressed, however, individuals from these groups can still be immensely powerful.21

As Baberowski indicates, people confronted with this kind of violence are not hurt or destroyed, but simply ignored by the society they live in.22 Thus, structural violence can be seen as a socially established form of violence, or as socially produced violence. According to Burton, “[...] it is, by definition, an avoidable, perhaps a deliberate violence against the person or community.”23 Structural violence may imply the unequal distribution of resources such as economic capital, health care, and educational means, as well as limited access to transportation resources (thereby increasing individual isolation and loneliness) or any other means which facilitate the individuals` capacity to pursue their objectives.24 In this context, Jacoby further explicates:

A ubiquitous manifestation of violence is, therefore, the commonplace denial of rights and needs such as economic well-being, dignity, equality, education and so on which, scarcely reported or even acknowledged, emerges from everyday activities and from the actions of people who are rarely, if ever, directly violent.25

Structural violence often coincides with institutional discrimination. Often, this abstract form of violence is based on personal attributes which may trigger discrimination, such as race, gender, age, language, religion, political attitude etc. Furthermore, structural violence significantly influences the emergence of physical violence, and can perpetuate poverty, discrimination, racism and the resulting stress that members of oppressed social groups have to face.

Let us now illuminate a general aspect of all forms of violence – perception. A physical conflict can be subjectively perceived as violent, especially from the victim's perspective. In contrast, structural violence is often not perceived as a violent act by the individuals affected. Therefore, subjective perception cannot be considered a reliable criterion for evaluating structural violence. Being an abstract social phenomenon, structural violence can only be adequately evaluated from an objective perspective. In this context, Jacoby offers a very telling example that demonstrates the difficulty of actually perceiving structural violence as problematic:

A slave may not, for instance, be aware that she is in a conflictive relationship with her mistress. This may be particularly well hidden if the mistress defines the role of the slave and teaches her that being a slave is part of the normal or natural way of the world. The slave is unlikely to question its legitimacy so long as the mistress reinforces the structure of their relationship with kindness and palliatives. The result may be that the slave feels devotion to her mistress and may, if offered, reject the chance of freedom. Thus, the relationship between the two is cooperative. Both actors conform to agreed rules, and there is little or no conflict over values, interests, goods and so on.26

Thus, when personally involved in such a situation, the exploited victim often lacks the objective insight needed to properly evaluate their misery. Logical reasoning is required to abandon the subjective perspective and attain an objective perspective on such conflictive situations created by structural violence. Assuming that the slave from Jacoby`s example rebelled against her mistress, the initial peace between her mistress and herself would be disturbed. Thus, the slave could exhibit some form of conflictive behavior, maybe even physical violence, as an act of protest. However, in this case it would be the slave's behavior that would manifest a conflict – at least from a subjective perspective. As a consequence, the slave would be considered as the aggressor despite the unequal relation between her and her mistress. As Anthony de Reuck points out in this context, “the first party whose conflict behaviour becomes conscious and deliberate is often labelled the aggressor, whether or not he is the aggrieved party”.27

The phenomenon of structural violence and its perception is also illustrated in the autobiographies of Douglass and Wright and will be dealt with in the following chapters.

2.4 Structural Violence in the Era of Slavery and Jim Crow

In the history of the United States, black people have not been confronted solely with physical violence, but with structural violence as well. Normally, as indicated in the previous chapter, this term denotes the fact that certain individuals or groups are largely disadvantaged or ignored in their societies. However, especially in the slaveholding South, the situation of black victims in the U.S, was far worse. In the antebellum era of U.S. history, slaves were not regarded as human beings but as brutes or mere property. Therefore, in the context of American slavery, structural violence was far more pervasive. Referring to the systematic misery of black people kept in bondage, “structural violence” did not simply entail that black slaves owned less money, had a poor education or worse jobs. More seriously, they were systematically deprived of the most basic needs, including the need for food, shelter, health, and a proper family. Therefore, colored people in bondage were not just ignored, but were deprived of the right to be treated according to what we nowadays call human rights. So, when using the term “structural violence” in the context of American slavery in this paper, I am referring to those social or economic structures in the racist South which served to keep black people “low” and helped to support their status as “property”.

By nature, slavery implies the influence of structural violence on its victims. Starting in Virginia in 1705, the existence of structural violence became most evident when slavery was institutionalized. So-called “slave codes” were introduced in each U.S. state to restrict the behavior of colored people in bondage and give full authority to white slaveholders.28 According to these regulations, slaves were generally not allowed to leave their master`s plantations without a “pass” (i.e. a written permission), not allowed to learn read and write and not allowed to earn money or own private property. These slave codes ensured that black slaves were beholden to their master`s will, kept ignorant and socially low. By the introduction of these slave codes, slavery, and thus the oppression of black people, developed an overtly institutional character. From that time onward, a class of human beings identifiable only by their non-European ancestry were held as property and systematically denied the rights and privileges of free persons.29

During the era of slavery, structural violence was not only legally but also culturally embedded in Southern society. Slavery and the misery of black people in bondage was, for example, religiously legitimated. For this purpose, the biblical argument that “God cursed Ham”, and that “the lineal descendants of Ham are […] to be scripturally enslaved”30 was used as a justification for the subjugation of blacks and as an affirmation that American slavery is right. Many Southerners truly believed this allegedly biblical argument, or at least found, without questioning, “a convenient rationalization for the enslavement of black people in this interpretation of the Bible.”31 This hypocritical religious legitimation of slavery is also taken up as a major point of criticism by Douglass in his 1845 Narrative.

After the Civil War and during the difficult era of Reconstruction, i.e. when slavery was officially abolished, Southern legislation continued to regard Afro-Americans as second-class citizens. In this early postwar period, restrictive laws were passed in the states of the South (so-called “black codes”) to regulate black life, maintain the prewar racial hierarchy and ensure a cheap labor force continuously tied to the land. This implied the economic and social exploitation of Afro-Americans who struggled against the poverty and degradation born of tenancy and sharecropping. As a result, social conditions very similar to slavery were established.32

Unwilling to condone the social and political equality of freedmen, white Southerners largely denied those legal rights which had been established to facilitate the integration of blacks into American society. Thus, in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court sharply restricted the 1875 Civil Rights Act and sanctioned a separate-but-equal doctrine. This “separate but equal” doctrine supported white supremacy in the states of the former Confederacy. As a consequence, the social practice of segregation developed which would ensure the separation of races from the post-Reconstruction era to the mid-twentieth century. Racial segregation was also termed “Jim Crow”, an expression which originally derived from the caricatured presentation of Afro-Americans in antebellum minstrel shows. Since the 1890s, however, the term “Jim Crow” adopted a broader meaning, describing the segregation, social control, and political and economic oppression of black people in the South.33

At the beginning of the Jim Crow era (1890) a surge of segregation laws increasingly regulated all black-white contact throughout the South, prohibiting or sharply restricting black access to public and private facilities such as schools, theaters, hotels, parks, libraries etc. At the same time, employers and labor leaders blocked blacks` access to skilled jobs, limiting them to unskilled, semi-skilled, or domestic occupations.34 Consequently, structural violence during the Jim Crow era had wide implications for public and private black life. African-Americans were not allowed to vote or hold public office, they could not attend white schools, marry or have sexual intercourse with whites, and they did not enjoy freedom of speech, or the freedom to live anywhere they wanted. Furthermore, Afro-Americans were restricted to segregated restaurants, public bathrooms, buses, trains, and even drinking fountains.35 These negative implications of the Jim Crow laws are also addressed in Richard Wright`s autobiography Black Boy.

Many scholars argue that Jim Crow was already so firmly embedded in custom that the rise of the de jure segregation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries merely ratified the prevailing social situation.36 The spread of segregation in the system of Jim Crow evolved from southern white fears of racial mixing and from a desire to reduce black aspirations for education and property. It coincided with a spate of lynchings and anti-black riots in many cities of the South.37 The structural violence embedded in the Jim Crow laws virtually shaped two separate societies which differed extremely in the distribution of money and power. The fact that the black peasant population of the South was economically exploited increased the misery of many Negroes and contributed to the maintenance of an unequal power relation between blacks and whites. This became most obvious in the South, a society and region characterized by the tradition of slavery – a region in which black emancipation was particularly difficult to establish.

2.5 Power and Dominance - Symbolic Violence

Generally speaking, violence can function to establish a relationship of power or dominance between perpetrator and victim. Physical violence, even in modern civilizations, has a clear masculinized nature. This gendered nature of physical violence has caused feminists to critically point to the inequality in the distribution of violence. According to feminist theories, this tendency can be seen as a consequence of patriarchy. Referring to traditional gender roles, McCue points out that

[o]ur social system has defined the husband as the dominant, strong, authoritarian, aggressive, and rational provider for the family, while the wife has traditionally been assigned to a dependent, passive, submissive, soft, and – at times – hysterical role.38

However, gendered forms of violence are not limited solely to physical violence, but also include something that French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called symbolic violence. As the term implies, violence of this kind is applied symbolically, i.e. abstractly on the interpersonal level. Bourdieu used this term to explain non-physical manifestations of the power relations between males and females. Thus, according to Bourdieu`s theory of masculine domination, symbolic violence can be seen as an outcome of social domination.

Symbolic violence usually manifests itself in certain linguistic expressions that reflect the perpetrator's derogatory bias against individuals who he or she considers to be socially inferior. Linguistically, symbolic violence can thus be found in forms of address, injunctions, suggestions, seduction, threats, reproaches or orders. However, this latent form of violence is not restricted to linguistic expressions alone. It can also be observed in bias or body language.39

Even though Bourdieu`s theory of masculine domination mainly focuses on the dominance relation between males and females, it can be extended to other social groups as well. In other words, the trigger of such a symbolic conflict between the dominant and the dominated does not necessarily have to be gender, but may include features like language (e.g. a pronunciation), culture (a way of thinking, speaking and acting), or race.40 Thus, it is not only females who can be victims of social dominance. Certain social groups or individuals, such as members of ethnic minorities, can also be subjected to symbolic violence as an expression of an unequal power relation. As Alvarez and Bachman point out,

When a classmate makes an anti-Semitic comment; when your roommate insults something by saying “That's so gay;” when a coworker uses racial and ethnic slurs in casual conversation; when the coach of a child's baseball team tells a player that he throws like a girl […]41

these linguistic expressions can clearly be interpreted as examples of symbolic violence.

By using symbolic violence, offenders judge the victims on the basis of single features. The inhibition threshold of applying symbolic violence can be even lower if victims reveal several of those hierarchically disadvantageous features. For example, a black homosexual female is an easy target for discrimination, as she combines three potentially disadvantageous features. Generally, symbolic violence can be applied by offenders who consider themselves higher on the social scale than their counterpart. For example, as illustrated in Black Boy, a white woman can employ symbolic violence when addressing a young black boy using derogatory language, thus reflecting her racist bias towards Afro-Americans.42 As the depiction of symbolic violence in Wright`s autobiography shows, race was a more powerful derogatory feature than gender in the Jim Crow era. Generally, the hierarchy of certain derogatory features triggering symbolic violence is culture-dependent.

According to Bourdieu`s theory, domination does not occur sporadically or randomly, but rather follows certain patterns. These patterns of domination need to be enforced and repeated to make an enduring impact on the victims, as he states:

[…] I shall try to establish that they [the structures of domination] are the product of an incessant […] labour of reproduction, to which singular agents (including men, with weapons such as physical violence and symbolic violence) and institutions – families, the church, the educational system, the state – contribute.43

Thus, even if single acts of symbolic violence may occur sporadically, the intention behind them – social dominance – can only be achieved by continuous manifestations which keep the victims “low”. As stated above, this can also be supported and pursued by certain social institutions.

Remarkably, symbolic violence does not necessarily have to be perceived as derogatory by the agents. As Bourdieu states, it is a “gentle violence, imperceptible and invisible even to its victims”.44 However, the logic of domination implies that both agents, the perpetrator as well as the victim, are unconsciously aware of the hierarchical distance between them. In other words, both perpetrator and victim are aware of their own social roles45 and know which roles are the most socially esteemed, and it is up to them (i.e. up to the victim) to accept or to revolt against acts of symbolic violence.

In general, symbolic violence is usually not employed consciously, but rather unconsciously. Furthermore, it can be deeply rooted in habit.

The most traditional linguistic act of symbolic violence in reference to black people in North America is the use of the derogatory term “nigger”. As Levine explains, slave owners formerly “profaned the Portuguese word for black, ´Negro`, and made it ´nigger`”. Through this usage, it became a “brutal, violent word that stung the soul of the slave more than the whip did his back.”46 The mechanisms and practical implications of symbolic violence in the era of the Jim Crow South are illustrated by Jordan in reference to forms of address:

The real motive of the Jim crow laws was to keep the black down and make him constantly sensible of his inferior status. That is why Jim crow policy had so irresistible an appeal to the poor whites. […] [T]hese lower-class whites of the South were a very unfortunate people – poor, illiterate, and diseased; but their feeling that the poorer of them was superior to even the most cultured Negro flattered their ego and assuaged their griefs. Custom, as well as the jim crow laws, compelled every black to address the lowest, dirt-eating redneck, hat in hand, as “Mr.,” “Sir,” or “Ma`am.”47

Here it is not derogatory language which is used to establish social dominance. To the contrary, it is excessively polite language used by blacks to confirm their own social inferiority. In case of negligence, black people could be severely beaten and even killed for violating racist linguistic norms. As depicted in the autobiographies of Douglass and Wright, blacks were forced to address white people by “Master”, “Mistress”, “Sir” or “Ma`am”, while white people addressed them by the universal stigmatizing title “nigger”. By this act of symbolic violence, black people were not only insulted but de-individualized by the dominant culture.

3. The Representation of Violence in Douglass` Narrative

3.1 The Impact of (Sub-) Genre on the Representation of Physical Violence in Slave Narratives

A slave narrative is a special American form of autobiography. Basically, it represents a written account by an escaped or freed slave of his or her experiences of slavery.48 While the early slave narratives tended to provide rather lenient depictions of slavery, mainly focusing on the mere description of the authors` experiences as slaves and the slavery practices they witnessed,49 later slave narratives placed increasing emphasis on the brutality of slavery.50 Such explicit depictions of physical violence coincided with the emergence of the abolitionist movement. In fact, slave narratives (as a form of autobiography) appeared as an important kind of abolitionist literature in the antebellum era, thus providing the “information and horrific details that characterize slavery and the slaveholding culture, with an emphasis on the aspects of slavery that were absolutely contrary to Christian doctrine.”51 In this sense, antebellum slave narratives were clearly opposed to the romanticized image of Southern slavery, and thus helped to inform the public about the violent treatment of black people kept in bondage. Since the historical documentation of the atrocities that the slave (i.e. the author) had to endure were meant to help convince the public of abolitionist beliefs, slave narratives in the antebellum era not only recounted a personal life, but always implied a political dimension as well. In this respect, Douglass` first slave narrative proved to be particularly successful.52 As Robert O`Meally points out:

Douglass`s articulate descriptions of the abuses perpetrated by his masters revealed horrors of slavery that previously were unimaginable to most Americans and spurred a nation-wide public outrage against slavery.53

Thus, the slave narrative functioned as a form of expression for many silenced African Americans who were “previously excluded from the literary life of the nation.”54 It was not until the publication of Douglass` elaborate 1845 Narrative, that this American form of autobiography was acknowledged as a specific literary sub-genre.55

However, the publication of such an early autobiographical account was fraught with difficulties. To further their political goal of supporting abolition, slave narratives often depicted physical violence very excessively. This allegedly exaggerated representation of (physical) violence made many Southerners doubt the authenticity of such texts, suggesting that slave narratives were in fact written by white abolitionists. In addition to this point of criticism, the vast majority of slaves were illiterate. Therefore, the publication of a slave narrative was always accompanied by questions of authorship. As a consequence, several strategies had to be employed by the authors of slave narratives to corroborate the authenticity of their texts. Apart from authorial control56 , another significant strategy to achieve credibility was the co-publication of appended authenticating documents.57 Referring to these appended documents, Stepto states that, “[t]heir primary function is, of course, to authenticate the former slave's account; in doing so, they are at least partially responsible for the narrative's acceptance as historical evidence.”58 How these appended documents helped to authenticate the explicit representation of violence can be seen in the following passage found in Garrison`s preface to Douglass` Narrative:

Such [skeptics] will try to discredit the shocking tales of slaveholding cruelty which are recorded in this truthful Narrative; but they will labor in vain. Mr. DOUGLASS has frankly disclosed the place of his birth, the names of those who claimed ownership in his body and soul, and the names also of those who committed the crimes which he has alleged against them. His statements, therefore, may easily be disproved, if they are untrue.59

Generally, such appended documents can be considered a typical feature of slave narratives, and an authenticating strategy which implicitly or explicitly justify the explicit representation of physical violence.

3.2 Physical Violence in Douglass` Narrative

As already indicated in chapter 3.1, the depiction of physical violence is a general feature of antebellum slave narratives. Already in the first chapter of Douglass` Narrative we find an example in the author's depiction of his first shocking confrontation with physical violence as it was applied on his graceful Aunt Hester. Referring to the cruel practices of his first master Anthony, Douglass says:

He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heartrending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from his bloody purpose.60

The description of the actual act of violence, the atrocious whipping of Aunt Hester, is explicit and disturbing. Douglass depicts the violence as immoderate and arbitrary, which triggers repugnance in the Narrative `s reader. The author`s indication of the perpetrator`s “great pleasure” serves to clarify the roles of victim and perpetrator. In this context, Douglass portrays the slaveholder as callous and evil, as a sadistic oppressor both powerful and insuperable, while the victim is portrayed as helpless and completely at the mercy of the demon-like oppressor. On a formal level, we see that Douglass creates empathy for the victim by the juxtaposition of words that denote the cruelness of the perpetrator on the one hand (“cruel man”, “hardened by”, “take great pleasure”, “heartrending shrieks”, “covered with blood”, “gory”, “iron heart”, “bloody purpose”), and words that denote the innocence and vulnerability of his pitiful aunt on the other hand (“naked”, “tears”, “prayers”, “victim”). Furthermore, Douglass emphasizes the cruelty of his master by the use of anaphora (“no words, no tears, no prayers”).61

After his grandmother has reared young Douglass in the rather protected outskirts of the hostile plantation, he now, for the first time in his life, witnesses an act of severe physical violence acted upon a slave. This horrible scene in the very first chapter of the Narrative introduces the reader to the violent and hostile environment of the plantation. Douglass himself further illustrates his perception of this violent act:

I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.62

Here, we are informed that the young Douglass is absolutely shocked by the atrocity. He cannot escape the violence of his master, he is “doomed to be a witness and a participant”. Even if he is not physically mistreated in this scene, he is mistreated mentally. Thus, by observing the atrocity, he too becomes a victim of physical violence. Again, on a formal level, Douglass uses powerful words with fearsome connotations to express his mental disturbance (“doomed”, “awful force”, “blood-stained”, “hell”, “terrible”). His statement suggests that he perceives this inhuman act of violence like an initiation into the evils of slavery. This notion is conveyed by a conceptual metaphor (the first act of violence as a “gate” or “entrance” through which he is forced to “pass”). The actual act of violence mentally “struck” him like an enormous punch. As a consequence, we sympathize with Douglass`s plight, we feel how he loses his carefreeness and innocence. He admits that the triggered shock is too awful to be adequately described with mere words. In contrast to Richard Wright, Douglass presents himself as highly emotional in his autobiography. Being a highly sensitive character, he is deeply affected by the very experience of violence. Douglass` self-portrayal thereby reaffirms the abolitionist notion of slaves as humane and sensitive beings.

The next depiction of (physical) violence is found in Chapter 2 of the Narrative. There, Douglass refers to an overseer called “Mr. Severe”, who works on the Lloyd plantation, a ferocious man who whipped anyone who was not in the field on time:

Mr. Severe was rightly named: he was a cruel man. I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother`s release. He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity. Added to his cruelty, he was a profane swearer. […] Scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath. The field was the place to witness his cruelty and profanity. His presence made it both the field of blood and of blasphemy.63

Again, Douglass depicts the next perpetrator as a vulgar, brutish sadist, who seems to enjoy hurting innocent human beings. After suggesting the aptness of the overseer`s name, Douglass refers to a horrible act of physical violence – the torture of a helpless mother in front of her children. In this context, Douglass once again provides a vivid image of blood, thereby once more calling attention to the ferocious and horrible nature of slavery. The immorality of his overseer is expressed through physical violence and swearing. In reference to this, Douglass uses the term “field” both literally and metaphorically – a field of impiousness and violence. By means of this trope, he demonstrates what the system of slavery creates: tortured, innocent victims on the one hand, and sadistic, sinful perpetrators on the other hand. Displaying the blasphemy of the perpetrator in connection with his violence, Douglass emphasizes a general abolitionist strategy in his Narrative, namely the depiction of slavery and the violence that accompanies it as an immoral, profane system that is contrary to the ideals of every righteous person in America.

The violent and arbitrary character of slavery is also portrayed at the beginning of Chapter 3. There, the author uses chiasmus 64 as a stylistic device to demonstrate the injustice of the slaves` punishment:

They [i.e. the slaves] never knew when they were safe from punishment. They were frequently whipped when least deserving, and escaped whipping when most deserving it .65 [italics added]

To reinforce the cruel arbitrariness of the slaveholders, Douglass subsequently states:

If a horse did not move fast enough, or hold his head high enough, it was owing to some fault of his keepers [i.e. the slaves]. […] To all these complaints, no matter how unjust, the slave must answer never a word. […] When he [i.e. his master Colonel Llloyd] spoke, a slave must stand, listen, and tremble.66

Here, Douglass implies that the threat of physical violence is used as a means to control and condition the slaves` behavior. In fact, Douglass revolts against these cruel and arbitrary acts of violence against innocent beings in his Narrative .67 In this passage, the depiction of physical violence inflicted upon slaves once again serves to support Douglass` demand for abolition.

Shortly afterwards, in Chapter 4, Douglass informs his readers about the next atrocious act of physical violence, this time committed by an overseer called “Austin Gore”. This overseer, who Douglass describes as proud, ambitious and cruel, coldheartedly shoots one of the narrator`s slave mates, who had allegedly become unmanageable:

Mr. Gore told him [i.e. Douglass` slave mate Demby] that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his [i.e. the slave`s] face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.

A thrill of horror flashed through every soul upon the plantation, excepting Mr. Gore. He alone seemed cool and collected.68

As we see, Douglass depicts physical violence in all its brutality. A black slave who does not “function” is eliminated like a useless tool. There is no sign of humanity recognizable in the sadistic perpetrator. In the manner of a prolog, Douglass recounts how this escalation of violence could occur. Each witness of this atrocity is deeply touched by Demby`s murder, except the devil-like overseer. Apparently, Mr. Gore is well aware how this shooting will be understood. Thus, he uses the murder as an example to others. In this scene, Douglass provides a very vivid image of the actual instant of violence. The recurring emphasis on blood (”blood and brains […]”) is characteristic for Douglass` depiction of physical violence. Furthermore, the author largely renounces the use of stylistic devices at this point in his Narrative in favor of explicit and straightforward language, which adds clarity and a sense of objectivity to his report. In this way, he highlights the event as a (historical) fact that he witnessed.69

In Chapter 9, Douglass refers to another act of cruelty, committed by his master Thomas Auld70 once again revealing the immoral character of another slaveholder. After stating that his master had turned toward religion, Douglass points out that Thomas Auld did not become more virtuous but rather “found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty”.71 To substantiate his impression, Douglass provides a very explicit example for his master`s religiously legitimated violence:

I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture – “He that knoweth his master`s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

As Douglass refers to an alleged fact, he first presents his argument in a highly rational way. In the following eye-witness account, the author creates empathy for the victim by emphasizing her innocence and helplessness, pointing out that she was a woman, young, and lame. His depiction of the actual act of violence is vivid and explicit (e.g. “the warm red blood to drip”). Furthermore, he once again follows his consistent strategy of revealing the highly corrupt character of his oppressor by stating his master`s habit of quoting the Bible while torturing his innocent victims. By including this information, Douglass suggests his master`s perception of himself as a god-like figure.

In the same chapter, Douglass recalls that despite “a number of severe whippings” his allegedly religious Master Thomas did not succeed in breaking him. For this purpose, his master hired him out as a field hand to Edward Covey, a professional “slave-breaker”, who beats defiant slaves into submission. Characteristically, the entire Chapter 10 of Douglass`s Narrative (by far the largest chapter) is dedicated to his conflict with Covey. Chapter 10 also contains the negative climaxes of both structural and physical violence. However, this chapter also depicts the turning point in Douglass` career as a slave, resulting in his famous transformative chiasmus: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”72

At the very beginning of Chapter 10, Douglass informs the reader how he was introduced to Covey`s reign of terror, again using a very explicit depiction of the actual act of violence:

I had been at my new home but one week before Mr. Covey gave me a very severe whipping, cutting my back, causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little finger.73

Here, the imagery of blood and flesh once again stimulates the reader`s imagination and triggers disgust within him. Again, the emphasis on blood functions to depict the horror of violence and slavery. In the same context, Douglass also states that Covey applied violence on him constantly during the first six months: “[…] scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was seldom free from a sore back.”74 To make things worse, Douglass and his slave mates were continuously worked to the point of full exhaustion by the demon-like Covey.75 Thus, the severest exploitation and mistreatment Douglass ever experienced occurred while staying with Covey. As a consequence, Douglass confesses, he became “broken in body, soul, and spirit”.76 Referring to the effects of Covey`s violence on Douglass` persona, Smith points out:

Because of Covey`s persistent abuse, Douglass loses much of his independence of mind and slips back into the emotional lethargy he associates with mental and physical enslavement.77

After another brutal mistreatment by Covey, Douglass` persona runs back to St. Michaels to complain to his actual Master Thomas Auld. Shortly thereafter, his cruel oppressor Covey uses an opportunity to take revenge and ties him up. Douglass, however, resolves to fight back. Kicking, choking and scratching, he battles with his opponent “for nearly two hours”. The author`s depiction of his fight with Covey is highly dramatic. Thus, kicks, blows, and hand movements are straightforwardly and vividly described.

He caught hold of my legs, and was about tying me. As soon as I found what he was up to, I gave a sudden spring, and as I did so, he holding to my legs, I was brought sprawling on the stable floor. […] He hold on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected, that Covey seemed taken all back. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the end of my fingers. […] He meant to knock me down. But just as he was leaning over to get the stick, I seizes him with both hands by his collar, and brought him by a sudden snatch to the ground. By this time, Bill came. Covey called upon him for assistance. Bill wanted to know what he could do. Covey said, “Take hold of him, take hold of him!” Bill said his master hired him out to work, and not to help to whip me; so he left Covey and myself to fight our own battle out. We were at it for nearly two hours. […] I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him.78

Here, Douglass drops his elaborate style for the sake of increased directness. His depiction is characterized by straightforward language and told in a rather informal register. Remarkably, his sentences tend to be shorter in this passage. Using this style, Douglass imitates the hectic pace and drama of this scene. Obviously, it is a battle for life. In addition, the distance between the narrator and the reader is much shorter in this passage. This is supported by the author`s very seldom use of direct speech, through which the reader is made to put themselves in the victim`s position. However, Douglass does not refrain from using the imagery of blood, to lend more vividness to his depiction (“causing the blood to run” and “he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him”).

However, Douglass` subsequent evaluation of his violent victory over Covey once again follows the author`s pattern of using stylistic devices:

It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.79

Here, the use of metaphors functions to express the author`s symbolic ascent (“from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom”). In accordance with this religious context, Douglass equates his victory over Covey with a religious “resurrection”. In spatial terms, he poetically expresses the transformation of his state of mind (“My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place”).80 Furthermore, Douglass applies a chiasmus-like antithesis as a stylistic device to highlight his hardly-won emancipation (“however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact ”)81 , followed by another stylistic device – epistrophe (“succeed in whipping, […] succeed in killing [me]”)82. This he applies to emphasize his defiance and determination. After this act of rebellious violence, Douglass testifies that he was never again excessively whipped, even though he “remained a slave four years afterwards.”83

The glorifying Chapter 10 of the Narrative depicts the turning point of Douglass` career as a slave. It portrays a victim who overtly rebels against the arbitrary violence that is done to him and, more abstractly, against the injustice that he is confronted with as a slave. Even if his personal rebellion involves the use of (physical) violence against his most cruel oppressor, Douglass nevertheless presents himself as highly rational in this chapter. Thus, after weighing and artfully reflecting on his own misery, lack of freedom, ignorance, and the lack of prospects in his life, he consciously decides to change his fate and fight his oppressor.

Another vivid depiction of his rebellion and physical violence can be found at the end of Chapter 10, where Douglass describes the attack of white racists who work with him in a ship-yard in Baltimore:

One came in front of me with a half brick. There was one at each side of me, and one behind me. While I was attending to those in front, and on either side, the one behind ran up with the handspike, and struck me a heavy blow upon the head. It stunned me. I fell, and with this they all ran upon me, and fell to beating me with their fists. I let them lay on for a while, gathering strength. In an instant, I gave a sudden surge, and rose to my hands and knees. Just as I did that, one of their number gave me, with his heavy boot, a powerful kick in the left eye. My eyeball seemed to have burst. When they saw my eye closed, and badly swollen, they left me.84

As in the depiction of his fight with Covey, Douglass here illustrates physical violence realistically, with narrative directness. His sentences are short, and formed with a fixed subject-verb syntax. Due to the way he represents physical violence, the order in which the disturbing events are told, and the emphasis he places on corporeality (“head”, “fists”, “hands”, “knees”, “eye”), the reader almost directly participates in this violent confrontation. The scene nearly feels within reach of the reader.

After this battle (a highly dangerous violation of Lynch law which the narrator suggests could have resulted in death), Douglass` character walks away with a “puffed-out eye and blood covered face” – which is another reinforcement of the blood -imagery.

In his Narrative, Douglass explains the emergence of physical violence as due to a lack of civilization and morality. For Douglass, slavery was an act of barbarism and savagery. According to Douglass, slavery created a culture of violence in the South, a pre-civilized state, an immoral world. The atrocities that Douglass portrays in his slave narrative are visible manifestations of the consequences of the doctrine of white supremacy. In contrast to the abstract forms of violence also illustrated in his slave narrative, physical violence affects Douglass and other victims directly, leaving scars and bleeding wounds on the victims` injured bodies, as the author frequently and vividly depicts. Thus, physical violence in the system of slavery is interpreted by him as a raw, brutal, archaic and inhuman way of dominating human beings who differ only in terms of their skin color. Therefore, according to Douglass` philosophy as elaborated in his autobiography, physical violence within the system of slavery, and the immorality with which it is inextricably linked, always implies negative effects on the souls of victims and perpetrators.

3.3 Symbolic Violence in Douglass` Narrative

Born on a plantation, Douglass realizes quite early on what it means to be a slave. At the very beginning of his Narrative, the narrator already states:

I have no accurate knowledge of my age […]. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.85

In this opening paragraph, Douglass already emphasizes the analogy between slaves and animals. To illustrate this act of symbolic violence (i.e. the denial of important information essential for identity formation), he compares his own life to that of a horse. Douglass` persona is deeply saddened by the fact that he does not know his accurate age or who his father was, and he perceives this lack of information as “a source of unhappiness” in his early years.

The quotation above reflects the racist bias in the system of American slavery. Black people in bondage were generally regarded as “brutes” by white slaveholders. To illustrate the forms of symbolic violence exercised on black slaves Douglass frequently uses animal imagery.86 This can also be seen at the beginning of Chapter 5, when he describes how slave children are fed like cattle:

Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oystershells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons.87

Here, we see that slavery compels its victims to live “like so many pigs”.88 Once again, slaves are equated with animals. Stylistically, Douglass applies rhetorical devices like anadiplosis 89 to convey his perception of symbolic violence. By the use of this stylistic device (i.e.


1 See, for example, Alvarez & Bachman who state that they do not differentiate between “violence” and “aggression”: “For the purposes of this book […] the terms “violence” and “aggression” are so similar in their everyday usage that we will not make this type of distinction.” Alvarez & Bachman 2008: 10.

2 Alvarez & Bachman 2008: 9.

3 With regard to physical violence, another possible distinction can be made in the context of politics, in which physical violence is often substituted by the term force. This term can be used to refer to forms of officially legitimated violence, as applied by members of the army or the police to exercise legal compulsion. In this political context, another similar distinction can be made between the term violence and power. Sometimes, these terms are also used as synonyms, as the term police power suggests. However, I will try to avoid using violence and power interchangeably, since violence can also be interpreted as the manifestation of power. As illustrated by Canetti, physical violence is a direct and visible act, which can result in death. Power, however, can be seen as a permanent threat. In other words, power can also be interpreted as the possibility of applying physical violence. See Canetti 1960: 333.

4 These are the minimal requirements. Theoretically, there is no limitation on the number of offenders and victims during a physical conflict.

5 As Douglass implies in his Narrative, Afro-American slaves usually did not revolt against their masters, even if they may have been physically stronger than their oppressors, since they knew that the consequences of their revolt would result in severe punishment. In his Narrative, Douglass vividly describes the relationship of dependence between slave and master and, thus, the state of psychological inferiority.

6 For further information, see Baberowski 2012: 35.

7 In Black Boy, Wright`s autobiographical self expresses his indignation at the violence and oppression that he has to bear in the South. In contrast, his black environment seems to take this as natural, even criticizing Richard for his rebellion.

8 Here, I am blanking out that each of these fields have quantitative as well as qualitative methods.

9 See Chapter 3.2 of this thesis.

10 This traumatic Afro-American experience has been shaping interracial relations up to the present in the United States.

11 Lynching may include violent practices like hanging, shooting, burning, and drowning. Sometimes, these acts of violence are followed by the mutilation and/or public display of the body.

12 See The Oxford Companion To United States History 2001: 465.

13 Jordan 2004: 33.

14 See Iadicola & Shupe 2003: 33.

15 In this context, it is important to note that the numbers stated above reflect only the severest acts of racial violence. Most probably, the dark figure of interpersonal violence committed against blacks is significantly higher.

16 Iadicola & Shupe 2003: 35.

17 Johan Galtung, one of the pioneers of conflict studies, first introduced this term in an article in 1969 with reference to a form of violence which prevents individuals from climbing the social ladder, or, at least, from satisfying their basic wants. This form of violence is not applied by single offenders but embedded in social structures of society.

18 Missing access to education and the pursuit of advancement are central topics in Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy. In fact, young Richard Wright was heavily affected by structural violence.

19 See Baberowski 2012: 38; partly quoting from: Galtung, Johan. 1975. Strukturelle Gewalt: Beiträge zur Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. Reinbeck: Rowohlt. 12f.

20 Traditionally, Afro-Americans are considered to be highly affected by structural violence in the U.S. In an article on the correlation between mortality and success, Sen points out that “[...] the Afro-American community, who have a mortality rate almost double that of the white majority, is often regarded as being subject to extensive structural violence despite recently supplying two of the state’s most powerful leaders, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell”. See Sen, A. 1998. “Mortality as an indicator of economic success and failure”. In: The Economic Journal. Vol. 108: 1-25.

21 See Jacoby 2008: 46.

22 See Baberowski 2012: 38.

23 Burton 1997: 32.

24 See Jacoby 2008: 39f.

25 Jacoby 2008: 39.

26 Jacoby 2008: 23f.

27 de Reuck 1984: 100f.

28 These slave codes varied from state to state. In fact, they constituted two divergent legal systems for white people and for black people.

29 See The Oxford Companion To United States History 2001: 714.

30 Douglass 2003: 19.

31 Jordan 2004: 51.

32 See The Oxford Companion to United States History 2001: 696.

33 See The Oxford Companion to United States History 2001: 696.

34 See The Oxford Companion to United States History 2001: 697.

35 See Felgar 1998: 9f.

36 See The Oxford Companion to United States History 2001: 696.

37 See The Oxford Companion to United States History 2001: 697.

38 McCue 1995: 13.

39 In this context, Iadicola and Shupe state that voice tone, facial gestures, or body posture can likewise be expressions of symbolic violence. See Iadicola & Shupe 2003: 50. Racist bias can also depicted in Douglass` and Wright`s autobiographies, in which they illustrate the treatment of black people as a variety of brute or children by white racists. See, for example, Douglass 2003: 36, or Wright 1993: 167.

40 See Bourdieu 2001: 2.

41 Alvarez & Bachman 2008: 178.

42 See Wright 1993: 83.

43 Bourdieu 2001: 34.

44 Bourdieu 2001: 1.

45 This observation is further explained by Bourdieu who states: “The verbal or non-verbal cues which designate the symbolically dominant position (that of a man, noble, chief, etc.) can only be understood by people who have learned the 'code' […].” Bourdieu 2001: 34.

46 Levine 2007: 335f.

47 See Jordan 2004: 35.

48 See The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms 2008: 310.

49 See, for example, Equiano`s Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano .

50 See Smith 1987: 12.

51 Jordan 2004: 45.

52 As Stauffer points out, Douglass` Narrative was reviewed as a ”hard-hitting, lyrical, and ironic page-turner that soon became an international best-seller.” Stauffer 2009: 91.

53 O`Meally 2003: 113.

54 O`Meally, Robert 2003: 114.

55 In fact, his Narrative is considered to be the prototype for subsequent Afro-American autobiography.

56 The impression of Douglass himself being in control of his tale is supported by the fact that he sometimes omits certain information (e.g. the names of his helpers or the details of his escape) available only to him.

57 In Douglass` Narrative, this function is fulfilled by William Lloyd Garrison`s preface and Wendell Phillips`s letter to Douglass.

58 Stepto 1991: 3.

59 See Douglass 2003: 10.

60 Douglass 2003: 20.

61 Anaphora implies that “the first word of a phrase or clause is repeated in each sequent construction”. Nash 1989: 112.

62 Douglas 2003: 20.

63 Douglass 2003: 24.

64 Explaining chiasmus, Nash states: „The name is ultimately based on the Greek word for the letter X, and describes a two-clause figure in which the second clause is an inverted parallel of the first.” Nash 1989: 114.

65 Douglass 2003: 29.

66 Douglass 2003: 29.

67 In this context, Douglass also uses sarcasm to express the arbitrariness of (physical) violence:

“All of these [relatives of Colonel Lloyd] lived at the Great House Farm, and enjoyed the luxury of whipping the servants when they pleased […]”. See Douglass 2003: 29.

68 Douglass 2003: 33.

69 This rather explicit depiction of physical violence can also be found elsewhere in Douglass` Narrative. See, for example, Douglass 2003: 42 or Douglass 2003: 50: “[…] Master Andrew – a man who […] took my little brother by the throat, threw him on the ground, and with the heel of his boot stamped upon his head till the blood gushed from his nose and ears […]”.

70 In reference to his master Thomas, Douglass uses another general (abolitionist) strategy in his slave narrative. Apart from revealing the immorality of his violent perpetrators, Douglass ridicules his oppressors, thus presenting them as highly pathetic creatures. See Douglass 2003: 55.

71 Douglass 2003: 56.

72 Douglass 2003: 64.

73 Douglass 2003: 59.

74 Douglass 2003: 60.

75 See, for example, Douglass 2003: 60 (“Mr. Covey gave us enough to eat, but scarce the time to eat it.”)

76 Douglass 2003: 63.

77 Smith 1987: 25.

78 Douglass 2003: 68f.

79 Douglass 2003: 69.

80 This statement can also be read as a personification of his inner feelings (“rose, “departed”, “took its place”).

81 Generally, chiasmus underlies the “superordinate figure of antithesis, which is a general name for any pattern of parallel or counterpoising propositions.” Nash 1989: 114. Antithesis functions to emphasize a contrast of two different notions.

82 In an epistrophe “the last word of a phrase or clause is repeated in each sequent construction.” Nash 1989: 112. Here, the epistrophe is not fully clear, as the subsequent pronoun “me” breaks the typical pattern of an epistrophe.

83 Douglass 2003: 69.

84 Douglass 2003: 85.

85 Douglass 2003: 17.

86 As Williams points out, the narrator`s first duties as a slave depicted in the beginning of the Narrative can also be interpreted as symbolic violence: “His [i.e. Douglass`] responsibilities (shepherding, shooing, and spotting) suit a dog. […] Douglass figures that his childhood represents a dog`s life at best.” See Williams 2000: 53.

87 Douglass 2003: 36.

88 In accordance with this, we later learn that Douglass` acquaintance Mary (another slave girl) is arranged to fight with pigs for garbage. See Douglass 2003: 42.

89 “In anadiplosis, the last word of a phrase or clause becomes the first word of the next. “ Nash 1989: 112.

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The Representation of Violence. A Comparison between Frederick Douglass` Slave Narrative and Richard Wright’s Autobiography “Black Boy”
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
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Autobiography, Slave Narrative, Slavery, Afro-American Identity, Jim Crow, Violence, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Black Boy, Coming of Age
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Örs Kurucz (Author), 2015, The Representation of Violence. A Comparison between Frederick Douglass` Slave Narrative and Richard Wright’s Autobiography “Black Boy”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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