Nation and Narration
What light does the Appendix to Douglass' Narrative shed on his religious
O th sin th white folks `mitted
when they made th bible lie.
Jean Toomer, Cane
You're lucky that my people
Are stronger than yo' evil,
Or yo' ass, would `a got the heave-ho.
Ice Cube, The Predator
Frederick Douglass certainly knew that his narrative might be taken by many of his readers as a conscious rejection of Christian faith. Accordingly, he informs his readers that the inclusion of an Appendix at the end of his tale should be seen as an attempt to "remove the liability of such misapprehension" from their thoughts. Such an act implies that the Appendix owes its existence to factors lying outside of the narrative, and, indeed, Douglass often utilizes the Appendix to pre-empt criticism by railing against his accusers:
Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could anything be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer, and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. (Douglass, 328.)
This reveals the self-conscious relation of Appendix to main text, it's very inclusion highlighting the need Douglass felt to clarify his religious convictions. Such a necessity is indicative of a self-conscious struggle within Narrative of the Life to maintain a coherent "voice" while simultaneously conforming to prescribed notions of slave-narrative form. Abolitionist rhetoric, also, brought pressure to bear upon Douglass' approach, his patrons always a factor in the formulation of so overtly political a text. Douglass' mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips, another prominent Abolitionist, both contributed introductory letters to the narrative, an inclusion indicative of their influence and importance in the construction of Douglass' text. Discussing religion was doubly dangerous, the theological dimensions to Douglass' tale hard to ignore. Thus audience clamored with author for `voice', making Douglass' relation to the reader an often problematic issue. This is something the author is all too aware of: "It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down." (Douglass, 326.)
Douglass' struggle was indicative of the slave-writers' problematic position. Black people, as Henry Louis Gates points out, "had to represent themselves as "speaking subjects" before they could even begin to destroy their status as objects, as commodities, within Western culture" (Gates, 129.) To some extent, this required the adoption of a "white voice", and, in particular, the adoption of a "white" Christian framework. Douglass admits this struggle, comparing himself, tellingly, to Christ before the Crucifixion. (Douglass, 326.) This study will analyze Douglass' treatment of contemporary Christian faith in the Appendix in terms of such a struggle, and will show how, from these contending discourses, Douglass constructed for himself a coherent theological framework.
There is much in Douglass' narrative that displays his more than passing hostility to what he describes as "partial" Christianity, and, indeed, in the Appendix this hostility is unequivocally spelled-out:
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference-so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.
This attack is made all the more vehement by Douglass' refusal to distinguish between the religion of the North and the South, an act that makes redundant any defense of northern Christianity on the basis of its being less tainted by pro-slavery practices than its southern neighbor.
To avoid any misunderstanding, growing out of the use of general terms, I mean, by the religion of this land, that which is revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders. It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify.
All American Christianity is for Douglass "partial and hypocritical", the organization as well as its ministers the object of his deeply-rooted anger and hostility. Much of this stems from his own personal experience of the cruelty that religious slaveowners can display towards their "property," and Douglass' narrative is replete with such instances. Edward Covey, the "nigger breaker" with whom the author battles so dramatically, is also a "professor of religion." Douglass even goes so far as to state, "I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst." (Douglass, 302). Throughout the narrative, Douglass contrasts the professed religion of his masters with their cruel and hypocritical behavior.
The church's continued participation in and support of slavery Douglass cites as justification for his tirade of Anti-Christian abuse. It is the exploitation of religion to justify slavery that most goads Douglass, and is, indeed, what he goes to most pains to emphatically reject. He terms such faith the "climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels." Douglass' anger is evident in every sentence, even in his choice of scripture: "Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord. "Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?" (Douglass, 329).
It is unsurprising that in the Appendix Douglass feels compelled to defend his radical stance, as, in drawing a distinction between the "Christianity of this land" and the "Christianity of Christ", he was making a controversial claim unacceptable to much of America. As Donald B. Gibson states, "One might have been exiled or worse for saying the same thing less than 200 years before." (Gibson, 88). Douglass repeatedly reminds his readers, however, of his fundamental Christian beliefs, as to have done otherwise might have alienated his audience completely: "I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land." (Douglass, 326). Douglass' declaration can be seen, like the Appendix in general, as a response to and denial of any charges of infidelity. This is not the first time such an approach has been adopted. Formulating a model of an "ideal" Christianity, in opposition to contemporary Christianity, was a common resistance strategy amongst Abolitionist writers, its effectiveness revealed in the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.. Such a model is contrasted with the "religion of this land" in Narrative of the Life with equal vehemence.
The extent of Abolitionist influence in Douglass' text is difficult to deny. This influence quickly became problematic for Douglass, as he felt his literary independence threatened by others' expectations. His abolitionist mentors sought to arrest Douglass' growing tendency to speak more broadly and analytically of his experiences in slavery. Stephen Foster, a Garrisonian colleague, instructed him: "People won't believe you were ever a slave, Frederick, if you keep on this way." John A. Collins, general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, also advised: "Be yourself, and tell your story. [...] Better to have a little of the plantation speech than not; it is not best that you seem too learned."[*] Douglass' desire to discuss as well as recount the horror of slavery led him inexorably to expand the focus and content of his writing, to challenge the accepted slave narrative form ("Give the facts," Collins advised, "we will take care of the philosophy"), and by doing so confront the wishes of his patrons and expectations of his readers.
Since purchasing his first copy of William Lloyd Garrison's radical abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, in 1839, abolitionism quickly assumed for Douglass, in the words of Waldo E. Martin Jnr., "the status of a religion, drawing upon the best Christian ideals: love, morality, and justice." (Martin, Jnr., 20). However, what distinguishes Douglass' viewpoint from the "school" he so heartily identified with, and what later widened the rift between the two, is the extent to which Douglass is prepared to accept the Garrisonian concept of nonresistance. Like Douglass' pivotal victory over Edward Covey, Douglass' break from Garrison and Garrisonian ideals signified a turning-point in his life. Whereas the defeat of Covey represented the triumph over physical slavery, the break with Garrison represented a triumph over the mental enslavement of the rhetoric and dogma of his mentors. In Narrative of the Life, Douglass makes numerous other decisions that reveal this growing independence. He refuses to reveal the specific details of his escape from slavery, admitting that he is refusing to "gratify a curiosity, that exists in the minds of many". In the interests of those still in slavery he desists from elaboration, revealing a strong and assertive sense of self that is able to contradict other "voices" in the text. (Douglass, 315).
In an article entitled `Reading Slavery: The Anxiety of Ethnicity in Douglass Narrative', David Van Leer identifies in a description of the "nigger-breaker" Edward Covey a biblical allusion to Christ, taken from the New Testament. "His comings were like a thief in the night," Douglass says, paraphrasing Paul's description of the unpredictability of Christ: "For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night." (1 Thessalonians 5.2). Van Leer terms this "one more instance of Douglass general ambivalence toward Christianity throughout the narrative," and, indeed, there can be found in the Appendix examples that can be perceived as such:
Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system [...] faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts--and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause,--I subscribe myself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS.
It is significant that Douglass relies upon "truth, love, and justice" rather than any invocation of Christ or divine assistance in his fight against slavery. This is indicative of his conception of the relationship of God to the issue of slavery. Shunning the Garrisonian concept of nonresistance, Douglass posits a framework that refuses to perceive of God as in any way responsible for the evils of slavery. Douglass is primarily committed to individual and collective black defense, and hence takes a pragmatic approach to effecting political change. His arguments, borne out in the telling of his life, stress the importance of individual struggle and inner-strength in bringing about progress. Van Leer defines this as Douglass' continued "secularization of religion." (Van Leer, 121-2). In later retellings of his life Douglass would stress this notion with even greater virulence.[*] In the original narrative, it is his confrontation with Edward Covey that most emphatically declares this. For Douglass, their contest represents nothing less than the conflict between all true and false religions and all slavery and freedom. As such, Douglass' victory is replete with triumphant symbolism: he tells the reader that it is a victory over all slavery: "He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery." (Douglass, 298-99). The author even goes so far as to compare himself after his victory with the risen Christ: "It was a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery to the Heaven of freedom." (Douglass, 299).
The conflicting forces that compete for expression in Narrative of the Life make analyses of Douglass' religious views problematic. Close reading of the Appendix is indicative of this: "I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which everywhere surround me." Douglass choice of diction is, as ever, revealing. His inability to voice an intense dissatisfaction ("unutterable loathing") with Christianity hints at the restrictions imposed upon the content of his narrative by other, contending, discourses. The uncompromising, objective view of religion Douglass takes was responsible for his being regarded as an unbeliever in a climate staunchly intolerant of any opinion suggesting doubt or unbelief. The inclusion by Douglass of an Appendix reveals a voice heedful of, but never dominated by, the discourse of his patrons and his readership. In his later work, Douglass' progressively more uncompromising views would make a conflict with such forces an inevitability. The Appendix was a nervous necessity that the later Douglass would deem superfluous. It was a clarification of Douglass objective and pragmatic view of religion, a separation of faith in God from faith in the Christian church. Appearing to reject Garrisonian beliefs was a difficult and dangerous issue, but for an ex-slave advocating a faith that appeared to condone his slavery, such a move was essential for Douglass if he were to maintain his faith in Christianity. Thus the Appendix was as much a self-motivated choice as an enforced necessity, the constant struggle for voice bringing compromise rather than submission.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.
All page references to:
Henry Louis Gates, ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Mentor, 1987.
Eric J. Sundquist, ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Donald B. Gibson. Faith, Doubt and Apostasy.
Waldo E. Martin, Jnr. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
William Loser Katy. Breaking the Chains: African-American Slave Resistance. New York: Atheneum, 1990.
James Brewer Stewart. Holy Warriors: the Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang,1976.
Henry Louis Gates.The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford University Press,1988.
Gates.The Trope of the Talking Book.
David Van Leer. Reading Slavery: The Anxiety of Ethnicity in Douglass' Narrative.
A Methodological Introduction
Although I have made my intentions clear in the introduction to my essay, I would like here to briefly discuss the theoretical approach I have adopted. Based loosely on Gates' (and also Stepto's) notion of the struggle for "voice" in slave narratives, I have examined Douglass' inclusion of an Appendix in this light, always bearing in mind the fundamental issues that Douglass needed to address in the writing of his life. I have found this approach extremely useful in divining Douglass' religious beliefs, as it positions Douglass not only within a historical/literary tradition, (and hence affords a number of revealing insights) but also allows for Douglass' personal motivations in writing his narrative to become clear. I have attempted not to graft too many twentieth-century critical techniques onto the Narrative, (as Gates' admiration of Douglass is sometimes prone to make him) and have avoided any bestowing of worth upon Douglass purely in terms of his pioneering status in African-American literature. In this way, I hope to have overcome certain shortcomings in modern critical approaches to the Narrative.