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Social And Legal Definitions Of Slavery Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

3936 words - 16 pages

Social and Legal Definitions of Slavery: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
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Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment -- from whence came the spirit I don't know -- I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. (Douglass 112, chapt. 10)

In Chapter 10 of Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of... an American Slave, Douglass describes an important incident in which he forces backward the standard master-slave hierarchy of beating privileges against his temporary master, Mr. Covey. The victory proves for Douglass a remarkable source of renewed yearning for freedom and of self-confidence; as he "rose" physically, standing up to fight, he "rose" in spirit. Covey did not "have" Douglass in the sense of either fighting or ownership, and could not "do what he pleased." The description of the internal and external results of the fight displays a clear degree of signification in order to convey to the reader the highly personal nature of the triumph--signifying being described by Roger D. Abrahams as a "technique of indirect argument or persuasion" and "a language of implication" (Gates 54). Douglass explains, "He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery" (113, chapt. 10). The overt statement describes a unique feeling arisen from relatively unique circumstances; but the implication tacked on to the statement might be phrased as: "Such a one is most probably not you, the reader." What is the use of constructing this implied distance between the narrator and the reader? The fact that Douglass has taken up writing as an articulate method of communication seems in many ways to indicate an adoption of the "white" voice, but ultimately he stands on his own, apart to a controlled extent from his white audience. An examination of the Narrative through a signification-sensitive lens, as defined by Abrahams and discussed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Signifying Monkey, with attention to narrative detail, will reveal how Douglass both achieves and reflects through his Narrative a powerful independence of self and spirit which itself is independent of both Northern allies and legal and bodily freedom.

Many would argue with justification that Frederick Douglass has adopted, to forge his narrative voice, a strong tool of the white, educated society which, in its Southern substantiation, has held him captive. Douglass in part takes the reins of his destiny by (eventually and initially nervously, according to the Narrative) addressing an audience which would once have been unaddressable. When Douglass was a slave the most contact he had with the abolitionists was, at best, their addressing of him, in small, distant doses, through the literature of which Douglass managed to get a hold. A slave can...

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