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A Prisoner of Slavery, Essay Example

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Essay

Although the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was one of many slave narratives that appeared during the antebellum period, from the beginning of his career, Douglass stood as the apotheosis of the slave witness.  As Frederick grows from passive, silent, terrorized witness of legally sanctioned violence against other slaves into a brutalized victim who seeks but is denied legal redress, the Narrative charts the increasing incommensurability of the young slave’s maturing civic consciousness with his legal status as human property. The story culminates with the Douglass’s public antislavery testimony in the North – and, implicitly, with his published testimony in the Narrative itself – thereby figuring the court of public opinion as an alternative to the court of law as a forum for African American civic participation. Although he was not treated as an equal human being because of his race in the North, he believed that ending slavery would mean the beginning of full manhood and citizenship for his race and himself.

The Narrative’s editorial apparatus indicates that to be a Southern slave is not only to be denied physical autonomy, forced to perform backbreaking labor, and subjected to arbitrary violence but also to be a silent witness to such suffering. Alluding to Douglass’s narrative allegation of slaveholders’ “crimes” enables David Blight to expose the inadequacy of American law, which by rendering such testimony inadmissible effectively denies the criminality of such outrages: “that the ‘prison’ of slavery housed blacks and whites, slaves and slaveholders, the entire nation in a single fate”. In a society in which there is no legal protection in fact, whatever there may be in form, fro the slave population; and any amount of cruelty may be inflicted upon them with impunity, the abolitionist editor appeals to popular legal consciousness by presenting the former slave’s printed “testimony” to the court of public opinion as a corrective to both the legal sanction for slavery and the exclusion of African Americans from full participation in American law.

When the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865, thus legally abolishing the slave economy, it also contained a provision that was universally celebrated as a declaration of the unconstitutionality of peonage. The exception would render penal servitude constitutional – from 1865 to the present day. That black human beings might continue to be enslaved under the auspices of southern systems of justice (and that this might set a precedent for imprisonment outside the South) seems not to have occurred to Douglass and other abolitionist leaders. It certainly is understandable that this loophole might be overlooked aimed the general jubilation with which emancipation initially was greeted.

Considering the importance Douglass accorded the institution of slavery as an explanatory factor in relation to the vast numbers of free black people who were identified as criminal by tricksters, it is surprising that he did not directly criticize the expansion of the convict lease system and the related system of peonage. As the premier black public intellectual of his time, he seems to have established a pattern of relative silence vis-à-vis convict leasing, peonage, and the penitentiary system, all of which clearly were institutional descendants of slavery.

In the Narrative’s introduction, Douglass lets his reader know that he lives in this dangerous den by describing the extraordinarily cruel beating of his beautiful Aunt Hester. This terrible scene initiates the boy Douglass into the treacherous and chaotic world of the whites in power. If in that nineteenth century world of southern courtliness, a young black woman had no protection from raw, lawless brutality, how could Douglass not assume that there were no laws or limits at all, that indeed his turn would come next? – Particularly when the perpetrator of the arbitrary violence seemed “to take”, in Douglass’s words, “great pleasure” in the act of whipping? All of her human responses, voluntary and involuntary, made the situation worse: “The louder she screamed…the blood-clotted cow-skin” (Blight 20). This terrifying scene, says Douglass, “was the blood-stained gate…through which I was about to pass” (Blight 20).

Considering the central role race has played in the emergence of a contemporary prison industrial complex and the attendant expansion of incarcerated populations, an examination of Douglass’s historical views on the criminalization of blacks and the racialization of crime may yield many important insights. Douglass was certainly conscious of the degree, to which crime was racialized, of the South’s tendency to “impute crime to color” (Blight 41). With his usual eloquence, he said that “justice is often painted with bandaged eyes…but a mask of iron, however thick, could never blind American justice, when a black man happens to be on trial” (Blight 42).

Finding himself ruled by a system what he termed Lynch Law – the arbitrary prerogatives of those who have all the official power – Douglass learns to read and write; in so doing he develops a rhetorical strategy that trains his mind for revolutionary action, for literally turning the tables on the powerful. Yet, David Blight has observed that, although much scholarly attention has been paid to Douglass as “Representative Man”, as the sterling icon of his age, little regard has been given to him as a thinker (Blight xii). It is only in this vein that racial assimilation could ever be, in Douglass’s mind, morally, socially, and politically satisfying. He helps generation after generation of those seeking freedom to find their way from learning how a man or woman becomes a slave to knowing how a slave becomes a man or woman.

Works Cited

Blight, David W. “Introduction”, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, 2nd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003. Print.

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