Discuss those the characteristics of a slave narrative in Fredrick Douglass’ “I Was Born”: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” and take a stance on their significance in the text. | Homework Helpers


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Read James Olney’s article, “I Was Born”: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” Choose three of his characteristics of a slave narrative. Discuss those three characteristics in Fredrick Douglass’ narrative and take a stance on their significance in the text.

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 DQ 2

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In the Fredrick Douglass’s text, the sentence, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Discuss the difference in Fredrick Douglass, the narrative, the language, etc. before and after this statement. What makes this statement siginificant?

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The Holocaust of Enslavement allowed the slave owners to employ physical and psychological tactics to control the enslaved. At times the psychological constraints were stronger than the physical constraints. The enslaved are described with animalistic characteristics. What are the descriptions? Why are they significant? What are the psychological implications of the characteristics? What is the psychological implication of the holiday on the enslaved?


46 “I WAS BORN”: SLAVE NARRATIVES, THEIR STATUS AS AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND AS LITERATURE* by James Olney Anyone who sets about reading a single slave narrative, or even two or three slave narratives, might be forgiven the natural assumption that every such narrative will be, or ought to be, a unique production; forso would go the unconscious argument-are not slave narratives autobiography, and is not every autobiography the unique tale, uniquely told, of a unique life? If such a reader should proceed to take up another half dozen narratives, however (and there is a great lot of them from which to choose the half dozen), a sense not of uniqueness but of overwhelming sameness is almost certain to be the result. And if our reader continues through two or three dozen more slave narratives, still having hardly begun to broach the whole body of material (one estimate puts the number of extant narratives at over six thousand), he is sure to come away dazed by the mere repetitiveness of it all: seldom will he discover anything new or different but only, always more and more of the same. This raises a number of difficult questions both for the student of autobiography and the student of Afro-American literature. Why should the narratives be so cumulative and so invariant, so repetitive and so much alike? Are the slave narratives classifiable under some larger grouping (are they history or literature or autobiography or polemical writing? and what relationship do these larger groupings bear to one another?); or do the narratives represent a mutant development really different in kind from any other mode of writing that might initially seem to relate to them as parent, as sibling, as cousin, or as some other formal relation? What narrative mode, what manner of story-telling, do we find in the slave narratives, and what is the place of memory both in this particular variety of narrative and in autobiography more generally? What is the relationship of the slave narratives to later narrative modes and later thematic complexes of Afro-American writing? The questions are multiple and manifold. I propose to come at them and to offer some tentative answers by first making some observations about autobiography and its special nature as a memorial, creative act; then outlining some of the common themes and nearly invariable conventions of slave narratives; and finally attempting to determine the place of the slave narrative 1) in the spec- *This essay will appear in The Slave’s Narrative, ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984). 47 trum of autobiographical writing, 2) in the history of American literature, and 3) in the making of an Afro-American literary tradition. I have argued elsewhere that there are many different ways that we can legitimately understand the word and the act of autobiography; here, however, I want to restrict myself to a fairly conventional and common-sense understanding of autobiography. I will not attempt to define autobiography but merely to describe a certain kind of autobiographical performance-not the only kind by any means but the one that will allow us to reflect most clearly on what goes on in slave narratives. For present purposes, then, autobiography may be understood as a recollective/narrative act in which the writer, from a certain point in his life-the present-, looks back over the events of that life and recounts them in such a way as to show how that past history has led to this present state of being. Exercising memory, in order that he may recollect and narrate, the autobiographer is not a neutral and passive recorder but rather a creative and active shaper. Recollection, or memory, in this way a most creative faculty, goes backward so that narrative, its twin and counterpart, may go forward: memory and narration move along the same line only in reverse directions. Or as in Heraclitus, the way up and the way down, the way back and the way forward, are one and the same. When I say that memory is immensely creative I do not mean that it creates for itself events that never occurred (of course this can happen too, but that is another matter). What I mean instead is that memory creates the significance of events in discovering the pattern into which those events fall. And such a pattern, in the kind of autobiography where memory rules, will be a teleological one bringing us, in and through narration, and as it were by an inevitable process, to the end of all past moments which is the present. It is in the interplay of past and present, of present memory reflecting over past experience on its way to becoming present being, that events are lifted out of time to be resituated not in mere chronological sequence but in patterned significance. Paul Ricoeur, in a paper on “Narrative and Hermeneutics,” makes the point in a slightly different way but in a way that allows us to sort out the place of time and memory both in autobiography in general and in the Afro-American slave narrative in particular. “Poiesis,” according to Ricoeur’s analysis, “both reflects and resolves the paradox of time”; and he continues: “It reflects it to the extent that the act of emplotment combines in various proportions two temporal dimensions, one chronological and the other non-chronological. The first may be called the episodic dimension. It characterizes the story as made out of events. The second is the configurational dimension, thanks to which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events.”‘ In autobiography it is memory that, in the recollecting and retelling of 48 events, effects “emplotment”; it is memory that, shaping the past according to the configuration of the present, is responsible for “the configurational dimension” that “construes significant wholes out of scattered events.” It is for this reason that in a classic of autobiographical literature like Augustine’s Confessions, for example, memory is not only the mode but becomes the very subject of the writing. I should imagine, however, that any reader of slave narratives is most immediately struck by the almost complete dominance of “the episodic dimension,” the nearly total lack of any “configurational dimension,” and the virtual absence of any reference to memory or any sense that memory does anything but make the past facts and events of slavery immediately present to the writer and his reader. (Thus one often gets, “I can see even now …. I can still hear. .. .,” etc.) There is a very good reason for this, but its being a very good reason does not alter the consequence that the slave narrative, with a very few exceptions, tends to exhibit a highly conventional, rigidly fixed form that bears much the same relationship to autobiography in a full sense as painting by numbers bears to painting as a creative act. I say there is a good reason for this, and there is: The writer of a slave narrative finds himself in an irresolvably tight bind as a result of the very intention and premise of his narrative, which is to give a picture of “slavery as it is.” Thus it is the writer’s claim, it must be his claim, that he is not emplotting, he is not fictionalizing, and he is not performing any act of poiesis (=shaping, making). To give a true picture of slavery as it it really is, he must maintain that he exercises a clear-glass, neutral memory that is neither creative nor faulty-indeed, if it were creative it would be eo ipso faulty for “creative” would be understood by skeptical readers as a synonym for “lying.” Thus the ex-slave narrator is debarred from use of a memory that would make anything of his narrative beyond or other than the purely, merely episodic, and he is denied access, by the very nature and intent of his venture, to the configurational dimension of narrative. Of the kind of memory central to the act of autobiography as I described it earlier, Ernst Cassirer has written: “Symbolic memory is the process by which man not only repeats his past experience but also reconstructs this experience. Imagination becomes a necessary element of true recollection.” In that word “imagination,” however, lies the joker for an ex-slave who would write the narrative of his life in slavery. What we find Augustine doing in Book X of the Confessions-offering up a disquisition on memory that makes both memory itself and the narrative that it surrounds fully symbolic-would be inconceivable in a slave narrative. Of course ex-slaves do exercise memory in their narratives, but they never talk about it as Augustine does, as Rousseau does, as Wordsworth does, as Thoreau does, as Henry James does, as 49 a hundred other autobiographers (not to say novelists like Proust) do. Ex-slaves cannot talk about it because of the premises according to which they write, one of those premises being that there is nothing doubtful or mysterious about memory: on the contrary, it is assumed to be a clear, unfailing record of events sharp and distinct that need only be transformed into descriptive language to become the sequential narrative of a life in slavery. In the same way, the ex-slave writing his narrative cannot afford to put the present in conjunction with the past (again with very rare but significant exceptions to be mentioned later) for fear that in so doing he will appear, from the present, to be reshaping and so distorting and falsifying the past. As a result, the slave narrative is most often a non-memorial description fitted to a preformed mold, a mold with regular depressions here and equally regular prominences there-virtually obligatory figures, scenes, turns of phrase, observances, and authentications-that carry over from narrative to narrative and give to them as a group the species character that we designate by the phrase “slave narrative.” What is this species character by which we may recognize a slave narrative? The most obvious distinguishing mark is that it is an extremely mixed production typically including any or all of the following: an engraved portrait or photograph of the subject of the narrative; authenticating testimonials, prefixed or postfixed;poetic epigraphs, snatches of poetry in the text, poems appended; illustrations before, in the miIDle of, or after the narrative itself;2 interruptions of the narrative proper by way of declamatory aIDresses to the reader and passages that as to style might well come from an adventure story, a romance, or a novel of sentiment; a bewildering variety of documents-letters to and from the narrator, bills of sale, newspaper clippings, notices of slave auctions and of escaped slaves, certificates of marriage, of manumission, of birth and death, wills, extracts from legal codesthat appear before the text, in the text itself, in footnotes, and in appendices; and sermons and anti-slavery speeches and essays tacked on at the end to demonstrate post-narrative activities of the narrator. In pointing out the extremely mixed nature of slave narratives one immediately has to acknowledge how mixed and impure classic autobiographies are or can be also. The last three books of Augustine’s Confessions, for example, are in a different mode from the rest of the volume, and Rousseau’s Confessions, which begins as a novelistic romance and ends in a paranoid shambles, can hardly be considered modally consistent and all of a piece. Or if mention is made of the letters prefatory and appended to slave narratives, then one thinks quickly of the letters at the divide of Franklin’s Autobiography, which have much the same extra-textual existence as letters at opposite ends of slave narratives. But all this said, we must recognize that the narrative let- 50 ters or the appended sermons haven’t the same intention as the Franklin letters or Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis; and further, more important, all the mixed, heterogeneous, heterogeneric elements in slave narratives come to be so regular, so constant, so indispensable to the mode that they finally establish a set of conventions-a series of observances that become virtually de riguer-for slave narratives unto themselves. The conventions for slave narratives were so early and so firmly established that one can imagine a sort of master outline drawn from the great narratives and guiding the lesser ones. Such an outline would look something like this: A. An engraved portrait, signed by the narrator. B. A title page that includes the claim, as an integral part of the title, “Written by Himself” (or some close variant: “Written from a statement of Facts Made by Himself”; or “Written by a Friend, as Related to Him by Brother Jones”; etc.) C. A handful of testimonials and/or one or more prefaces or introductions written either by a white abolitionist friend of the narrator (William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips) or by a white amanuensis/editor/author actually responsible for the text (John Greenleaf Whittier, David Wilson, Louis Alexis Chamerovzow), in the course of which preface the reader is told that the narrative is a “plain, unvarnished tale” and that naught “has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination”-indeed, the tale, it is claimed, understates the horrors of slavery. D. A poetic epigraph, by preference from William Cowper. E. The actual narrative: 1. a first sentence beginning, “I was born … ,” then specifying a place but not a date of birth; 2. a sketchy account of parentage,, often involving a white father; 3. description of a cruel master, mistress, or overseer, details of first observed whipping and numerous subsequent whippings, with women very frequently the victims; 4. an account of one extraordinarily strong, hardworking slaveoften “pure African”-who, because there is no reason for it, refuses to be whipped; 5. record of the barriers raised against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write; 6. description of a “Christian” slaveholder (often of one such dying in terror) and the accompanying claim that “Christian” slaveholders are invariably worse than those professing no religion; 7. description of the amounts and kinds of food and clothing given to slaves, the work required of them, the pattern of a day, a week, a year; 51 8. account of a slave auction, of families being separated and destroyed, of distraught mothers clinging to their children as they are torn from them, of slave coffles being driven South; 9. description of patrols, of failed attempt(s) to escape, of pursuit by men and dogs; 10. description of successful attempt(s) to escape, lying by during the day, travelling by night guided by the North Star, reception in a free state by Quakers who offer a lavish breakfast and much genial thee/thou conversation; 11. taking of a new last name (frequently one suggested by a white abolitionist) to accord with new social identity as a free man, but retention of first name as a mark of continuity of individual identity; 12. reflections on slavery. F. An appendix or appendices composed of documentary materialbills of sale, details of purchase from slavery, newspaper items-, further reflections on slavery, sermons, anti-slavery speeches, poems, appeals to the reader for funds and moral support in the battle against slavery. About this ‘Master Plan for Slave Narratives” (the irony of the phrasing being neither unintentional nor insignificant) two observations should be made: First, that it not only describes rather loosely a great many lesser narratives but that it also describes quite closely the greatest of them all, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself,3 which paradoxically transcends the slave narrative mode while being at the same time its fullest, most exact representative; Second, that what is being recounted in the narratives is nearly always the realities of the institution of slavery, almost never the intellectual, emotional, moral growth of the narrator (here, as often, Douglass succeeds in being an exception without ceasing to be the best example: he goes beyond the single intention of describing slavery, but he also describes it more exactly and more convincingly than anyone else). The lives of the narratives are never, or almost never, there for themselves and for their own intrinsic, unique interest but nearly always in their capacity as illustrations of what slavery is really like. Thus in one sense the narrative lives of the ex-slaves were as much possessed and used by the abolitionists as their actual lives had been by slaveholders. This is why John Brown’s story is titled Slave Life in Georgia and only subtitled “A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, A Fugitive Slave,” and it is why Charles Ball’s story (which reads like historical fiction based on very extensive research) is called Slavery in the United States, with the somewhat extended subtitle “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, A Black Man, who lived forty years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a slave, under various masters, and was one year in the 52 navy with Commodore Barney, during the late war. Containing an account of the manners and usages of the planters and slaveholders of the South-a description of the condition and treatment of the slaves, with observations upon the state of morals amongst the cotton planters, and the perils and sufferings of a fugitive slave, who twice escaped from the cotton country.” The central focus of these two, as of nearly all the narratives, is slavery, an institution and an external reality, rather than a particular and individual life as it is known internally and subjectively. This means that unlike autobiography in general the narratives are all trained on one and the same objective reality, they have a coherent and defined audience, they have behind them and guiding them an organized group of “sponsors,” and they are possessed of very specific motives, intentions, and uses understood by narrators, sponsors, and audience alike: to reveal the truth of slavery and so to bring about its abolition. How, then, could the narratives be anything but very much like one another? Several of the conventions of slave-narrative writing established by this triangularelationship of narrator, audience, and sponsors and the logic that dictates development of those conventions will bear and will reward closer scrutiny. The conventions I have in mind are both thematic and formal and they tend to turn up as often in the paraphernalia surrounding the narratives as in the narratives themselves. I have already remarked on the extra-textual letters so commonly associated with slave narratives and have suggested that they have a different logic about them from the logic that allows or impels Franklin to include similarly alien documents in his autobiography; the same is true of the signed engraved portraits or photographs so frequently to be found as frontispieces in slave narratives. The portrait and the signature (which one might well find in other nineteenth-century autobiographical documents but with different motivation), like the prefatory and appended letters, the titular tag “Written by Himself,” and the standard opening “I was born,” are intended to attest to the real existence of a narrator, the sense being that the status of the narrative will be continually called into doubt, so it cannot even begin, until the narrator’s real existence is firmly established. Of course the argument of the slave narratives is that the events narrated are factual and truthful and that they all really happened to the narrator, but this is a second-stage argument; prior to the claim of truthfulness is the simple, existential claim: “I exist.” Photographs, portraits, signatures, authenticating letters all make the same claim: “This man exists.” Only then can the narrative begin. And how do most of them actually begin? They begin with the existential claim repeated. “I was born” are the first words of Moses Roper’s Narrative, and they are likewise the first words of the narratives of Henry Bibb and Harriet Jacobs, of Henry Box Brown4 and William 53 Wells Brown, of Frederick Douglass5 and John Thompson, of Samuel Ringgold Ward and James W. C. Pennington, of Austin Steward and James Roberts, of William Green and William Grimes, of Levin Tilmon and Peter Randolph, of Louis Hughes and Lewis Clarke, of John Andrew Jackson and Thomas H. Jones, of Lewis Charlton and Noah Davis, of James Williams and William Parker and William and Ellen Craft (where the opening assertion is varied only to the extent of saying, “My wife and myself were born”).6 We can see the necessity for this first and most basic assertion on the part of the ex-slave in the contrary situation of an autobiographer like Benjamin Franklin. While any reader was free to doubt the motives of Franklin’s memoir, no one could doubt his existence, and so Franklin begins not with any claims or proofs that he was born and now really exists but with an explanation of why he has chosen to write such a document as the one in hand. With the ex-slave, however, it was his existence and his identity, not his reasons for writing, that were called into question: if the former could be established the latter would be obvious and the same from one narrative to another. Franklin cites four motives for writing his book (to satisfy descendants’ curiosity; to offer an example to others; to provide himself the pleasure of reliving events in the telling; to satisfy his own vanity), and while one can find narratives by ex-slaves that might have in them something of each of these motives-James Mars, for example, displays in part the first of the motives, Douglass in part the second, Josiah Henson in part the third, and Samuel Ringgold Ward in part the fourth-the truth is that behind every slave narrative that is in any way characteristic or representative there is the one same persistent and dominant motivation, which is determined by the interplay of narrator, sponsors, and audience and which itself determines the narrative in theme, content, and form. The theme is the reality of slavery and the necessity of abolishing it; the content is a series of events and descriptions that will make the reader see and feel the realities of slavery; and the form is a chronological, episodic narrative beginning with an assertion of existence and surrounded by various testimonial evidences for that assertion. In the title and subtitle of John Brown’s narrative cited earlier-Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, A Fugitive Slave-we see that the theme promises to be treated on two levels, as it were titular and subtitular: the social or institutional and the personal or individual. What typically happens in the actual narratives, especially the best known and most reliable of them, is that the social theme, the reality of slavery and the necessity of abolishing it, trifurcates on the personal level to become subthemes of literacy, identity, and freedom which, though not obviously and at first sight closely related matters, nevertheless lead into one another in such 54 a way that they end up being altogether interdependent and virtually indistinguishable as thematic strands. Here, as so often, Douglass’ Narrative is at once the best example, the exceptional case, and the supreme achievement. The full title of Douglass’ book is itself classic: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.7 There is much more to the phrase “written by himself,” of course, than the mere laconic statement of a fact: it is literally a part of the narrative, becoming an important thematic element in the retelling of the life wherein literacy, identity, and a sense of freedom are all acquired simultaneously and without the first, according to Douglass, the latter two would never have been. The dual fact of literacy and identity (“written” and “himself”) reflects back on the terrible irony of the phrase in apposition, “An American Slave”: How can both of these-“American” and “Slave”-be true? And this in turn carries us back to the name, “Frederick Douglass,” which is written all around the narrative: in the title, on the engraved portrait, and as the last words of the text: Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds-faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts-and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause,–I subscribe myself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS “I subscribe myself”-I write my self down in letters, I underwrite my identity and my very being, as indeed I have done in and all through the foregoing narrative that has brought me to this place, this moment, this state of being. The ability to utter his name, and more significantly to utter it in the mysterious characters on a page where it will continue to sound in silence so long as readers continue to construe the characters, is what Douglass’ Narrative is about, for in that lettered utterance is assertion of identity and in identity is freedom-freedom from slavery, freedom from ignorance, freedom from non-being, freedom even from time. When Wendell Phillips, in a standard letter prefatory to Douglass’ Narrative, says that in the past he has always avoided knowing Douglass’ “real name and birthplace” because it is “still dangerous, in Massachusetts, for honest men to tell their names,” one understands well enough what he means by “your real name” and the danger of telling it-“Nobody knows my name,” James Baldwin says. And yet in a very important way Phillips is profoundly wrong, for Douglass had been saying his “real name” ever since escaping from slavery in 55 the way in which he went about creating and asserting his identity as a free man: Frederick Douglass. In the Narrative he says his real name not when he reveals that he “was born” Frederick Bailey but when he puts his signature below his portrait before the beginning and subscribes himself again after the end of the narrative. Douglass’ name-changes and self-naming are highly revealing at each stage in his progress: “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey” by the name given him by his mother, he was known as “Frederick Bailey” or simply “Fred” while growing up; he escaped from slavery under the name “Stanley,” but when he reached New York took the name “Frederick Johnson.” (He was married in New York under that name-and gives a copy of the marriage certificate in the text-by the Rev. J. W. C. Pennington who had himself escaped from slavery some ten years before Douglass and who would produce his own narrative some four years after Douglass.) Finally, in New Bedford, he found too many Johnsons and so gave to his host ( one of the too many-Nathan Johnson) the privilege of naming him, “but told him he must not take from me the name of ‘Frederick.’ I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity.” Thus a new social identity but a continuity of personal identity. In narrating the events that produced both change and continuity in his life, Douglass regularly reflects back and forth (and here he is very much the exception) from the person written about to the person writing, from a narrative of past events to a present narrator grown out of those events. In one marvellously revealing passage describing the cold he suffered from as a child, Douglass says, ‘My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.” One might be inclined to forget that it is a vastly different person writing from the person written about, but it is a very significant and immensely effective reminder to refer to the writing instrument as a way of realizing the distance between the literate, articulate writer and the illiterate, inarticulate subject of the writing. Douglass could have said that the cold caused lesions in his feet a quarter of an inch across, but in choosing the writing instrument held at the present moment-“the pen with which I am writing”-by one now known to the world as Frederick Douglass, he dramatizes how far removed he is from the boy once called Fred (and other, worse names, of course) with cracks in his feet and with no more use for a pen than for any of the other signs and appendages of the education that he had been denied and that he would finally acquire only with the greatest difficulty but also with the greatest, most telling success, as we feel in the quality of the narrative now flowing from the literal and symbolic pen he holds in his hand. Here we have literacy, identity, and freedom, the omnipresent thematic trio of the most important slave narratives, all conveyed in a single startling image.8 56 There is, however, only one Frederick Douglass among the ex-slaves who told their stories and the story of slavery in a single narrative, and in even the best known, most highly regarded of the other narratives-those, for example, by William Wells Brown, Charles Ball, Henry Bibb, Josiah Henson, Solomon Northup, J. W. C. Pennington, and Moses Roper–all the conventions are observed-conventions of content, theme, form, and style-but they remain just that: conventions untransformed and unredeemed. The first three of these conventional aspects of the narratives are, as I have already suggested, pretty clearly determined by the relationship between the narrator himself and those I have termed the sponsors (as well as the audience) of the narrative. When the abolitionists invited an ex-slave to tell his story of experience in slavery to an anti-slavery convention, and when they subsequently sponsored the appearance of that story in print,10 they had certain clear expectations, well understood by themselves and well understood by the ex-slave too, about the proper content to be observed, the proper theme to be developed, and the proper form to be followed. Moreover, content, theme, and form discovered early on an appropriate style and that appropriate style was also the personal style displayed by the sponsoring abolitionists in the letters and introductions they provided so generously for the narratives. It is not strange, of course, that the style of an introduction and the style of a narrative should be one and the same in those cases where introduction and narrative were written by the same person-Charles Stears writing introduction and narrative of Box Brown, for example, or David Wilson writing preface and narrative of Solomon Northup. What is strange, perhaps, and a good deal more interesting, is the instance in which the style of the abolitionist introducer carries over into a narrative that is certified as “Writ

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