he Formation Of IdenThe Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:
An Analysis of the Formation of Identity
You have seen how a man was made a slave; you will now see how a slave was made a man. Frederick Douglass
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave details the progression of a slave to a man, and thus, the formation of his identity. The narrative functions as a persuasive essay, written in the hopes that it would successfully lead to hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of his brethren in bonds (Douglass 331). As an institution, slavery endeavored to reduce the men, women, and children in bonds to a state less than human. The slave identity, according to the institution of slavery, was not to be that of a rational, self forming, equal human being, but rather, a human animal whose purpose is to work and obey the whims of their master. For these reasons, Douglass articulates a distinction between the terms man and slaves under the institution of slavery. In his narrative, Douglass describes the situations and conditions that portray the differences between the two terms. Douglass also depicts the progression he makes from internalizing the slaveholder viewpoints about what his identity should be to creating an identity of his own making. Thus, Douglass narrative depicts not simply a search for freedom, but also a search for himself through the abandonment of the slave/animal identity forced upon him by the institution of slavery.
The reader is first introduced to the idea of Douglasss formation of identity outside the constraints of slavery before he or she even begins reading the narrative. By viewing the title page and reading the words The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, written by himself the reader sees the advancement Douglass made from a dependent slave to an independent author (Stone 134). As a slave, he was forbidden a voice with which he might speak out against slavery. Furthermore, the traditional roles of slavery would have had him uneducatedunable to read and incapable of writing. However, by examining the full meaning of the title page, the reader is introduced to Douglasss refusal to adhere to the slave role of uneducated and voiceless. Thus, even before reading the work, the reader knows that Douglass will show how a slave was made a man through speaking outthe symbolic act of self-definition (Stone 135).
In the first chapter of the narrative, Douglass introduces the comparison between slaves and animals, writing that the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirsI do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday (Douglass 255). The effect of this passage, in addition to introducing the idea that slaves were considered to be no more civilized than animals, is an emphasis on Douglasss lack of a human identity. As a slave, his role was that of an animal whose purpose was to work for his master. This internalization of the animal/slave role is accentuated further when Douglass discusses the slaves notion of time as planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time (Douglass 255). The institution of slavery, which forced the comparison of slave to animal, required the slave to consider time in terms of his mastertime to work, time to plant, time to harvest. Thus, slaves were unable to utilize a concept of time of their own making to identify themselves because their concepts of time reflected what was important to their masters and not to themselves. By representing the slaves as relying on their masters wishes to identify themselves, Douglass emphasizes the comparison between slave and animals
Not only does the slave concept of time reflect the desire of the masters to have the slaves view time in terms of work, but it also reflects the masters refusals to allow slaves to define themselves historically. Douglass writes that slaves were unable to articulate their ages, the dates of births and deaths of family members, and their lengths of service. He is also unable to form his identity based on familial relations. Suspecting only that his father was a white man and that it was often whispered that his master was his father, Douglass was unable to name, let alone have a relationship with, his father (Douglass 255). Furthermore, Douglass writes that he and his mother were separated when he was a baby, and that he was never able to form a relationship with her because he saw her only four or five times (Douglass 256). Finally, he was also lacking a familial relationship with his siblings. He writes that the early separation of all of them from their mother had well nigh blotted the fact of their relationship from their memories (Douglass 272). Under slavery, slaves were not given the rights to family that many slaveholders took for granted. Any slave relationship could end at the whim of the master. Every slave family stood the possibility of being sold away from one another and never seeing each other again. Slave women were forbidden from disclosing the identity of a childs father if the father was a white man. If the child was descended from the master, he or she was considered no more human, and no more likely to be spared the trauma of being sold because slaveholders often bought women in childbearing years in order to increase the return on their investment when the children were sold. This created, on the part of Douglass, a lack of familial identity, which, as well as his inability to use time to create an identity, forced him to create himself in a way other than historicallythrough education.
Douglass used education to facilitate his progression from slave to man. Beginning at a young age, Douglass taught himself to read and write. After Mrs. Auld taught him his ABCs and to write small words, Douglass continued to learn on his own even after she stopped teaching him. Relying on white children on the street to help him learn to write, Douglass began forming his selfhood in terms other than slavery. Literacy and education taught Douglass about the concept of freedom and allowed him to view it not only as an ideal, but also as a necessity. As it was not traditionally a slaves role to learn to read and write, literacy taught Douglass to question the role that slavery forced on him. Literacy helped him realize that he was not an animal whose purpose was to work. He deserved freedom, and intellect could be the vehicle that provided him it. This first aspect of his progression from slave to man then, came through educationup until this point in his life, he had not questioned his perception of his identity as nothing more than an animal, an investment, or a slave for life.However, with literacy, the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon his heart (Douglass 278).
As Douglass began to change his self-perception from a slave to a man, he also began to resist his slave role forced onto him by the institution of slavery and fight against it. This resistance finds its climax in Douglass fight with Edward Covey, for Douglass wrote this battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in his career as a slave (Douglass 298). This battle formed in him a sense of his own manhood (Douglass 298). From this point on in the narrative, though Douglass was still a slave in form, he would never again be a slave in fact (Douglass 299).It was this battle with Covey that allowed Douglass to truly reject the slave identity forced on him. From that point, his top priority was gaining his freedom.
When Douglass finally did gain his freedom, his transformation from slave to man was almost complete: he began to find and accept his true identity as a free man.That he began to internalize his new identity is not obvious simply because he was no longer a slave in form, but partially because from this point on, Douglass begins to use dates, full names, addresses and titles when describing situations. Whereas in the beginning of the narrative he referred to slaves by their first name and to slaveholders by their last name, upon gaining his freedom he began to refer to people he encountered with full titles and names such as Mr. David Ruggles, Reverend J.W.C. Pennington, and Mr. William C. Taber. He was also able to name addresses and dates such as September 15, 1838, the date he was married, and the boarding house on the corner of Church and Lespenard Streets. The significance of Douglasss use of these facts of which he was once deprived is his rejection of the institution of slavery and his internalization of his role as a free man.
Douglasss internalization of his newfound role is also presented with his marriage and name change. His decision to be married was significant in his search for a free mans identity because marriage was an institution not allowed to slaves by their masters. Slave marriages meant nothing to masters who could break it up forever simply by selling the husband or wife to a plantation far away. Unlike the illegal slave marriages that were not legally recognized, his was legally bound with a certificate. Thus, when Douglass was married and granted a marriage certificate, he both embraced his new role as a man and further eschewed his previous role as a servant. This notion of disowning the institution of slavery also comes with his name change. By repudiating the name given him by his mother, Douglass shunned the slaveholding law which claimed that slave children must follow the role of their mother: if the mother is a slave, so shall be the child. By rejecting the name that she gave him, Douglass rejected that slave holder judgment of eternal slavery.
According to Douglass, the final step in his progression from a slave to a free man was when he attended a colored peoples meeting at New BedfordHe spoke but a few moments, when he felt a degree of freedom, and said what he desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, he has been engaged in pleading the cause of his brethren (Douglass 326). With this final passage, Douglass reiterates the progression he made throughout the narrativehe was a dependent slave who wanted freedom to become an independent man. By speaking out, fighting as an abolitionist, and finally becoming an author, Douglasss transformation from a slave to a man is complete.
Despite the fact that Douglasss narrative ends here, his absolute metamorphosis is not complete. The narrative opens with a preface by two well-known white abolitionists of the era. The function of these opening essays is to act as a validation by a respected white person. Their assurances and guarantees of truth in Douglasss narrative serve to both make the narrative more marketable to the white audience, but also to discount the importance of Douglasss role of a true human. Why should a man who has attained freedom and thus become a free and equal individual need to have his writing prefaced by whites? Accordingly, in future publications, Douglass decided to preface the narrative with letters from a prominent African American writer and add a letter to his former master repudiating him for his evils. This, though not a part of the narrative read in class, is the defining and final moment of Douglasss transformation from slave to man. By embracing his own importance as a human man, realizing that he did not need the guarantees of whites to be respected, and finally addressing his master for the wrongs done to him, Douglass illustrates the culmination of his journey from slave to man.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave details the transformation of a slave to a man. The institution of slavery defined a slave as less than human, and in order to perpetuate that impression, slaveholders forbade slaves the luxury of self definition. Therefore, when Douglass finally rejects the notions about his identity forced on him by slavery, and embraces an identity of his own creation, he has completed his journey from slave to man. He no longer defines himself in terms of the institution of slavery, but by his own thoughts regarding what his identity is. Through the metamorphosis of his identity as an animal to an author who fights for the abolitionist movement, Douglass presents his narrative not simply as a search for freedom, but also a search for himself.
Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The Classic Slave
Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.New York: Penguin Group, 1987.
Stone, Albert. Identity and Art in Frederick Douglasss Narrative. Twentieth-Century
Literary Criticism: Volume 7. Ed. Paula Kepos. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1990.