The 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 Douglass's 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 Douglass's 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 theirs
I 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 Douglass's 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 slave's 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...
Cited: 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 Douglass 's ‘Narrative '." Twentieth-Century
Literary Criticism: Volume 7. Ed. Paula Kepos. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1990.
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