Social and Legal Definitions of Slavery Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

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...


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...had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact" (113, chapt. 10).

This victory, combined with the achievement of literacy and other factors, such as the will to escape and attempt to teach others, point to a sense of inner, "factual" freedom which develops while Douglass is still a slave according to the law and in the public eye. Just as the Narrative is a personal story set within a framework of social relevance, the striving for freedom is personal before it is physical and external. In spirit and sense of self Douglass becomes free while still a slave, even if that freedom makes his more tangible bonds all the more painful. Because he fought for this freedom long before being ranked among free Northerners, Douglass maintains, in his narrative for the white abolitionist movement, an inner independence of social and legal definitions of slavery and freedom.

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