Whilst essay. On the other hand, the slave

Whilst Frederick Douglass
was not considered to be a conventional political theorist, his comments on the
inequality of race in the early 19th century were paramount to
shaping a whole new perception of political theory. The concept of violence had
been explored but not to the extent that Douglass had done, as he introduced
race into the conversation. His work went further than just an account of his
experience as a slave. Through Douglas’s revelations he presented the notion of
violence being a harsh necessity “as progress always requires struggle”(Davis,2010).
This can be evidenced through Douglass’s focus on violence as an act of
resistance, a recuperation of one’s identity and the end to passivity which
will be explored within this essay. On the other hand, the slave owner’s violence
is analysed to understand how this was powerful enough to not only enslave
their subjects physically but also psychologically. Through the denial of
education and some aspects of religion the slaves were mentally imprisoned,
thus making freedom unattainable. Resultant from Douglass’s struggle as a
slave, a shift in his views surrounding violence was almost inevitable. Overall
his lack of freedom and first hand experiences validated his position as a
potential political theorist.

 

 

Firstly, violence will be
explored as an act of resistance in the fight for freedom and a rejection of
the institution of slavery (Davis, 2010).  Davis states that “freedom can only be envisioned
by the slave when he actively rejects his chains”. This statement is a clear reference
to Douglass’s actions against Mr. Covey when he refuses to be whipped, leading
to “the turning point in his career as a slave”. He marks this moment of
defiance as the start of his liberation (Feblowitz,2010) from his chains and the
achievement of “psychological emancipation” (Preston King. And Walter Earl
Fluker., 2013). Violence had not set him free from slavery as he remained a
slave for the next four years but he had removed the psychological superiority
that the “slave-breaker” had over the slave. As Davis’s analysis conveys, the
“roles had been reversed” as Covey implicitly affirms that he is dependent on
Douglass because this is the only way that his authoritative identity can be
recognised. He becomes “alienated” due to violence just like Douglass had been
for most of his life until this “turning point” (Douglass and Mullan,2009).

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The term alienation was one
that was deeply felt by slaves. Thus, violence will now be explored as a form
of the recuperation of one’s identity. Douglass’s Narrative highlights this
theme from the very start of his autobiography, by showing the transition from
alienation to recognition of self-identity. There is a difference between being
conscious about one’s slavery and unconscious about it (Davis,2010). When unconscious
the slave will acknowledge that he is unfree and will “accept the master’s
definition”, whereas when the slave is conscious of his condition knowledge
“will set a voyage towards freedom” (Davis,2010). As Douglass states “the slave
was a fixture” showing how they were objectified and how their lives were limited
to the purpose of forced labour (Davis,2010). 
It is however, the consciousness of alienation that entails the refusal
to accept this condition (Davis,2010). When Douglass acknowledged the brutality
and barbaric actions of the slave-breakers towards him and other slaves, was
when he realised the “brutalising effects of slavery on the slave and
slaveholder” and “understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglas and
Mullan,2009). This is also reflected in the scene between Douglass and Mr. Covey.
However, had it not been because of his mental liberation after his refusal of
violent treatment he would not have fought Mr Covey. Therefore, violence,
whether received or given, was used as a pivotal element in the process of
liberation for the slaves.

 

The theory of unconscious
and conscious acknowledgment can also be used to explain how violence is used
to banish a passive attitude in the fight for one’s rights. Indeed, the
difference between the whippings of his Aunt Hester in his Narrative (1845) and Nellie in his third autobiography Life and times of Frederick Douglass
(1892) is a clear portrayal of a slave who accepts her condition and one who
doesn’t. The whippings of Douglass’s Aunt Hester by Captain Anthony traumatised
him for a lifetime as he recalled that those screams left him “terrified, and
stunned, and could do nothing about it, and the fait of Hester could be his
next”. He felt “powerless to stop the beatings” and describes himself as a
“witness and a participant” (Lee,2009). In this moment Douglass is unaware of
his freedom and is unconscious to any kind of recognition of it. Yet, during
Nellie’s event, where she refused to be whipped, Douglass’s recognised her
conscious acknowledgment of the unfair treatment towards her and how after
rejecting the whippings and fighting the overseer. She never got whipped again,
just like Douglass’s after he fought Mr. Covey. Another event Douglass’s
witnessed was of a slave who refused to be whipped and said “You can shoot me;
but you can’t whip me” (Douglass,1996). Here the slave accepts that he can die
but rejects any kind of authority over him, which led to his mental liberation.
Such events moulded Douglass’s personality and capacity to acknowledge that
passivity would not lead to freedom. The slave who had the courage to stand up
for his rights would be less whipped. It was also possible for some to get even
more punished but it is important to acknowledge that slaves recognised the
inequality and unfairness of the barbaric actions of the slave-breakers towards
them (Ballard, 2006).

 

 

After exploring how slaves
used violence as a form of resistance, identity regain or end of passivity,
violence will now be explored via the ways the slave-breakers used it to
prevent the slaves from gaining any kind of freedom. Violence was used by the
master to separate the slave from tools of empowerment, those being education
and religion particularly (Feblowitz,2010). First, we will explore the linkage
between literacy and violence. Douglass learns how to read thanks to the help
of Mrs Auld who is naïve to the fact that a slave child should be treated
differently to a white child. Mr. Auld’s discovery of this puts an end to his
education as it would “unfit him to be a slave” because “if you give a nigger
an inch, he will take an ell”. Mr. Auld’s intentions of keeping Douglass as an
ignorant could be seen in two ways. Firstly, that he is objectifying him as he
believes slaves are not made to be knowledgeable, but to satisfy their labour
needs as if not he would be of “no value to his master”. On the other hand, his
words could be interpreted as a recognition of Douglass’s rebelliousness and
yearning for freedom, which could lead to potential uprisings(Lee,2009). This
could be linked to the idea of identity posed by Davis, as a “slave-breaker”
needs to be superior to his slave to show his authority. Thus, slave-owners kept
them ignorant and brutalised them so they did not get to taste freedom,
therefore making them unconscious about it.

 

It is important to note that
the texts that were available to Douglass were those about Catholic
emancipation such as in The Columbian
Orator. These texts included dialogues between masters and slaves in which the
slaves were emancipated. He also acquired knowledge about basic human rights
from Sheridan1 (Lee,2009).
Such knowledge allowed him to become conscious of the possibility of freedom, just
what Mr Auld was trying to prevent, which is why he was sent to Mr. Covey who
was known as the ‘nigger-breaker’ as he would beat slaves into submission. Many
Africans at first were not converted to Christianity as this could have given
them a claim to freedom (Stampp, Abzug and Maizlish,1986). Those who were
converted did not truly understand the moral of religion as it was decided to
omit passages where freedom and equality were mentioned during sermons which
slaves attended. Instead it said that a slave must always respect his master.
Thus, religion was used as a “violent act against humanity” (Lee,2009). However,
in contrast to before, Douglass was aware of the possibility of freedom and
therefore defied Mr. Covey and gained his mental liberation. Indeed, Douglass received
a lot of inspiration from religion as did many other slaves who started
rebellions such as Nat Turner and John Brown. It seems to be that slave-owners were aware that there was a possibility
of the slaves rebelling against them which is why they withheld from them education
and religion as these frameworks were where they could gain inspiration and
power from.

 

 

On the other hand, many disagreed
that religion was a form of empowerment, such as Marx in The Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy, who
considered it instead as a “wish-dream” of an oppressed humanity (Davis, 2010).
In other terms, it was a form of accepting slavery, just like slave-owners in
the USA had done in order to restrict their power. Yet for many slaves, such as
Douglass and Nat Turner, religion served as an inspiration to have hope for a better
future (Davis, 2010). These two individuals proponents of violent resistance,
thus showing the intrinsic link between religion and violence.

 

In contrast to the positive
view of the use of violence by slaves to acquire freedom, many did not believe
in this, including Douglass at a time. His friend and the most famous white
abolitionist in the USA, William Lloyd Garrison supported a non-violent stance
as he viewed all use of physical violence as evil (Goldstein,1976). “Garrisonian”2
ideology also rejected acts of resistance as violence, therefore it being
hypocritical for Douglass to support Garrison in view of his violent encounter
with Mr. Covey. Indeed, Douglass did once support a stance of non-violence even
though his rhetoric did not appear to be aligned with this stance, such as when
he states: “If there is no struggle there is no progress” (Speech in1857).  An instance of this can be seen in the Negro
National Convention in 1843 where he opposed the proposal of a slave protest,
which would most definitely involve the use of violence. Goldstein argues
Douglass never “embraced non-violence as an ethical doctrine” as his comments
were more strategic rather than an actual belief. “Garrisonians”, including
Douglass at this time, believed that violence could be counterproductive and
such acts could give a negative portrayal of the slaves to the media. Yet, it
was in 1840 in a meeting with John Brown that acted as the “turning point” in
his stance over violence. John Brown was a more radical abolitionist and
influenced Douglass’s ideologies over the matter. He radically abandoned his
non-violent approach as he ordered to “shoot down if necessary any creature who
tried to rob the life and liberty of a human being” (Goldstein,1976). This more
radical thinking is emphasised in his Narrative
where he deemed passivity to be an example of “lamblike submission” which he
linked to the “Garrisonian” ideology (Goldstein,1976). He now believed it was
counterproductive not to use violence, and more strategic in order to gain
support for the support for the abolition of slavery.

 

 

Despite Douglass converting
from his views of pacifism, the extent of his support of violence is limited in
comparison to others racial activists such as Malcolm X, Nat Turner and John
Brown with whom he worked with. Religion and education were fundamental in
achieving Douglas’s aims, as these devices vindicated the use of violence in
order for the slaves to regain identity, end passivity and as an act of
resistance. The realisation of the violent restriction of these tools by the
slave-owners enabled the slaves to turn to violence as a form of resistance. Through
discovering these restrictions it would only be normal and justifiable that the
notion of pacifism would no longer suffice, thus shifting to violence as a more
legitimate means of abolition.

1
Irish playwright and Member of Parliament.

2
Garrisons non-violent doctrine.