[(essay date 1989) In the following essay, Goddu and Smith contend that Douglass’s autobiographies are not just a way for him “to write [himself] into being” but that they also “inscribe within themselves the steps along his path to the linguistic autonomy that then … both enacts and documents his evolution.”]
In his “Preface” to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison tells a tale about an American sailor taken into slavery in Africa:
An American sailor, who was cast away on the shore of Africa, where he was kept in slavery for three years, was, at the expiration of that period, found to be imbruted and stultified—he had lost all reasoning power; and having forgotten his native language, could only utter some savage gibberish between Arabic and English, which nobody could understand, and which even he himself found difficulty in pronouncing.Garrison tells this story in order to prove that “the white slave can sink as low in the scale of humanity as the black one,” and, in this devolution, can lose control over his native language. He does not, however, discuss the larger implications his tale holds for the story he is introducing—Douglass’s Narrative. Although Douglass’s position (a black slave in America) seems to mirror the sailor’s in Africa, his linguistic, and hence existential position, is strikingly different. Unlike the American sailor, Douglass is an articulate subject. With its words of self-attribution, “written by himself,” his text substantiates his speaking. Scarcely imbruted and stultified, Douglass learns to negotiate the hybrid discourse which reduces the sailor to gibberish. Instead of debasing him as it does the American sailor, multivocality empowers Douglass; it raises him from “slave” to “human” status. By speaking an understandable language—white canonical discourse—Douglass enters into the signifying practice that indicates knowledge and establishes being. His Narrative traces his acquisition of this initially alien discourse: learning to imitate his master’s language, he gains on the simplest level the ability to pronounce the white language and to be understood.
Douglass’s linguistic progress involves several stages. As he learns to write the master’s hand, he gains a new level of dexterity—the power to forge. Then, learning to write his own hand, he grasps the master-discourse and demonstrates his fluency in acts of subversion and parody. Yet when he moves into white discourse, he faces the same problem as Garrison’s American sailor—the difficulty of retaining his autonomy in a world ordered by an alien word.
Douglass’s fight against inscription within white discourse plays itself out in his relationship to Garrison. In his “Preface,” Garrison attempts to exonerate black slaves by showing that a white man, when placed in the slave’s position, would act similarly. His exemplum, however, only reveals his dehumanizing attitude towards black slaves. For the very script that Douglass is trying to debunk—that slaves are brutes—Garrison unwittingly reinforces. The abolitionist’s ability to equate the white slave’s face with the black’s emphasizes his power to appropriate Douglass’s own experience under a white rubric. Douglass’s experience,...