Afterword: Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois on the consciousness of the enslaved

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Date: Fall 2006
From: The Journal of African American History(Vol. 91, Issue 4)
Publisher: Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,933 words
Lexile Measure: 1480L

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The slaveholder, kind or cruel, is a slaveholder still--the every hour violator of the just and inalienable rights of man; and he is, therefore, every hour silently whetting the knife of vengeance for his own throat. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)

More than one hundred and fifty years since the appearance of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass still has no equal as a theorist of the inner life of the slave. Moreover, his My Bondage and My Freedom is easily the finest volume yet on American slavery, one that enjoys a place beside Herman Melville's Benito Cereno as one of the two foremost treatments of slavery in the English language. (1) Though Douglass's stature is clearly in need of reevaluation, only his thought on slave music as an index to the inner life of the slave, which rivals his thought as a logician of liberty, begins the process and is treated here.

Because the fusion of sadness and joy is so much a part of Douglass's thought about slavery, in life generally as in music, it is well to keep in mind that the dialectic seems never foreign to him. Not only is his command of it masterly when applied to subjects ranging beyond music while reminding us of music, he even rejects the proposition that philosophy is better suited than music for exploring the inner life of the slave, an indication that he has read philosophy. Moreover, we can imagine what his reaction might have been to Hegel, with whom some have linked him, from what the scholarship of Kenneth Barkin in the adjoining piece reveals of Hegel's extreme backwardness regarding the humanity of the African. (2) Besides, the paternalism that some historians trace back to Hegel, thinking that master and slave were locked into interdependence with reciprocal "rights," is rejected by Douglass. On several counts, then, Douglass would have found Hegel unacceptable, as he did the pro-slavery theory of reciprocal "benefits" of master and slave, to be taken up later.


Douglass's rendering of slave music offers enormous advantages for revisiting a largely unexamined problem in black music criticism, for he takes us back to that sacred moment when the Spirituals and the Blues appear to have been related in origins, to a moment, however, when the Blues, evolving apart from identifiable white musical and religious influences, is the foundational form. That is, qualities of the Spirituals inhered in the sacred song of field hands in Maryland as early as Douglass's time, but lacked the consolations of faith that distinguish the Spirituals as we know them. In this regard, it should be noted that Douglass offers the earliest and profoundest statement yet of slave music, decades before northern travelers in the South in the Civil War years. Indeed, the song of the field hand is more embittered, its musical shadows intensified rather than, as with the Spirituals, relieved by the light of hope. In fact, the sacred Blues with...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A160632412