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The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass: The Formation Of Iden

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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 uneducated--unable 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 out--the 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 master--time 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 historically. Douglass writes that slaves were unable to articulate their ages, the dates of births and deaths of family members, and their lengths of service. He is also unable to form his identity based on familial relations. Suspecting only that his "father was a white man" and that it was often "whispered that [his] master was [his] father," Douglass was unable to name, let alone have a relationship with, his father (Douglass 255). Furthermore, Douglass writes that he and his mother were separated when he was a baby, and that he was never able to form a relationship with her because he saw her only "four or five times" (Douglass 256). Finally, he was also lacking a familial relationship with his siblings. He writes that "the early separation of [all of them] from [their] mother had well nigh blotted the fact of [their] relationship from [their] memories" (Douglass 272). Under slavery, slaves were not given the rights to family that many slaveholders took for granted. Any slave relationship could end at the whim of the "master." Every slave family stood the possibility of being sold away from one another and never seeing each other again. Slave women were forbidden from disclosing the identity of a child's father if the father was a white man. If the child was descended from the "master," he or she was considered no more human, and no more likely to be spared the trauma of being sold because slaveholders often bought women in childbearing years in order to increase the return on their "investment" when the children were sold. This created, on the part of Douglass, a lack of familial identity, which, as well as his inability to use time to create an identity, forced him to create himself in a way other than historically--through education.

Douglass used education to facilitate his progression from slave to man. Beginning at a young age, Douglass taught himself to read and write. After Mrs. Auld taught him his ABCs and to write small words, Douglass continued to learn on his own even after she stopped teaching him. Relying on white children on the street to help him learn to write, Douglass began forming his selfhood in terms other than slavery. Literacy and education taught Douglass about the concept of freedom and allowed him to view it not only as an ideal, but also as a necessity. As it was not traditionally a slave's role to learn to read and write, literacy taught Douglass to question the role that slavery forced on him. Literacy helped him realize that he was not an animal whose purpose was to work.


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