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In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, the mental life of the narrator is both a complex voice and a powerful tool. Douglass is consumed by seemingly contradictory roles. His literacy and eloquence cast him outside the group he attempts to represent. Therefore, he must craft his character and narrative voice in a state of constant duality. This duality is in the space between his slave life and his free life, his ignorance and his education, his story and his purpose. He needs to communicate an authentic slave life to qualify as a representative of the slave community. But to appeal to his white audience, he must retain this authenticity despite the intellectual growth that will set him apart from his fellow slaves. The separation from the group is both dangerous for his legitimacy and necessary for observation. Douglass must be detached from his slave history without losing his connection to it. He also lifts himself closer to his white audience while remaining an obviously separate entity. He is simultaneously narrating a story, acting as protagonist, and defending an argument. He embraces this complex voice in establishing a narrator stuck between two distinctly separate realms.
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It is crucial to note that Douglass’ narrative is a tool in this fight for freedom, and he is thus admittedly invested in making it convincing. The narrative voice he adopts speaks to this task. He is careful to craft a particular mentality that dually renders him authentic in representing a slave’s life and qualified to win the respect of readers. His position as both observer and participant is carefully cultivated until the reader is convinced he has a distinct perspective: he can experience and analyze at the same time. Douglass skillfully separates from and identifies with the slaves in his life story. He will refer to slaves just like him as ‘Colonel Lloyd’s slaves,’ and a few lines earlier he had referred to his own position as one of these slaves as ‘my stay on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation’ (2011). This is one example of a subtle swaying in the narrator’s voice, when Douglass occupies the roles of both visitor and participant.
He cultivates this double voice from the very beginning of his Narrative. Early in his life story, even though he is still a slave, he will often refer to ‘the slaves’ as though he is outside of this group. One example of this observer-quality is in the section on slave songs, ‘to which [he traces his] first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery’ (2006). Douglass causes his non-slave readers to experience this glimmer by aligning his perspective with theirs. He is an innocent observer impressed by something completely unfamiliar. This childhood gaze is thus a useful tool, as it connects Douglass to his audience by paralleling their innocent state. He separates himself from his fellow slaves without losing his qualification as an authentic member of their community. His language constructs a state of hovering somewhere above or outside of the group he is actually a part of: “They would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune.” (2005). Douglass clearly shuts himself out of this group with the repeated “they”s. His separation seems entirely natural because he is a child among adults. Observation is his natural state in this phase. The exaggeration in phrases like ‘for miles around,’ ‘highest joy’ and ‘deepest sadness,’ construct the necessary tone of childlike revelation. Not only is he realistically separating himself to observe and narrate, but he is separating himself by means of the perspective that is most accessible to the wide-eyed white reader’s point of view.
Although the naïve voice is useful in being familiar to his audience, Douglass carefully prevents readers from assuming too much familiarity. He must dwell in the space squarely between slave and non-slave to adequately represent one group and win the ear of the other. Moments after he has set-up his stance as innocent exterior observer, Douglass will include himself in the group he is watching. Now, unlike his audience, he is “within the circle; so that [he] neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear” (2006). This disclaimer achieves several important aspects of Dougless’ task. He explicitly states that his experience is exclusive and somehow mysterious to drive home the authenticity of his voice. He is defining the distinct realms of ‘within’ and ‘without’ the slave experience to highlight his special status as somebody straddling two worlds. Despite the fact that he was separating himself from those within this very ‘circle’ to adequately narrate their actions and strengthen the appeal of his argument, he easily steps back into the circle to become protagonist and representative. This shifting back and forth between ‘within’ and ‘without’ is a constant and vital aspect of the Narrative. He is consistently working to tell a good story and make a good point.
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Douglass’ distinctive within/without voice is not only applied to his role as slave, but is also suggestive of his status among his readers. The white readership is as distinct and exclusive a category as the slave ‘circle.’ And his role within this new group is similarly singular and unique. His eloquence and education align him with the culture he is speaking to. Like the childhood voice had paralleled their gaze, his establishment of an intellectual life serves to qualify an analyzing mind. Once again, he is doubly supporting the narrative and the argument. His intellectual drive is an important force in his character development. Reading and learning become necessary to Douglass’ survival, which he suggests by often comparing them to food. He tells of trading actual bread at a young age for reading lessons, which he deems “that more valuable bread of knowledge” (2017). Later, Douglass claims that the “Liberator” newspaper “became my meat and my drink” (2053). He is a man who is starving for education. The intensity of his desire explains the great lengths he has come, once again authenticating his life story. He is infusing a political message with humanity by showing us the motivations and experiences of his protagonist. Throughout the Narrative, Douglass insists that the mind must be liberated before the slave can be free. His life is essentially enacting this theory. We are reading the very proof as we come to understand the concept, again experiencing duality. Douglass’ intellectual pursuits also serve to qualify his theories by reminding us that he is an educated speaker despite his slave beginnings. Like the typical college diploma on an office wall, proof of his education is intended to trigger a heightened level of respect for his ideas.
Douglass understands that this unique mental life makes him not simply an observer, but a leader. He rises above average slaves, again aligning his gaze with his white readers. By emphasizing his ability to communicate ideas to his fellow slaves, he is in a sense selling his own capacity for persuasion. He remains entirely within and without the group, both exceptional and equal:
“I bent myself to devising ways and means for our escape, and meanwhile strove, on all fitting occasions, to impress them with the gross fraud and inhumanity of slavery. I went first to Henry, next to John, then to the others. I found, in them all, warm hearts and noble spirits. They were ready to hear, and ready to act when a feasible plan should be proposed. This was what I wanted. I talked to them of our want of manhood if we submitted, to our enslavement without at least one noble effort to be free. We met often, and consulted frequently and told our hopes and fears, recounted the difficulties, real and imagined, which we should be called to meet.” (2037-38)
Here the shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’ as subject flows seamlessly and contributes subtly to the double narrative voice. This moment parallels the action of the Narratives. The ‘they’ could describe his white audience as they read his ideas just as ‘they’ is referring to a slave audience that listens to his ideas. The reader can easily see themselves reflected in the innocent faces turned searchingly upon Douglass. Therefore, this move from ‘I’ to ‘we’ becomes suggestive of inclusion in the non-slave community, since they are his current audience. He is also preaching to this new community, and he is supplying his past experience as an example of his credibility. Just as education merits his ideas, a history of leadership lifts his message to a more authoritative realm.
Although he gets high enough to look down and comment, Douglass is not so separate as to feel comfort in his superiority. Even when he is placing himself outside the slave community, he does not forget their plight. He is again both within and without when he says “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity” (2018). The term ‘stupidity’ is a strong one and again casts him far enough outside his group to sneer at it. His ‘wretched condition,’ ‘horrible pit,’ and ‘moments of agony,’ all feed his narrative thrust. The reader writhes with this protagonist and longs for his release. In terms of supporting his abolitionist cause, Douglass is putting a certain degree of responsibility in the hands of his audience. The pain that comes with the cultivated mind only illuminates the comfortable passivity of countless white minds. He is drawing a direct path from education to anti-slavery. And since his white audience is an educated one, there is a subtle suggestion that their understanding of slavery’s irrational evil should be a natural conclusion. In such an incomprehensible situation, intellectual superiority is both a privilege and a burden. This is a very elegant manner of scolding the passive, educated class of white readers for wasting the privileges they reserve.
The Narrative of the Life provides a compelling argument because it puts this absolutely unique mind on display. Douglass connects with his readers on a narrative level and provides a privileged vantage point into an exclusive world. His constant shifting between the categories of slave and non-slave never casts him as an average member of either group. Whether connecting with his past in slavery, or embracing his future in freedom, Douglass’ distinctive voice remains consistent. Whichever group he is identifying with, he must hover just outside of, in a kind of inevitable limbo. He is always both within and without a circle, above and beneath an oppressor, immersed and outside of a cultural category. This double narrative voice is a perfect display of the ultimate point: to the cultivated mind, slavery is a paradox. Douglass is ingenious in using this crippling paradox to his benefit, and the benefit of his text.
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