Throughout this semester we have read material focusing on slave narratives, authentic and fictionalized. Three very important pieces of literature during the period in which slavery was alive and well in this country that will be examined are: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, David Walker’s Appeal and Henry Highland Garnet’s An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America. Each of these pieces proved to be material that was considered incendiary and blatantly militant for its fervor and rhetoric of resistance.
These pieces each individually sought to intently teach and inform the slaves of Black America about their plight and to give them knowledge as to how and why they should take control of their situations accordingly. Some pieces call for blatant rebellion as does David Walker’s Appeal, while others, are in fact just testimonies regarding the reality that the slaves or oneself faced as is the case with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America, in my opinion, is a piece that is not incendiary for what means it asks slaves to employ their freedom. Rather its usefulness and fervor come by way of the accusations and suggestions it makes towards the evil spirit of white America and slavery.
Douglass uses a distinction towards describing the difference between being a “slave in form” and “a slave in fact.” (299). In the preceding passage we read about a liberating confrontation that Douglass has with his then master, Mr. Covey. During this altercation, Douglass, after many instances of repression, degradation, and violence by his master, finally has the courage to stand up and fight for himself against this new aggravation. It allows him the ability to recognize his strength over his master and the true cowardice of his oppressor. In that fight, Douglass conveys in not so uncertain terms that his master would need to kill him in order to succeed in beating him down, rather than he let him hurt him anymore. We see an example of the true spirit of Mr. Covey with his need to maintain a fa?ade of being a “Negro breaker.” Douglass has asserted his strength and will and for anyone to find out the truth of what transpired during the altercation would mean giving up Mr. Covey’s well earned, unsubstantiated reputation.
Douglass describes this period as being “a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.”(299). The author goes on to talk of having his spirit resonate and rise to the highest level possible in that he was able to see his condition not as one that truly held him in his heart and mind, even if it held him in form.
By this I mean to define that moment as one that releases his mind, allowing him the knowledge that he has power to contend with his oppressors and win. It gave him the courage to know that although slavery could hold one in form, through various means of apparent, and real bondage, it could not in fact contain and grip one’s mind and spirit unless the enslaved person allowed it to do so.
Slavery was a horrible canvas that encompassed all of America whether the North or the South. It sought not only to tear apart a nation but also rather systematically break down and obliterate a culture of a people stolen and sold like barter from a land that they once called their native home. It did this through evasive means of prostitution of black women, separation and elimination of family, and keeping an enslaved people in ignorance by blatantly prohibiting education of slaves. It denied rights of liberty, freedom, and general health and wealth by way of skin color. Its hardships endured by the people often broke their spirits, minds and bodies. This is the way in which slaveholders and other proponents sought to maintain the system. Douglass’ resistance afforded him that he could take control of his situation in however a minute way and give himself freedom however small a piece of it was.
Some material disseminated during the period of slavery, were not held in the highest regard in that they were considered rebellious, almost blasphemous in nature, and an incitement to overthrowing the system according to southern “Christians” of the time.
David Walker’s Appeal was one such piece. In the Appeal Walker called for an outright abandonment of the system and violence by any means necessary in order to ascertain one’s freedom. He utilizes many metaphors and comparisons of Christianity to develop his debate. He criticizes the irony of slavery and their professed Christian masters in that slavery is inherently against the teachings of the Bible.
Walker asks the people to actively rise up against the tyranny of slavery and their white oppressors. In his description of the plight of the black slaves, frequently uses religious rhetoric and history to make comparison to the injustice that slavery presents to the entire American civilization. In comparing the situation of the Israelites under the Egyptians he states, “the condition of the Israelites was better than ours under the whites”(10). By this Walker asserts that the Egyptians did not tear apart the Israelites’ families, nor did they ever tell them that they were not of the human race, which is a fact that whites interjected under the slavery system. The author also shows the barbarous nature and irony of the whites in implementing this system through a passage regarding a newspaper clipping that he read in the past. In this article the whites decry the barbarity of the Turks in enslaving the Greek people, treating them as if they were animals rather than human beings, yet in contrast there is an ad for the selling of slaves and their physical descriptions, as if they were animals in the same paper. The lack of conscientiousness in regards to the wounds and suffering white America was inflicting upon black America remained apparent and justified in their eyes. By Walker openly and fiercely condemning the actions on the part of white America to turn their backs on their black brethren he places himself as a great proponent for the inherent rights of all men.
In continuing what Walker expounds on in Appeal Henry Highland Garnet calls for an active rebellion from the labor in the fields as a means of radical resistance against the slave system. He too in accordance with Walker does not believe that slavery will emancipate blacks on its own, but rather emancipation will occur only through decisive action on the part of the oppressed people. He feels, as does Walker that he is unable to effectively sit by and further permit atrocities to his people without arming them with the knowledge to break out of their chains.
In what manner does the author suggest that the slaves of America take aim at and break their bondage? He advises that slaves lay down their labor and protest the indignities under which they are subjected and that it is their duty to do so.
“Your condition does not absolve you from your moral obligation?.neither God, angels or just men command you to suffer for a single moment. It is your solemn and imperative duty to use every means, both moral, intellectual and physical that promise success.” (93). This is a bold statement on the part of the author to induce a rapid response from the slave population to take active resistance. In the author’s eyes and that of Walker’s slavery will not absolve itself, rather slaves must take their livelihood into account and seek to diminish the institution themselves. All of the three authors have in common the idea that it is better to die fighting for a just cause than to relegate themselves to the position of satisfaction with their undeserving condition. Those that do remain in effect subservient to their status without putting up such a fight, transform themselves into not only “a slave in form,” but also “a slave in fact.” (299)