An Examination of Violence and its Restorative Properties in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Matthew Hodder - Writer

Frederick Douglass was an African-American who became “one of the most eminent human rights leaders of the 19th century” (Britannica, 2018), owing in particular to his harrowing account of his escape from slavery and subsequent human rights efforts. In 1845 he published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass which served to become a significant piece of literature from the perspective of the slave (Britannica, 2018). This article will attempt to reveal the brutal world of slavery that Douglass was faced with in the first Section, and following this the role of violence and its restorative properties in Douglass’ sense of humanity will be discussed in the second Section.

1.1 On Slavery

The first Section of this article examines slavery and how violence was used to oppress all those subjected to it, including Douglass. We can especially see this as attitudes towards slavery permeated into broader society where ideas of White supremacy manifested themselves firmly in the institution of slavery. Examples of the barbarity of the institution can be found in Douglass’ work itself, as he comments that “killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot country, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community” (Douglass, 2010, p.132), which highlights that arguably fundamental human rights – such as the right not to be killed – are denied to slaves. As the community was also unconcerned with the plight of the slave, we can see that social attitudes were in congruence with the racial institution of slavery. To further illustrate the denial of human rights, Davis (2010, p.51) affirms that “white slave-holders were determined to mould Black people into the image of the subhuman being… in order to justify their actions”, suggesting that slaves were denied their humanity, which reinforces how White supremacy manifested itself at the time and managed to dehumanise slaves. Evidence of extreme barbarity can be read in extraordinary detail throughout the Narrative, especially that of “maimed, flogged, abused black female bodies” (Davis, 2010, p.25) which reveals how integral the role of violence was within the institution of slavery. However, to evaluate slightly, we are presented with the viewpoint of a slave on a plantation, whereas in contrast Douglass admits that “A city slave was almost a freeman” (2010, p.144) which may suggest that city slaves were not subjected to the same degree of violence. In spite of any potential variations, in my opinion violence was a visceral reminder of the slave’s condition that reinforced inferiority with every beating. Just because the experience of slavery differed somewhat does not necessarily reflect any deviation in social attitudes. Now that a brief overview of the violence found in the Narrative has been discussed, we shall examine how violence on the part of Douglass was used to counteract some of the stereotypes that were imposed on him.

1.2 Douglass’ Violence

This second section aims to illustrate how violence was essential to Douglass in the Narrative, using the pivotal fight with the vicious Edward Covey (Douglass, 2010, p.188), with violence such as this almost certainly contributing to the transformation of Douglass from someone who opposed violence to one who supported it (Goldstein, 1976, p.62). With a reputation for “breaking young slaves” (Douglass, 2010, p.171), Edward Covey was extraordinarily cruel in his use of violence to ensure conformity to the slave-holder’s will on the plantation. The result of unimaginable violence was Douglass’ “natural elasticity” (Douglass, 2010, p.178) (which I will here interpret as the human will and resilience) being suppressed to the extent that Douglass used the very language that was used by the White slave-holder: bestial language that dehumanised him. We can see that Douglass himself states he becomes a “man transformed into a brute” (ibid.) as a result of his condition, which reinforces Davis’ aforementioned point of racial social opinions at the time inflicting itself upon him. However, Douglass decides to resist and fight back against Covey and we can see that violence on the part of the slave acts to reverse the dehumanising effects of slavery. Once Douglass fights back against Covey, “the few expiring embers of freedom [are stirred] and revived within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood” (Douglass, 2010, p.188) which implies that violence restored Douglass’ sense of humanity that had been eliminated from him by Covey and the rest of a pro-slavery society. Davis suggests that humanity and freedom are somewhat interlinked (2010, p.50), and therefore since Douglass and other slaves were deprived of their freedom, they were simultaneously denied their humanity. There are some issues with the argument that Davis presents: though Douglass experienced a return to his sense of humanity after he used violence against Covey, it did not secure his freedom at all and he remained in chains with no change. That said, it is clear from the fight with Covey in the Narrative that violence provided Douglass with a feeling of liberation and humanity that he had not previously experienced at all (Douglass, 2010, p.188) and importantly, Douglass directly challenged Covey’s coveted reputation through concurrently denying Covey domination over him and empowering himself as Douglass “actively rejects his chains” (Davis, 2010, p.52). In this way, Section 1.2 has explored how violence used against the slave-holder served to restore in Douglass a sense of humanity that was not offered based on the outcomes of Section 1.1.

Having considered the role of violence from both slave and slave-holder, we can view the Narrative as a significant map from “slavery to freedom” (Davis, 2010, p.49) whereby the attitudes of practises of slave plantations are described, as well as the degrading effects the slaves themselves suffered. The article has illustrated that violence could be used, in the case of Douglass, to reclaim an aspect of humanity and begin to break free of the oppression of slavery, at least psychologically if not quite materially. As a political theorist, Douglass presents that “progress always requires struggle” (Davis, 2010, p.33) in his Narrative through the shocking ways he was treated and through his experiences helped to shape the activist that he later became.

Davis, A. Y. 2010. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: A New Critical Edition. San Francisco: City Lights Books

Douglass, F. 2010. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. In: Davis, A. Y. ed.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: A New Critical Edition. San Francisco: City Lights Books, pp.85-245

Davis, A. Y. 2010. First Lecture on Liberation. In: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: A New Critical Edition. San Francisco: City Lights Books, pp.45-64

Goldstein, L. F. 1976. Violence as an Instrument for Social Change: The View of Frederick Douglass (1817-1895). The Journal of Negro History. 61(1), pp.61-72

Photo Credit - Zulmaury Saavedra -


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