Dr. Pronami Bhattacharyya is an Assistant Professor in English, Royal Global University, Assam. She is an avid reader and a keen researcher, and has published one book, and several papers in national and international journals of repute.
The subaltern “Other” has had no voice on account of race, class or gender, or the very intersectional nature of all these socio-cultural forces. This involves and institutes the fact that “norms” are determined and disseminated by the ones in power (centre) and imposed on the “other” (margin). The history of a state is usually the history of the ruling classes. As such, the subjugated voices get lost in the narrative of the powerful ‘other’. In Prison Notebooks (1971), while referring to the working class as ‘subaltern’, Antonio Gramsci makes a clear distinction between the history of the ruling classes and the history of the subaltern classes. Raising a similar concern, Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, in “Can a Subaltern Speak” (2010), tries to examine the condition and the resulting fate of the subaltern ‘subject’ and that how it can be disfigured by the politics of representation. With an aim to recover submerged histories and legitimize the ‘other’ gaze or point of view, this paper attempts to analyze Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845). Douglass’s narrative is written from the perspective of one (slaves) who had been denied the right to gaze for long. The study, thus, acknowledges the presence of the “spectres”- taking cues from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1994)- that could challenge the Western notions of space and time while functioning as revolutionary mediums of postcolonial recovery.
Keywords: Subaltern, African American, mobility, slave narrative, gaze, ‘other’
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”―
Historically, the subaltern “other” has had no voice because of race, class or gender, or the intersectionality of all these. It involves and institutes the fact that ‘norms’ are determined and disseminated by the ones in power (centre) and imposed on the “Other” (margin). In Prison Notebooks (1971), while referring to the working class as ‘subaltern’, Antonio Gramsci makes a clear distinction between the history of the ruling classes and the history of the subaltern classes. The history of a state is usually the history of the ruling classes. As such, the subjugated voices get lost in the narrative of the colonial oppressors.
Raising a similar concern, Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, in “Can a Subaltern Speak” (2010), tries to examine the condition and the resulting fate of the subaltern ‘subject’ and that how it can be disfigured by the politics of representation. This always keeps the subaltern in the marginal topography, which is a silent ‘periphery’ but acts as the ‘centre’ of voicelessness. She contends that the subalterns cannot be represented by an advantaged group; rather, they should speak for themselves and emerge as ‘speaking’ subject rather than the silent ‘other’ and thereby cease to be subaltern subjects. This emphasizes the self-reflexivity of the subaltern.
Recovering submerged/subalterned histories is instrumental in neutralizing colonial (cultural) hegemony and its persistent attempts to erase the past of the silenced ‘objects’. In Toni Morrison’s novels reclaiming the past is an indispensible condition for subjectivity. It restores a voice and appropriates history to those who were deprived of and denied the awareness of both. In postcolonial context, reclaiming the past means more than a literal or linear narrating of historical facts. Rather, redeeming the past is a process that requires that victims of oppression and marginalization recuperate their obliterated traditions and unearth the buried communal memories and personal histories. In Beloved (1987), Morrison recuperates a lost, painful chunk of history through the ‘ghost of memories’. A physically absent ghost places a silenced past into the very centre of the narrative and the ‘present’ (as against the past or future) in the timeline of history. Derrida, in Spectres of Marx (1994) says,
To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept….that is what we would be calling here a hauntology…(202)
Thus, what Jacques Derrida proposed as Hauntology, an amalgamation of ‘haunting’ and ‘ontology’, could be taken as a way of thinking about the presence of absent figures, which haunt the ‘present’ world in an perplexing state of being neither alive nor dead. Acknowledging the presence of the ‘spectres’, could annoy the western notions of space and time, while functioning as revolutionary mediums of postcolonial recovery. It could make space for the synchronization of the past with the present and identifying and acknowledging the existence of alternative/parallel histories. By examining Douglass’s narrative through the lens of postcolonial studies, this paper seeks to discover the ways in which humanity could reconcile with those events or phenomena that modern history has reduced to be ‘ghostly’ or absent. Hauntology as a critical tool could supplant the canonical understanding of ontology and make the erstwhile ‘silences’ produce multiple layers of perspectives.
Addressing the writings of the African American (‘slaves’, bonded labours, etc.), thus, could suggest ways to engage with such unresolved histories, while making the world learn to look through a different gaze, the ‘black’ gaze. With this aim, this paper endeavours to read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845).
The study would engage in assessing how the text could suggest ways of ‘alternate’ knowledge production and ways of writing that could embody the mutilation of the historical alternative. The resulting knowledge/discourse could bridge the uncanny gap between subject and object (of knowledge), between past and present, between knowing and not-knowing. This study also aims at establishing the ‘black’ gaze as a legitimate, natural way of looking at life while trying to dismantle the prevalent understanding of history as a linear progression from a colonial/slave past to a liberated ‘postcolonial’ present. It is very important to accept and understand the ‘other’s’ ways of seeing if, as Derrida says, we look for a possibility of a just future.
Travel writers, while detailing the ‘other’ during the cultural/social/political encounters, build on the structure of two vital elements, the “subject” and the “object.” It has been well established that the subject position is a hegemonic fundamental (central) force that ‘discovers’, locates and catalogues the peripheral locations and people therein. For a long time, the colonial or ‘imperial’ travellers have embodied this central hegemonic dynamism. Thus, the colonial-male-white traveller has been the manufacturer of the ‘ways of seeing’. In the words of E. Ann Kaplan, “The imperial gaze reflects the assumption that the white western subject is central much as the male gaze assumes the centrality of the male subject” (Looking for the Other 78). The present study is an effort delineated towards the recognition and examination of the “peripheral” locations and the “ways of seeing” as is manifest in the Douglass’s narrative.
While trying to take note of and analysing the ‘voices from the margins’, this paper also tries to work at distinguishing the ‘black’ gaze from the classic white-colonial-male centric gaze, and thereby instituting the former as a valid institution in itself. In doing so, the study employs the theory of gaze that is evident in every travel narrative. A ‘black’ travel narrative at that is a source of wider and newer range of scholarships informing and adding to the theory. Travel writing has long been very authoritative for understanding the relation between the ‘west-vs-rest’. In this respect, it is proposed that ‘black’ travel narratives proliferate various forms of gazing that might synchronize or clash with the hitherto extensively studied and dispersed ‘white’ gaze. In narrative representations of a journey, these texts often foreground the need to transcend the color bar, besides the variety and authenticity of the gaze of an African American.
As the first recognized American slave narrative, Olaudah Equiano’s first person testimony of his travails in The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, a Slave, Written by Himself (1789) is invaluable in providing agency to the ‘marginalized. He also records eyewitness accounts of Europe in its institutionalizing the brutal system of slavery. In this credible account of a slave and then a freeman, “the rhetorical devices defining embodies discourse…reappear continually in travel accounts emerging throughout the African diaspora” (Smith 198). He can be seen as configuring an emancipatory form of travel writing using devices and images which released a set of archetypal patterns in slave narratives. Of these, the symbol of the “slave ship” (Smith 198) spans across the African American literary world, and most importantly African American travel writing. During the ill-repute ‘middle-passage’, for almost every African forced into the New World, the slave ship stood for a “hole” or a “dark hole”, “hopeless and unending” (Smith 198). These and much more, slipped into the “collective unconscious” of the African American race for an eternity.
Apart from delineating such manifest features, the African American travel writing also upholds that: The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. (DuBois 615). The mobility of African Americans, thus, struggles with multiple conception of self, a “double consciousness”. Moreover, the survival of these two states—the African American at ‘home’ and ‘abroad’—has to do with more than the simple assessment of ‘home’ and ‘away’ that all travelers undergo. There is an eternal presence of a “two-ness, - an American, a Negro; two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (DuBois 694).
This paper works on the varying perspectives of African American travelers when they look at different places, cultures and people. Their gaze/s, also presents parallel narratives of the world, allowing the readers to revisit the colonial alternatives. This entails an analysis of the theory of gaze, for, perspectives are ways of gazing. It is the gaze and its mutuality between the ‘subject’ (gazer) and the ‘object’ (gazed) that results in the existential forces at work. John Berger in Ways of Seeing (1972) develops the concept of the gaze as an ideological construct, and goes on to discuss the ‘ideal’ spectator or the gazer, who is always considered a male. Modern-colonial history has been from the perspective of the active-male traveller in which the ‘feminine other’ has largely been absent. The African American narratives counter this binary and provide ample matter to fill in the gaps in the process of colonial meaning making. As Julian Wolfrey contends, if “the spectral is at the heart” of any modern narrative, then, ‘to tell a story is always to invoke ghosts, to open a space through which something other returns’ (
Relating this to Postcolonial studies one contends that the colonial surveyor completely silenced its object of survey, and hence the gaps in meanings, and that the surveying gaze, synonymous with the Colonizing force, was always ‘masculine’, registering and narrating the ‘feminine’ colonized subjects. What this study also borrows from Berger is the idea that the act of gazing is always relational, i.e., we are also being seen by the other while we are looking at that other. According to him, this reciprocity of vision or gaze is more fundamental than that of spoken dialogue. Even Sartre develops that the gaze, that sanctions the subject to identify that the ‘Other’, is also a subject, as when he says, “my fundamental connection with the Other-as-subject must be able to be referred back to my permanent possibility of being seen by the Other” (Being and Nothingness 256). Thus, encryptions in the act of seeing are significant in relation to gender, subject-object binary and predetermined ideological outlining of a particular culture and its people. Black travel narratives pose specific challenges, while representing a history of a habitually captivating, yet characteristically unknown or little known, subject. The rhetoric of ‘blackness’ inevitably encompasses cross-cultural growths and hybridity while stressing the interrelations between ‘black’ and white cultures.
The ‘Subaltern’ Speaks
I am invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.
— (Ralph Ellision, Invisible Man)
The horrors of slavery are usually dismissed with remarks such as “it’s done; it’s over”. However, Morrison’s Beloved establishes how history is not over and done with. She lets the reader to re-vision and comprehend the hitherto obliterated African American history through non-western, ‘coloured’ gaze by re-telling history in the words of former African slaves transported to and ‘dumped in’ America. As James Berger opines, “violence within the African American community can only be understood in a context in which […] [the white power] continue[s] to violate African American lives.” (“Ghosts of Liberalism” 191). Like denying the ‘holocaust’ (see Lipstadt 1993), the racist centre denied the violation of the ‘blacks’ on the margins, and the “American racial trauma submerged” (“Ghosts of Liberalism” 192).
African American traveller’s gaze endures a consciousness which is rooted in the ‘color of their body’, leading them to be placed lopsided (negatively) in a racialized power relation for long. Bell Hooks, in her seminal essay, “The Oppositional Gaze” (1992), deliberates how ‘blacks’ (slaves) were punished mercilessly for ‘looking’ and that how “this traumatic relationship to the gaze…had informed ‘black’ spectatorship” (115). The slaves were completely “denied their right to gaze” (115), an experience which exhibited itself unto what we understand now as the “oppositional gaze”. In a relation of power, subordinates procure knowledge through experience which mirrors that “there is a critical gaze that ‘looks’ to document, one that is oppositional” (116).
As such, gaze has a restricting control over those who receive it and ends up making them almost invisible, or ‘ghostly’. Hence, African American travel writing comes back as a haunting phenomenon that seeks to speak for the absent past and destabilize the colonial fillers. The ‘black’ gazes, narrates and thereby adorns various defining standard of being a white/civilized: “Out of the blackest part of my soul, across the zebra striping of my mind, surges this desire to be suddenly white” (Black Skin White Masks 63). The black zebra striping can be considered as the colored/‘black’ consciousness that constructs the ideological veil that a ‘black’ person looks through. Thus the black person attempts to look back thereby produce “a return of knowledge” (“Power/Knowledge” 81).
The ‘white’ gaze was considered to be predominantly armored with a powerful gaze, a gaze of racial superiority, a gaze that was ‘all-knowing’. African-Americans, because they are ‘black’, are already the racially marked body that is not expected to be able to say something knowledgeable, meaningful, and important about race. As Frederick Douglass says in his Narrative, “for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings” (113). On the other hand, when ‘blacks’ render knowledge and look around at the world and produce multiple layers of gazes, that knowledge renders the racist operations of white bodies on the one hand, and engages the ‘black’ person in a series of polemics and eventually portrays ‘black’ viewpoints, aesthetics and cultural and individual archetypes.
In his Narrative, Frederick Douglass says, “for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings” (113). Due to the repeated denial of the right to see and articulate, writers like Douglass, are more aggressive of their right to ‘gaze’, and articulate (speak and write), and their writings seem to strongly emulate the consciousness of the ‘black’ society at large. The ‘slave’ writings attempts at uncovering the phantom and dispelling the guarded myths and secrets.
From the Margins to the Centre: Douglass’s Accounts
Beginning 1820s, the endeavours of the thousands who were attempting at establishing an egalitarian society, have left a striking impact on the literature of the period. Circulation of slave stories from the past point toward a haunting that is rooted in tyrannical slave histories and that the gory past is being brought to the surface through the narratives. It is incontestably remarkable to read about the slave lives: their atrocious masters, overseers, and the multiple flight attempts by the slaves themselves to a free/er world, in the words of the slaves themselves. In the search for a “Utopia” (see Foster 329), Frederick Douglass’s Narrative outlines his journey from the fetters of slavery to that of being a free traveler. His travels, however, may not be extensive spatially, nonetheless, he makes diligent use of any escape route that he comes across, and thereby, creates the American space. He especially paints the South, in the Antebellum America, and becomes one of the celebrated names amongst the “moving slaves” (see Cox 65). Mobility remains, perhaps, the single most important factor in a slave’s life, as when Douglass says he could see his mother, who lived on another plantation, only at night. He writes, “She made her journeys to see me in the night, traveling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work” (25). The invisible journeys have surfaced as a haunting account in Douglass’s narrative.
Douglass' Narrative begins with the inadequate facts about his birth and parentage that he is aware of; his father is some slave owner (that he is unacquainted with) and his mother is, Harriet Bailey, a slave. He says, “My father was a white man….The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father” (24). Being a Mulatto child (slave), he is not accepted by his father publicly and thus left to perish with his mother at a very young age; eventually he gets separated from his mother too like all other mulattos. For a child, this separation is pointless, besides being painful, and Douglass wonders if this is done “to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child” (24). This is the unavoidable outcome in almost all such cases. The ‘blacks’ were rendered with a crippled ontological self— black as they were, their existence was spun into a black invisibility.
The lack of knowledge of birth dates, place of origin or even the parentage was a customary trait of the slaves— it was almost a ‘spectral’ life being forced on them. Douglass notices that ‘blacks’/slaves know as little of their age as horses know of theirs” (23) and in his knowledge “it is the wish of most masters…to keep their slaves thus ignorant” (23). Whereas, the “white children could tell their ages” (23). As a child, he could never understand as to why the ‘black’ people are “deprived of the same privilege” (23). It is considered “improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit” (23) if a slave makes inquiries of any sort.
He meets his first master, Captain Anthony, while in Tuckahoe, Maryland. He is a owner of about 30 slaves in his two-three farms; he is not a rich master in comparison to many others who own hundreds of slaves. Colonel Lloyd, another of his master, keeps three to four hundred slaves, and “owned a large number more on the neighboring farms” (32). In fact, Lloyd owns so many slaves that “he did not know them when he saw them” (41-42). The slaves are simply a lot of chattel to him ‘to be owned’.
The Slave owners “could not brook any contradiction from a slave” (41). On one occasion, Colonel Lloyd says, “a slave must stand, listen, and tremble; and such was the literal case…. a man between fifty and sixty years of age, uncover his bald head, kneel down upon the cold, damp ground, and receive upon his naked and toil-worn shoulders more than thirty lashes at the time” (41). Lloyd’s three sons “enjoyed the luxury of whipping the servants when they pleased” (41). Also, none of the masters could tolerate other’s slaves on their farm, even if it happens by mistake. Once, a slave of Llyod mistakenly enters Mr. Beal Bondly’s farm while fishing for oysters to make up for his scanty allowance. He is shot down without a moment of hesitation by Mr. Bondly. In the white community, it was prevalent amongst the little white boys that: “It was worth a half-cent to kill a ‘nigger’, and a half-cent to bury one” (50). One Mr. Freeland, another of Douglass’s owners, is the “best master” (115), for he didn’t portray a duplicity of wearing a religious cloak and torturing the slaves, or keeping a watchful eye and lash the slaves on every drop of a hat.
The slave owners appoint an overseer on every farm to overlook and manage slaves. Overseers are mostly the personification of devil himself, as the narrative mirrors. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves are overlooked by Mr. Severe; Douglass observes, he is “rightly named: he was a cruel man” (34). He is always armed with “a large hickory stick and heavy cowskin” (34). He speaks of his inhuman ways:
I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release…was a profane swearer…scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath…. From the rising till the going down of the sun, he was cursing, raving, cutting, and slashing among the slaves of the field. (34)
As the severity of Mr. Severe reaches peak and he is replaced by Mr. Hopkins as the latter succumbs to death; the slaves regard his death as “the result of a merciful providence” (34). Hopkins is considered a different man as he is “less cruel, less profane, and made less noise, than Mr. Severe” (35). It is a deplorable irony that slaves call him a “good overseer” (35) just because he whipped, all right, but he did not seem to take pleasure in it. Due to his supposed lack in the “necessary severity” (45) to suit colonel Lloyd, Hopkins is supplanted by Mr. Austin Gore, “a man possessing, in an eminent degree, all those traits of character indispensable to what is called a first-rate overseer” (45). Austin proves to be “proud, ambitious, and persevering…artful, cruel, and obdurate” (45); “He tortures with the slightest look, word, or gesture, on the part of the slave” (45). He perfectly replicates the aphorism laid down by slaveholders: “It is better that a dozen slaves suffer under the lash, than the overseer should be convicted, in the presence of the slaves, of having been at fault” (45). One Captain Anthony keeps Mr. Plummer on his farm who is a “miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster” (27) and is perennially “armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel” (27-28). It is the ‘white man’s rule’ that governs the lives of the ‘blacks’.
People who argued in favor of slavery, routinely opined that slaves were happy, citing the fact that slaves would sing as they worked. However, on the contrary, “slaves sing most when they are most unhappy” (38), and the “dense old woods, revealing at once the highest joy and deepest sadness…sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone” (36). In his narrative, Douglass tries to capture the most wounding sentiments that come alive in slave songs, whose profound meaning, however, he could not comprehend when he was in their circle. When he becomes free and comes out of the circle, the spectres of the songs haunt him and intensify his hatred for the institution of slavery. For him the songs:
Told a tale of woe…. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains…. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them…. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery…. If anyone wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation. (37)
The songs act as a vent for relieving their pain just as “an aching heart is relieved by tears” (38). Thus, throughout his life Douglass could hear the echoes of such melodic pain—“slavery has ended but something of it continues to live on…” (Gordon, Haunting and the Social Imagination 139).
A peculiar trait about the slaves is that they “imbibe prejudices” (43) and engage in a race to decide and declare as to whose master is better. Douglass observes, “Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves…. Indeed, it is uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of his own over that of the others” (43). Meanwhile, the truth that prevails is that none of the masters are even human, let alone being good or bad. Carrying on in their peculiar line of thought, the slaves affirmed that “the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!” (44). On the other side, these slaves prove to be “noble souls; they not only possessed loving hearts, but brave ones” (115). It is there simplicity that makes them get easily manipulated too. The oppressive and restricting hegemony of the ‘whites’ rendered the ‘blacks’ with a myopic understanding of grace as against disgrace.
When Douglass is around five to eight years old, he has plenty of leisure time for himself since he is not old enough to work in the fields and, thus, gets “seldom whipped” (51) by his master. However, he intolerably suffers from another evil, hunger and cold. His memory races past, “In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked-no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing but a coarse linen shirt…no bed…used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to mill…crawl into the bag, and there sleep” (51). The only food that the slaves receive is a “coarse corn meal boiled…called mush…put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground” (52). They are fed like animals; sometimes even worse.
Then arrives “three of the happiest days” (52) in his life when he is told that he would travel to Baltimore to work for Captain Thomas Auld’s brother, who is Captain Anthony’s son-in-law,. Straight away, as directed by Mrs. Lucretia, he starts washing and cleaning himself: “I must get all the dead skin off my feet and knees…for people in Baltimore were very cleanly, and would laugh at me if I looked dirty” (53). He is also delighted on the promise of a pair of trousers if he gets himself cleaned.
To his downright surprise, Mrs. Auld, his new mistress in Baltimore, has “a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions” (55). He is appointed to look after her little son. For a white to have a softer countenance for a ‘black’ is an unusual experience for him: “It is a new and strange sight to me, brightening up my pathway with the light of happiness” (55). He regards himself as being divinely privileged for having come to such a state of unexpected bliss; the irony is that he is still a slave. He claims his mistress to be:
A woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings…had never had a slave under her control previously…. I was utterly astonished at her goodness…. The meanest slave was put fully at ease in her presence. (57)
However, this is a fleeting experience as “the fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work” (57). Mrs. Auld starts teaching him the language of the masters, English letters. As he progresses, Mr. Auld finds this out and chastises her heavily. The masters considered this as a process of defiling the best nigger in the world. Mr. Auld instructs his wife, “‘If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing’” (58). Thus, Douglass learns what is white man’s power and that “it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country” (65). These moments seasoned his journey of becoming a future abolitionist as he “understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (59).
The mistress, however, slowly transforms and starts unbecoming of herself while slowly donning the typical garb of a white that Douglass had known before coming to her. He writes, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman…. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities…. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself” (64). On the other hand, he prepares to drop his slave-self and become a different person altogether—by receiving the inch, he now prepares to take the ell.
However, now that Douglass is outside the immediate chains of slavery, the incapacity to look at the situation of the ‘black’ people slowly ceases to exist and the existential plight of countless becomes clear to him now. As he reads more and more, his vision and mission becomes clearer and stronger; his understanding of the whites and ‘black’s extends. He says, “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers” (67). His sojourn at Baltimore lays bare another cunning trait of the white community. The whites “encourage slaves to escape” (69), and in order to get reward, catch them and hand them over to their masters. His gaze could now perforate through the wretched condition of his brethrens. The myriad imperceptible spectres now act as become visible and produce knowledge within an episteme of memory, and inheritance.
Eventually there ensues a fight between Master Thomas and Master Hugh, and Douglass is called back to Maryland. Thomas finds him “unsuitable for his purpose” (86) and deduces that this is the result of the city life and its malicious effects. Douglass writes to his master (Thomas), “It had almost ruined me for every good purpose, and fitted me for everything which was bad” (86-87). Immediately Douglass is placed “to be broken” (87). He comes across a group of people who break the slaves just like a horse is broken and tamed; they are called the “negro-breaker and slave driver” (109). Mr. Covey who has “acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves” (87) is appointed to ‘break’ Douglass. He is one of those (rare) slaveholders who “could not and did not work with his hands” (91). Slave breakers mostly work like spies. Douglass outlines Covey:
His comings were like a thief in the night…. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St, Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. (92)
The apparatus of corporeal vulnerability circumscribed the body from encompassing its co-inhabited space, thereby, eliminating it (body) from that space altogether.
The first place that Douglass, as a child, familiarizes with is a plantation farm where his mother is a slave worker. Plantation farms became floating signifiers of suffering obliterating the ‘other’ in the process. Douglass is supposed to be a mulatto, a white master’s child, but the plantations have the rules that, “the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers” (26). A hellish place trafficked with lust and torture, Douglass is, thus, born as a mulatto child on a plantation. The masters trade off mulattos for the downright detestation and cruelty of the (white) mistress towards the latter that navigate all boundaries of tolerance. And until a mulatto is sold off, the master “must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother…and ply gory lash to his naked back” (26). The state of the mulatto kids thus, is worse than the ‘black’ ones.
The ‘inhuman’ plantations have vast areas for growing tobacco, wheat and corn are in great abundance. Colonel Lloyd’s production from his huge farms is sold in Baltimore. Many plantations taken together act as platform of great business and governance, where “disputes among overseers were settled” (32). Several mechanical works such as, black smiting, shoemaking and mending, cartwrighting, grain-grinding, coopering, weaving, etc., are also all carried out on the plantations wearing “a business-like aspect” (35). Such places display power and grandeur. Llyod’s plantation is known as the Great House Farm. Douglass notices that “a representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great Farm House” (35). It is a matter of pride for the slaves to work in this ‘Great House’ and earn great confidence in them by the master. Moreover, this place is also acts as a shield from the endless whiplash of the overseers and masters while in the field. Nevertheless, Douglass could not find “anything great in the Great House, no matter how beautiful or powerful” (54) with not even the basic of the amenities for the slaves. The house is a place, which, despite every demonstration of majesty or defence to the slave, breeds slavery.
Thus, “going to Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway” (56) to all his subsequent affluence and he looks at it as a manifestation of some kind providence. He thinks how “there were a number of slave children that might have been sent from the plantation to Baltimore…. I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice” (56). He considers himself blessed, and finds Baltimore a place a with a “marked difference, in the treatment of slaves” (60) from his erstwhile place. Here people are “better fed and clothed, and enjoy privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation” (60). In fact in “every city slaveholder is anxious to have it known of him, that he feeds his slaves well; and it is due to them to say, that most of them do give their slaves enough to eat” (60). It is a peculiar kind of duplicity and double-standard of the city slave-owners though.
On being frequently asked about his feelings on being Free State vs slave state, Douglass uses a few brilliant images to generate his feelings on free lands like New York and Baltimore: “It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate”; “immediately after my arrival at New York…I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions” (143). These expressions narrate the distinct atmospheres of a free state as against the slave state.
However, such places also make him go through forlorn feelings as “he is in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger” (143). Slavery birthed ecologies of forlorn nonexistence. Although he is with his own brethren, he is cynical about laying bare his sadness in front of them “for the fear of speaking to the wrong one” (143) as “the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey” (143). In fact, he adopts the dictum “‘Trust no man!’”, as he starts his journey from slavery to freedom (144). Moreover, he is amidst abundance, and is yet hungry; in a place full of gorgeous houses, yet homeless. Something is amiss in him, as may be in many other ‘blacks.
Douglass persistently keeps changing his name as he tries to leave behind slavery. It is New Bedford which gives him his final name, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He is however, quite surprised at the general appearance of the New Bedford, a northern place:
I found to be singularly erroneous…. I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the south…came to this conclusion that…northern people owned no slaves…in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement. And upon coming to the north, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and cultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of ease, luxury, pomp…how palpable I must have seen my mistake. (148-49)
Everything is “clean, new and beautiful” (150). There are no ramshackle houses with poverty-stricken inmates. It’s a habitable, content place. The spectral invisibility of his existence finds ecology of visibility, peripheral though.
Douglass’s gaze through his past and present is enthralling in its refined and intelligent accounts of people and places; even an unfeeling reader can get stimulated by its brilliance if not moved by its passion. He ontologically positions the “black” life into discernibility that threaded through ‘ecologies of nonexistence’ for long. Douglass’s gaze (perspective) seems to disdain pity, but his narration is suggestive of sympathy, as he meant life to be, in the colored world, that he lived in and gave his life for. In delineating characters, it is not easy to make real people come to life. Douglass’s writing is extremely brief and episodic to develop any rounded character. Nevertheless, he effectively generates a wholesome of America— place that break him and pull him down or resurrect him. At one place he meets people to whom he is a ‘black’ to be scorned, and at other places, people find splendour in that very color.
In the words of Fanon: “Ontology does not allow us to understand the being of the black man, since it ignores the lived experience…” (Black Skin, White Masks 90). Thus, texts like Douglass’s call for the creation and spread of a ‘hauntology’ of color (blackness) to vouch for the epistemology of both presence and absence, born out of accounts of extremes of pain, loss, and absence. African American travel writing and the activity of gazing (and the eventual meaning making)— gazing and mobility being the ‘master’s’ tool for long— together make one of the most effective ways to ‘haunt’ (counter) the canon and make submerged stories surface, while legitimizing the ‘black’ perspective or point of view.
Thus, Douglass’s gaze paints a candid abolitionist horror tale, albeit a remarkably humane and compelling one. He provides a fuller and more nuanced narrative account of the African American slaves while trying to relate an account of the ‘others’ (whites in his case) as well, thereby blurring the traditional understanding of ‘centre’ and ‘margin’. His narrative is a strong portrayal of the voice of the ‘subalterns’, one that makes the almost forgotten, ‘obliterated’ history of the slaves take centre-stage.
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