Friday, September 03, 2010

A Narrative About A Narrative

Time is an interesting thing. First of all, of course, it's one more of those social constructions. I mean, it didn't exactly come as part of the life-on-Earth starter kit. There was most certainly, I would imagine, a period early on when humans just lived in the moment. Indigenous people living traditionally still do, from what I understand. But as for us, we wear watches and calibrate gestation and are interminable consumers of calendars which all become obsolete annually. We wear time like spandex, allowing it to constrain us and demand of us lest it leave us, somehow, inexplicably, behind.

The fact is, though, that frustrating as all this often is, it is quite interesting sometimes to consider our and other people's lives in the temporal context, juxtaposing them to see where they meet or influence each other. For example, in 1970, when Angela Davis was arrested in New York City, I was in San Francisco, stretching my wings as a radical and absolutely unaware of her. How could I have been unaware of her?

In any case (unbeknownst to me), she was on the cover of Life magazine that summer and now, a copy of that cover hangs on my home office wall between a photo of the Angola 3 and a painting of a woman Zapatista. She's one of my heroes. And today, I'm reviewing her presentation of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself, brought out this year -- forty years after her arrest -- by City Lights, the highly respected San Francisco publishing house. It's a veritable kaleidoscope of magical coincidences, is it not? But I'm not finished yet.

See, this exact date in 1838 was the day Frederick Douglass broke through to freedom, escaping his bonds on his second try, at the age of twenty or so (he couldn't know for certain). Asked what it felt like to be free that day, Douglass wrote to a friend, "I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions. Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil."

And so, I approach this task -- a simple review of the book -- with just such a lack of confidence that I can possibly communicate what I think of a book with so many reference points for me.

I could try to be "critical" and point out the obvious. Like the fact that the first ninety-six pages of the book are made up of an editor's note, an introduction by Davis, an introduction to a presentation of two lectures by Davis in 1969, the lectures themselves, William Lloyd Garrison's preface to the original publication of the Douglass' narrative, and a letter from Wendell Phillips to Frederick Douglass upon the original publication of the narrative in 1845. And frankly, that was a bit much for me. Maybe it shouldn't have been or maybe I shouldn't admit it. Maybe I was overtired (I was) and hot (it is Louisiana here). But whatever, until I reached The Narrative, I was somewhat distracted. Not enough not to read it all, you understand (well, all right, I didn't read ALL of Garrison's preface and I skipped Phillips' letter entirely), but I chalk that up to my shortcomings as an academic and a reader rather than as a fault of the manuscript. In fact, I can't believe I just told you all this. Good grief. Have I no shame?

And another thing that unnerved me somewhat was that in her two lectures delivered in 1969, Angela Davis (my hero, keep in mind) was talking all this high-falootin' theoretical analysis -- and she does that very well -- while using the pronoun "he" to refer to everyone human. Davis writes in her introduction: "[T]oday I find it...somewhat embarrassing to realize that my UCLA lectures on Douglass rely on an implicitly masculinist notion of freedom" and admits that it was during her time in prison that she "began to recognize the fundamental importance of developing gender analyses," but she doesn't specifically mention the blatant use of language that we were virtually all raised using, but which I found so jarring for some reason, possibly because I held her -- unreasonably, I guess -- to a different standard. I respect that she didn't "fix" the language the way some theorists (such as the famous liberationist Paulo Freire) have done. But still. I'm just sayin' is all.

Now don't get me wrong. When Davis writes: "[T]he master feels himself free...because he is able to control the lives of others...The slave understands that this is a pseudo concept of freedom and at this point is more enlightened than his master for he realizes that the master is a slave of his own misconceptions, his own misdeeds, his own brutality, his own effort to oppress," I am undone. Davis' brilliance and erudition are clear throughout, demonstrating a command of language and facility with philosophical thought that often reaches rapier level. I read: "The first phase of liberation is the decision to reject the image of himself that the slave-owner has painted, to reject the conditions that the slave-owner has created, to reject his own existence, to reject himself as slave." And I want to put the lines on a billboard.

Davis' clarity and logic is perfect when she writes: "How could the master have been independent when it is the very institutions of slavery that provided his wealth, that provided his means of sustenance? The master was dependent...for his life on the slave...If the slave were not there to till the land, to build his estates, to serve him his meals, the master would not be free from the necessities of life. If he had to do all the things that the slave does for him, he would be just as much in a state of bondage as the slave...[I]t is the slave who possesses the power over the life of the master; if he does not work, when he ceases to follow orders, the master's means of sustaining himself has disappeared."

And goodness' knows, I remember well what works in progress we all were in the 1960's and 1970's. Davis remains and will remain one of my heroes. But it is nevertheless true that it was unsettling to read in this volume that even she had not yet developed (in 1969) a consciousness about this particular patriarchal conditioning.

Having said all this, however, let me now proceed to brandish a grateful salute in Davis' direction for shining the spotlight on Frederick Douglass' absolutely remarkable narrative of his life as a slave. Having embarrassed myself already by pointing out a hero's foible, I must embarrass myself yet again by admitting that I had never read Douglass' work before this.


And I was mesmerized.

Now, if you are a regular reader, you know that I have at least something of a clue about the socially-constructed, political notion of race and the history of race relations over the past few hundred years. Some of my students are convinced that I think about little else (and they are only wrong in that I sometimes think about gender relations). But Douglass dragged me limping and aghast through the brier patch of slavery and I am the better for it. His accounts of beatings make the Roots television series look mild-mannered. And his detailed descriptions of slave-holders' ways and the anguish of slaves' souls are equally garish.

I highlighted so many lines in the narrative that I hardly know how to find any quotes to include here. But how about this discussion of slaves singing on their way to the "Great House" to pick up their monthly fare for an example?

"While on their way, 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 sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone...They told a tale of woe...[T]hey breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains...Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds...I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness...The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears."

When Douglass' master instructed his wife not to teach Douglass to read because it would make him unfit to be a slave, Douglass committed himself to learn to read or die, but having done so, he discovered the skill to be a two-edged sword.

"The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men...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. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me...The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness...It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm."

Eventually, Douglass was "put out" to be broken by a man with a proud reputation for the success rate of his brutality and, according to the narrative, the man was as successful with Douglass as he had been with others.

"We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him...Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!"

Ultimately, however, Douglass won, refusing to allow the "nigger-breaker" (as he was called) to beat him yet again and putting the man in a position to have to hide Douglass' belligerance rather than to publicly admit his defeat at the hands of a sixteen-year-old boy.

Then, on September 3rd, 1838, after returning to his legal master, Douglass put on a sailor's garb and quietly walked away. He ends the book clarifying his perspective on the practice of the so-called Christianity he had been forced to witness during his life as a young slave. Not only is this my favorite part of the whole book, but it occurs to me now that I end my own book on race with a discussion of Christianity's lack of discomfort with institutionalized oppression in the name of racism and I am pleased that I followed Douglass in that. But Douglass does it better.

"[B]etween the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference -- so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked...I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity."

And he's barely warmed up there on his way to what he really has to say about the subject. But you'll have to get the book to read that.

The bottom line is that Frederick Douglass' narrative should be required reading for every person in the United States. But more to the point, it should be on the bookshelf in every home in America. The passion, the beauty, and the truth of Douglass' work is such that it calls into question not only the peculiar institution of slavery, but the ongoing acceptance of White Supremacy as the default position in this nation today. His argument is irrefutable. And Angela Davis' wisdom in exposing the unaware to this man and her analysis of his work at this time in history deserves, in my opinion, to be recognized and appreciated. If Frederick Douglass had not escaped his chains, this narrative would probably not exist. On the other hand, if Angela Davis and City Lights had not blessed us with this edition, many (like me) would remain ignorant of its magnitude.

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