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I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me

in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep,

but long before I waked she was gone



Books by and about Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself  / My Bondage and My Freedom

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass / Frederick Douglass: Selected speeches and Writings 

The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader Frederick Douglass by Booker T. Washington

The Mind of Frederick Douglass   /  Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass

Black Hearts of Men Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity

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Resolving the Oedipal Complex

Douglass' 1845 Narrative

A Domestic Tale of Desire and Loss

By Rudolph Lewis


In “Myths of Masculinity: The Oedipus Complex and Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” (The Psychoanalysis of Race published by Columbia University Press, 1998), Gwen Bergner used the language of psychoanalysis in her effort to get at the underlying text and meaning of Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. Her novel approach, Bergner points out, is a “second wave” of Douglass criticism. Among her cohorts she included Deborah McDowell, Jenny Franchot, Valerie Smith, and George P. Cunningham. With her professed use of Freud and Lacan, Bergner concluded Douglass at 28 years old wrote a text that is “an icon of male sufficiency.” The 1845 Narrative, according to Bergner, was designed to “represent the consolidation of masculine identity against the image of a woman’s castrated body.”

Bergner's reductionist view of Douglass' life is sustained by a feminist ideology in which man, any man, is the enemy, the center of power, the Phallus of feminine repression. In her exploration of the 1845 Narrative, Bergner unnecessarily restricted her analysis of the text to two reported incidents: Captain Anthony’s whipping of Hester Bailey, when Douglass was six or seven, about 1825; and Fred’s fight with Ed “The Snake” Covey, when Fred was about fifteen or sixteen, about 1833. These scenes, according to Bergner, are exceedingly spectral, an indicator of Douglass’s will to power, that is, he received “voyeuristic pleasure” from the abuse of women’s bodies, especially those of black women.

For Bergner, these two events, shaped and determined Douglass' sexist character and his "homoerotic" identification with white male culture. These two scenes are oedipal moments. In the first, Douglass represses his identification with his Aunt Hester, symbolic of the mother and her race, and identifies with Captain Anthony, the man with the whip; Captain Anthony, Bergner asserts, becomes “an object of desire, not a rival.” Like Freud’s Wolf Man, “Douglass wards off the terror of the master/father’s authority by confining vulnerability to the (African-American) woman and by adopting a masculine identity.”

The fight with Covey is merely symbolic of the lesson Fred learned from his white master/father Captain Anthony, that is, physical mastery trumps female passivity. Douglass thereafter began his project of the “erasure of the feminine.” On gaining his freedom, Douglass produced a text, a mirrored desire, according to Bergner, that needs “women’s castration and humiliation.” According to Bergner’s mentor, Deborah McDowell, “black women’s backs become the parchment on which Douglass narrates his linear progression from bondage to freedom.

The 1845 Narrative, trapped in Bergner’s ideological grid, deserves a more critical openness. The critical reader can get beyond her distorted view by casting Freud and Lacan and maybe Foucault over a much larger extent of Douglass’s tale and its representation of black male subjectivity under a slave regime. We need to consider how a slave, in particular Douglass, managed to step beyond the modern discipline that reduces humanity to mere functional objects for the profit and pleasure of others. We need to mark how Douglass attempted to unmask the actual character of slavery, in Foucault’s terms, a power/knowledge regime, its practices, rather than its beliefs.

The 1845 Narrative, as does our analysis, begins with Douglass’s birth and his development as a child, roughly from 1817-1824. His mother was Harriet Bailey, “the daughter of Isaac and Betsy Bailey, both colored, and quite dark.” Douglass himself, from appearances, was a white child with frizzled hair. Though there exists no “authentic record,” Douglass suggests strongly that Aaron Anthony, that is, Captain Anthony, was his biological father. The evidence of this perverse fact was sustained by the oral lore of the black families living on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, by proximity and opportunity, by his mother’s status as property, and Captain Anthony’s relationship with Hester, his mother’s sister. 

Douglass wrote that his master/father separated him and his mother, “when I was but an infant,” one year old. His father’s intent was “to hinder the development” of his affection toward his mother, “to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child.” Rather than the Aunt Hester whipping scene, the Harriet-Captain Anthony relationship establishes the central oedipal conflict in Douglass’s domestic narrative. The father, Captain Anthony, in effect, attempted to castrate his son, to cut Fred off as a rival for his mother’s body (symbolically, the bodies of all women), to sever any emotional attachment to black womanhood and the norms of humanity. This was not a singular act, but, according to Douglass, a “common custom” of how power in his part of Maryland made a male child into a slave.

In this exposé of family relations, Douglass unveiled how the power of slavery asserted itself in the minute particulars of the birth, life, and death of individuals, how the evil, mechanistic principles that were American slavery dispersed themselves among the populace and how their dehumanizing constraint was effected by individuals in a manner as normal as marriage and whiteness.

He wrote, “I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. . . . I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial.” With respect to black male subjectivity, the operatives of the slave regime consciously practiced, what McDowell calls, the “erasure of the feminine.” Recalling his besmeared sensibility toward his mother, Douglass wrote “I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions . . . at the death of a stranger.” Because of his mother’s absence, Douglass’s love for his mother was more a matter of the imagination. As a result, Douglass tended to idealize women, as can be seen in his portraits of his grandmother and Sophia Auld.

Harriet Bailey, the erased biological mother, was, however, supplemented by Fred’s grandmother, Betsey,  a woman very religious. She obviously gave the young Fred more than what the system had bargained for; evidently, she wrote a spiritual narrative on his heart and his conscience that emphasized care and tenderness. Douglass expended considerable text to describe his affections for his grandmother, who was passed from master to master. Old, crippled, having raised several generations of white and black children, his grandmother was sent out into the woods to fend for herself.

Douglass wrote, “If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great grandchildren. . . . my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. . . . and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains.”

The slave child, from many points of power, is pressured to construct an identity that is less than his own estimation. Bound by slavery’s bio-power, Douglass’s search for empowerment does not seem to be biologically motivated, as Bergner contends; his intellectual pursuits and imaginings seem designed to defend his own personal worth and value. At the beginning of the Narrative,  Douglass wrote, “I could not tell why I ought to be deprived.” Douglass wanted to know why the Law, the Name of the Father, should be withheld from him: that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. Douglass did not equate a will to know to a will to dominate, except reflexively, that self enthralled by evil and the perversions of slavery.

At six or seven years old, Douglass cared enough for his subjectivity, to “problematize” his existence. “Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves and others masters?” Douglass wrote, years later, in an essay entitled “A Child’s Reasoning.” He concluded, “These were perplexing questions and very troublesome to my childhood.”

Set aside as a slave, as property, Douglass constructed an identity, not on power as domination, but on a sense of lack, of loss, of absence, of being “deprived” by the caprice of others. Gradually, he learned that individuals behave in ways that are not of their own making, that there is a linguistic veil through which one must trespass in order to behold the true reality of man. For language, as well as corporeal punishment, was used to constrain and define identity.  In his essay “Child’s Reasoning,” Douglass wrote, “I was told by some one very early that ‘God up in the sky’ had made all things, and had made black people to be slaves and white people to be masters” and that God “knew what was best for everybody.”

For Fred, this metadiscourse of religion was not satisfactory; it invited suspicion. In that God was just and merciful, the child reasoned, the whipping of his Aunt Hester and the other occurrences of whippings and mutilations could not have been sanctioned by God. Moreover, the child discovered, all blacks were not slaves: his Uncle Noah and Aunt Jenny had escaped to freedom; other slaves spoke of being “stolen from Africa.” The fictions of slavery’s project were easily debunked, even from a child’s perspective. Douglass concluded, “I was always a fugitive from slavery in spirit and purpose.”

In writing his Narrative against the institutional narrative of slavery – its norms, mores, laws, customs, its religion, Douglass provided a different way of feeling, of responding to slavery, beyond the shibboleths of white abolitionist thinking, like that of William Lloyd Garrison. His domestic tale generates another sensibility, rich, random, multiple realities of concrete everyday occurrences, the fantasized perversions of power.  Among the most poignant of the narrated events is indeed the six-year-old Douglass witnessing the torture of his Aunt Hester. In a sense it replicates his oedipal anxiety in more graphic terms, the phantasm of slavery’s lived reality, its castration of freedom and human dignity.

In this domestic drama, Douglass delved underneath the surface of the Southern gentleman’s mythic image. Douglass wrote, “Aunt Hester went out one night . . . when my master desired her presence. He had ordered her not to go out evenings, and warned her that she must never let him catch her in company with a young man . . . Ned Roberts, generally called Lloyd’s Ned. Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture.” Though sketched by Douglass with Victorian restraint, the whipping scene mirrors the polymorphously perverse character of slavery. Douglass wrote, “He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.”

The physical torture and mutilation of his Aunt Hester’s body by his father is visually exacting and emotionally powerful. What is more disturbing in the child’s imagination is the sexual and moral implications of this sadomasochistic act. In this scene, Douglass observes a father who rejected his paternal duty, a man who tore him from his mother’s arms and bred her into an early grave, now jealously engaged in a further perversion of familial ties, that is, a sexual relationship with his mother’s sister, Hester Bailey. “It was a blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle.” Douglass’s characterization of his father’s manhood seems far from ideal and far from a model in which he desired to establish an identification.  Men such as his father, Douglass sought to undermine at every opportunity.

On Colonel Lloyd’s plantation and within its network, there were, however, other men and women who were vehicles of slavery’s power, other father and mother figures (black and white) upon which to piece or construct an identity. There was Master Daniel  Lloyd, who, Douglass wrote, “became quite attached to me, and was a sort of protector of me. He would not allow the older boys to impose upon me, and would divide his cakes with me.” Even though consciously in slavery’s service, at moments and with particular individuals, those associated with the profit-making of slavery could exhibit some of the tenderness of humanity.

Douglass’s account of his seven-year residence in the home of the Aulds in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, stands out as prominently as that of his Aunt Hester, in a way more so. In a manner, the Aulds became the young Fred’s foster parents. His new home, initially, was a thing of romance. Douglass wrote, “And here I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions; it was the face of my new mistress, Sophia Auld. I wish I could describe the rapture that flashed through my soul as I beheld it. It was a new and strange sight to me, brightening up my pathway with the light of happiness.” 

The child felt special, “chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice.” Douglass escaped the hunger, which caused him to steal; the frost; the cold, damp, clay floor to which his father had assigned him. The 1845 Narrative suggests that Lucretia Anthony Auld, Douglass’s half sister and seemingly the feminine head of the Anthony household, intervened on her brother’s behalf. His sister Lucretia gave him his first pair of trousers, as a reward for cleaning off “the mange” of slavery. Ultimately, Douglass got away from the Lloyd Plantation, he believed, as a result of “divine Providence.”

Like Hester Bailey, Sophia Auld is symbolic of the tortured feminine, undoubtedly the motif of the 1845 Narrative and Douglass’s prevailing argument of slavery’s perverseness, that is, slavery destroys all that is tender in humanity. When he first went to live with the Aulds, Sophia treated him “as she supposed one human being ought to treat another.” Douglass wrote, “Slavery [symbolic of the Father] soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb like disposition gave way to one of tiger like fierceness.”

Within the triad of Hugh and Sophia Auld, Douglass explained unerringly how he resolved his oedipal anxiety. Douglass wrote, “What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument that he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.”

Irony, a frequent figure of Douglass’s rhetoric, is not a device usually used by those who seek domination and subjugation. Frederick Douglass was not one eager to join the majority view in power politics. He was a gadfly, a man of ethical strength.

In the 1845 Narrative, Douglass developed a new emancipatory language, whose ethic must be just in speaking the truth. Douglass understood early that “providence,” Lacan’s Other, can break through all mechanistic designs of modern life to strike at the heart of personal repression, which keeps the subject from constructing a moral and ethical self. The Covey incident instead of being a simple transference of the masculine will to power, as Bergner contends, signified a spiritual lesson. Douglass wrote, “I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious revelation from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.”

Douglass realized the caprice, the rationality of slavery, must be countered by whatever means available; that he, as a moral and ethical agent in the world, must choose to oppose it at every instance. Douglass wrote, “however I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known . . . the white man who expected to succeed in whipping me, must also succeed in killing me.”  With the conquest of this final fear, the radical castration of death, Douglass broke through the linguistic enclosures of slavery’s power. For the enslaved individual, some actions are ethically justifiable, not only thievery for food, but also magic and mumbo-jumbo, and yes, even, violence. 

The ethical use of violence would be a recurring theme throughout Douglass’s public career. That is, Douglass believed, righteousness accrues to a violence that opposes a great evil; God sanctions those who attempt to create a new language of freedom and a new ethic of human relations. Unlike Bergner’s Douglass, the one in the 1845 Narrative understood that forgiveness; understanding; confidence in the self and humanity; and God’s mercy, always trump metadiscourses that reduce man to a beast and a cipher of calculation.

Bibliographic Sources

Bergner, Gwen. “Myths of Masculinity: The Oedipus Complex and Douglass’s 1845 Narrative.” In The Psychoanalysis of Race. Edited by Christopher Lane. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, 241-260.

Douglass, Frederick, “A Child’s Reasoning.” In The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, 1883 edition. Http:// .

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written By Himself. First Published, Boston, 1845.

McDowell, Deborah E. “In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition.” In Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Edited by William L. Andrews. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall & Company, 1971,  192-214.

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Frederick Douglass

                         By Robert Hayden

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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