The Narrative of Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass

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The Narrative of Frederick Douglass: Allusions 2 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Curse of Ham:

In Chapter 1, Douglass alludes to a common biblical justification for the institution of slavery. He uses logos to dismantle this justification:

If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters.

In the Bible, Ham is one of the sons of Noah. One night, Noah gets drunk and falls asleep naked. Ham walks in and sees his father naked, then tells his brothers about it. His brothers cover up their father and carefully avoid looking at him. When they tell Noah later about what happened, he curses Ham's son, Canaan. While his two other sons and their "brethren" will be blessed by God, Noah proclaims, Canaan and his "brethren" will serve them.

Historically, apologists for the institution of slavery claimed that Black people were the descendants of Ham and were divinely ordained to serve white people. This is a convenient excuse for a racist practice, but Douglass accepts for a moment that this claim is true. He argues that if this is the case, the "scriptural" justification for slavery is about to fall apart. He has just described how white men, like his presumed father, are incentivized to sexually assault enslaved women. Children born to enslaved mothers would also be legally enslaved, so sexual assault allowed white men to increase their wealth in the form of human chattel. Here, Douglass suggests that the regularity of this practice is breaking down racial categories. He takes himself as an example. He has both Black and white ancestry, so there is no way to say whether he is "scripturally" cursed with enslavement or blessed by God to be served by Ham's descendants. There can no longer be a functional curse of Ham if everyone can draw an ancestral line to any one of Noah's sons.

Douglass does not necessarily believe in the Curse of Ham to begin with, but he is asking white readers to confront the holes in their own logic. He starts by agreeing with the general idea of the curse. He then demonstrates that racial categories are growing less distinct. By offering this new idea about race (new at least to many of his readers), he uses logos to convince readers that "slavery at the south must soon be unscriptural." By taking away the Bible as the moral basis for the institution of slavery, Douglass leaves white readers scrambling for another moral basis. That scramble itself reveals that no one was ever enslaving people because they thought it was God's will; rather, God's will was invoked as a convenient excuse.

Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Patrick Henry:

In Chapter 10, Douglass describes the difficult decision he and some of his fellow enslaved people must make about whether to stay put under the familiar conditions of enslavement or whether to run away toward unknown obstacles. Douglass alludes to Patrick Henry's famous "liberty or death" speech to convey the weight of the decision:

In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.

Douglass goes beyond comparing himself to this hero of the American Revolution, who declared that he would rather die than live under the tyranny of Britain. He uses this figure as a touchstone for white readers and to signal his fluency in American culture. Furthermore, he claims that the decision to run away is a heavier one than Patrick Henry faced. Declaring "liberty or death" was mostly a rhetorical exercise for Henry. He may have felt some effects of oppression under the tyranny of the British monarchy, but compared to an enslaved person he already enjoyed relative liberty. Nor was he going to be the first killed by British soldiers. For Douglass and his friends, on the other hand, the outcome of running away will literally be liberty or death. Death seems to be the likeliest outcome.

This allusion was common in enslaved people's narratives. It was a good way to point out the irony of American patriotism that also allowed for the institution of slavery. If Henry and other American revolutionaries truly thought death was preferable to life without liberty, how can they justify depriving so many people of liberty? In addition to critiquing hypocritical patriotism, the allusion is especially relevant in books about the experience of enslavement because legal justifications for slavery often rested on the idea that an enslaved person could choose to die, and therefore had not been totally deprived of control over their life. Here, Douglass claims that he would rather die than accept "hopeless bondage." Death might be the outcome of his attempt to escape, but it is not a consolation prize for a life without liberty. Rather, he is choosing to pursue liberty no matter the consequences. He feels that to take control of his life, he must try to live (not die) outside the conditions of enslavement.

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