The Narrative of Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass

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The Narrative of Frederick Douglass: Foil 1 key example

Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Douglass and Sandy:

Sandy is a foil for Douglass. In Chapter 10, Sandy urges Douglass to carry a root with him to protect himself from harm:

He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it. I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of a root in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was not disposed to take it; but Sandy impressed the necessity with much earnestness, telling me it could do no harm, if it did no good. To please him, I at length took the root, and, according to his direction, carried it upon my right side.

Although Douglass takes the root, he is careful to tell the reader that he does not share Sandy's superstition about it. Sandy is not painted in a very positive light, here or elsewhere. Later in the chapter, he backs out of a group plan to escape from Covey. When everyone else is captured, it is implied that Sandy may have turned them in to stay in Covey's good favor. The way Douglass portrays Sandy fits in with a Black stereotype Douglass is trying to define himself against. Douglass wants readers to see him as an upstanding, rational, self-respecting man. Sandy, by contrast, is portrayed as superstitious and willing to compromise both his self-respect and his respect for his fellow enslaved Black people.

This use of a foil for Black "respectability" under white American culture is a trope in abolitionist writing. The trope also extends to some of the activist writing of the 20th century by writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois has been criticized for calling highly educated and financially successful Black people the "talented tenth" who were capable of such success under the social conditions of his day. Black people who bought into folk remedies and who kept cultural traditions with ties to the African and Black Diaspora were often placed in contrast to "respectable" Black people. They were portrayed as ignorant and sometimes even traitorous to the causes of emancipation and Civil Rights because they threatened the idea that free and enfranchised Black people would assimilate easily into white culture. Douglass, who wanted to be taken seriously by well-educated white Northerners, uses Sandy to concede to some of the racist stereotypes they might hold about Black people while also marking the way those stereotypes do not apply to him.