Frederick Douglass, Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs), Uncle Tom’s Cabin Essay, Research Paper
4) Slavery was justified by racial ideology. Consider three texts, including one that was written by a former slave. How do the authors either replicate or refute racial ideologies common in the nineteenth century?
I am going to focus on the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Linda Brent as examples of a refusal of racial ideologies and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an example of replicating (although attempting to refute) racial ideologies of the day. Douglass’s Narrative and Brent’s Incidents follow them from ignorance to knowledge; knowledge and freedom gained through their own doing. I think that Stowe is in a way both trying to write an anti-slavery novel, however, I can’t see her as anti-racist because Romantic Racialism is what grounds her arguments. In all three, I am going to prove that the relationship between and the representations of the body and the mind are what either refuse or support racial ideologies of the nineteenth century.
First, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative introduces the reader to a young Douglass who is ignorant in terms of book knowledge and also lacks practical life experience. He even lacks the knowledge of his own age. But the fact that Douglass is able to educate himself refutes the idea of the time that African Americans were intellectually inferior. By the end of the narrative, he is more educated than someone like Covey, one of his former masters.
Kimberly Drake claims that
[t]he ability to utilize language, especially written language or literacy,
is also portrayed by many ex-slaves as crucial to their quest for freedom,
a freedom which in large part is the ability to allow the consciousness to develop without restriction. Thus, the written narrative, which in itself is
a textual development of the ex-slave’s consciousness, can be viewed . . .
as the author’s attempts to enter . . . into Society: by (re-)writing him
or herself, and thus placing that self into the tradition of American autobiography, s/he provides proof of “American” identity (91).
This can be seen in Douglass’s constant quest for knowledge. In the beginning, he focuses on his total ignorance so that throughout the narrative, it is easy for the reader to understand the progress he has been making. The best example of the mind requiring liberation before the body is Douglass’s fight with Covey.
This man mentally abuses his slaves by making them fear his constant watch. The fear is a direct result of the threat of punishment if they do not adhere to his strict rules: they will be beat. In beating his slaves, Covey turns them into just another body; he never sees their mind. Douglass wants to be move than just another body. He needs to free his mind in order to free his body. In order to gain his freedom, Douglass must use his body and physically fight Covey. Through this fight, he frees his mind of the fear of ever being whipped again. Douglass claims that he “was never again what might be called fairly whipped, though I remained a slave four years afterwards” (43). Through this episode, Douglass proves that first the mind must be liberated, and the body will eventually (maybe not immediately) follow.
The relationship between the body and the mind is again seen in the beating of Aunt Hester. The first knowledge of slavery Douglass has is that of his Aunt Hester being treated as only a body. She is tied up, beaten and called derogatory names (4-5). In this incident, it is clear that Douglass uses the body (although not his own in this incident) to gain knowledge which will eventually lead to freedom.
Because she is a woman and a slave, Linda Brent is more vulnerable to being only a body and not a mind. Linda’s mistress taught her how to read; this goes against Brent’s gender and racial identity. Because of this, her mind is eventually freed and she sees nothing wrong with going against gender and racial roles to free herself. It is wrong for a slave to run away just as it is wrong for a woman to be strong and independent and throw off the rules of society for the sake of freedom as she does.
For Brent, as a woman, she uses her body in a sexual way to gain knowledge that will eventually drive her to freedom. Douglass takes on Covey, but Brent denies Flint. This denial works for Brent because she is a woman. As a female slave, she is supposed to be available to her master at all times. However, in her constant denial of Flint, she comes to realize that “[t]he slave woman . . . was forced to work like a man, and to breed like an animal, and thus was denied the ability to cultivate ‘feminine’ attributes” (Drake 100). This realization is apparent at the very end when she is trying to explain her story for the sake of her daughter. This is an attempt to reconstruct herself after years of being nothing but a body, using that body, exploiting that body. Like Douglass, her mind is free, but her body continues to suffer for a period of time in the crawl space before she is truly free.
Although slave women were “[f]orced to adhere to the norms of the opposite gender under slavery, ex-slaves would attempt to re-create themselves in their narratives as true specimens of their gender role” (Drake 100). This is also apparent in the ending of the book when Brent comments on the fact that she is still not in the place in which she desires to be. Freedom, for Brent, means that she can sit with her children by her own fireplace in her own home and be free of serving anybody but herself and her children (207).
Harriet Beecher Stowe allows Romantic Racialism to get in the way of writing realistic characters to achieve her supposed mission of overturning racial stereotypes. Lisa Watt MacFarlane stresses that George, like Jim in Huckleberry Finn is hopelessly literal in his pursuit of freedom. He pursues physical freedom from the bonds of slavery; slavery is all about the politics of ownership for him. Like Douglass and Brent, George uses his body to achieve the freedom he wants. However, unlike Douglass and Brent, George fails to “resolve the spiritual and political oppression of the slave system” through any kind of intellectual prowess (MacFarlane 135).
Stowe means well when she has George achieve his goal of freedom. However, she doesn’t allow him to come beyond the idea of “the ‘negro’ as a ‘pathetically inept creature who was a slave to his emotions’ who . . . lacks the white man’s intellect” (Sorisio). Although George does display some mechanical ability in inventing a machine to aid his factory, he doesn’t possess the higher levels of thought required to liberate his mind. He is interested in being politically and economically free, and eventually achieves that, but only by physically running away. George never has a moment like Douglass does with Covey or Brent does with Flint. His freedom relies solely on his desire to own himself. Action on desire and impulse, such as suddenly stealing away in the night, makes George a slave to his emotions.
The connection between the mind and body can be seen clearly in the two former slaves examined. They know the role that their intellect plays in their success. It is understandable that Stowe as a white woman would write stereotyped characters, George being only one example. She tries to refute the hierarchy of race by allowing the slaves to attain their individual perceived freedom, in this case George’s life in Canada. However, through George, she reinforces the idea that slaves rely solely on emotional impulse. All three of these books have really helped me to gain an understanding of what the racial ideologies of the period in which they were written were: Douglass and Brent, through their refusal of these ideologies and Stowe through her inadvertent reinforcement of them.
Brent, Linda. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ed. L. Maria Child. San Diego:
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1973.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1995.
Drake, Kimberly. “Rewriting the American Self: Race, Gender, and Identity in the
Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.” MELUS 22 (Winter
MacFarlane, Lisa Watt. “’If Ever I Get to Where I Can’: The Competing Rhetorics of
Social Reform in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” ATQ 2 (June 90): 135-148.