Frederick Douglass 's Demolition And Reconstruction Of Visual Codification
ENGL 399.96: Race and Visual Culture
Frederick Douglass’s Demolition and Reconstruction of Visual Codification
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass exemplifies the complexities and paradoxes involved in the genre of the slave narrative. While, at many points in the narrative, Douglass appears to be merely conforming to the standard requirements of the slave narrative genre, the subtleties and intricacies of his work challenge both common characterizations of slaves and the narrative conventions themselves. By appropriating the very mechanisms and tropes that readers expected of him, Douglass retools traditional techniques to illustrate his specific account of slavery and to assert his humanity. In a particularly poignant passage in Chapter X, Douglass uses language to confront the contemporary conception of the runaway slave and to construct a new perception of the slave’s predicament. In the same way that he uses literary conventions to his advantage, here Douglass uses the very visual codes of white America to forge his own system of images. Through this passage’s vivid imagery and subtle agitation of traditional visual modes, Douglass asserts his right to take control of his narrative’s gaze.
The dominant visual culture of the nineteenth century rested upon the dehumanization and subjugation of slaves in order to perpetuate the myth of white superiority. Advertisements for runaway slaves were a strong force in this…