Frederick Douglass's Demolition And Reconstruction Of Visual Codification

1748 Words 7 Pages
Phoebe Wolfe
Professor Neary
ENGL 399.96: Race and Visual Culture
10/30/2014

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.
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In Chapter X, Douglass gathers a group of slaves to contemplate the possibility of escape from their master, Mr. Freeland. As they are discussing the details of running away, the fear of death is perpetually looming in their plans, at times paralyzing them from realizing their freedom. Douglass’s imagery reveals to the reader that running away was not a lazy or casual endeavor – it required immense skill, endurance, and luck. Douglass personifies slavery to describe the horrors of the system they were presently subjected to: “On the one hand, there stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us, -- its robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting itself greedily upon our own flesh” (61). The reader recoils at the image of slavery, but then is surprised by the similarly appalling depiction of the road to freedom. No matter the slave’s choice, “upon either side we saw grim death, assuming the most horrid shapes…We were stung by scorpions, chased by wild beasts, bitten by snakes, and finally, after having nearly reached the desired spot…we were overtaken by our pursuers, and, in our resistance, we were shot dead upon the spot!” (62). Douglass’s syntax, with his extensive use of dashes, represents the tumultuous journey of the runaway slave, always running and out of breath. The implication of this image of the runaway is twofold. Firstly, it stands in stark opposition to the predominant image of the meandering runaway slave, naively making his way to the North, bindle in tow. Rather, the runaway is strategic and strong, courageously risking his life in the pursuit of freedom. Secondly, this passage implicates both the South and the North in the horrors of slavery. While Northern abolitionists likely located the majority of slavery’s brutality in the South, Douglass points out that the path to

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