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Regards croisés sur les Afro-Américains

Claude Julien

Links across the waters

Who ain’t a Slave? On the University of Frederick Douglass

Sandro Portelli

Texte intégral

... col potere veniamo a patti, volentieri ο no, dimenticando che nel ghetto siamo tutti, che il ghetto è cintato, che fuori dal recinto stanno i signori della morte, e che poco lontano aspetta il treno. (Levi, 1991, 52)...

we all come to terms with power, willingly or not, forgetting that the ghetto encircles us all, that the ghetto is walled in, and that outside the fence stand the lords of death and in the distance the train awaits.

1. Fading Trifles

1Before he boards the whale boat Pequod, Herman Melville’s Ishmael makes a deal with power. This is how he explains why he goes to sea as a “simple sailor”:

What of it, if some old hunks of a sea captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who aint a slave? (Melville, 1986, 96) I

  • 1 This phrase was coined during the May 1968 movement in Paris, in protest for the expulsion from Fra (...)

2On the surface, Primo Levi and Herman Melville seem to be saying the same thing: in our “fragilità essenziale”, “essential fragility” (Levi), we are all “in one way or other served in much the same way —either in a physical or metaphysical point of view” (Melville). We are all Jews,1 we are all slaves.

3On the other hand, some might disagree. As the ex-slave Frederick Douglass said, “I find the subject of slavery identified with many other systems, in such a manner, as in my opinion, to detract to some extent from the horror with which slavery in the United States is so justly contemplated.” (Douglass, 1994, 8)

4There is, in fact, an essential difference in the positioning of the two speaking subjects and in the dynamics of their discourse. Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, moves from the particular to the universal, and generously extends the meaning of his specific experience to the human condition in general; the materiality of the ghetto and of the camp become metaphysical metaphors without losing touch with their material existence. Ishmael and Melville, who have never experienced the slavery that was still flourishing in their country and age, seem to go instead from the universal to the particular, dissolving the specificity of physical and historical slavery into the metahistorical metaphysics of humanity’s existential un-freedom. In Levi’s image, the ghetto expands to cover the world; in Ishmael’s, the universe is so large that the plantation shrinks.

5However, as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs (and Primo Levi) remind us, the distinction between the “physical” and the “metaphysical” cannot be dismissed so glibly. As human beings, though many of the best minds of their generation are likely to forget it, Douglass and Jacobs shared everyone else’s “metaphysical” slavery of the soul. Unlike Ishmael, however, they were also “served” an excess in the form of the slavery of the body; as their narratives amply demonstrate, indeed, the slavery of the soul is to a large extent shaped and defined by the slavery of the body. They, like Primo Levi and unlike Ishmael, are the ones who are qualified to universalize the experience of total oppression, and philosophize upon it.

6Ishmael’s question, however, is not an isolated instance, but rather both an extension and a tongue-in-cheek parody of widespread current discourse. Many of Melville’s most thoughtful contemporaries, including the most advanced democratic thinkers, seemed in fact to participate in the assumption that the metaphysical is superior to the physical, the immaterial to the material, the general to the particular, the eternal to the temporal — and that the former belongs to white people, the latter to blacks. Thus, slavery is mentioned often either as a trivial detail of secondary importance, or as a universal metaphor that dematerializes the substance of lived experience and social relationships. The consequence is less to enable us to perceive the horror of the human condition, than, in Douglass’s words, to “detract from the horror” of chattel slavery in its historical manifestations.

7In the same year 1841 in which Melville boarded in New Bedford the whale ship Acushnet, and in which at an abolitionist meeting in New Bedford Frederick Douglass felt “strongly moved to speak”, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his “Lecture on the Times.” The “man of ideas,” the Concord sage taught, feels that “If... I am selfish, then is there slavery, or the effort to establish it, wherever I go. But if I am just, then there is no slavery, let the laws say what they will.” (Emerson, 1983, 104) What the laws said at the time was that it was legal to seize the runaway slave Frederick Douglass and send him back into slavery. But Emerson explained:

Then again, how trivial seem the contests of the abolitionist, while he aims merely at the circumstance of the slave. Give the slave the least elevation of religious sentiment, and he is no slave: you are the slave: he not only in his humility feels his superiority, feels that much deplored condition of his to be a fading trifle, but he makes you feel it too. He is the master. The exaggeration, which our young people make of his wrongs, characterizes themselves. What are no trifles to them, they naturally think are no trifles to Pompey. (Emerson, 1983, 104)

  • 2 In Frederick Douglass, “circumstance” makes the difference between an intellectual and a slave: “bu (...)

8The belief that sin (selfishness) is the problem, not slavery, allows Emerson to dismiss with insufferable paternalism the “deplored condition” and the “circumstances”2 of those who are both sinners and slaves —and as such are presumed to be unable to generate by themselves the elevation of the soul which must be “given” to them by someone else (without however tampering with their “humility”). It is true that Douglass’s spiritual “elevation” helped lead him out of physical bondage; but it is also true that, contrary to Emerson’s claims, his intellectual and physical growth only made him feel that slavery, far from a “fading trifle,” was both physically and spiritually unbearable. Mr. Auld seemed to know human nature better than Emerson, when he warned his wife that a little learning would make the slave hopelessly discontent.

9Emerson's use of “fading” includes one of the basic devices that help achieve the dematerialization of slavery: that of removing it out of historical and into sacred time —“in the scales of the New Testament,” as Ishmael says, and in the perspective of the Judgement. The classic statement of the “vanishing” of slavery in sacred time independent of human agency is, of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s. Slavery, Hawthorne wrote, is:

... one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivances, but which, in its own good time, by some means impossible to be anticipated, but of the simplest and easiest operation, when all its uses shall have been fulfilled, it causes to vanish like a dream. (Hawthorne, 1883, 417.)

10Henry David Thoreau was very much aware that slavery was no fading trifle, and took an active and principled stand against it. This makes it even more startling that he, too, could lapse into the same kind of rhetoric: “I sometimes wonder,” he writes, “that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south.” (Thoreau, 1989, 1638.)

11A rhetoric that dismisses slavery as a vulgar material (“gross”) and “foreign” detail is indicative less of Thoreau’s politics than of the morals of social discourse in general in the times of Emerson and Melville. Just as Ishmael can jokingly dismiss the distinction between the physical and the metaphysical, Thoreau can (at least temporarily) erase the distinction between the “free” North and the “slave” South, and then go on to dismiss, on high moral grounds, that between slave and citizen: “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” As if the slavery of the soul began where that of the body ceased.

  • 3 Stefano Levi Delia Torre makes this point concerning the presumed “ennobling effect” of the extermi (...)

12One of the moral weaknesses of this approach, in fact, is that it disregards the fact that slaves, being human, also suffer from the same existential contradictions, pains and frailties as all others. That they are physically driven by the whip does not mean that they cannot also be driven by greed, ambition or competitiveness, or drive themselves to monetary ends (to buy their own freedom or that of a loved one; but also for less noble motives). In the passages I am discussing here, Emerson and Thoreau speak instead as if they thought that the slavery of the soul and that of the body excluded each other: if one is free in the soul then it does not matter if the soul itself is a slave in the body; symmetrically, those who are slaves in the body are somehow beyond the effects of the universal slavery of the soul (as if they did not have one — or as if slavery inherently ennobled its victims, for which we should therefore be thankful for it).3 Only the literature of the slaves, insisting that they are morally responsible beings demoralized by physical oppression, consistently illuminates the connection between the body and the soul.

13“This conception of the Negro as a symbol of man,” writes Ralph Ellison, “was organic to nineteenth century literature. It occurs... in Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Melville.” (Ellison, 1973, 32.) The symbol, however, is not reversible: blackness may be a “mask of humanity,” but generic humanity cannot be invoked to dismiss the materiality of blackness. Ultimately, Levi’s generalization is also intransitive and only works in one direction: he is entitled to tell us “you are like me,” but we do not have the right to tell him (or Douglass, or Jacobs) “you are like us.” Indeed, if slavery and Auschwitz can be justly adopted as universal metaphors for the human condition, then we had better look for human universals in the partiality of their experience. The answers to Levi’s question “se questo è un uomo?” or to Ishmael’s “Who aint a slave?” must be sought less in the words of philosophers than in the words of those whose humanity was, in Douglass’s words, “cooly put on trial,” challenged, destroyed, and reconstructed: the words of the runaway slave and of the concentration camp survivor. “We are coolly put on trial for our manhood,” Douglass declared in a 1858 speech. (Douglass, 1989, 13)

  • 4 See Stanley Elkins, Slavery. A Problem in American Historical and Institutional Life, and its criti (...)

14Before I go any further: I am perfectly aware that the analogy between the Nazi concentration camp and the slave plantation, as such, has been exploded by historical analysis and criticism.4 It is not my intention to revive it here. The slave plantation was one thing, the concentration camp another. In fact, precisely because I am aware that the oppression of the camp inmate was much more total and pervasive than that of the slave, that the annihilation of the inmate’s humanity was the specific goal of the camp rather than incidental to economic exploitation, I can also be aware that the oppression of the slave is other than the exploitation of the proletarian, and that the exploitation of the proletarian is different from the alienation of the intellectual. This is why in this chapter while comparing the narratives of Primo Levi and Frederick Douglass, I do so always within the framework of their difference.

2. Mules and Men

“I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don’t forget to line them up.” (Morrison, 1987, 193)

15The redefinition of what it means to be human takes place in Douglass’s Narrative on four distinct and related levels: the boundary between human beings and animals; the communication between the physical and the metaphysical, body and soul; the development of language and communication; access to political economy and citizenship. Let us begin with the first.

  • 5 On the use of animal imagery in Douglas, see Douglass, 1978, 7-22.

16“By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their age as horses know of theirs.” (Douglass, 1959, 23.) Both in Douglass and Levi a pervasive animal imagery indicates that the crossing of the line that distinguishes humans from beasts is the crucial step both in the demolition and in the reconstruction of humanity.5 This process takes place, however, in different directions, and is represented in different forms. Let us compare two significant passages. Levi:

The SS escort did not conceal their amusement at seeing men and women squatting where they could, on the railroad banks or along the tracks; and the German passengers showed their disgust: these people deserve their fate, only look how they behave. They are not Menschen, human beings, but beasts, swine; this is as clear as sunlight.

  • 6 Levi, «Violenza inutile,» I sommersi e i salvati, p. 89: «Le SS della scorta non nascondevano il lo (...)

17It was indeed a beginning. In later life, in the daily rhythm of the camps, the violation of shame was, at least in the beginning, an important aspect of the global violence.... However, within a few weeks the unpleasantness was attenuated and all but forgotten. Habit (not for all!) took over, which is a charitable way of saying that the transformation from human beings into animals was well on its way.6 And Douglass:

We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and all were subjected to the same narrow examination.... At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slave holder. (Douglass, 1959, 74.)

18The differences between these two passages are as illuminating as their analogies. The most important concerns the direction of the transition. Levi and his fellow prisoners enter the story with an unchallenged belief in their own humanity; they have jobs, an education, a role in civilized society (“Eppure sono proprio io, il laureato di Torino,” “the college graduate from Turin”). The work of the concentration camp is one of “demolizione,” “dissolvimento” (“demolition,” “dissolution”) of human beings, literally stripped of the attributes that connote their originary humanity. (Levi, 1976, 111) Douglass, on the other hand, is born already into a condition not very unlike a horse’s, and must first recognize, then reconstruct, and finally defend, his negated humanity. While Levi describes how human beings are transformed into animals and things, Douglass describes how “animals” discover that they are human.

  • 7 Indeed, one of the “defenses” of slavery was based precisely in the fact that slaves were as econom (...)

19This difference in approach is underscored by differences in rhetoric and setting. When the free passengers see the prisoners as “swine,” theirs is primarily a metaphor; when the slaves are ranked and evaluated along with swine and horses, it is a metonymy that blurs into literal identification: they are literally cast as and with animals, “with the other property.” Again: when Levi says that prisoners described their way of eating as “fressen” (a verb only used for animals), he is recounting a bitter metaphor of camp speech to describe demeaning conditions. When Douglass describes the slave children who were called “like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush” all together out of a “trough,” the resemblance is too powerful to read simply as a simile. The literal identification is clinched metonymically at the end of the following chapter, in the image of the starved slave girl Mary “contending with the pigs for the offal thrown into the street.” The prisoners defecating by the railroad tracks are metaphorically like pigs; Mary is metonymically one. (Levi, 1976, 94; Douglass, 1959, 52, 61.) Camp inmates tend to be treated like beasts, slaves as beasts.7 We can perceive the distinction better when we compare Douglass’s passage with a similar one in the Life of Equiano: the slaves in the merchant’s yard are “all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age.” Like Levi, free-born Equiano has a recollection of his being human; therefore, he perceives his brutal treatment as a similitude (like sheep) rather than metonymy (with the sheep). (Equiano, 2002, 37)

  • 8 Levi, 1976, 52, 175, 194: “noi non siamo che bestie stanche,” “disorientati come tre bestie selvagg (...)
  • 9 Levi, 1976, 51, 77, 87, 125: “come certe spoglie di insetti,” “ piccoli come formiche,” “ come verm (...)

20This difference is reinforced by the setting. Douglass grows up on a farm; horses, calves, and other farm animals are very much a part of the landscape. On the other hand, in the barren landscape of Auschwitz “nothing is alive, except machines and slaves —the former much more than the latter.” (Levi, 1976, 90.) Levi’s animal imagery consequently is more abstract than Douglass’s. The most frequent analogy is with animals as a general category —“bestie,” “brutes”: “we are nothing but tired beasts,” “like three wild beasts,” “their eyes were like those of frightened beasts.”8 When specific animals are mentioned, they tend to be the ones of which prisoners have direct experience, such as parasites, insects, and worms: “like certain insect spoils,” “small like ants,” “like worms emptied of souls,” “as the ichneumon paralyzes hairy caterpillars.”9

  • 10 Frederick Douglass, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered” (1854). See Douglass, 1982, (...)

21The dichotomy of metaphor and metonymy also mirrors the attitude of the captors. Though the Nazis defined their prisoners as inferior beings and worked to demolish their humanity, yet they ultimately admitted that they belonged to the human race: the scandal, to their eyes, was that they could be treated like animals. In Douglass’s time, instead, respectable ethnology classed African Americans either as a separate species or an intermediate stage in the “sliding scale” between animals and humans. As a public speaker, Douglass found it necessary to confute these theories and defend his own “claims” to be literally considered human.10

22The prevalence of metaphor and simile on the one hand, and metonymy and literal identification on the other, may not make much difference in terms of the relative material condition of camp inmates and slaves, but indicates a difference in the form of their de-humanization and of their resistance. While the literal or metonymic identification of humans with animals represents the starting point of the reconstruction of humanity, the metaphorical approach corresponds to its deconstruction.

23Metaphor is a figure of similarity based on difference; by underlining that they are becoming like beasts, Levi constantly reminds us that they are not beasts: the space between signified and signifier represents the resistance of difference, the memory of having been human. Resistance to slavery, on the other hand, may be partly rooted in the memory of having been a beast. Identification with farm animals is the starting point of a liberation process in which the space of metaphor must be created as the slaves recognize and re-create their own humanity. Also, being like an animal, in Levi’s text, is a purely negative, non-human state; being an animal, as in the slave experience, means, at least, being alive —not a machine, not a tool.

  • 11 Levi, 1976, 15-16: “vagoni merci chiusi dall’esterno, e dentro uomini donne bambini, compressi senz (...)

24In fact, in a passage most closely reminiscent of Douglass’s evaluation scene, when the prisoners are ranked and counted before being loaded on the trains, Levi suggests that they are treated less like living animals than as lifeless objects. They are counted as “pezzi,” “pieces” („Wievel Stuck“: how many pieces?) and treated as freight: “freight wagons, locked from the outside, and inside men women children mercilessly crammed, like cheap commodities, on our way to nowhere, on our way down, toward the depths.”11

25Douglass’s animal imagery, however, soon takes a turn toward the metaphorical, first in reference with the slave-owners and then to himself. As the narrative proceeds, his references, like Levi’s, become broader and less realistic: he speaks of “brutes” rather than specific animals, or evokes exotic and bookish analogies — snakes, lions, tigers. This indicates that, from a certain point onward, Douglass is confronted less with his original problem of becoming human than with the loss of humanity in the slave hierarchy and in himself.

  • 12 Douglass, 1959, 24, 100, 143. Though the lamb is a domestic animal, yet the image is derived more f (...)

26Slavery, Douglass writes, has a “brutalizing,” “dehumanizing” effect on both slaves and masters; unlike the slaves, however, the masters start out being human (Mrs. Sophia Auld is the paradigmatic example), and are increasingly stripped of their humanity as they adapt to the system. Like Levi, Douglass represents the process of dehumanization by means of animal metaphors: Mr. Covey becomes a snake, Mrs. Auld’s “lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.” The rhetorical shift is underscored by the fact that Douglass applies to the masters animal images that are at the same time Biblical and unfamiliar, as opposed to the domestic animals to which the slaves were assimilated: he refers both to Mr. Covey’s farm and to the slave South as a whole as dens of “wild beasts” or “hungry lions.”12

27When Douglass applies animal metaphors to himself, however, the effect is more complex. One of the important aspects that the Narrative shares with the work of Primo Levi is that both indicate that consciousness can be not only gained but also lost: the line between animal and human can be crossed several times, and in both directions. Frederick Douglass’s is a three-phased narrative of how (a) an animal was made a man; (b) a man was made a slave; (c) a slave was again made a man. In the central phase, in which Douglass all but loses his newly gained sense of self, metaphor prevails over metonymy. When lie says, “I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own,” (Douglass, 1959, 67) he compares himself to an animal precisely to tell us that, having learned to read, he is no longer one.

28At this point, Douglass is no longer endeavoring to become human but, like Primo Levi, in danger of losing his already achieved humanity and resisting by holding on to its memory. Thus, describing his experience with Covey the slave-breaker (an implicit animal metaphor!), he urges us to “behold a man transformed into a brute!”, tells us that he spent his leisure time “in a sort of beast-like stupor,” and weeps “O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!” [my italics: he has apparently forgotten he told us he had been born a horse (Ibid., 95, 98)]. The shift from the specific “horse” or “cow” to the generic “brute” underlines the shift from the literal to the metaphorical, from the material to the mental. The semiotic space of difference is opening up and all of Covey’s violence can no longer crush it completely shut again.

29At Covey’s, Douglass all but loses his new-found sense of humanity and is brought back to the state of a beast. Consequently, his rebellion to Covey is accompanied by the re-emergence of metonymy and of images of domestic animals. In implicit symmetry to Covey’s “breaking,” Douglass describes himself as “unmanageable,” and angers Covey by failing to manage the oxen; he is later set to driving pigs. When Covey attempts to “get hold” of him, Douglass is again metonymically assimilated to horses. He is in the stable, currying and feeding the animals, when Covey tries to rope him like a horse-wrangler breaking in an unmanageable colt: “Mr. Covey entered the stable with a long rope; and just as I was half out of the loft, he caught hold of my legs, and was about tying me.” (Douglass, 1959, 103) Only when his shoulders make contact with the stable floor does Douglass suddenly spring up and resist.

30“From whence came the spirit I don’t know”: perhaps, part of Douglass’s “unexpected” resistance is related to the fact that, in order to once again retrace the road from brute to human, he must come as close as possible to the physical and metonymical assimilation to a farm animal. The horror of the imminent closing of the mental space of metaphor combines with the empowering sense of the physical power of the body, and together they allow Frederick Douglass to “rise.”

3. Body and Soul

Frederick Douglass had a picture of [pugilist] Peter Jackson in his study, and he used to point to it and say, “Peter is doing a great deal with his fists to solve the Negro question.” (Johnson, 1990, 208)

31Like Thoreau, Frederick Douglass and Primo Levi also compare overseers, not as general types but as specific individuals. Levi:

  • 13 Primo Levi, 1991, “La vergogna,” 56: “Verso il maggio 1944 il nostra quasi innocuo Kapo fu sostitui (...)

Toward May 1944, our nearly innocuous Kapo was replaced, and the new one was a frightful individual. All Kapos beat us: this was an implicit part of their tasks, it was their language, more or less accepted; it was, after all, the only language that in that perpetual Babel might be truly understood by all. In its different shadings, it was understood as incitement, warning, or punishment, and ranked very low in the hierarchy of penalties. Now, our new Kapo beat us differently, in a convulsed, evil, perverse fashion: on noses, shins, genitals. He hit to hurt, to cause pain and humiliation.13

32And Douglass:

Mr. Severe was rightly named: he was a cruel man.... He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity.... His death was regarded by the slaves as the result of a merciful providence.

33Mr. Severe’s place was filled by a Mr. Hopkins. He was a different man. He was less cruel, less profane, and made less noise, than Mr. Severe. His course was characterized by no extraordinary demonstrations of cruelty. He whipped, but seemed to take no pleasure in it. He was called by the slaves a good overseer. (Douglass, 1959, 34-35)

  • 14 I have discussed this passage in detail in “La filosofia y los hechos, narración, interpretación y (...)

34The moral difference between a “cruel” and a “good” overseer, like that between an “innocuous” and a “perverse” Kapo, might have seemed “gross” and “foreign” to some, but apparently was “no trifle to Pompey.” While Thoreau seeks analogies, Levi and Douglass insist upon differences: even in the concentration camp, or in the slave plantation, there is both a linguistic and a physical difference between ordinary language and “extraordinary” violence.14

35Neither Levi nor Douglass say that the cruel overseer hit harder; both draw attention instead to the subjective state of mind that accompanied physical violence. It is ironic that victims ought to be concerned with the subjectivity and conscience of their torturers: ironically, even the “pleasure” of an overseer is “no trifle” to them. This capacity to see through the conscience of their oppressors is a testimony to the resistance of humanity of the oppressed, who retain the power of seeing the other just as the other does not see then and is in the process of annihilating them. Furthermore, the two anecdotes testify to the narrator’s awareness of the inseparability of the mental and the physical, the subjective and the objective.

36In the first place, Levi and Douglass perceive this process as another example of the “dehumanizing” effects of violence upon its perpetrators. In order to be able to treat human beings as brutes, the slave and camp hierarchy must deny what they have in common with them: their own humanity, their own souls. The passage becomes also a device by which Douglass redirects the gaze from the objectified slave to the reader’s own subjectivity. By looking at the owners and the overseers, Douglass forces readers to look not only at the physical and psychological otherness of the suffering slave, but also at the behavior of subjects who are much more like themselves, and to recognize, along with the horrors perpetrated upon the body of the “other,” also the horrors that can be perpetrated upon (and by) the soul of their likes.

37There is a peculiar division of labor among literary genres: one is supposed to read Emerson for the soul, and slave narratives for the body. The accent on the physical suffering of the slave somehow clinches the image of the slave as a purely physical being, whose suffering is perhaps greater but somehow less exquisite (more “gross”) than ours: do we not, as we read of the whip, suffer as much in our sensitive hearts as they do in their hardened skins?

38Douglass is not exempt from this kind of rhetoric, as the famous scenes of the whipping of Hester or his grandmother’s death indicate. When he speaks of the “demoralizing” effects of slavery upon its victims, he describes it in terms of reduction to the physical: “wallowing,” drunkenness, sexuality, loss of the sense of privacy and shame. He elicits the conventional association of slavery and sin to evoke both the ambiguous emotions of the gothic-oriented reader and the more conventional empathy of the sentimental one (often, of course, compounded into one).

39And yet — let us read how, very early in the text, Douglass speaks of the death of his mother:

Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger. (Douglass, 1959, 25)

40“Soothing presence” and “tender and watchful care” are ordinary evocations of the sentimental cult of domesticity; what follows, however, is its immediate, direct opposite. Douglass evokes his reader’s tender sentiments only to hit them more sharply with the fact that he was unable to share them. How can you weep over one who cannot weep over his own mother’s death? Later, Douglass returns to this memory to explain a similar lack of feelings at leaving his siblings to go to Baltimore: “The ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case... the early separation of us from our mother had well nigh blotted the fact of our relationship from our memories....” (Douglass, 1959, 53.) No wonder that “separation” is such a crucial term in the Narrative: while it helps set Douglass apart as a lone heroic figure, it also indicates the inner loneliness generated by slavery.

  • 15 Levi, 1976, 192: “la notizia non provocò in me alcuna emozione diretta”; “la mia sensibilità di pri (...)

41Levi makes the same point: toward the end of his detention, when he hears that the camp is soon to be evacuated, he notes that “the news did not arouse any direct emotion.” Levi’s emotional detachment, however, is the consequence of loss: he no longer possesses “the sensitivity I used to have.”15 Douglass, instead, is hardly more than a baby who is unable to feel for his mother. The ultimate stage in Levi’s “demolition” is an extreme form of the stage in which Douglass finds himself at the beginning.

42Although his Narrative is a very self-centered, individualistic text, part of the story it tells is about the recovery of the capacity to feel affection for others: the “strong attachment” he feels toward the little boys in Baltimore and the friendship with the fellow slaves with whom he sets up his reading classes and plots to escape. A song that Douglass also knew describes the slaves as “stolen souls from Africa”; indeed, what slavery steals is not only their bodies, but their souls and feelings. Douglass, however, uses this insight to remind us that the suffering of the slave is as much in the spiritual as in the physical sphere: slaves have souls that can be hurt because they “are like other people” —that is, “intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.” (Douglass, 1959, 113, 43)

43What makes Douglass different from his more privileged contemporaries, however, is that (just as he refuses to identify the slaves as nothing but bodies) he does not find it necessary to disregard their bodies in order to display their souls. Ultimately, what crushes the souls of the slaves is the violence on their bodies; conversely, it is the crushing of their souls that reduces them to mere physical “wallowing.” More importantly, the redemption of their souls and the redemption of their bodies are one and the same process. Hunger assimilates Mary to the swine in the street; work reduces Douglass to a brute at Mr. Covey’s; better physical treatment (in Baltimore or on Mr. Freeland’s farm) revives his conscience and his yearning to be free. He may not be claiming in so many words that material being determines conscience, but he certainly rejects any separation between the two.

44This approach culminates in the story of Douglass’s annihilation and rebellion on Covey’s farm. At first, the crushing of his body entails the near loss of his soul:

We were worked in ail weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day that of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute! (Douglass, 1959, 94-95)

45Douglass does not indicate whether “natural elasticity” refers to the liveliness of his intelligence or the nimbleness of his body: they are inseparable, and the loss of one entails the loss of the other. This mutual relationship is the hinge on which the scene of his fight with Covey revolves.

46“I resolved to fight,” he says, “and as I did so, I rose”; when all is over, he repeats: “My long-crushed spirit rose.” Douglass, then, rises both in body and in spirit; indeed, first in body and then in spirit. The spirit was crushed through the body, and through the body it rises again: the claim that his “breed” is indeed metaphysical is placed on sturdy physical and material foundations. “It was a glorious resurrection”: indeed, the more glorious since, like Christ, Douglass rises “from the tomb of slavery” both in body and in soul. (Douglass, 1959, 103)


Works cited

Blight, David, 1989. Frederick Douglass’s Civil War. Keeping the Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Univ. Press.

Douglass, Frederick, 1959 (-1845). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself Cambridge, Ma. : Harvard Univ. Press.

----, 1982. In Blassingame, John W., ed. The Frederick Douglass Papers, series I, vol. 2. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press

Ellison, Ralph, 1973 (-1964). Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage.

Equiano, Elaudah, 2002. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Equiano. In Gates, H. L. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Signet.

Emerson, Ralph W., 1983. In Porte, Joel, ed. Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America.

Franklin, H. Bruce, 1978. The Victim as Criminal and Artist. Literature from the American Prison. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 1883. The Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Houghton.

Johnson, James W., 1990 (-1933). Along This Way. London: Penguin.

Levi, Primo, 1991 (-1986). I sommersi e isalvati. Torino: Einaudi.

----, 1976 (-1947). Se questo è un uomo. Torino: Einaudi.

Melville, Herman, 1986 (-). Moby Dick. London: Penguin.

Morrison, Toni, 1987. Beloved. London: Chatto & Windus.

Plasa, Carl, and Rings, Betty J., eds., 1994. The Discourse of Slavery. London: Routledge.

Thoreau, Henry D., 1989. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: Norton


1 This phrase was coined during the May 1968 movement in Paris, in protest for the expulsion from France of the movement’s leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

2 In Frederick Douglass, “circumstance” makes the difference between an intellectual and a slave: “but for the mere circumstance of being removed from that plantation to Baltimore, I should have today, instead of being here seated by my own table, in the enjoyment of freedom and the happiness of home, writing this Narrative, been confined to the galling chains of slavery”. (Douglass, 1959, 55-56)

3 Stefano Levi Delia Torre makes this point concerning the presumed “ennobling effect” of the extermination camp: “if the effect of persecution were that of improving the human beings who are their victims, let us then welcome persecution: the survivors, if any, will be the backbone of a better human kind”: Nosaico. Attualità e inattualità degli ebrei (Torino: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1994), p. 60n.

4 See Stanley Elkins, Slavery. A Problem in American Historical and Institutional Life, and its criticism in George P. Rawick, From Sunup to Sundown. The Making of the Slave Community.

5 On the use of animal imagery in Douglas, see Douglass, 1978, 7-22.

6 Levi, «Violenza inutile,» I sommersi e i salvati, p. 89: «Le SS della scorta non nascondevano il loro divertimento nel vedere uomini e donne accovacciarsi dove potevano, sulle banchine, in mezzo ai binari; ed i passeggeri tedeschi esprimevano apertamente il loro digusto: gente come questa mérita il suo destino, basta vedere come si comportano. Non sono Menschen, esseri umani, ma bestie, porci; è évidente come la luce del sole.
Era effettivamente un prologo. Nella vita che doveva seguire, nel ritmo quotidiano del Lager, l’offesa al pudore rappresentava, almeno all’inizio una parte importante della sofferenza globale.... Tuttavia, entro poche settimane il disagio si attenuava fino a sparire; sopravviveva (non per tutti!) l’assuefazione, il che è un modo caritatevole di dire che la trasformazione da esseri umani in animali era sulla buona strada.

7 Indeed, one of the “defenses” of slavery was based precisely in the fact that slaves were as economically valuable as the rest of the farm animals, and therefore not considered expendable by their owners.

8 Levi, 1976, 52, 175, 194: “noi non siamo che bestie stanche,” “disorientati come tre bestie selvagge che si addentrino in una grande città,” “avevano gli occhi come le bestie impaurite.”

9 Levi, 1976, 51, 77, 87, 125: “come certe spoglie di insetti,” “ piccoli come formiche,” “ come vermi vuoti di anima,” “Come l’icneumone paralizza i grossi bruchi pelosi.” Such animals as horses and dogs are only evoked by negation, absence, literary memory, and very seldom: see p. 51.

10 Frederick Douglass, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered” (1854). See Douglass, 1982, series One, vol. 2, 1847-1854, 497 ff.

11 Levi, 1976, 15-16: “vagoni merci chiusi dall’esterno, e dentro uomini donne bambini, compressi senza pietà, come merce di dozzina, in viaggio verso il nulla, in viaggio all’ingiù, verso il fondo.” Slaves, of course, are also marketable commodities: but, like animals, living ones. For a description of slaves as a “cargo” of commodities, see Equiano, 2002, 32. The context is the loading of newly caught prisoners on the slave ship, closely reminiscent of the loading of prisoners on the train to Auschwitz. Like them, the African slaves are in the process of being deprived of a humanity they had been taking for granted.

12 Douglass, 1959, 24, 100, 143. Though the lamb is a domestic animal, yet the image is derived more from the Bible than from any actual experience.

13 Primo Levi, 1991, “La vergogna,” 56: “Verso il maggio 1944 il nostra quasi innocuo Kapo fu sostituito, e il nuovo arrivato si dimostrò un individuo temibile. Tutti i Kapos picchiavano: questo faceva parte ovvia delle loro mansioni, era il loro linguaggio, più ο meno accettato; era del resto l’unico linguaggio che in quella perpetua Babele potesse veramente essere inteso da tutti. Nelle sue varie sfumature, veniva inteso come incitamento al lavoro, come ammonizione ο punizione, e nella gerarchia delle sofferenze stava agli ultimi posti. Ora, il nuovo Kapo picchiava in modo diverso, in modo convulso, maligno: sul naso, sugli stinchi, sui genitali. Picchiava per far male, per produrre sofferenza e umiliazione.”

14 I have discussed this passage in detail in “La filosofia y los hechos, narración, interpretación y significado en las evocaciones y las fuentes orales,” Fundamentos de antropología, 3 (Granada, Spain), 1994, pp. 33-39; and in my contribution to “Between Social Scientists: Responses to Louise A. Tilly,” International Journal of Oral History, 6, 1 (February 1985), pp. 322-39

15 Levi, 1976, 192: “la notizia non provocò in me alcuna emozione diretta”; “la mia sensibilità di prima”


Université La Sapienza, Roma

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