Frederick Douglass in a Theoretical Context

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Fredrick Douglass was an enslaved man that fought his way to freedom, and later told his story. His iconic autobiography contains several underlinings of social theories that belong to Omi & Winant and Dubois. These theories include Racial Projects, Racial Dictatorship, the Veil and Double Consciousness. These theoretical models are some of the few that are repeated throughout the autobiography that describes the difficulties of the black enslaved man, compared to the slave-owning white man. Omi & Winant have the theoretical model of hegemony which is the obtainment of racial domination through consent and coercion.

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When Douglass was moved to Baltimore by the instruction of his old master he got the news sometime later that his old master had died. At this moment Douglass says “On the death of my old master, I was immediately sent for, to be valued as and divided with the other property”. This is an example of how the hegemony in favor of the white man is fed into and strengthened. The domination of the white man is kept over the black man even after his death. The consent is coming from the fact that Douglass was bought and has documentation that proves him as an enslaved man owned by Capt. Anthony. The coercion is that he is being sent to another owner without his insight, he is being objectified and being treated like a piece property. The hegemony is being able to be in favor of a certain category of people because of Racial Formation.

Omi & Winant explained how racial formation is the way racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed. This is by way of historical past and the evolution of hegemony. The racial formation of the Black and White race is dictated by the decision of how the Europeans decided because they hold the hegemony in their favor. They conquered the Africans and decided to place them in the category of property and animals. Africans were treated as less than human and seen only as functioning a farm animal. Douglass says he was being evaluated by the following scale, “Horses and men – cattle and women – pigs and children – all holding the same rank in the scale of social existence: and all subjected to the same narrow inspection to ascertain their value in gold and silver – the only standard of worth applied by slaveholders to slaves!”. The historical status of the African enslaved person is seen as equal to an animal, not human. The hegemony of the white man then allows them to speak for the Africans and categorize them as black slaves.

This Racial Formation sets the categories of black and white men by being made of their social status and whether they are enslaved or not. This leads to the Racial Dictatorship as described by Omi & Winant. A racial dictatorship is when a race has complete control of the social and political environment of the nation. Meaning, there are so many white people in power of political positions, and such a lack of black people in politics, that there is no power to the black people, only to the white men. Because politics affects and controls social life, white people being in political positions further adds to the racial dictatorship and hegemony they uphold.

During the evaluation of Douglass, he says “How vividly, at that moment, did the brutalizing power of slavery flash before me! Personality swallowed up in the sordid idea of property, Manhood lost in cattle hood!”. This event in Douglass’s life is a representation of what happened to several enslaved people at that time. This shows how slavery is a Racial Project. A racial project is simultaneously a representation of racial dynamics to reorganize and redistribute recourses along racial lines. Here the white race is redistributing enslaved men to other white men. The Africans are viewed as resources and objects who are not able to own their own property. Not only are the enslaved men not allowed to own anything, but they are also not allowed to own themselves. Their decisions are all being controlled by the white man. This is meant to give all the helpful resources to the white European, while the black enslaved man has little to his name.

Dubois brings the idea of Double Consciousness as a way people think of themselves. Dubois explains that the theory of double consciousness is the way you see yourself in the eyes and pity of others. Douglass describes himself as he begins to plot his escape and says, “No stone wall to hide my purpose. I would have given my poor, tell-tale face for the immovable countenance of an Indian, for it was far from being proof against the daily, searching glances of those with whom I met”. Here Douglass is in a dilemma of how he is going to run-away and successfully start a new life if his skin marks him as a slave. He is thinking through a double consciousness because he is predicting how people will view him once he runs away, because of his dark skin. He is seeing himself through the eyes of a white man who sees him as a run-away because of his “tell-tale face” and all of the “searching” white glances he meets will assume he is a slave or a run-away. He comes to the conclusion of what people view him as since he cannot change the fact he is enslaved and his skin color marks him as such. He cannot hide his skin or his face when he encounters other people, and him being black calls for even more attention to those who seek to find runaway slaves for the reward.

Dubois also brings up the theoretical model of the Veil. The veil is a division between experiences that one cannot understand unless one has experienced it. Meaning a white man cannot what it is like to be a slave until he is a slave himself. Douglass thinking back on his life as a slave says, “For ten to fifteen years I had been dragging a heavy chain, with a huge block attached to it, cumbering my every motion. I had felt myself doomed a drag this chain and this block through life”. The white men who owned slaves were not able to understand the struggles and mistreatment of the slaves because they had never experienced that level of submission. Their ability continues to mistreat someone and still search for them once they run away, shows how they don’t comprehend a slave and how desperate they were in need of freedom. The veil divides the experiences of each man. A slave only longed to be free but in many cases, once free they were not able to integrate into social life because they never learned how to be free. Douglass says, “the difficulty is in, realizing he is in a free state, the slave might reply. A free man cannot understand why the slave master’s shadow is bigger, to the slave”. Once the slave is free he is beginning to cross the veil and see what it is like to be free. He is able to understand both sides because he was once a slave and now a free man, he has experience and knowledge of both sides. The man who is always been free cannot understand the over side of the veil that is enslaved. Therefore, it is natural for them to continue to enslave people and mistreat people who are different from them.

Similar to double consciousness there is the idea from Dubois that he calls Second Sight. He says second sight is what people of color are gifted with since they have an idea of how they are portraying themselves onto the world. When Douglass was thinking of how he cannot change the way his skin color and what his skin color represented was the second sight. He knew that his skin was representative of the enslaved people. He could not get rid of that label that was placed upon him, yet he was aware it was there because of his second sight.

Fredrick Douglass’ story is very representative of what happened to slaves at that time. He was born into slavery and was supposed to serve as a slave for life. Though he has a different outcome than many other slaves, he was able to learn the art of writing and mastered public speaking. He as well accomplished and has a unique story to tell the world. In this autobiography, there was remarkable first hand experienced that enforced they thoughts of theoretical ideas from other philosophers. Omi & Winant enforced the ideas of how race and hegemony enforced racial formation and racial dictatorship, leading to racial projects such as slavery. Dubois leads the ideas of double consciousness, the veil, and second sight. These are more personal and internal theories that were seen in the ideas of Douglass as he thinks of escaping. These internal conflicts of Douglass as he tries to find out how he will avoid getting notices as a run-away slave add to the concepts and ideas made by Dubois. Fredrick Douglass’s anecdote is here to give us insight on the life of a slave, the ideas of Omi & Winant and Dubois give depth to the ideas and struggles of Douglass.

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