The form of the autobiography was a popular vehicle for portraying the profound alienation engendered by institutionalized slavery. Beyond Frederick Douglass’ A Narrative of the Life in 1845, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave became a bestselling memoir after its 1853 publication and, albeit much later, a universally acclaimed film directed by Steve McQueen in 2013. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many thematic similarities between Douglass and Northup’s narratives. (In the cinematic version of Northup’s tale, the director consulted scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to ensure historical accuracy.) However, I believe the most powerful similarity lies in the two authors’ unflinching portrayals of raw feeling. Yes, we are able assume why Douglass and Northup used the personal mode to convey their experiences of marginalization—but, what about the personal mode specifically allows writers to achieve the affect of marginalization from American society and, ultimately, the self?
In my past as a student of English literature, I learned that scholars largely frown upon the first person mode for its apparent lack of objectivity. In a few different classes that I have participated in, discussing the merits of a work of literature from a uniquely personal frame of reference was seen as a sophomoric method of analysis, something that was automatically devalued by a disregard for whatever theoretical lens of detachment was established a priori. (Overzealous philosophy majors are always thrilled to evoke the fallacy of transforming a specific into a universal.) But, in the case of Douglass’ Narrative, the personal mode is absolutely imperative; indeed, it is his experience as an individual that unfolds as a universalized understanding of inhuman cruelty.
Moreover, I suspect that writing the narrative itself was a deeply self-actualizing experience for Douglass, as the initial experience of personal literacy opened the gateway to freedom, intellectually and literally. Douglass could not articulate the darkest depths of suffering—and, consequently, the call for emancipation—in a compelling manner without deferring to the real acts of oppression contained in his personal archive of lived experiences. Indeed, as bell hooks explains in Teaching to Transgress, the personal mode of writing promises a vehicle toward self-actualization. She writes, “I believed that personal success was intimately linked with self-actualization. My passion for this quest led me to interrogate constantly the mind/body split that was so often taken to be a given” (18). Incorporating personal experience into philosophical deliberation allowed hooks to begin bridging the “mind/body split”; likewise, incorporating philosophical deliberation into personal experience allowed Douglass to begin healing a self that was divided by institutional oppression.
However, powerful groups today claim victimization to stand against everything that Frederick Douglass represents as a historical figure. While it seems shocking that such extreme hatred exists in the U.S. today, the gross underbelly of the American experiment in democracy is the oppression of institutionally disadvantaged minorities. (The roots of this oppression can be traced as back as to the arrival of the first African slaves to the British colonies during the early 1600s.) Because ideas about racial inferiority are so deeply ingrained into American history, the argument that we currently live in a post-racial society seems absolutely absurd—although, many contemporary Americans would say that racism is a thing of the past. (Indeed, British comedian Jamali Maddix touches upon the incoherence of racism while interviewing the largest Neo-Nazi group in America on Viceland’s Hate Thy Neighbor.)
While our nation has political extremists like the white supremacists in Hate Thy Neighbor, we also have less overtly problematic voices who say things like, “I don’t see color” and “I don’t care if you’re purple,” during conversations about race and racism. In the vein of Douglass and hooks, we need personal narratives to show the white person who argues “All Lives Matter” the real struggles of African-Americans. Certainly, the way that Americans perceive the importance of stories like Douglass’ is still subject to lasting power structures involving race and representation; indeed, the “All Lives Matter” person is dismissing and devaluing the historical significance of narratives like Douglass’ book. Furthermore, we could approach Douglass’ Narrative a postmodern metanarrative with the power to disrupt the master narratives of hatred—perhaps in the way Lyotard discusses “localized narratives”—and, thus, begin understanding how deeply personal narratives hold the power to heal a nation divided.