The Depiction of Slavery in the Works of Frederick Douglass and Charles Chesnutt
The institution of American slavery is a fundamental component of African American heritage, and as a result is a major reoccurring theme in African American literature. But how slavery was depicted depended on who was doing the writing. This can be seen in the works of Frederick Douglass and Charles Chesnutt. Both men wrote on the topic of slavery, yet under extremely different circumstances and held different motivations for doing their writing. Douglass physically experienced slavery and wrote in an attempt to gain support for the growing abolitionist movement in America. Chesnutt however, grew up during post-Civil War reconstruction in the South.
Chesnutt wrote about African American life during slavery and reconstruction in an attempt to highlight the damaging effects of social practices on those of African descent. A major theme in the writings of both men is how their slave character’s identity reacted to the system of slavery. The similarities and differences between how these slave characters in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and in Charles Chesnutt’s “Dave’s Neckliss” had their self-identities effected by slavery and societal restrictions is a reflection of the different circumstances and motivations the authors held when doing their writing.
A major theme of Douglass’s autobiography and Chesnutt’s “Dave’s Neckliss” is how the main character was effected by their relationships with others in society. Both writers discussed how their character’s self-identity was related to their relationships with the rest of society; however, Douglass and Chesnutt depicted their main characters as complete opposites. Douglass writes of himself as a slave who overcame a relationship with society that told him he was nothing but someone’s property and that he refused to let his identity match that to which others assigned to him; while Chesnutt’s Dave became a victim and had his self-identity determined based on how others in society interacted with and viewed him. Dave’s identity in “Dave’s Neckliss” from start to end is enslaved by how those around him view him. When we first meet Dave we find out that “he could do mo’ wuk in a day dan any yuther two niggers on de plantation” and that he was a “solemn kind er men, en nebber run on wid much foolishness like de yuther darkies” (Chesnutt 92).
Dave is described as being physically and spiritually superior that the other slaves. When he is caught breaking the law by learning to read he is not punished, instead he is able to convince his master to let him preach the bible to the other slaves. So now on top of having superior physical and spiritual characteristics, he also held a higher social standing on the farm than the other slaves. It seemed like everyone, slave and master, was benefitting from Dave’s preaching; “so Dave ‘mence’ter preach, en done han’s on de plantation a heap er good, en most un ’em’ lef’ off dey wicked ways…en dey done dey wuk better, en ded n’ gib de oberseah but mighty little trouble fer ter manage “em” (Chesnutt 93). Everything was going great for Dave, he even got the girl that all the young slaves was going after. Dave’s self-identity reflected how those around him, master and slave, praised his superior qualities. Everyone viewed him as a great man, capable of great things. As a result he achieved great things; certain freedoms, social standing on the plantation, a desirable woman.
However, once everyone stopped viewing Dave in this positive manner, his ability for achievement and his own self-identity changed to reflect how those around him regarded him. Once it was believed that Dave stole a ham, instantly Dave lost his social standing as well as the support of everyone around, including all the other slaves, the masters, and even his fiancé. Before the ham incident, the identity placed on Dave was one reflecting his superior qualities; however, now that he had been labelled a thief his own self-identity began to reflect the new identity placed on him by the community.
Dave’s social and internal identity became synonymous with the ham around his neck. “W’eneber he met a stranger, de ham would be de fus’ thing de stranger would see. Most un ’em would ‘mence; ter laf” (Chestnutt 97). Dave basically became known as that slave with the ham around his neck. When someone thought of Dave, the ham was the only thing they thought about and identified him with. With everyone around him now simplifying his social identity to nothing more than the ham around his neck, Dave’s own self-identity fell victim to the same simplification of his identity to the point that Dave went crazy and believed he physically was a ham. Socially and internally Dave was no longer that physically and morally superior man, he was nothing but the ham around his neck. Society put a stigma and a label on Dave and it forced his self-identity to corrode to the point where his self-identity match that with those around him.
Unlike Dave’s self-identity, in his autobiography Douglass consistently maintains an identity synonymous with his goal of freedom and his desire of individuality and never allowed his self-identity to be shaped by everyone around him constantly simplifying his identity to that of a slave; someone’s property. From a young age Douglass had a thirst for having his own identity. This is shown when Douglass desires to know his birthday, something that slaves were not usually allowed to know; “a want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood” (Douglass 12). Throughout his life, those around him tried to destroy his sense of individuality, for it was a danger to maintaining the structure of slavery. Even after continuous whippings, Douglass never gave up his identity that revolved around his resistance and hope of freedom. An example of Douglass’s refusal to have his individuality taken from him is seen when he spent time at Edward Covey’s farm. Covey was a man who “had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves” (Douglass 42).
After a few months on Mr. Covey’s farm it seemed like Covey would succeed in crushing Douglass’s sense of individuality; “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” (Douglass 45). One day, however; Douglass fought back leading to the rebirth of desire for freedom and of his individuality; “The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood” (Douglass 50). Douglass refused to have his individuality broken and taken away by Mr. Convey or anyone else throughout his entire life as a slave.
There are some similarities however in the two works of literature on how slave’s self identities are portrayed when considering the slaves other than Douglass and Dave. Due to the psychological oppression of slavery, all the other slaves seem to identify more with their masters than each other. This is illustrated in Douglass’s narrative when a conflict arises between the slaves of Colonel Lloyd and Mr. Jepson. The two groups would argue about whose master was richer, kinder, and smarter. “They seemed to think the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed” (Douglass 22).
A slave did not identify themselves as just a slave, for that would have given all slaves a common bond that could have fostered unity. Instead, slaves identified as slaves of their master; as Colonel Lloyd’s slaves or as Mr. Jepson’s slaves. Thus keeping them from joining together as a collective unit fighting against slavery. This highlights the psychological enslavement that owners put on their slaves. Instead of slaves banding together as an African American community, owners keep slaves from identifying with each other by conditioning them to be loyal to their masters instead of one another. Masters condition slaves to see other slaves, not as companions in a similar struggle, but as competition.
Not just competition between slaves of separate owners but competition between slaves of a single owner. An example of this is illustrated in Douglass’s narrative concerning the Great House Farm. The slaves would try to outwork the other slaves so that they might be “selected to do errands at the Great House Farm” for “few privileges were esteemed higher…It as associated in their minds with greatness” (Douglass 18). This illustrates how slave masters would create incentives to increase productivity but also to get the slaves to view one another as competitors, which would limit the chance that the slaves would ever band together against their masters.
This lack of loyalty and continued competition for social standing between the slaves can also be seen in “Dave’s Neckliss.” The slaves on the plantation are so quick to turn against Dave, even though they knew of his superior morals, when the master accused Dave of stealing. Instead of standing with Dave, they “all turnt ag’in’ ‘im, caze he be’n de ‘casion er Mars Dugal’ turnin’ ’em over ter Mars Walker…Mars Walker wuz hard ez a rock” (Chesnutt 95). There was no loyalty between slaves, as soon as Dave was given the blame for their hardship, they all immediately turned against him and ultimately ostracized him from the community. These slaves had been conditioned to blame Dave for having to deal with the cruel Master Walker, instead of banding together against the true perpetrator of their hardships, which was Walker himself.
The two different outcomes for Douglass and Dave reflect the motivations of the authors. Other than the two main protagonists, all the other slaves in these two works of literature fall victim to the physical and psychological trauma of slavery. These other slaves set up a standard that we can compare Douglass and Dave to; Douglass overcomes falling victim like the rest, while Dave fails to escape becoming a victim of slavery. While both Douglass and Chesnutt discussed how social stigmas have an effect on someone, they implemented two very different methods of relaying their idea. Douglass wanted to encourage slaves to never let go to the hope of freedom and to portray slaves as capable of being heroic and of overcoming immense obstacles just as he did in his narrative.
Chesnutt however portrayed Dave as a tragic victim of society. Both Douglass and Dave held heroic qualities, yet Dave was not able to escape becoming a victim of slavery as Douglass did. Douglass writes to encourage African Americans to overcome those stigmas while Chesnutt wanted to highlight how tragic and damaging those stigmas can be in hope of challenging society to change.
Douglass argues that while many of the other slaves fall victim to the physical and psychological effects of slavery, one can choose to continue hold onto the hope of freedom from oppression just as he did throughout his narrative. While the other slaves were quarrelling with each other about whose master is wealthier and competing with each other to get to go to the Great House Farm, Douglass focused on freedom and as a result achieved it; Douglass wants other African Americans to follow his example. With the protagonist Dave falling victim to the psychological oppression of slavery just like the other slaves it seems as if Chesnutt is arguing that an African American cannot escape or overcome the obstacles of social stigmas and oppression unless a social change is made.
These two different motivations for giving their protagonists opposing characteristics is due to the two authors writing in different periods. Douglass was writing while the institution of slavery was still thriving in the American South. Douglass’s main goal was to get his fellow African Americans out of and away from the physical and psychological atrocities of slavery. So he wrote to try to inspire slaves to attempt escaping North and to encourage his white readers to support and stand with runaways. Douglass wanted his slave protagonist to be a hero, not tragic. Many white people of the period already felt that African Americans, if freed, would be a burden on society and were incapable of providing for themselves; writing with a tragic protagonist would have just strengthened this idea. So to encourage the white community to support the abolition of slavery, Douglass highlighted an African Americans ability to prosper if freed.
For Chesnutt, slavery was abolished and now a new goal had taken over. Douglass’s goal for African Americans was freedom, Chesnutt’s goal was prosperity. Douglass wrote making the point that slaves, once freed, would be prosperous; however, how can African Americans be prosperous in this new life of freedom, especially with the obstacles of social stigmas oppressing them? The institution of slavery was no longer the oppressor, society was. Chesnutt argues that for African Americans to be prosperous, society had to progress and change. Douglass was a hero that escaped the oppression of slavery by escaping to the North. But for those in Chesnutt’s time, there was no “North” to escape to; there was nowhere to go to escape this social oppression. Escape was impossible, only change would enable African Americans to prosper.