Frederick Douglass and Philosophy
By Paul Richard Blum (Loyola University Maryland)
Frederick Douglass’ Narrative was intended and has been read as a first-hand document on slavery and the power of an individual to gain freedom. It contains a wealth of information on the structure of American slavery and the means to overcome it. For a philosopher, the first-person narrative also contains valuable reflections and indications on what it means to be human in spite of, and in the face of, systematic de-humanization. In the first place, Douglass gives indications on what constitutes human dignity, which is contextualized in religion and the self, body and mind, altruism and morality. Being (potentially) sold and selling one’s physical labor turns into an instrument of liberation. The famous master-slave dialectics is depicted in Hegelian patterns in the fight with Covey. Resistance appears as a quasi-natural feature of being human. Therefore, this document of a Maryland slave and fugitive can be read as a document of far-reaching topics of philosophy that merit to be generalized. Such a reading has the effect that the reader cannot escape by way of historicism (‘that happened to that man back then’) but can apply the fruits of Douglass’ reflections to the understanding of humanity as such.
The somewhat flippant title of my paper, Frederick Douglass and Philosophy, can have two meanings, or even three. The first would be: What was Douglass’ philosophy (if he had any)? The second would be: How would philosophers situate Douglass’ writings and actions in the great network of available philosophies? And this meaning may in part overlap with the first, because Douglass did not produce any work that explicitly and intentionally was meant to be a philosophical work; hence we would need to cast a net of known philosophical methods and systems over his life and work and see what we find. On the way we might even find particular philosophical sources that can be highlighted as shaping his thinking and acting. This second approach to reading Douglass philosophically has been exercised occasionally, for instance by Frank Kirkland, Roderick Stewart, and Timothy Golden.
Bringing philosophy and Douglass together in this way helps one understand his role and his personal stature and, at the same time, it puts philosophies to a test by measuring the reasoning of an outstanding activist and witness of his times with philosophical theories, and then probing those theories with one real experience. Such a merger of human agency with theory is commonly called ‘practical philosophy’ or ethics and political philosophy. Since Douglass was embedded in the abolitionist movement, even before the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass of 1845 and ever since, it is obvious that his production was meant to be political and moral. This abolitionist movement was inevitably educated by Christianity and the Enlightenment – whatever the tensions between the two might be, otherwise. Consequently, Douglass and his audience reveal those modes of argument, understanding, theory, and plausibility. Finding Kantianism and Christianity in Frederick Douglass is therefore like pressing murky water out of a sponge, while it is certainly more important to find out what it was the sponge was meant to wipe. For instance, when Douglass said:
[i]f I do not misinterpret the feelings and philosophy of my white fellow-countrymen generally, they wish us to understand distinctly and fully that they have no other use for us whatever, than to coin dollars out of our blood[,]
then it is obvious that he blames the slaveholder for exploiting fellow-citizens with a mentality of alchemy, which mysteriously turns liquid blood into malleable gold; and the abolitionist thus throws the white citizens back into the prescientific darkness while claiming for himself the “fundamental principles of the republic”, that is, the French-revolutionary constitution of society. But the orator is not philosophizing; he is agitating against bigotry and injustice. That is also expressly said in the second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, when Douglass reflects on his intellectual growth since his liberation. Commenting on the suggestion of a friend, “Give us the facts, … we take care of the philosophy,” he retorts: “It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them.” Narration was his originary goal and remained his method – agitation was now his framework.
So, if I had to compile a book for the book series “… and Philosophy” (like The Hobbit and Philosophy), I certainly would include chapters like “Was FD a Kantian?”, “FD against Hobbes,” “The Douglass-Hegel Dialectic,” “What would Aristotle say about Slavery after Reading the Narrative?”, or “Fear and Trembling with Douglass,” and so on. But that is not what I am planning to do.
A third approach to philosophy and Frederick Douglass
Therefore, I suggest a third way of looking at “Douglass and Philosophy”, and that is reading his and other slave narratives as documents of humanity.
One might object that the notion of a ‘slave narrative’ appears to enforce the claim that the authors were slaves rather than free individuals; and the term appears to belittle the quality of the documents. However, being or having been held as slaves and all the injury thereof is the very theme of the documents in question; and ‘narrative’ is a generic term, specifically adopted by Frederick Douglass, that covers any quality of literary work by simply stating that the author is speaking from the first-person point of view. In saying ‘documents,’ I mean they need to be taken as testimonies rather than theories – that is, as primary sources for a potential philosophy of humanity.
When telling of the sorrow and joy contained and expressed in slave songs, Douglass remarks in his Narrative:
This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.
With an analogous method I hope to distill, not quite a volume, but an essay of philosophy from his slave narrative, a philosophy that does not supplant nor suppress the original intent of his writing but makes his work philosophically understandable. But immediately one has to ask: what is ‘philosophical’ and ‘understandable’? Here I suggest reducing the philosophical question from the wide net of influences and traditions and from the variety of philosophical disciplines and methods to that of philosophical anthropology. The lead question is now: What does Douglass’ Narrative say about humanity? My weak justification for that approach is the recurrence of the notion of “human nature” in the later elaborations of his autobiography, when from the comparatively terse narration of the major events of his life Douglass ventured into didactic, propagandistic, and political aims of his view on his “Life and Times”. In the prefatory letter to his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom of 1855, he states: “I have never placed my opposition to slavery on a basis so narrow as my own enslavement, but rather upon the indestructible and unchangeable laws of human nature, every one of which is perpetually and flagrantly violated by the slave system.” Most importantly, introducing the pivotal episode of the fight with the slave-breaker Covey (more about it below), Douglass emphasizes its anthropological significance: “the change in my condition was owing to causes which may help the reader to a better understanding of human nature, when subjected to the terrible extremities of slavery.” Again, concluding the report on this “turning point” he states:
I WAS A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise.
Later, in chapter 19, we read: “It is the interest and business of slaveholders to study human nature, with a view to practical results, and many of them attain astonishing proficiency in discerning the thoughts and emotions of slaves.” Aristotle would have been pleased reading this, for he had established that the interest of the master and that of the slave coincide: “the union of natural ruler and natural subject [exist] for the sake of security （for he that can foresee with his mind is naturally ruler and naturally master, and he that can do these things with his body is subject and naturally a slave; so that master and slave have the same interest).” It would be worth considering whether or not Aristotle, too, was saying that with irony.
In other words, when revisiting his own life and story, Douglass became aware that human nature is the thread that holds the events together and also that human nature ties the slave experience in discordant unison together with both the slaveholders and his abolitionist readers. If addressing humanity counts as a philosophical enterprise, then philosophy may even be acknowledged as Douglass’s “authorial intention,” at least in his later works.
Slave narratives and philosophy
When I suggest reading the Narrative as a representative of the literary genre known as American Slave Narrative philosophically, I am aware that this is not a philosophical but a literary genre that comprises the following components: it reports in first person the life of a slave in North America from around the Civil War (1861-1865) until the end of the 19th century. Many of these slave narratives were put down in writing not by the slaves themselves but by a helpful person, many of whom were white Protestants. It is striking that many slave narratives have a woman as a hero. All those stories were narrated and published with an abolitionist agenda, that is to say, with the goal in mind to support abolition of slavery in North America through exposing the cruelty and injustice of slavery with personal examples. The first person perspective is therefore a crucial literary tool; rhetorical tropes include vividness of storytelling, pathos, details, and also exaggeration. The rhetorical outlook does not disparage the content; on the contrary, the note takers of the narratives, if not the authors themselves, thought it most compelling to have the people speak for themselves. They intended to impress their audience for the sake of the cause of anti-slavery. Nevertheless, we as readers who are no longer the target audience may well profit from the first person perspective by taking seriously what the speakers bring forward about their life and experience.
Some of the slave narratives are so eloquent, most conspicuously that of Harriett Jacobs, that doubts of their authenticity were raised. Also an early reaction to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative by one Mr. Thompson flatly denied that the former slave could have “some knowledge of the rules of grammar, could write so correctly.” However, faced with the factual existence of the book, the accuser surmises, “to make the imposition at all creditable, the composer has labored to write it in as plain a style as possible.” Whereas Douglass responds with a proud “Frederick the Freeman is a very different person from Frederick the Slave,” we may ponder the contortion made by the slanderer: an impostor pretending to be an illiterate slave must have played to be a simpleton to the effect that any factual inaccuracy will unmask the forgery. This is where Douglass places his wedge: all alleged falsehoods are true, precisely because the events are outrageous; hence the narrative is as authentic as its author. We should pay attention to the fact that Douglass does not bother explaining how it was possible for him to write, and in an elaborate oratory at that, for that is all in the Narrative; he rather emphasizes the very message of the book that makes it a testimony of philosophical anthropology: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” As a teacher I would say, Mr. Thompson, you haven’t done the reading! We should also not forego another paradox in Mr. Thompson’s accusation in that he precisely fulfilled the abolitionists’ expectation of the target audience in assuming that a former slave cannot possibly have erudition. As Douglass’s friends advised him: “Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not; ‘tis not best that you seem too learned.” Authenticity means the same both for friend and the foe of slavery; but for Douglass, the slave narrator, it means his self: “I must speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me.” Little or no ‘plantation,’ ‘plain’ or rhetorical – philosophy is a speech act.
With this observation we enter the problem of the reliability of such slave narratives, both as to details and to the general direction of the plot. These are questions that can only be addressed for each specific text. But the general hermeneutical principles of reading historical documents apply. To put it shortly: if something is unusual, it is probably authentic and hence deserves special attention. On the other hand, recurring motifs and themes indicate recurring experiences. For instance, if many slave narratives state that the slave is ignorant of his or her date and place of birth, then in an individual text this may be used in a tropical manner; however, it has become a trope because, factually, most slaves do not know their birth dates. In that sense, this trope is worth considering under a particular perspective.
The perspective of my study of American slave narratives is nevertheless that of philosophy. Regardless of the specific body of sources, the philosophical question I am pursuing is that of philosophical anthropology: what does it mean to be human? In ordinary philosophical anthropology, the answer is derived from philosophical tenets such as the body-soul compound (man is an animal with reason) and from metaphysical hypostases (man is the intermediary level between pure spirits and matter). Sometimes a philosophical anthropology is based on the life and existence of humans and refers to their common way of behaving (man is a social animal, humanity equals existence, etc.). However, it occurred to me that – with the help of slave narratives – one could suspend the answer to the question: “What does it mean to be human?” and observe humans asserting their humanness.
Methodologically speaking, the task is not to apply theoretical anthropology to a given group of human beings. For instance, assuming that humans are social animals, one could find realizations of social patterns in any kindergarten, or the emergence of solidarity in a coalmine. Rather, since philosophical anthropology is philosophy in the first place, it has to find its object of study first and then elevate it to the level of abstraction at the extent of which the concepts build themselves on a level that does not apply merely to the empirical object of study but to the essence of it, that is, to the essential properties of being human. In our context that requires avoiding to project any known philosophical system on Douglass and, rather, finding the philosophy he conveys in his writings. Slave narratives are utterly contingent products of individual human beings. But these human beings speak about their being human, even and preeminently when they speak about pain, sex, hunger, or gratification. They speak to the audience with the intent to assert their being humans and therefore their being exempt of slavery. The latter part is to be taken for granted, today. The first part, the assertion to be humans, is a possible source of philosophical anthropology.
More radically speaking: I suggest approaching philosophical anthropology from outside humanity, namely from a point of view as though humanity were not something known. An account of philosophical anthropology from outside humanity also entails to philosophize from outside philosophical methods, provided we know of human nature predominantly from philosophical definitions of humanness. The insistence of the autobiographer and the zeal of the abolitionist show pathways to understanding humanity philosophically from sources that are not intended to be philosophical; at the same time, they show that humanity may be captured at those points where humanity is questioned or outright denied.
Denial of humanity is, by all standards, one common denominator of slavery; even the slaveholders do not deny that. At times, to be human is denied explicitly, sometimes, performatively. Therefore, it is appropriate for an abolitionist to quote the battle cry of slaves: “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” as it had circulated in early 19th-century England. But the easy answer from the slaveholder was: “No!” Therefore we need to find a more complex response in the slave narratives. As a matter of fact, slaves like the early Douglass rarely thematized their being humans, but they asserted it in the actions they narrated. This is where philosophical interpretation starts. As 20th-century philosophical anthropology teaches, to be human means to position oneself in the world with fellow humans. However, that is only an elementary feature of humanness; it becomes philosophy only when analyzed and interpreted philosophically. Every human assesses environment and experience, but that turns into philosophy when it is interpreted as the peculiar agency that characterizes a human being. We also can safely say that it is this sort of anthropology that defines humans as essentially “eccentric,” as Helmuth Plessner did. Consequently it also defines humanity as a non-given: the essence of being human consists in questioning one’s own humanity. For assessing the world and fellowship amounts to taking them as ‘given’ but not for granted – after all, granted by which authority and to whom?
This is why I suggest reading testimonies of humans who, by definition, were denied humanity. Obviously, the first person (the I) is the starting point of any investigation into human nature. This has been so at least since Augustine’s Confessions. In our case, the first person is the slave speaking of himself or herself. While the narrative remains subjective, so to speak, the message can be philosophically objectified insofar as I, the reader, am not the subject of the story. However, as we will see in the case of Frederick Douglass, the author of a slave narrative objectifies experience in search of human dignity so that we as readers are factually invited to philosophize about slave humanity. This is why the self-awareness that the narrator gains in a narrative converges with understanding the philosophical nature of humanity.
As I mentioned, of the three versions of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, the second and third turned into elaborate books against the institution of slavery that increasingly departed from the sheer telling of events in favor of readymade interpretations of how the audience, the abolitionists, were to understand them. The author increasingly ‘processed’ his experiences. Nevertheless the brute facts that he tells of his life as a slave give enough material to interpret philosophically.
While reading through Douglass and many other narratives, a list of recurring themes builds itself. Here I may mention just a few: naming, home, religion, sex, property, and resistance. Whatever the slaves deemed worth telling can be taken to be essential for their understanding of themselves. Other things surprise the reader with some literary experience by their absence: slaves lack most early childhood memories (while being aware of this as a grave deficiency); they also rarely express consciousness of time in all forms: elapsing time, future, or history. The changes of seasons are structuring elements of their lives, as are the changes of their masters – however, as far as I see, without any temporal index.
In a nutshell, what emerges from reading slave narratives that constitutes a philosophical anthropology? A person is in search to affirm his/her identity with the help of names, rudiments of family relations, masters, and those events that prove him/her an agent. Religion, rarely within any denominational frame, is the immediate and defining resource of meaning, consolation, hope, and justification. Home is virulent through its absence; it is felt as a loss and a longing. Consequently, to be ‘at home’ and to be ‘at peace with God’ converge. Religion is the virtual home of humans. Family equally exerts an influence on the individual by way of endangerment and as a virtual bond that overcomes the gritty reality. To be sold ‘down the river’ does not only entail deterioration of work conditions, it is the effective severance of human bonds. As unreal and ideal as the home is, so is family that for which it is worth longing, fighting, or suffering. Childhood, family bonds, and home constitute humanness by way of want. Sexual relationships are worth mentioning only as sexual slavery, that is, the exploitation by the slave owners. Any precariousness can be turned into a lever of resistance; that is also true with sex. Harriet Jacobs, for instance, deliberately accepts the courtship of a freeman, just to snub her master and to frustrate his adulterous passes.
Frederick Douglass’s account of the role of religion in slavery is exemplary, expressing the enlightened perspective of an abolitionist. He commented upon the scarce permission for slaves to observe the Christian holidays:
I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection.
He sees religious feasts as “safety-valves” for the suppressed spirits of the slaves. On the other hand, the secret meetings in which he discussed with fellow slaves the Scripture were at the same time means of education and – within his narrative – the seed of self-liberation. Many slave owners practiced religious apartheid: they effectively segregated salvation. In showing such blatant inconsistency they spurned the craving for the transcendent. From Douglass’ account it is obvious that for the slave, critique of religion was not within reach; it appears to be a post-liberation achievement, as is the case for Douglass himself. Upon writing his autobiography he was able to observe that “after his conversion, [his master] found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.” As a slave he ran twice a Sabbath school for the fellow slaves to learn “to read the will of God,” as he whimsically explains, and he was not ashamed of ascribing the beginning of his self-liberation to the use of a magic root, which he obtained from a wise friend.
On the theme of naming as an essentially negative experience Douglass reported:
The slave is a human being, divested of all rights – reduced to the level of a brute – a mere “chattel” in the eye of the law … – his name, which the “recording angel” may have enrolled in heaven, among the blest, is impiously inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep, and swine.
In this theoretical statement, Douglass locates the function of name between property, law, and heaven. He takes for granted that a human being has a name, that the individuality of the person must have a guardian, for instance an angel, and that a name goes beyond bookkeeping. Let us assume the slaveholder knows all that. This means that the denial of a personal name denies humanity to a chattel-slave – ergo, a name is what makes up a human being.
Without engaging in Aristotle’s famous definition of slaves as ‘tools with a soul’, it is obvious that slaves were a specific kind of property, closer to domesticated animals than to dead tools. It happens, but mostly in jest, that modern people give utilities a name (especially cars, or very important devices); but to name a slave entails the paradox of denying and recognizing the humanity of a slave. So it is intuitively clear that the denial of a proper name instrumentalizes the slave, while imposing a name on him or her is a second rate acknowledgment of the status of the slave, superior to any tool, but on par with a pet or livestock.
It is therefore possible to speculate that African slaves, as they appeared in the life of farmers in America, were immediately welcome as labor force, of course, but at the same time perceived to be livestock. On livestock René Girard says: “The domestication of animals requires that men keep them in their company and treat them, not as wild animals, but as if they were capable of living near human beings and leading a quasi-human existence.” A very similar structure occurred in American slavery: the Africans inevitably lived close to their masters so that they could not possibly be treated just as tools; rather, they had to be granted a quasi-human level of life. One move to keep the difference indelible was to deny the ownership of a name. It is also intuitively obvious that this paradox of closeness at a reinforced distance made the slave prone to victimization in the Girardian sense; but that is not at issue here.
We can glean here the importance of names on the anthropological level. The first thing that should be noted is that all slave narratives awkwardly refer to slaves not plainly by their names (“there was Jack”, or “Jim”) but with the epithet “a slave named Jack.” It seems to have been wired in the grammar of slave narrative that names are always arbitrarily given and hence do not naturally and necessarily name one unique individual. Jack as a person cannot be a slave; the topic of the story is not Jack but the slave who happens to have that name.
Frederick Douglass changed his names haphazardly, and eventually accepted one suggested incidentally by a friend. Beyond the more sophisticated mechanisms of naming and necessity, we may state that contingency and fortuitousness come to the forefront in slave narratives. Interestingly, Frederick Douglass does not spend much time explaining the first occasions when he changed his name; he simply states in a footnote that at some point after his escape, he had changed his name from Frederick Bailey to Johnson. He then explains that he had inherited the name Bailey from his parents, but he dropped the additional middle names that were given to him by his mother. Immediately after his departure from Baltimore, Frederick called himself Stanley – obviously a simple disguise. Then he picked the name Johnson, which incidentally was also that of the couple that received him in New Bedford. Since this name was all too common, he asked his host to find him a new name, or rather, he “gave Mr. Johnson the privilege” to do so:
Mr. Johnson had just been reading the ‘Lady of the Lake’ [a poem by Sir Walter Scott], and at once suggested that my name be ‘Douglass.’ From that time until now I have been called ‘Frederick Douglass;’ and as I am more widely known by that name than by either of the others, I shall continue to use it as my own.
Douglass, as a gifted writer, creates the punchline that emphasizes the claim that his name is what he actively adopts rather than being the object of adoption. A few lines earlier Douglass emphasizes that this privilege of naming did not extend to his first name: “I must hold onto that [first name], to preserve a sense of my identity.” It is surprising that Douglass underlined the philosophical notion of personal identity that is secured by a first name in the first autobiography only, whereas he emphasized the heroic “virtues of the Douglas of Scotland” in the second and third autobiographies.
In this context, we may savor the irony with which Douglass countered the criticism of an early reader, the already mentioned Mr. A. C. C. Thompson, who doubted the narrative’s author’s identity by stating he had known him as Frederick Bailey. Douglass retorted: “You have completely tripped up the heels of your proslavery friends, and laid them flat at my feet. You have done a piece of anti-slavery work, which no anti-slavery man could do.” For the slanderer had unintentionally confirmed the truthfulness of the narrative and the authority of the narrator. This response and counter-response shows in a nutshell the importance of authorship for its impact on the audience. While the first name establishes the self of the person during and beyond slavery, the inherited as well as the ‘given’/chosen penname corroborates the truth of the narrated facts.
The first name is the person. Everything else may be an add-on. Speaking of pictures and exterior qualifications, Douglass said in a lecture on pictures (3 December 1861) that the Catholic Church uses “symbolical representations.” “Remove from the church of Rome her cunning illusions […] and her magical and entrancing power over men would disappear.” And as an example he mentions: “Take the cross from before the name of the archbishop – and he is James or John like the rest of us.” For a former slave, to be ‘like the rest of us’ means all the world; that’s what is in a name. Although it might lead astray from the main purpose of this essay, a brief thought on Douglass’s portraits is in order. As the editors of the book of portraits state, he was the most photographed man of 19th-century America. The easy explanation for this is given in the just-quoted lecture in which Douglass says with a hint of irony, “if an author’s face can possibly be other than fine looking, the picture must be in the book, or the book be considered incomplete.” (Let us be reminded that at his time, an African face was certainly not ‘fine looking’ to everyone.) He even adds, just to complete the self-mockery, a quotation from Lord Byron saying that “a man always looks dead when his Biography is written” and adds: “The same is even more true when his picture is taken.” But that would not explain the effort of publishing one’s autobiography. In a similar lecture on pictures (ca. 1865), Douglass declares with authority:
Again the books that we write and the speeches that we make – what are they but extensions, amplifications and shadows of ourselves, the peculiar elements of our individual manhood?
He summarizes his theory that human speech is the very humanity and personality of the speaker: “whatever may be the text, man is sure to be the sermon.” Thus, I hope, the digression on self-portraits comes full circle: having and defending a personal name converges with first-person testimony – and with the mere possibility to reach the audience.
Frederick Douglass, with a keen eye for human nature, has written a monument to slave resistance in the description of his standoff with his master. Let us remind ourselves that for Douglass’s fellow slaves it was “considered as being bad enough to be a slave ; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed,” because slaves were trained to see themselves ‘transferring’ the personal value of their master upon themselves. To become conscious of the derivative nature of the self was an important step towards inner emancipation. Hence, to despise a slave owner could of itself be an act of rebellion long before any attempt at violence or evasion could only be envisioned. This is the background against which we should read Douglass’s brawl with Mr. Covey, as narrated in the tenth chapter. He alerts his reader about the importance of the event: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Of course, it was the individual slave Frederick who was ‘made a man’, and there may be implications regarding slave masculinity, but the event is also symbolic as it depicts an essential feature of being a man in the sense of being human. Later, as I quoted above, he extended the meaning of this fight to the nature of humanity. Still, I am not claiming to offer an exhaustive interpretation; rather, this event that has been recognized by a vast literature as emblematic is just a sample of how philosophy can be drawn from a narrative.
As Mr. Covey, the slave-breaker, tried to whip Douglass, “[h]e held on to me, and I to him.” The slave manages to get at the master’s throat “causing the blood to run”. (71) This standoff, I think, is crucial. The first slave who happened to pass by tried to help his master, but was kicked off by Douglass, which had the almost comical effect that Covey’s “courage quailed” and he asked the slave if he “meant to persist in his resistance”. What a question! The next slave flatly refused to interfere, using the argument that he was not hired “to help whip” another slave. So we have the violent defeat of one slave and the legalistic opposition of another surrounding the stalemate. This is the point at which the slave breaker gives up “saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much.” Douglass adds immediately that Covey had not whipped him at all. Covey becomes ridiculous through his childish after-threat of tormenting only “half so much” leaving it open what the other half would have looked like.
What Covey must have realized without understanding was the definite turn of superiority. In Douglass’s words: “he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him.” The brawl made it physically visible that the master was a coward and the slave ‘a man’. We should notice that Douglass did not beat his master; the standoff was all he needed to assert his position: when two people get even they may return to their natural humanity. As Lewis Gordon observed: “The physical struggle dragged Covey into a moment of equilibrium; it was a point at which the only way for any of them to survive was by moving upward.” That is, the impasse opened the way back to humanity. The slave-breaker’s fault was not violence as such but the inherent cowardice that consists in denying a fellow human a chance to be human. Therefore it was sufficient for the slave to exert as much violence as needed to show equality on the level of physical competition. Once again, what broke Covey’s ability to subdue Douglass was the confluence of three types of resistance: the non-fatal violent back fighting, the physical defeat of one slave by another, and the rational verbal defiance of another slave. These might be the major components of all and any resistance and rebellion. We should not be surprised seeing Douglass summarize the meaning of this moment in a hymnal religious tone: “I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.” The restoration of the human essence is expressed, if not caused, by the act of resistance.
Later, Douglass concluded that resistance as such might also persuade slaveholders to renounce on slavery by appealing to their conscience when they learn to perceive slaves as not voluntarily submitting to their control, thus breaking the vicious circle in which slaves admit to being inferior through being submissive. However, I think this is not a moral appeal but one that is rooted in the structure of self-assertion. “I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.” This concluding remark to the Covey episode may be read as a challenge, but it actually says that slavery (being whipped) is the negation of humanity (being killed). Hence resistance may be just, may be moral, may be a psychological urge, a habit, a duty, or a last resort – in the anthropological sense it is the feature of being non-denied to exist. In Douglass’s terms it is a resurrection before death.
This brings us to general conclusions. Religion, onomastic identity, and resistance take on very strange forms on the level of slavery; and it is this we can learn from the slave narratives and the facts they convey. As we saw, critique of religion requires religious freedom. We may also state that onomastic identity is an absolute requirement of being human, so much that it does de facto not depend on a legitimate name-giver. Ultimately humans are baptized as wanderers on this earth. And resistance and rebellion? In slave narratives we see that morality is not a condition of being human; it comes only after humanity ceases being questioned.
Reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography as a non-disciplinary philosophical text yields philosophical insights that are not standard but that are in search for philosophical categories that create a frame of understanding. Even if authors of slave narratives had had an academic education in philosophy, they would have set priorities very much at odds with the top ranking philosophical questions in the schools. Since they had been factually prevented from academic instruction, they also were exonerated from rebelling against the mainstream. Their rebellion was existentially human – and in that sense it was practical philosophy.
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———. “Lecture on Pictures.” In Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, edited by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, 126–41. New York: Norton, 2015.
———. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, Conn.: Park Pub., 1884.
———. “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass Written by Himself.” In Autobiographies, 453–1045. The Library of America: 68. New York: Library of America, 1994.
———. “My Bondage and My Freedom.” In Autobiographies, 103–452. The Library of America: 68. New York: Library of America, 1994.
———. My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I - Life as a Slave, Part II - Life as a Freeman. New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855.
———. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-slavery Office, 1845.
———. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” In Autobiographies, 1–102. The Library of America: 68. New York: Library of America, 1994.
———. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Edited by William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely. New York: Norton, 1996.
———. “Pictures and Progress.” In Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, edited by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, 161–73. New York: Norton, 2015.
———. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Edited by John W. Blassingame et al. Series 1-3. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 1999.
———. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series Two: Autobiographical Writings. Edited by John W. Blassingame, John R. McKivigan, and Peter P. Hinks. Vol. 1: Narrative. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 1999.
Kirkland, Frank M. “Enslavement, Moral Suasion, and Struggles for Recognition: Frederick Douglass’s Answer to the Question - ‘What Is Enlightenment?’” In Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader, edited by Bill E. Lawson and Frank M. Kirkland, 243–310. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
Girard, René. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Translated by Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.
Golden, Timothy J. “From Epistemology to Ethics: Theoretical and Practical Reason in Kant and Douglass.” Journal of Religious Ethics 40, no. 4 (2012): 603–628.
Gordon, Lewis R. Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Grene, Marjorie. “Positionality in the Philosophy of Helmuth Plessner.” The Review of Metaphysics 20, no. 2 (1966): 250–77.
Griffiths, Julia, ed. Autographs for Freedom. Vol. . Auburn; Rochester: Alden, Beardsley; Wanzer, Beardsley, 1854.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Kohn, Margaret. “Frederick Douglass’s Master-Slave Dialectic”, The Journal of Politics, 67, No. 2 (May, 2005), 497-514.
Levine, Robert S. “Identity in the Autobiographies.” In The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglass, edited by Maurice S. Lee, 31–45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
McGary, Howard, and Bill E. Lawson. Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Plessner, Helmuth. Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch: Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1928.
Robertson, Teresa, and Philip Atkins. “Essential vs. Accidental Properties.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2016., 2016. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/essential-accidental/.
Scheler, Max. Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos. Darmstadt: Reichl, 1928.
———. The Human Place in the Cosmos. Translated by Manfred S. Frings. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2009.
Stauffer, John. “Douglass’s Self-Making and the Culture of Abolitionism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglass, edited by Maurice S. Lee, 12–30. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Stepto, Robert B. “Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of 1845.” In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, edited by William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely, 146–57. New York: Norton, 1996.
Stewart, Roderick M. “The Claims of Frederick Douglass Philosophically Considered.” In Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader, edited by Bill E. Lawson and Frank M. Kirkland, 145–72. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
Stuckey, Sterling. “‘My Burden Lightened’: Frederick Douglass, the Bible, and Slave Culture.” In African Americans and The Bible. Sacred Texts and Social Textures, edited by Vincent L. Wimbush, 251–65. New York: Continuum, 2000.
Truth, Sojourner. Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828. Edited by Olive Garrison Gilbert. Boston: Printed for the author [J. B. Yerrinton and Son], 1850.
Whyte, Iain. Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
Willett, Cynthia. “The Master-Slave Dialectic: Hegel vs. Douglass.” In Subjugation and Bondage: Critical Essays on Slavery and Social Philosophy, edited by Tommy Lee Lott, 151–70. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998.
Williamson, Scott C. The Narrative Life: The Moral and Religious Thought of Frederick Douglass. Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2002.
Yellin, Jean Fagan. “Written By Herself: Harriet Jacobs’ Slave Narrative.” American Literature 53, no. 3 (November 1981): 479–86.
 This study is a result of research funded by the Czech Science Foundation as the project GA ČR 14-37038G «Between Renaissance and Baroque: Philosophy and Knowledge in the Czech Lands within the Wider European Context»
 Timothy J. Golden, “From Epistemology to Ethics: Theoretical and Practical Reason in Kant and Douglass,” Journal of Religious Ethics 40, no. 4 (2012): 603–628; Frank M. Kirkland, “Enslavement, Moral Suasion, and Struggles for Recognition: Frederick Douglass’s Answer to the Question - ‘What Is Enlightenment?,’” in Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader, ed. Bill E. Lawson and Frank M. Kirkland (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 243–310; Roderick M. Stewart, “The Claims of Frederick Douglass Philosophically Considered,” in Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader, ed. Bill E. Lawson and Frank M. Kirkland (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 145–72 (with methodical observations, 145-148). Cf. also the “Introduction” to this volume by Lawson and Kirkland, pp. 1-17, and Howard McGary and Bill E. Lawson, Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992)..
 Nilgün Anadolu-Okur, Dismantling Slavery: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Formation of the Abolitionist Discourse, 1841-1851 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2016). Testimonies are available in the many volumes of Frederick Douglass, The Frederick Douglass Papers, ed. John W. Blassingame et al., Series 1-3 (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 1999). Cf. John Stauffer, “Douglass’s Self-Making and the Culture of Abolitionism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglass, ed. Maurice S. Lee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 12–30.
 Frederick Douglass, “Excerpt” of a speech May 1853, in Julia Griffiths, ed., Autographs for Freedom, vol.  (Auburn; Rochester: Alden, Beardsley; Wanzer, Beardsley, 1854), 251–255; 252f. Also as “A Nation in the Midst of a Nation: An Address delivered in New York (11 may 1853)” in Douglass, The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 1, vol. 2, pp. 423-440, quotation on p. 425 .
 Frederick Douglass, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” in Autobiographies, The Library of America: 68 (New York: Library of America, 1994), chap. XXIII, 367.
 Actually, this title is already taken: Cynthia Willett, “The Master-Slave Dialectic: Hegel vs. Douglass,” in Subjugation and Bondage: Critical Essays on Slavery and Social Philosophy, ed. Tommy Lee Lott (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998), 151–70.
 So Nilgün Anadolu-Okur in her presentation at this conference; she suggested to call these works ‘autobiographies.’ Structural observations in Robert B. Stepto, “Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of 1845,” in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, ed. William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely (New York: Norton, 1996), 146–57; William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), chap. 1, 1–31:"The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography: Notes towards a Definition of a Genre; chapt. 4, 97-166: “The Performance of Slave Narrative in the 1840s.”
 Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself,” in Autobiographies, The Library of America: 68 (New York: Library of America, 1994), chap. II, 23 f. – I will quote the three autobiographies from this edition with citation of chapters so that quotations may be found in any other edition.
 These were the first editions of the three autobiographies: Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Boston: Anti-slavery Office, 1845); Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I - Life as a Slave, Part II - Life as a Freeman (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855); Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, Conn.: Park Pub., 1884).
 Douglass, “Bondage,” 105.
 Douglass, chap. XVI, 270; cf. Frederick Douglass, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass Written by Himself,” in Autobiographies, The Library of America: 68 (New York: Library of America, 1994), chap. XVI, 575.
 Douglass, “Bondage,” chap. XVII, 286.
 Douglass, chap. XIX, 307.
 Aristotle, Politics I, 1252a, translated by H. Rackham (http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0086.tlg035.perseus-eng1:1.1252a); more literally: “… the same [thing] benefits the master and the slave”.
 Stewart, “The Claims of Frederick Douglass Philosophically Considered”, 148.
 Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987); Jean Fagan Yellin, “Written By Herself: Harriet Jacobs’ Slave Narrative,” American Literature 53, no. 3 (November 1981): 479–86.
 Frederick Douglass, The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series Two: Autobiographical Writings, ed. John W. Blassingame, John R. McKivigan, and Peter P. Hinks, vol. 1: Narrative (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 1999), 154 f. and 158; the exchange is also in Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, ed. William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely (New York: Norton, 1996), 88–96.
 Douglass, “Narrative,” chap. X, 60.
 Douglass, “Bondage,” chap. XXIII, 367. The context is the same as in “we will take care of the philosophy,” quoted above.
 On the problems of this terminology, which is not topical here, see Teresa Robertson and Philip Atkins, “Essential vs. Accidental Properties,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2016, 2016, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/essential-accidental/.
 The divulged image of a slave exclaiming “Am I not a Man and a Brother” was designed by Josiah Wedgwood in the late 18th century in Scotland; see Iain Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 75f.
 Max Scheler, Die Stellung des Menschen im Kosmos. (Darmstadt: Reichl, 1928); English: Max Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos, trans. Manfred S. Frings (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2009); Helmuth Plessner, Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch: Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1928); there is no English translation; a summary in Marjorie Grene, “Positionality in the Philosophy of Helmuth Plessner,” The Review of Metaphysics 20, no. 2 (1966): 250–77.
 Cf. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 23, 103.
 Douglass, “Narrative,” chap. IX, 66. Interestingly, this is also quoted in Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828, ed. Olive Garrison Gilbert (Boston: Printed for the author [J. B. Yerrinton and Son], 1850), 64.
 Douglass, “Narrative,” chap. IX, 66.
 Douglass, chap. IX, 52. The author felt compelled to justify his critical remarks in the Appendix of the book, pp. 97-102. On religion in Douglass see Scott C. Williamson, The Narrative Life: The Moral and Religious Thought of Frederick Douglass (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2002).
 Douglass, “Narrative,” chap. IX, 53, X, 70-72 (Sabbath School); X, 63 (root). On the Sabbath school see Sterling Stuckey, “‘My Burden Lightened’: Frederick Douglass, the Bible, and Slave Culture,” in African Americans and The Bible. Sacred Texts and Social Textures, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (New York: Continuum, 2000), 251–65.
 Frederick Douglass, “The Nature of Slavery”, in Howard Brotz, ed., African-American Social and Political Thought, 1850-1920 (New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers, 1992), 216.
 René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 69.
 Douglass, “Narrative,” chap. XI, 91.
 Douglass, chap. XI, 92.
 Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies, The Library of America: 68 (New York: Library of America, 1994), 651, cf. 354. – Just to avoid misunderstandings that may come with the term ‘identity’: “A is identical with A,” says nothing about A; and yet, it entails a reflective act of identifying. In present-day social language, ‘identity’ may mean “Who or what a person or thing is; ... a set of characteristics or a description that distinguishes a person or thing from others” (Oxford English Dictionary) and, consequently, the belonging of a person to a group of people definable by properties or shared values. The latter sense dominates in Robert S. Levine, “Identity in the Autobiographies,” in The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglass, ed. Maurice S. Lee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 31–45; J. Kameron Carter, “Race, Religion, and the Contradictions of Identity: A Theological Engagement with Douglass’s 1845 Narrative,” Modern Theology 21, no. 1 (2005): 37–65; 37: “identity—who we take ourselves to be and how we orient ourselves to others.” In Douglass’s text, ‘to preserve the identity’ asserts the reflective sameness of the author, which is the theme of the autobiography.
 Douglass, The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series Two, 1: Narrative:154–160; 157. On irony in Douglass see Stewart, “The Claims of Frederick Douglass Philosophically Considered”, passim.
 Frederick Douglass, “Lecture on Pictures,” in Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, ed. John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier (New York: Norton, 2015), 126–41; 133. The text is also in Douglass, The Frederick Douglass Papers, series 1, vol. 3, 452-473; 455. Here with the title “Pictures and Progress.”
 Douglass, “Lecture on Pictures”, 128.
 Frederick Douglass, “Pictures and Progress,” in Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, ed. John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier (New York: Norton, 2015), 161–73; 163, 166. A summary of this in Douglass, The Frederick Douglass Papers, series 1, vol. 3, 620.
 Douglass, “Narrative,” chap. III, 28.
 Margaret Kohn, “Frederick Douglass’s Master-Slave Dialectic”, The Journal of Politics, 67, No. 2 (May, 2005), 497-514, says correctly (500), “Although the fight with Covey did bring about a cessation to the brutal beatings he had endured, the emancipatory consequences were primarily psychological in nature.” However, the anthropological meaning goes beyond the personal psychological effect. Kohn has the further relevant literature on the case.
 Douglass, “Narrative,” chap. X, 60.
 Douglass, chap. X, 64.
 Douglass, chap. X, 65.
 Douglass, chap. X, 65.
 Lewis R. Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000), 61. (Italics in the original.)
 Douglass, “Narrative,” chap. X, 65.
 Bernard Boxill, “Two Traditions in African American Political Philosophy”, The Philosophical Forum 24, no. 1-3, Fall-Spring 1992-93, 119-135; pp. 129 f. Further considerations, derived from Douglass’s later political stances in Bernard R. Boxill, “The Fight with Covey,” in Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy, ed. Lewis R. Gordon (New York: Routledge, 1997), 273–90. Cf. Bernard R. Boxill, “Douglass Against the Emigrationists,” in Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader, ed. Bill E. Lawson and Frank M. Kirkland (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 21–49; 38-41; “Frederick Douglass as an Existentialist” in Gordon, Existentia Africana, 41–61.
 Douglass, “Narrative,” chap. X, 65.