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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Dialectical Journal

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ANALYSIS: Move beyond plot to reflect on Douglass’s use of rhetoric to further his agenda. What is Douglass’s PURPOSE in the selected quote—what is his argument, his message, and how does his language help or hinder that purpose? Pretend the narrative is a giant essay with a group of specific arguments and then analyze it for its use of rhetoric. I am aware that the overall message is always going to be “slavery is wrong and should be abolished,” but what nuanced arguments does Douglass present within that same argument? “If anyone wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul, – and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because ‘there is no flesh in his obdurate heart’” (9).

After describing his experience in hearing these sorrowful songs when he was young, Douglass separates himself from his former-slave self and writes in an authoritative, eloquent way to establish a bridge that the reader can cross in order to vicariously understand the dehumanizing nature of slavery. He uses pathos to argue that anyone who is human will experience an innate feeling of despondency and sympathy upon hearing these songs; it is evidence in the most natural form. He uses serious and weighty diction, such as “deep pine woods”, “in silence”, and “chambers of his soul” to convey the profundity to which the desolation of these songs reach. He sets up this situation in order to aid the reader who originally had misconceptions of slavery. Those who still don’t see the brutality of slavery after this are deemed inhuman and heartless, and not by him, but by a fellow white male, whose exact words are quoted. “The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family” (11).

By focusing on the psychological harm slavery brings, such as the fact that slave owners often trick their slaves into confessing their feelings toward their master, Douglass justifies the paranoid behavior of slaves as a human act, therefore, obliterating any argument that implies slaves are property, or that they are animals and are below the status of a white person. The establishment of this argument advances Douglass main message, owing to the fact that since slaves are human, the inhumane treatment of them is unjustified and fallacious, therefore backfiring on whoever does it. Douglass characterizes slaveholders as deceitful, which can also be compared to the way slaves lie to survive, therefore depicting slavery as a double-edged sword that harms both parties.

Using a learned and analytical diction, Douglass establishes himself as a wise man who can be trusted, which aids in validating his argument. “These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave black men. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (20).

The words he is told by Mr. Auld are the ultimate proof as to how slavery works, and once Douglass understands this, he realizes that the only hope of freedom is through education. The concept of slavery is made a “dark mysterious thing” to slaves, with no explanation as to why they are subordinate to white men, so they never understand the real workings of how it is perpetuated, and therefore never revolt. Douglass’s claim to have tried to understand it before in “vain”, and only now having an idea of how to achieve freedom proves the futility of escaping slavery when slaves are deprived of knowledge.

This piece of information Hugh Auld unknowingly discloses to Douglass reveals that the only separation between a white man and a black man is the power of knowledge; the only reason white men are in control over black men is because white men deprive them of any form of education or knowledge from the moment they are born, including family ties. The very fact that white men are in fear of black men gaining knowledge and revolting verifies that black men are truly born equal to white men. “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness” (23).

Douglass’s ability to sympathize with a woman who later treats him harshly and is part of the society that dehumanizes him puts him above the behavior of white men and makes him a virtuous man. Instead of attacking and criticizing her for letting the concept of slavery change her as a person, Douglass wins over his readers by recognizing her as much of a victim to slavery as he is. His descriptive diction when he characterizes her as a “pious” and “lamblike” woman by nature, and then “tiger-like” is similar to the way slaves are broken and brutalized. By paralleling a saintly, white woman to a slave, Douglass is once again creating a bridge that efficiently persuades his intended audience through a vicarious experience. “In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage” (51).

By introducing his argument with a reference to one of the founding fathers of the United States and employing the values Americans hold so dearly, Douglass appeals to his intended audience in an airtight way, where no counter-arguments can get in. He not only parallels his struggle for freedom to America’s struggle for independence during the revolution, but he goes a step further and claims his struggle is braver. For the Americans, the phrase “give me liberty or give me death” is a figurative one in which death is not an immediate consequence, but for the black men who fight for freedom, it is. In fact, death, to slaves, would be the lesser of two evils – an end to the “hopeless bondage”. The combination of the flowing, unconfined syntax and the passionate and momentous diction produces an almost poetic argument that leaves the reader with a feeling of deep inspiration. By doing so, Douglass persuades his audience that the black men’s struggle for freedom is more meaningful and significant than that of the very principals America was built on.

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