Chapter Four: FREDERICK DOUGLASS: Celebrity, Privacy, and the Embodied Self
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118 Chapter 4 �������������� FREDERICK DOUGLASS Celebrity, Privacy, and the Embodied Self On August 11, 1841, Frederick Douglass spoke before the con- vention of the Massachusetts Anti-­ Slavery Society at Nantucket, Massachusetts . The occasion was not Douglass’s debut as a public speaker; his remarks at an antislavery meeting in New Bedford just two days before had earned him an invitation to Nantucket, and, indeed, Douglass had been honing his oratorical skills since his years in slavery.1 Douglass’s Nantucket appearance nevertheless takes on symbolic importance in his story as the moment at which he became a public figure. It was the first time that William Lloyd Garrison heard Douglass speak, as he reflects in his introduction to Douglass’s Narrative: “I shall never forget his first speech at the convention—­ the extraordinary emotion it excited in my own mind—­ the powerful impression it created upon a crowded auditory, completely taken by surprise—­ the applause which followed from the beginning to the end of his felicitous remarks.”2 This notion of surprise is fundamental to Douglass’s career as a public lecturer and antislavery activist: everything about his public performances was at variance with the social expectations and racial presumptions of his audiences. For his part, Douglass played on the rhetorical uses of his surprising publicity in various ways, presenting himself as an eloquent former slave, a mocking critic of slavery’s logical inconsistencies, and a defiant outsider to the cultural privileges associated with white nationalism. Douglass’s Nantucket speech initiated his new career as a lecturer, first for the Massachusetts Anti-­Slavery Society and then, from 1842, for the American Anti-­ Slavery Society (AASS). Throughout the 1840s, Douglass rose from obscurity to local notice, then, with the publication of his Narrative in 1845, he became a celebrity of the first order. Significantly, Douglass’s emergence on the national stage coincides with Emerson’s growing celebrity. I have argued that Emerson’s message as a public speaker was complicated by audiences’ responses to his physical presence on the lecture platform. For Douglass, the significance of his physical presence is shaped by his specific experience in ways that did not affect Emerson or, indeed, most popular lecturers of the moment. Emerson exemplifies a privileged form of public participation made possible in part by an intensely felt and carefully guarded privacy. The case is far different for Douglass, for whom Frederick Douglass 119 attaining personhood is impossible. Karen Sanchez-­ Eppler has argued that “for both women and blacks” in the public spheres of abolition and women’s rights, “their physical difference from the cultural norms of white masculinity obstructs their claim to personhood.” For black public speakers, the physical self can never be forgotten or ignored: “the body of the slave attains the status of a text” by virtue of both the scars of slavery and, according to medical pseudoscience, through anatomical structures that supposedly suit the black body to socially inferior labor and status.3 Audiences’ responses to black public speakers inevitably conform to prejudgments based on their racialized expectations, which rule out the black speakers’ authority to participate in the debates of the public sphere, let alone to possess the “genius” commonly ascribed to Emerson. In addition, we have seen that popular amusements such as Barnum’s “What Is It?” promote forms of spectatorship that objectify and interrogate black bodies. The cultural associations of selfhood and citizenship with whiteness imply that Douglass is not merely an exceptional figure but indeed a curiosity. Facing the obstacles to personhood via the public sphere, Douglass charts an alternative path via the private sphere. He does so by making his private life, and the private lives of slaves in general, conspicuous in his writing even as he declines to describe them in detail. Douglass acknowledges the prevailing skepticism about his authority to speak. He recalls, for instance, how the white leaders of the AASS presented him to audiences: “I was a ‘graduate from the peculiar institution,’ Mr. Collins used to say, when introducing me, ‘with my diploma written on my back!’” (DA 365; italics in original). The body is evidence of slavery’s abuses and a rhetorical tool for condemning them. Metaphorically, Douglass reveals his scars by telling his story, but over time he resists even this rhetorical form of exposure, which limits his public identity and subject matter to his experience in bondage. He resists being made a Barnumesque side show, an exhibit that reinforces the authority of the white gaze. Throughout his...


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