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  • Roots of (African American) Rhetorical Theory in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom

This article explores the roots of (African American) rhetorical theory through an examination of Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom. Rhetorical theory in this case is a forcible call for antislavery unity between races that at the same time rejects notions of the body as a racial essence. This essay attempts to make Douglass’s rhetorical theory clear so that we can better understand how the key term functions today.


African American rhetorical theory, Frederick Douglass, race and racism, history of rhetorical theory

One might presume that elite educational environments, including colleges and universities, have been the exclusive venues for rhetorical theory. Rhetorical theory typically takes the form of published treatises, monographs, and essays. Thus, the status of theorist would have been denied to, among others, African Americans during the nineteenth century because they were not afforded opportunities to become literate or, even if literate, not admitted into realms of elite literacy (meaning in this case the ability to read and write). But there are the seeds of a competing story, particularly regarding the narratives written by Frederick Douglass. Henry Louis Gates Jr., for example, has stated that Douglass used narrative to construct himself as the “representative colored man” or, one might construe, the representative set of arguments against white supremacy in America (1988, 129).1 Wilson Moses argued that “Douglass’s literary act of self-presentation was [End Page 51] skillfully engineered to produce desired effects on certain sets of white liberals” (1993, 68), and he asserted that Douglass “converted his life into an expression of a ‘race concept’” (70).2 But in what ways, if at all, does the recent reception of Douglass identify him as a rhetorical theorist per se— and thus as a theorist generally—above and beyond his accepted status as an icon, an activist, a public intellectual, or even an accomplished rhetorician who shifted the debate around abolition?

In this essay on the history and current significance of the key term rhetorical theory, I examine Frederick Douglass’s 1855 text My Bondage and My Freedom because this autobiographical narrative is a monument of rhetorical theory in practice. My understanding of rhetorical theory in practice borrows from and extends Barbara Christian’s famous essay, “The Race for Theory,” in which she argues that “people of color have always theorized . . . but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic” (1987, 52). However, Christian does not focus on the role of rhetoric in theory writ large, so the distinct contribution of Douglass remains obscured in this way. My goal in this essay is to make Douglass’s rhetorical theory clear so that we can better understand how the key term functions today.

No doubt autobiographies of a formerly enslaved person, and slave narratives more generally, offer their writers an opportunity to present the life of a person who experienced firsthand (from the position of the enslaved) how enslavement dehumanized the mind, body, and soul. For writers such as Douglass, their narratives functioned as more than just a story that detailed the life of an enslaved person from the beginning to middle to end; instead, their texts became conduits through which they publicly denounced the dehumanization enslaved people experienced in the United States and elsewhere.3 But in Douglass’s self-trained hands, the slave narrative and eventually the autobiography were something else as well. Douglass, by transforming what he famously taught himself from The Columbian Orator and other slave narratives that preceded Bondage and Freedom, located rhetorical theory in the lived experiences of enslaved people. Counterintuitively, then, theory is embodied.4

Unlike free African American people who were literate, enslaved people learned discreetly, as enslavers used illiteracy as a mechanism by which to keep enslaved people bound to their material conditions. The literate mind could easily become a liberated one, and this would jeopardize the maintenance of the U.S. slavocracy. Literacy, moreover, was associated with human intelligence (conceptualized through Enlightenment philosophy), so if enslaved people could read and write, it meant they possessed human [End Page 52] intelligence and therefore could be conceptualized as human.5 Humanizing the enslaved would pose a problem for U.S. slave ideology. To ensure that African Americans remained illiterate, enslavers suppressed written texts— though African Americans passed down their histories and stories through their oral traditions.6

Despite barriers to literacy, small enclaves of individuals, including Douglass, managed to become literate. When given the space to make legible the violence and brutality of enslavement—and attend to basic questions of being (Hartman and Wilderson 2003, 184)7—enslaved people typically produced texts that appeared in composed narrative form, not in the forms of a treatise, philosophy, or some kind of systematic reflection on language. So, when we consider African American rhetorical theory, our historiography of rhetorical theory takes a different form as well, now oriented toward theory with a critical and experiential force. Theory is entwined with systematically oppressed peoples, and now the linkage must be explained, in this case with a formative effort by the formerly enslaved Douglass.

Douglass “powerfully linked the ideas of being, literacy, and freedom” (Gilyard and Banks 2018, 15).8 But from the outset his work was not made legible in any way as theory even though many of his contemporaries marveled at his ability to appropriate language with such poise and grace. For instance, Douglass found himself constrained by abolitionists like John A. Collins who instructed him to tell his story but leave the philosophy to “us,” the white abolitionists.9 Some questioned his narrative’s validity—his work was seen as more sophisticated than many thought formerly enslaved people could produce—which meant that it had to be legitimized by a white second party, usually an esteemed abolitionist.10 His writings ultimately attracted much critical acclaim and attention for their ability to convey the experience of an enslaved person and explicitly to display enslavement’s effect on the enslaved. And in many ways, Bondage and Freedom would become Douglass’s rejoinder to views of him as a “living document of slavery” and not an “emerging intellectual in his own right . . . [with] his own hunger for knowledge” (Edwards 2005, xxvii). Indeed the text has been widely recognized not only as the testimony of a gifted intellectual, but one which cuts to the very core of American democracy. In his introduction to Bondage and Freedom, Brent Edwards argues that the text “is critical of racism not just as a cornerstone of the ‘peculiar institution’ of southern slavery, but more disturbing as a central characteristic of the American ‘democratic’ temperament in general” (xxii). But how does this work beyond the extraordinary talents of an individual? [End Page 53]

Douglass’s rhetorical training was not miraculous. As he explained in great detail, he used The Columbian Orator as both his literacy and rhetoric training manual, and he subsequently borrowed and built on the rhetorical frameworks presented in it by what we now call theorists and rhetoricians ranging from William Pitt to George Washington, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and Daniel Webster. In a passage detailing his acquisition and subsequent use of The Columbian Orator, Douglass averred, “This volume was, indeed, a rich treasure, and every opportunity afforded me, for a time, was spent in diligently perusing it” ([1855] 2005, 207, 125). The rhetorical training manual served as occasion to learn strategies for persuasion through oratory and the written word. Douglass recounted a story from The Columbian Orator that enticed him most: through an unnamed enslaved person’s rhetorical savviness, he outperformed his master and won his freedom.11 After reading the dialogue, Douglass imagined “that the day might come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance would find their counterpart in myself ” (126). He studied assiduously The Columbian Orator to prepare himself for any debate that would involve or follow his emancipation. But at what point does this rhetorical training and later activism move beyond the motivations of personal liberation and become rhetorical theory per se?

In an earlier and more well-known text, the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, he articulated the ways that the textbook enabled him “to utter [his] thoughts and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery” (Douglass [1845] 1987, 45).12 During a time when the odds of becoming literate were heavily stacked against him, he found the wherewithal to acquire and master rhetorical moves he learned from The Columbian Orator. His study of the “eloquent orations and spicy dialogues, denouncing oppression and slavery” (Douglass [1855] 2005, 207) taught, shaped, and motivated him to compose himself against the social death that society orchestrated for him. He acquired the moves well enough that he was capable of employing them in his speeches and writings to display the absurdity of African American enslavement. He advocated for the inherent humanity within enslaved people in the ante-bellum South. He wrote so lawmakers could hear his disfranchised voice, and The Columbian Orator empowered him with the necessary language “to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through [his] soul, and died away for want of utterance” (126). It sharpened his ability to critique the atrocities of enslavement, and ultimately it [End Page 54] became the occasion for theory. No doubt The Columbian Orator teaches traditional rhetoric, a tool of the master. But in the hands and voice of the systematically oppressed it undermines traditional rhetoric, becoming instead a tool to reconfigure the world.

Forcible calling, as I term it, is a double move by which Douglass, focusing on the idea of shared humanity, called for something like the identification that Burke wrote about a century later. For Burke, “to begin with ‘identification’ is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implications of division” (1950, 22). Douglass created a space for himself to forcibly call attention to his condition as a slave; he reminded readers who had not been enslaved that they were not quite like him. But he also offered the possibility of identification with the reader—the world might be figured differently. He stages identification and disidentification in the same appeal to the same audience, so the audience shares common substance with his rhetoric although it cannot fully identify with his life experiences. As Burke wrote, “put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25).13

To summarize, Douglass used a normative textbook on oratory—a phantasm of national identification—to challenge norms. This is Douglass’s rhetorical theory in practice. Ultimately, the rhetoric interwoven in My Bondage and My Freedom served dual purposes: it incited a response that would argue for the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, and it challenged readers to reconceptualize how to define and enact rhetorical theory, and indeed theory more broadly, insofar as it has a critical edge. As further illustration, I focus briefly on Douglass’s Bondage and Freedom in relation to paradoxes of Christianity and his use of satire when addressing his enslaver.

Scholars such as David Leer and others have discussed Douglass’s use of Christianity as a rhetorical tool in his Narrative. For instance, Leer looked at how Christianity functioned as a readily available discourse for Douglass to utilize, explaining that it was the “most obvious of the many white discourses that Douglass must appropriate if he is to have any audience in the North, even among generally sympathetic abolitionists” (1993, 118). Leer also suggested the rhetorical function of religion in Bondage and Freedom. However, there has been relative silence about Christianity, and in particular religious paradox, when it comes to Bondage and Freedom. Douglass split Christian consciousness and indeed conceptions of the body itself: a forcible calling. [End Page 55]

An example is Douglass’s treatment of Ham, whose story had been used in America to justify the enslavement of Africans. Noah curses Ham’s descendants (presumed to be Africans) because Ham saw his father’s nakedness.14 Douglass utilized the story of Ham’s curse to theorize slavery and its paradoxical conception. Douglass wrote, “If the lineal descendants of Ham are only to be enslaved according to the scriptures, slavery in this country will soon become an unscriptural institution” ([1855] 2005, 55). He asserted that slavery as an institution becomes less scripturally justifiable when you consider the genealogical mixture of most enslaved people and nearly all African Americans moving forward. He explained that “thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who—like myself—owe their existence to white fathers, and, most frequently, to their masters” (55). Indeed, many enslaved people that were born during the nineteenth century in the United States were what we now call bi- or multiracial. Douglass posited that when slave society becomes more mixed-raced, it becomes an “unscriptural institution” because most people will possess some white blood. That is, enslavement based on race “was a very unsatisfactory basis for slavery” ([1855] 2005, 79). Which part of the body, then, is to be enslaved? Rhetorical theory in this case is a forcible call for antislavery unity between races that at the same time dismantles the body as a racial essence.

Then satire. Satire is a way of rewriting reality. Its desired effect on the reader is for laughter first and then a reflection that suggests the satirist is right. Satire should reveal the essence of what we see. Douglass uses satire both to identify with and dismantle the reader. For example, Douglass satirizes (and dismantles) white culture when he says that the enslaved person is “never chided for handing his little knife and fork improperly or awkwardly, for he uses none” ([1855] 2005, 44). The enslaved does not have to figure out where the utensils go. Douglass takes a humorous approach to the everyday dinner rituals of his white northerners, but he also establishes a moment in which he can highlight the differences between the enslaved life and the life of an enslaver. The enslaved do not have to worry about domestic matters in the same way that the enslaver does, whether those matters were trivial or serious.

In another section of the narrative, Douglass’s comments on how the possibilities of a carefree life for an enslaved boy can properly be understood only as ironic. He says that the slave boy can be a “genuine boy,” which implies (and evokes notions of) the boy as a person who is not concerned with stressors. The child is free to do whatever makes him happy. He can live with no restraints. But, of course, the slave boy has to deal with the [End Page 56] fundamental restraints of his enslavement and dehumanizing condition. And he has to deal with an emotional world turned upside down, often by way of brutality and death.

Douglass recounts the brutalization of his Aunt Esther (Hester).15 Esther endured a vicious whipping from their overseer because she disobeyed his order to stop romantically seeing Ned Roberts, another enslaved person on the Lloyd plantation. Aaron Anthony, the overseer, did not want her to date or talk to him, so because of her refusal to cease her courtship with Ned, he made an example of her. He tore and ripped into her back with complete indifference to her shrieks of pain; he stopped only after he tired himself out. He beat her in front of Douglass (though he was not supposed to be there). Douglass watched in agonizing discontent as the overseer mangled Esther’s back, and he cites this event as profoundly transformative, the moment when he fully recognizes his status as an enslaved person. It is the “blood-stained gate” and his “entrance to the hell of slavery, through which [he] was about to pass” ([1845] 1987, 20). But of course this isn’t a story about religious damnation to hell—or the reverse. It is not just a story about human brutality designed to elicit horror, and then sympathy. It is also rhetorical theory in narrative form—the only way to characterize this kind of total transformation, the world turned upside down.

No doubt Douglass is also a formative contributor to the theory we call “critical race.” Critical race theorists analyze and critique the variegated ways “racial conceptions and structural conditions order lives and delimit human possibility” (Essed and Goldberg 2008, 6). In Bondage and Freedom Douglass demonstrates, for instance, “that literacy is linked to the power to enslave and alternatively, to the power to create one’s own subjectivity and redeem one’s community” (Sundquist 1993, 11). He deconstructs any notion of a racial essence that would be pervasively held by white supremacists in the nineteenth century; instead he gestures toward racism—mechanized through Black enslavement and U.S. laws—as a galvanizing force of Black subjugation. Though he does not deploy racism as a term in Bondage and Freedom, he recognizes and critiques how power is operationalized on the slave plantation and how racism remains the core problem for African American people. He signals that racism is the activation of a group’s power over another and race was a concept that “signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interest by referring to different types of human bodies” (Omi and Winant 2007, 123).

But to reiterate, in adopting the examples of canonic rhetoricians and transforming them, turning them against the norm, Douglass wrote a lived [End Page 57] rhetorical theory, a theory that emerged out of his interpretation of the mundane lives of enslaved people. His work allows us to see better the forms in which African American rhetorical theory originated, and thus some crucial roots of what we call theory today. No doubt his narratives comprise an intellectual space where he, to quote rhetorician Dexter Gordon, “inserted an alienated historical, material, collective, black, public voice into America’s public dialogue so as to mediate America’s past” and to “challenge the [American] story of exclusion” (Gordon 2003, 154): he was an effective rhetorician. Douglass’s rhetorical performance in his narrative challenges the misconception that Black people lack intelligence and issues a stern rebuke of white supremacism: he was a social justice activist. Douglass composed against pervasive tropes of the “simplicity of the Negro” that, as Frantz Fanon asserted, “is a myth created by superficial observers” ([1952] 2008, 48). And thus he was also a kind of philosopher, insofar as he offered an alternative to white epistemology. But in doing all of these things he called forcibly, from a life nearly impossible to live, against the only forms of discourse available. And it is in this consistent and critical approach where form is embodied from the perspective of oppression that we can identify Douglass’s rhetorical theory, and hence the substantial roots of theory today.

D’Angelo Bridges
English Department
Pennsylvania State University, University Park


1. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent historian of African and African American literature, argued in “The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black” that Frederick Douglass was “the most representative colored man both because he represented black people most eloquently and elegantly, and because he was the race’s great opportunity to re-present itself in the court of racist public opinion” (1988, 129). Gates opined that Black Americans sought to re-present themselves to a racist American public, so the trope of “The New Negro” became a powerful tool for Black intellectuals to fight against white supremacism. “The New Negro” combined visions of an eighteenth-century utopia with a nineteenth-century idea of Black progress (Gates 1988, 132). Frederick Douglass aided in the reconstruction of Blackness in the public sphere. In “From Wheatley to Douglass: The Politics of Displacement,” Gates identified Douglass as a representative man as he traced the rise of Douglass’s celebrity with the eclipse of eighteenth-century figure Phillis Wheatley, who had been previously favored by the public, especially William Lloyd Garrison in the Liberator from 4 February through 22 December 1832.

2. Wilson Moses, a preeminent historian of African American culture, averred in “Writing Freely? Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing” that, like W. E. B. Du Bois, Douglass recognized he had developed himself into “a race concept” but that his “autobiographical writings, subordination of self-consciousness to a race consciousness is far more complete than in Du Bois’s” (70). Moses articulated the ways Douglass understood the slave narrative as a means to freedom, but it also represented a “tactical confinement” that did not allow for his “literary and intellectual” growth or freedom (67). Therefore, Douglass found himself constrained by abolitionists like John A. Collins who instructed him to tell his story, but leave the philosophy to “us,” the white abolitionists. Moses asked essential questions about Douglass’s past, chief among them Douglass’s omission of his sexual awakening or interest. He noted the gendered factors that might have contributed to Douglass’s omission, but he landed on the notion that Douglass might have wanted to present “a literary self-image in which his own sexuality was brought into conformity with Puritan demands” (71). That is, that he presented himself as a virginal youth in all his narratives to appear pure for his role as representative man.

3. Between 1760 and 1865, approximately one hundred known slave narratives were written or dictated by former or fugitive enslaved people. A slave narrative charted the life of a once-enslaved person’s path from enslavement to freedom.

4. On the embodiment of theory, see Porter 1994. In this essay, he concentrated on “the way in which the fate of the body’s materialism and that of language (which is just another way of naming what rhetoric is) are joined together by their strategic importance in Nietzsche’s assault on inherited and habitual ways of imagining the world” (221). Language and the body conjoined, and rhetoric was produced in their wake.

5. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and others have argued that since the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment period placed reason as the metric through which humanity was determined. More specifically, the written word became the standard representation of human intellect. That is, Enlightenment philosophers valued books over spoken language, so writing became the visual representation of reason.

6. Geneva Smitherman, in Talkin and Testifyin, explicated the significance of oral traditions in Black America. She identified them as a “fundamental vehicle for gittin ovuh” (1977, 73). African Americans preserve their culture and heritage through their oral traditions, and their lessons and precepts are passed down as a way of survival. From generation to generation, traditions are transmitted through songs, stories, and sayings (73).

7. Saidiya Hartman, in dialogue with Frank Wilderson, discussed “a certain impossibility, to illuminate those practices that speak to the limits of most available narratives to explain the position of the enslaved” (Hartman and Wilderson 2003, 184). The position of the “slave” occupies, for Hartman, the position of the unthought. Her efforts in Scenes of Subjection were to think through bringing “the position of the unthought” into view without rendering it a “locus of positive value, or without trying to fill in the void” (185). She reasoned in “Venus in Two Acts” that writing with and through archives performs violence.

8. In On African-American Rhetoric, Gilyard and Banks outlined the features of slave narratives. They in turn focused on a salient feature of antebellum slave narratives: the trope the “talking book” that appeared in many slave narratives through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As their paradigmatic examples, they examined James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’s, Olaudah Equiano’s, and Harriet Jacob’s texts to reveal the trope.

9. See note 2.

10. William Lloyd Garrison authenticated Douglass’s Narrative of the Life, but their relationship was strained after Douglass refused Garrison’s advice not to start the North Star in 1847. Between the publication of Narrative of the Life and of Bondage and Freedom, Douglass’s editorship expanded and he refined his abilities, and he took up more political issues than the abolitionist cause—all of which went against what Garrison wanted for Douglass and the antislavery movement.

11. This short dialogue between an enslaver and an enslaved person is titled “Dialogue between a Master and Slave” and can be found in The Columbian Orator. “Master” and “slave” commenced with a dialogue about the nuances of the unnamed enslaved person’s material condition. Flummoxed as to why the enslaved person might want to run anyway, the enslaver initiated a rhetorical battle with the unnamed enslaved person emerging as victor over his opponent.

12. Reading and studying The Columbian Orator also exposed Douglass to writers such as Hugh Blair, Cicero, Benjamin Franklin, John Milton, and Socrates.

13. On identification and cooperation, see Burke 1950, 19.

14. For more on the story of Noah and Ham, see Genesis 9:20–27.

15. From Narrative to Bondage and Freedom, Douglass changed his aunt’s name from Hester to Esther. This rhetorical move aligned his aunt with the biblical figure Esther who was renowned for being a beautiful Persian queen. The choice to alter her name further contributed to his effort to speak directly to his Christian audience.

works cited

Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Burke, Kenneth. 1950. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Christian, Barbara. 1987. “The Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique 6 (1): 51–63.
Douglass, Frederick. [1845] 1987. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. New York: Mentor.
———. [1855] 2005. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
Edwards, Brent Hayes. 2005. Introduction to Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, xvii–xli. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
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———. 1993. “From Wheatley to Douglass: The Politics of Displacement.” In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed. Eric Sundquist, 47–65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Leer, David. 1993. “Reading Slavery: The Anxiety of Ethnicity in Douglass’s Narrative.” In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed. Eric Sundquist, 118–40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moses, Wilson. 1993. “Writing Freely? Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing.” In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed. Eric Sundquist, 66–83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 2007. “Racial Formation.” In Race Critical Theories, ed. Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg, 123–45. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
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Smitherman, Geneva. 1977. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
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