Frederick Douglass’ Struggle with Individualism In W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk,
Du Bois writes that, “It is a peculiar sensation… this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 689). Du Bois recognizes that in American society black people are only seen as members of a group and not as unique individuals.
Frederick Douglass’ 1845 slave narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, explores the theme of African-Americans lacking a sense of individuality. Douglass equates a lack of self with a lack of knowledge, and so in his narrative Douglass seeks to acquire knowledge in many forms, including literacy, in order to free himself from a metaphorical enslavement, a lack of self, as well as his literal enslavement.
Douglass struggles to be seen as a self-conscious individual because he is treated by his slave masters as a piece of property. When Douglass’ old master dies and he is brought back to his old plantation he recounts being examined like cattle: “We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women… were ranked with horses, sheep and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination” (Douglass 51).
Property is not seen as having its own self-conscious, and is only regarded as a thing that can generate capital. Douglass is treated as a piece of property and not regarded as an individual. Douglass also feels completely powerless as Mrs. Lucretia and Master Andrew begin to divide up their new “property”, and Douglass writes, “Our fate for life was now to be decided. We had no more voice in that decision than the brutes among whom we were ranked” (52).
Friendships, marriages, and even families would be unfairly separated, “A single word from the white men was enough – against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties – to sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings” (52).
This was all so that neither Mrs. Lucretia nor Master Andrew would not get an “unfair” share of their father’s fortune. Douglass also struggles to not simply be seen as a racial object because others have tyrannical power over him. One example is Master Hugh, who takes Douglass’ wages. Master Hugh hires Douglass to work for a shipbuilder, where Douglass managed to earn some money every week for his work. However, Master Hugh takes Douglass’ wages because Douglass is merely property, and this infuriates Douglass: “I contracted for it; I earned it; it was paid to me; it was rightfully my own; yet, upon each returning Saturday night, I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh… solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up” (93).
Also, the workers at Douglass’ dockyard have power over him, not because they own him but because society does not recognize black people as self-conscious individuals. After many dockyard workers overpower Douglass and knock him to the ground, Douglass gets up to pursue them. Douglass gives up, however, after realizing that fifty other dockyard workers merely spectated his beating and, “not one interposed a friendly word; but some cried, ‘Kill the damned nigger! Kill him! Kill him! He struck a white person” (90).
Douglass also mentions how black people are lynched for striking a white man. Here, Douglass is treated merely as a racial object, not as a self-conscious individual. Douglass knows very little about himself and because of this Douglass lacks individuality. He knows only where he was born, but not when, and this causes Douglass a lot of mental anguish. Douglass can’t know his birth date and, “a want of information concerning my own [birth date] was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood” (17).
Douglass compares his ignorance of his own self to that of a horse, saying, “the larger part of slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs” (17). Horses cannot be recognized by others as individuals with self-consciousness; the only thing that sets them apart is their value to their owner, as horses are merely pieces of property. But slaves have no desire to only be seen as having monetary value. Something that lacks a self-conscious and only exists to work is a machine.
When Douglass asks his master why the white children can know their birth dates and he cannot his master tells him that inquiries make, “a slave improper and impertinent” (17). This response by Douglass’ master draws the connection between ignorance and slavery, claiming forced ignorance will lead to mental enslavement. Douglass fails to be recognized by others as a unique individual with a self-conscious because he does not know important parts of his own identity.
Eventually, Douglass is selected to go to Baltimore and work for a different master, and here Douglass learns that he can achieve individualism through education. After Mrs. Auld had taught him enough to know the letters of the alphabet and how to spell simple words, Mr. Auld, “forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was… unsafe, to teach a slave to read” (42).
Educating a slave is dangerous because education teaches slaves to think. In Mr. Auld’s own words, “[Education] would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable… it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy” (42). This is when we learn along with Douglass exactly how white Americans succeeded in keeping African-Americans enslaved. Bankrupting them of an education keeps them ignorant to their lives’ condition, as Douglass says, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason” (92).
Douglass says that he is actually more unhappy with his condition in life after learning how to read, as he says, “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy” (48). Interestingly, Douglass also claims here that learning does not give him a “remedy” to his condition, but later on Douglass proves his younger self wrong by crafting his own identity using his education.
Douglass demonstrates in his narrative that individuality can also be achieved through the pursuit of education, not just by education itself. This is shown by how he reads once Mr. Auld barrs Mrs. Auld from teaching Douglass. Douglass becomes interested in “abolition” and “abolitionists” after hearing about them, and so he finds newspapers and learns about what they are and what they want to abolish. Douglass begins to take initiative, as he says, “Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” (46).
He begins by learning four letters, L, S, F, and A, from visiting the dockyard and seeing planks of wood marked with the letters, then he challenges other boys in the street to write more letters than him, and lastly he copies the writing in Master Thomas’ old spelling book. The tiny amount of education offered to him by Mrs. Auld, and indirectly by Mr. Auld, is enough to inspire Douglass to learn to read and write entirely. Douglass receives his longed-for recognition as an individual through using his education.
Later in Douglass’ time as a slave he creates a school to educate other slaves in how to read. Learning to read allows Douglass to distinguish himself among his fellow slaves, because he is now playing a role in freeing other slaves. He also has an opportunity to set himself apart as a leader. Douglass laments about how much he enjoys teaching, “because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race” (80).
Douglass would not be able to experience this “delight” if he had never learned to read. This is the first instance in the narrative where Douglass can truly take control of his own destiny and it was only possible through his pursuit of knowledge. Learning to read metaphorically frees the other slaves from being “shut up in mental darkness” (80), but also frees them from their masters. The other slaves can now be seen as individuals, like Douglass, and they are also more conscious of their unfair condition. Douglass explains, “that one, at least, is now free through my agency” (80), presumably in part because of the education they received from Douglass.
On the other hand, a counterclaim to this would likely be that Douglass’ direct resistance to his masters does more to individualize him than education or reading. It is true that Douglass definitely feels more emboldened by his direct resistance to Covey and the dock workers. Douglass writes that, “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood… inspired me again with a determination to be free” (73)
However, this fails to recognize that reading made him so discontent in the first place, and Douglass likely only fought back against people who abused him because he had been educated. This actually shows how Mr. Auld’s prophecy about educating slaves is true. Through learning to read, Douglass had become unmanageable, discontent, and unhappy. He begins fighting back against people he believes are treating him unfairly and as a result he is never whipped again, “[Douglass] had several fights, but was never whipped.” 
Douglass’ struggle to become free from bondage is also a struggle to become recognized as an individual. Douglass, as a slave, feels as though he is only a machine. A machine lacks personality and any sense of individuality. It exists only to work, and the work it produces is all identical and untraceable to its source.
Moving forward, we should consider how the treatment of marginalized groups affects their behavior. Refusing to consider people as individuals and not just as members of a group robs them of a personal identity, and when a person is nameless and faceless it becomes more acceptable to treat them unfairly.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Penguin Books, 1982.Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. A. C. McClurg and Co., 1903.