Sunday, December 29, 2013

Readings in 'Race': A Theological Reading of Frederick Douglass's 1845 'Narrative'

This is the tenth in a series of chapter excerpts from J. Kameron Carter's Race: A Theological Account---a series I've been posting to help me keep track of the argument, and to encapsulate its intensity for the interest of those who might track along. (To access prior chapters start here).

In the third and final part of the book Carter looks at three different accounts of slavery that come from black writers who sought to re-interpret their situation (to some degree) from within biblical-theological narratives of Christ. The first was from the eighteenth century, the second is from the nineteenth: It is the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 

In Carter's view, Frederick Douglass's Narrative reads "the dignity and the meaning of black life against the backdrop of Christ's passion"---which has the potential to be either "constructive" for the Christian imagination, or to be "a way of reinscribing the problem that needs overcoming precisely at the moment of [its] supposed ... exposure" (289-290). Unfortunately, although it exposes the harshness of slave-ownership, ultimately Carter thinks Douglass's story does more reinscribing than reconstructing.

The impetus for Frederick Douglass's strike at liberation is the witnessed beating of his Aunt Esther by their overseer Mr. Plummer. It is a scene wherein "violence mediates (in)dignity," and the "articulacy of white existence" so typically "subject[s] black life to a violent 'hush'" (291). Except in this case the black witness is telling the story, and thus the white man "is shown to be the savage, indeed, 'a savage monster'" (292). Like Abel, Aunt Esther's "blood cries out," and issues forth in Douglass's eventual pseudo-redemption.

Frederick Douglass
This takes place one Easter morning, when plantation-owner Mr. Covey "sets out to whip Douglass for the weekend's indiscretions" and "Douglass fully resists him" (301). In Douglass's words, "from whence came the spirit I don't know," but "I seized Covey by the throat; and as I did so, I rose" (302). Thus Douglass is able to articulate his overcoming of the slave-master relationship in terms of Christian resurrection. It is a courageous refusal of the terms of the relationship, and yet, not to anachronistically discredit Douglass but to explore the theological moves at stake, Carter asks: To what avail?

As Jenny Franchot argues, it is Aunt Esther's earlier suffering which propels Douglass's own "self-authentication" as victim, and later it is the foil of her feminine victimhood against which Douglass's masculine self-deliverance is cast (294-295). "By the time one gets to Douglass's account of his adolescent altercation with Covey," Carter writes, "there is a shift in how he deploys the image of Christ's passion. Christ is masculinized so that he is now the emblem of dignified manhood and, shall we say, strength over weakness: Christ overcomes the feminine and thus liberates the race .... into the self-made strength of masculinity" (296).

"Insofar as this is the case," argues Carter, "Douglass, in the inflection of blackness, simply mirrors the problem of whiteness back to itself. From this one sees in a most poignant way how Douglass has repeated the problematic oppositional logic.... [h]aving [only] inverted the structures of power and authority" (303). Thus, "to the extent that he barricades himself within the citadel of the self-made, Emersonian-Franklinian man, Douglass remains trapped within the self-enclosure of the black masculine that the white masculine created" (312).

As mentioned, the point here is not necessarily to critique Douglass himself, but to shed light on the way that he, like many after him, was simply unable to "see how in the flesh of Christ crucified a wholly new social arrangement" could be "inaugurated" (306). In Carter's words: "Christian thought has tended to ventriloquize the American social order rather than witness to an alternative form of sociopolitical existence" (307). It thus fails to see Easter as "an alternate mode of being in the world," and "the cross of Christ [as] the revelation of power as the exchange of love" (305-306).

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