chapter  8
13 Pages

Critical Hope in the Context of Crisis

WithJamila Lyiscott

It was 1845 when Frederick Douglass published his own narrative of freedom within the heinous climate of American chattel slavery. In a period where virtually all slave narratives were written and authenticated by white abolitionists to assure validity to a white readership, Douglass’s title— Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself —was a bold assertion. On one hand, literacy was forbidden for the enslaved, and the larger public imagination could barely fathom a Black person possessing the capacity to master formal English as articulately and as eloquently as Douglass had throughout all his writings. On the other hand, without an included statement of authentication from a white person in the opening pages, as was a standard feature of the slave narrative tradition, Douglass’s story would be more readily disregarded as invalid by his white audience, who were already widely skeptical of the slave narratives that were penned and verified by white abolitionists. This commitment to penning his own story was an unapologetic extension of his physical, mental, and linguistic fugitivity from 68the systemic oppressions of slavery. This assertion of authorship and authority over his own voice within a historical moment where his very flesh was supposed to be owned by others was a crucial disruption for America’s national consciousness, which still rings with deep relevance in today’s society where the mainstream ideologies about communities of color that perpetuate social inequities are hardly, if ever, authored by members of those communities. For Douglass, voice, authorship, and his own fugitive literacies became the means by which he attained multiple freedoms throughout his lifetime. A lifetime dedicated to critically explicating the personal and broader systemic violences of slavery through his writings and speeches across the nation. His narrative’s description of the indelible impact of slavery conditions on his feet is arguably one of the most compelling examples of this. He writes,

I was seldom whipped by my old master, and suffered little from anything else than hunger and cold. I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. … My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.

(Douglass, 1846, p. 72) As Douglass articulates the context of slavery—harsh winters where the enslaved were forced to sleep outside with barely any clothes on—he conjures up the visceral imagery of brokenness in his cracked feet to paint a picture of how this context played out on his individual person. His next rhetorical move—that of bringing together his pen with his gashes—illustrates how the intimacy of language, voice, and authorship are enmeshed with his story of bondage and freedom. This iterative relationship between pen and feet has resounding symbolic value that at once textualizes the body and animates the text. What this imagery then affords us is the assertion that the social context of slavery in Douglass’s time, embodied by his feet, was inextricably 69bound to his literate identity, symbolized by his pen. By placing the pen into the brokenness of his feet, a powerful possibility of wholeness is evoked even as the impact of systemic oppression still exists on his broken body. My Fugitive Action Framework builds on this powerful imagery with the conviction that within the crises of our times there is critical hope in the power of authorship.