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Unwillingness and Imagination in Frederick Douglass's The Heroic Slave

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2019


Frederick Douglass testified often to his experiences and the injustice of slavery. Yet how did he explain those who were unmoved, and what did he envision as compelling them to act? I turn to The Heroic Slave to investigate Douglass on white unwillingness. A fictional account of the factual mutiny of the enslaved Madison Washington in 1841, Douglass's novella narrates Washington's emancipation through the perspectives of a white northerner and southerner who waver in response to testimony when confronted by the spaces and scripts of white society. Although Douglass suggests that friendship may encourage whites, I find in the story's contents as well as its publication a heroic imagination in which black resistance is inevitable and natural, independent of white alliance, opposition, and judgment itself. This story was for Douglass another means of motivating whites, and for us illustrative of how racial justice demands not only evidence but imagination.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2019 

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The author would like to thank the editor and anonymous reviewers of the The Review of Politics, Jane Gordon, Mark Golub, and Kirstine Taylor for their contributions to this article.


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19 By this I refer to the contemporary claim that we are living in a “post-truth” era, given the political impact of social media and the success of politicians like Donald J. Trump, among other indicators.

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21 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in Autobiographies, 56, 64.

22 Frederick Douglass, “Slavery, the Slumbering Volcano: An Address Delivered in New York, New York, on 23 April 1849,” in The Frederick Douglass Papers, 2:148–58.

23 Douglass embraced the daguerreotype for “like slave narratives … photographic portraits bore witness to African Americans’ essential humanity” (Stauffer, John, Trodd, Zoe, and Bernier, Celeste-Marie, Picturing Frederick Douglass [New York: Liveright, 2015], xxiiGoogle Scholar).

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35 Stauffer, “Interracial Friendship and the Aesthetics of Freedom.”

36 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 320.

37 Ibid., 321.

38 Sinha, Manisha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 210–11Google Scholar.

39 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 287–88, 340.

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48 There is also a problematic association of power with masculinity throughout the story, given the relegation of Listwell's and Washington's wives. On gender in The Heroic Slave, see Yarborough, Richard, “Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass's ‘The Heroic Slave,’” in Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed. Sundquist, Eric J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 166–88Google Scholar; Sale, The Slumbering Volcano; Bernier, Celeste-Marie, “‘Arms Like Polished Iron’: The Black Slave Body in Narratives of a Slave Ship Revolt,” Slavery & Abolition 23, no. 2 (2002): 89106CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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50 See Cover, Robert M., Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975), 109–16Google Scholar.

51 See Levine, Robert S., McKivigan, John R., and Stauffer, John, introduction to The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition, by Douglass, Frederick (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), xvii–xviiiGoogle Scholar.

52 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 106.

53 Even today our records include only those and government documents. See Hendrick, George and Hendrick, Willene, The Creole Mutiny: A Tale of Revolt aboard a Slave Ship (Chicago: Dee, 2003), 4Google Scholar.

54 “Another Amistad Case—What Will Grow out of It?,” in The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition, 61.

55 Levine, The Lives of Frederick Douglass, 130.

56 Ibid., 132–33.

57 Douglass, Frederick, “American Prejudice against Color: An Address Delivered in Cork, Ireland, 23 October 1845,” in The Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 1, 1841–1846, ed. Blassingame, John W. and McKivigan, John R., Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 6768Google Scholar.

58 Douglass, “Slavery, the Slumbering Volcano,” 156.

59 Yarborough, “Race, Violence, and Manhood,” 179.

60 Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” 360.

61 Shulman, American Prophecy, 17.

62 Hooker, “Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics,” 18.

63 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 105.

64 Ibid., 132; see Carlyle, Thomas, On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (London: Electric Book Company, 2001)Google Scholar; Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Representative Men, in Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 610761Google Scholar. Yarborough criticizes The Heroic Slave on this point, arguing that it never establishes a case for what is shared among Washington and other black Americans (“Race, Violence, and Manhood,” 180).

65 Pratt, Lloyd, The Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 10CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 Balfour, The Evidence of Things Not Said, 27.

67 King, Where Do We Go from Here, 5.

68 Fricker, Epistemic Injustice; Medina, José, The Epistemology of Resistance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mills, Charles W., The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

69 Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance, 6.

70 On the dependence of this “postracial” story on American ideas of individualism, see Turner, Awakening to Race. Exemplary claims about Brown and Martin include John Eligon, “Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling with Problems and Promise,” New York Times, August 24, 2014,; Katherine Fung, “Geraldo Rivera: Trayvon Martin's ‘Hoodie Is as Much Responsible for [His] Death as George Zimmerman,’” Huffington Post,, accessed October 4, 2016.

71 In addition to the examples I provide, consider the diverse writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who like Douglass has evaluated white unwillingness and imagined alternatives. Coates has critiqued white illusions like what he calls the “Dream” in Between the World and Me, yet also contributed to the science fiction vision of an advanced black Wakanda in the comic Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet. On the work of political imagination animating the latter, Coates writes: “beneath that political conversation about ‘race,’ swirling around it, sometimes directly related, and sometimes tangentially related, are the incredible myths and world-views of black people and the black diaspora at large. To the extent that this society has not been able to engage with those myths, with that world-view, it has not only lied to itself, but it has also robbed itself of some beautiful art. Racism isn't just morally wrong, it makes for poor story-telling” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015], 11; Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Wakanda and the Black Imagination,” The Atlantic,, accessed July 14, 2018.

72 Hooker, “Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics,” 2–3, 7. According to Hooker, these narratives of martyrdom treat black loss as exemplary while shifting attention away from whites’ own difficulty accepting loss. Hooker proposes that we narrate such political action instead “as a form of democratic redress for black citizens, even if in and of themselves they cannot transform the prevailing racial order,” as a means of expressing “black anger and pain” (17–18).

73 Christopher Lebron, “Janelle Monáe for President,” Boston Review, May 21, 2018, Lebron finds in this music “the cost of our failure to imagine a compassionate world that embraces rather than punishes racial, sexual, and gender difference.”

74 For recent work tracing the effects of technology throughout the thought and treatment of black American politics, see Browne, Simone, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.