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Unwillingness and Imagination in Frederick Douglass's The Heroic Slave

  • Nolan Bennett


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.



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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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1 Baldwin, James, “White Man's Guilt,” in Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, ed. Roediger, David R. (New York: Schocken Books, 1999), 320.

2 King, Martin Luther Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon, 2010), 45.

3 King, Martin Luther Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, ed. Washington, James M. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003), 296. For Baldwin's use of innocence, see for example Baldwin, James, “My Dungeon Shook,” in The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 110.

4 Douglass, Frederick, My Bondage and My Freedom, in Autobiographies (New York: Library of America, 1994), 239.

5 Ibid., 214–17, 283–85.

6 Ibid., 251–55.

7 See John W. Blassingame, introduction to The Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 1, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, ed. John R. McKivigan, Peter P. Hinks, and John W. Blassingame, Series Two: Autobiographical Writings (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), xxvi–xxxiii.

8 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 393.

9 Douglass, Frederick, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852,” in The Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 2, 1847–1854, ed. Blassingame, John W. and McKivigan, John R., Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 371.

10 Nicholas Buccola provides the most comprehensive overview of Douglass on persuasion or education in The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty (New York: New York University Press, 2012). For other political theory that relies particularly on Douglass's “Fourth of July” address and his narrated fight with Edward Covey, see Krause, Sharon R., Liberalism with Honor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); Shulman, George M., American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Frank, Jason A., Constituent Moments: Enacting the People in Postrevolutionary America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Turner, Jack, Awakening to Race: Individualism and Social Consciousness in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Zerilli, Linda, “Value Pluralism and the Problem of Judgment: Farewell to Public Reason,” Political Theory 40, no. 1 (2012): 6–31.

11 Levine, Robert S., The Lives of Frederick Douglass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 127–29.

12 By “scripts” I refer to cultural norms in behavior or speech, similar to the scholarly use of “narrative” or “stories” to describe how we draw and make meaning in political and legal contexts. My use of the word “script” is inspired by Douglass's formatting a conversation in part 3 as though it were a staged play, which I interrogate below. On narrative and stories, see Cover, Robert M., “Nomos and Narrative,” in Narrative, Violence, and the Law: The Essays of Robert Cover, ed. Minow, Martha, Ryan, Michael, and Sarat, Austin (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 95172; Smith, Rogers M., Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

13 The first modern work on the story is Stepto, Robert B., “Storytelling in Early Afro-American Fiction: Frederick Douglass’ ‘The Heroic Slave,’Georgia Review 36, no. 2 (1982): 355–68. Other influential scholarship includes Andrews, William L., “The Novelization of Voice in Early African American Narrative,” PMLA 105, no. 1 (1990): 2334; Sundquist, Eric J., To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Sale, Maggie Montesinos, The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Stauffer, John, “Interracial Friendship and the Aesthetics of Freedom,” in Frederick Douglass & Herman Melville: Essays in Relation, ed. Levine, Robert S. and Otter, Samuel (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Levine, The Lives of Frederick Douglass.

14 Shulman, American Prophecy, 143.

15 Gooding-Williams, Robert, “The Du Bois–Washington Debate and the Idea of Dignity,” in To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Shelby, Tommie and Terry, Brandon (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2018), 34.

16 Balfour, Lawrie, The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 88.

17 Lebron, Christopher J., The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 13.

18 Hooker, Juliet, “Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics: From Democratic Sacrifice to Democratic Repair,” Political Theory 44, no. 4 (2016): 448–69.

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.

20 Douglass, Frederick, The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition, ed. Levine, Robert S., McKivigan, John R., and Stauffer, John (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 5. Future citations will be given parenthetically in-text.

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], xxii).

24 Jungkunz, Vincent, “Dismantling Whiteness: Silent Yielding and the Potentiality of Political Suicide,” Contemporary Political Theory 10, no. 1e (February 2011): 12.

25 Jungkunz, Vincent and White, Julie, “Ignorance, Innocence, and Democratic Responsibility: Seeing Race, Hearing Racism,” Journal of Politics 75, no. 2 (2013): 446.

26 Melville, Herman, Bartleby and Benito Cereno, ed. Appelbaum, Stanley (New York: Dover, 1990), 103.

27 Balfour, Lawrie, “What Babo Saw: Benito Cereno and ‘the World We Live In,’” in A Political Companion to Herman Melville, ed. Frank, Jason (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 260.

28 James Baldwin, “On Being White … and Other Lies,” Essence, April 1984; see Shulman, American Prophecy, 145; Olson, Joel, The Abolition of White Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), xxix.

29 Fricker, Miranda, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1.

30 Ibid., 5.

31 Hooker, “Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics,” 21. Elsewhere Hooker writes that “political solidarity refers to the reciprocal relations of trust and obligation established between members of a political community that are necessary in order for long-term egalitarian political projects to flourish.” The challenge is that solidarity is “supposed to transcend race, yet solidarity continues to be powerfully delimited by race” (Hooker, Juliet, Race and the Politics of Solidarity [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], 45).

32 See Stauffer, John, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

33 Allen, Danielle S., Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship after Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 171.

34 Buccola, Frederick Douglass, 91–94.

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), 210–11.

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

40 Ibid., 287.

41 Douglass, “Slavery, the Slumbering Volcano,” 158.

42 Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 374. On the relevance of Britain for Douglass's story, see Wilson, Ivy G., “On Native Ground: Transnationalism, Frederick Douglass, and ‘The Heroic Slave,’PMLA 121, no. 2 (2006): 453–68.

43 Douglass, “Slavery, the Slumbering Volcano,” 150.

44 Roberts, Neil, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 5657.

45 Douglass, “Slavery, the Slumbering Volcano,” 153. See also Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” 364: “From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen.”

46 See Rolin, Kristina, “Standpoint Theory as a Methodology for the Study of Power Relations,” Hypatia 24, no. 4 (2009): 218–26.

47 See DeLombard, Jeannine Marie, Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 26; Andrews, William L., To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 3335; Bennett, Nolan, “To Narrate and Denounce: Frederick Douglass and the Politics of Personal Narrative,” Political Theory 44, no. 2 (2016): 240264.

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), 166–88; 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): 89106.

49 Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” 368.

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

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–xviii.

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), 4.

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), 6768.

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); Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Representative Men, in Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 610761. 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), 10.

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); Mills, Charles W., The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).

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).

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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