The Root of the Matter: Frederick Douglass’s New World Columbiad
Probably the best-known chapter in Frederick Douglass’s 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom is “Covey the Negro Breaker.” This is the first in an astonishing series of chapters chronicling Douglass’s ultimately successful struggle to recreate himself along properly “Columbian,” “New World” lines—a trajectory that would carry him, after a first failed attempt, out of slavery and into the free states and one of more remarkable careers of the 19th century. Douglass will, in this section of the book, be placed in the hands of a “Negro breaker,” whom he must either dominate or be dominated by. He will come of age, entering upon his “manhood,” thereby evading the fate of the perpetual “infancy” that a life in slavery simply is for him (he was 16 years old at the time). He will, at the moment of his deepest despair, be seduced by the “superstitious” and compromising strategies of accommodation evolved by the weaker sort of slave, here represented by Sandy Jenkins—the sort of slave who remains in “infancy,” without the redemptive (and rational) power of the word, of literacy. He will again take up his role as teacher and expounder of the word, with the Columbian Orator—an anthology of orations, many devoted to republican ideals, edited by Caleb Bingham and generally in use as a “reader” in the early 19th century—as his text. He will conspire to escape, and, though the conspiracy fails, he will find himself at last so situated as to make his decisive break for freedom.
Douglass’s achieved self-mastery is registered even in the style of the book, which in these chapters acquires a particularly elegant sort of “literacy.” This fluency figures in My Bondage and My Freedom as his “Columbian” ideal—as the wings that shall bear him away into realms of possibility—and it everywhere distinguishes the highly artful 1855 text from the much more Spartan (and more widely taught) narrative of 1845. Douglass writes with urbanity and humor, with a novelist’s eye for detail, and a satirist’s for the ridiculous.Consider a few examples. “The morning of the first of January, 1834,” Douglass writes, “with its chilling wind and pinching frost, quite in harmony with the winter in my own mind, found me, with my little bundle of clothing on the end of a stick, swung across my shoulder, on the main road, bending my way toward Covey’s, whither I had been imperiously ordered by Master Thomas. The latter had been as good as his word, and had committed me, without reserve, to the mastery of Mr. Edward Covey. Eight or ten years had now passed since I had been taken from my grandmother’s cabin, in Tuckahoe; and these years, for the most part, I had spent in Baltimore, where—as the reader has already seen—I was treated with comparative tenderness. I was now about to sound profounder depths in slave life. The rigors of a field, less tolerable than the field of battle, awaited me.” The little bundle of clothes on a stick, which Douglass equips himself with as he sets out for Covey’s place, is of course pathetic in its suggestion of poverty.
But I notice something a little wily even here. The bundle on a stick was a stereotypical accoutrement of the fugitive slave, as is clear from (among a multitude of sources) Tom Sawyer’s use of it in the “coat of arms” he makes for Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The same image figured in countless newspaper advertisements soliciting help in the capture of fugitives. Douglass both is and is not “fugitive,” in these opening passages of the chapter, both is and is not his own master.
Or, to phrase it another way, Douglass was a pathetic figure in “fact,” but never in prospect. He is something more than that standard-issue slave with his bundle on a stick. He is a titan in disguise, and this allows him, in his narration of the episode, an occasional note of whimsy and sport. And the “winter in his mind,” as he puts it, laying the scene before us in both its inner and its outer weather, will in due course give way to the “spring” of a “resurrection”: “new shoots from the tree of liberty” will begin to “put forth tender buds,” we later read. (Douglass neatly aligns his narrative with the cycle of the seasons.)
This possibility of resurrection is always before us, as for example when Douglass nicely exploits the ambiguity of the preposition “of”: Master Thomas “had committed me,” he says, “to the mastery of Mr. Edward Covey.” Is he to master Covey or to be mastered by him? The former, as it happens. By the time he leaves the farm the infamous Negro breaker is, Douglass reports, “as gentle as a lamb.”
But that is not yet. And as Douglass approaches Covey’s farm, his ruminations are indeed wintry:
`I am,’ thought I, `but the sport of a power which makes no account, either of my welfare or of my happiness. By a law which I can clearly comprehend, but cannot evade nor resist, I am ruthlessly snatched from the hearth of a fond grandmother, and hurried away to the home of a mysterious ‘old master;’ again I am removed from there, to a master in Baltimore; thence am I snatched away to the Eastern Shore, to be valued with the beasts of the field, and, with them, divided and set apart for a possessor; then I am sent back to Baltimore; and by the time I have formed new attachments, and have begun to hope that no more rude shocks shall touch me, a difference arises between brothers, and I am again broken up, and sent to St. Michael’s; and now, from the latter place, I am footing my way to the home of a new master, where, I am given to understand, that, like a wild young working animal, I am to be broken to the yoke of a bitter and life-long bondage.
His native intelligence and his Columbian Orator have taught him to “comprehend” the law he speaks of here, but this only leaves him the more anguished. Slavery is double in its mechanism: it gets a purchase on both the body and on the mind. And at Covey’s farm Douglass will decisively achieve a self-emancipation of the spirit, a “resurrection” from the “tomb” of slavery, which he effects by purging from his mind the last vestiges of what he calls the “priestcraft” of slavery, those “mind-forged manacles” that complement the iron ones. The “field” in which he labors while at Covey’s isn’t merely agricultural (that’s what the pun compels us to see); it is ideological as well. And among the agents of slavery are, at times, and half-unwittingly, the slaves themselves—which is where the character Sandy Jenkins comes in, as I will explain.
As it takes shape, the episode at Covey’s has certain generic elements. It is, among other things, a rural comedy of manners. The sophisticated Douglass, lately of Baltimore, for the first time takes up a career in the “field” of manual labor. Douglass makes the point in an ironic reversal: “I found myself even more awkward than a green country boy may be supposed to be, upon his first entrance into the bewildering scenes of city life.” Covey’s farm is of course nothing cosmopolitan, but it is a strange world in its way, with its “in-hand oxen” and “off-hand oxen,” and with its arcane language of “woa,” “gee” and “hither”—a language which is, as Douglass puts it, alluding to a comical passage in Julius Caesar, “Greek” to him.
The urbane play of the scene as Douglass sets it up is affecting. Because the sense of discomfort is so precisely understated—“My life hitherto had led me away from horned cattle,” he drily says—the writing lets us feel just how fragile, and how tragic, the slave’s situation is. Douglass’s descriptive language makes Covey himself appear at once ridiculous and terrible—which two faces he will indeed bear. Covey has a “wolfish visage,” “green eyes,” and a “growl, like a dog.” When Douglass takes him down, in the great fight scene that allows for Douglass’s “resurrection,” he does it on “the not over clean ground,” as he fastidiously puts it, deploying the ostentatiously polite negation, “for we were now in the cow yard. He had selected the place for the fight and it was but right that he should have all the advantages of his own selection.” Douglass parodies the chivalrous generosity of a gentleman fighting a contest of “honor,” as the saying used to go. And his facility, his achieved levity, always suggests the mastery that Douglass will soon achieve over this “Negro breaker.” We smile when we read of how Covey, after two hour’s futile effort to get the better of his sixteen-year old, hired-in slave, “gave up the contest,” and, “puffing and blowing at a great rate,” admonished Douglass: “Now, you scoundrel, go to your work; I would not have whipped you half so much as I have had you not resisted.” In the weeks to come, Covey would sometimes say that “he did not want to have to get hold of” Douglass again, to which admonition the latter wryly rejoins, in an aside to the reader, that it was “a declaration” which he “had no difficulty in believing.”
Even the description of the intractable oxen is comic. Douglass, unused to “horned cattle,” has a devil of a time managing them; they slip the yoke and damage the wagon; they run headlong into the trees; they get hung up on the gate. They are, in fact, “rascals” on a “spree,” who act up when master is absent, and behave themselves when he looks on—all the better, it appears, to embarrass Douglass. “On arriving” at the gate, Douglass explains, “it was necessary for me to let go the end of the rope on the horns of the `in hand ox;’ and now as soon as the gate was open, and I let go of it to get the rope, again, off went my oxen—making nothing of their load—full tilt; and in doing so they caught the huge gate between the wheel and the cart body, literally crushing it to splinters, and coming only within a few inches of subjecting me to a similar crushing, for I was just in advance of the wheel when it struck the left gate post. With these two hair-breadth escapes, I thought I could successfully explain to Mr. Covey the delay, and avert apprehended punishment,” Douglass explains. “But, in this I was disappointed. On coming to him, his countenance assumed an aspect of rigid displeasure, and, as I gave him a history of the casualties of my trip, his wolfish face, with his greenish eyes, became intensely ferocious. `Go back to the woods again,’ he said, muttering something else about wasting time. I hastily obeyed; but I had not gone far on my way, when I saw him coming after me. My oxen now behaved themselves with singular propriety, opposing their present conduct to my representation of their former antics. I almost wished, now that Covey was coming, they would do something in keeping with the character I had given them; but no, they had already had their spree, and they could afford now to be extra good, readily obeying my orders, and seeming to understand them quite as well as I did myself.” It is “break and be broken,” Douglass ruefully says; “such is life.” The culture and agriculture of slavery corrupts even the native “sincerity” of beasts of burden.
I rehearse these oddly comic flourishes, not one of which is present in the 1845 Narrative, to illustrate the point I have all along been making: in this second of his autobiographies, Douglass’s achieved “self-possession” manifests itself even (perhaps chiefly) at the level of style. He takes his liberties as a writer, appealing not merely to the moral sense of the reader, but also to his wit—to his feeling for play. There are the events themselves (terrible and overwhelming), and then there are the events as rendered here (nicely contained and mastered); the distance between the two, affectively speaking, is the distance between dispossession and self-possession, between bondage and freedom, between a house of prose and a house of possibility. And yet, notwithstanding his levity, his wit, and his extraordinary range of tone, Douglass always holds before the reader of these chapters the horror of the experience narrated. As he suffers the ordeal with the oxen, as he is worked to the point of heat exhaustion, as he is kicked and cuffed when he collapses in the sun, “the dark night of slavery” closes in him. Of course, Douglass will rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of his own abjection; that is the business of the two chapters that succeed “Covey, the Negro Breaker”: “Another Pressure of the Tyrant’s Vice” and “The Last Flogging” (the passages already quoted describing the fight are from the latter). He will flee Covey and appeal to his master to redeem him; he will be succored and advised by his friend Sandy Jenkins. But his only recourse, at last, as it should be, is to fight Covey openly. “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow,” as Byron puts it in the lines Douglass quotes at the conclusion to his account of the last flogging he ever had.
Now I turn to Sandy Jenkins, a character to whom Douglass devotes a great deal of attention. Sandy finds Douglass in the woods, where he has retreated to hide from Covey (the day before, Covey had beaten him into insensibility when he fell ill and could no longer work). Douglass introduces Sandy to us as “an old adviser”: “He was not only a religious man, but he professed to believe in a system for which I have no name. He was a genuine African, and had inherited some of the so-called magical powers, said to be possessed by African and eastern nations.” Sandy, a man locally renowned for his “good nature,” takes Douglass in, feeds him, and persuades him to carry in his pocket a special “root”: “He told me further, that if I would take that root and wear it on my right side, it would be impossible for Covey to strike me a blow; that with this root about my person, no white man could whip me.” For proof, Sandy offers his own case: he had, he assures Douglass, “never received a blow since he carried it.” Douglass takes the root, but only in a spirit of skepticism. The fellowship with Sandy is real. Douglass deeply feels it. But he feels as well, and makes us feel, that the strategies of resistance that the folk culture had evolved—such superstitious magic as Sandy’s “root,” for example—are unbecoming a “man.”
The portrait of Sandy is complex, and well worth dwelling on. Sandy appears before us first as a savior of sorts, as the fabled “good Samaritan.” Doubtless we take as praise the affirmations of Sandy’s “good nature,” and “kind heart.” The business of the root is, of course, presented to us as “superstition”—“very absurd and ridiculous if not positively sinful” (that last flourish Douglass doubtless tossed in to please his more pious abolitionist readers; he was not himself peculiarly religious). But that alone is no real disgrace. No, the reader’s suspicion of Sandy is first aroused, I suspect, when he reads this: “I had,” Douglass says, “a positive aversion to all pretenders to `divination.’ It was beneath one of my intelligence to countenance such dealings with the devil, as this power implied. But, with all my learning—it was really precious little—Sandy was more than a match for me. `My book learning,’ he said, `had not kept Covey off me,’ (a powerful argument just then,) and he entreated me, with flashing eyes, to try this [root].” This sets Sandy’s “genuine Africanism,” his conjuring, his equivocally “flashing eyes,” over against Douglass’s New World “book learning”—the instruction he had imbibed from the Columbian Orator. Which shall give him his wings? The point is the more urgent in light of certain facts of which we are apprised only a page or so earlier. Douglass tells us that he, “the only slave now in that region who could read and write,” is feared by whites and respected by slaves. Literacy is power; the only other slave who could read and write in those parts had been sold South as a menace. And when Sandy disparages “book learning,” he reveals great weakness. His African “superstitions,” insofar as they discourage a slave to look toward “book learning” as a source of power, and encourage him to put his faith in his “roots,” is an instrument quite useful to the slaveholder—which is precisely why slave-holders, as presented in My Bondage and My Freedom, indulge such superstitious customs as these, seeing in them no threat whatsoever. And to the extent that Douglass is seduced by Sandy’s conjuring, however momentarily, he puts on, again, the mind-forged manacles of slavery.
Douglass wants us to assume that Sandy’s celebrated “good nature” is not what it appears to be. It is in fact, at least in certain of its aspects, perfectly unrespectable, a thing not worthy of a man: his meekness is what protects him from floggings, not his roots. Sandy, we later learn, is not free of what Douglass, speaking an anti-Catholic sort of language, calls the “priestcraft of slavery.” He remains essentially feudal in outlook. Like too many Americans—to borrow a phrase from Joel Barlow’s epic “The Columbiad”—Sandy Jenkins “nurse[s] feudal feelings” on “the tented shore” of the New World. And his weakness, his distrust of “book learning,” his effort to turn Douglass away from it;—all of this leads him, in the end, to betray Douglass and the rest of the conspirators, once they determine to make their escape. Douglass clearly has this sort of weakness in mind when he sums up his account of his great victory over Covey. The “battle with Covey,” says Douglass, “undignified” as “I fear my narration of it is”—here, the literary self-deprecation is merely conventional—“was the turning point in my `life as a slave.’ It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. A man, without force,” Douglass concludes, “is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise.” The “signs of power” do not arise in Sandy Jenkins, sympathetic though he may initially be. Douglass himself finds it hard to “pity” him: this “genuine African” is an Old World survival, sadly complicit in his own misery. In fact, through his actions Sandy had, Douglass intimates, “branded” himself a slave. “I did not forget to appeal to the pride of my comrades,” Douglass tells us in the section recounting the conspiracy to run away: “If having solemnly promised to go, as they had done, they now failed to make the attempt, they would, in effect, brand themselves with cowardice, and might as well sit down, fold their arms, and acknowledge themselves as fit only to be slaves. This detestable character, all were unwilling to assume. Every man except Sandy (he, much to our regret, withdrew) stood firm.” Sandy Jenkins, it would appear, prefers to rely on his roots.
In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass wavers between rendering Sandy’s speech in his own literary language—the language of what Sandy calls “book learning”—and in the language of the slave’s vernacular. Consider the following passage. It recounts a dream Sandy had, which, it turns out, anticipates his Judas-like betrayal of the conspirators, because it is upon him that suspicion naturally falls, once Douglass and his men are betrayed:
In the progress of our preparations, Sandy, the root man, became troubled. He began to have dreams, and some of them were very distressing. One of these, which happened on a Friday night, was, to him, of great significance; and I am quite ready to confess, that I felt somewhat damped by it myself. He said, “I dreamed, last night, that I was roused from sleep, by strange noises, like the voices of a swarm of angry birds, that caused a roar as they passed, which fell upon my ear like a coming gale over the tops of the trees. Looking up to see what it could mean,” said Sandy, “I saw you, Frederick, in the claws of a huge bird, surrounded by a large number of birds, of all colors and sizes. These were all picking at you, while you, with your arms, seemed to be trying to protect your eyes. Passing over me, the birds flew in a south-westerly direction, and I watched them until they were clean out of sight. Now, I saw this as plainly as I now see you; and furder, honey, watch de Friday night dream; dare is sumpon in it, shose you born; dare is, indeed, honey.
Douglass is a writer of consummate control. His diction is always well modulated. And yet here, in these last sentences, he somewhat awkwardly blends “dialect” and “standard” English in rendering the quoted speech of Sandy “the root man,” this “genuine African” whose “superstitious” engagement with the “priestcraft of slavery” will lead him to betray his fellow slaves. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass’s own learned language—his urbane self-possession as a writer—circumscribes and quarantines “vernacular” culture. His touchiness as to the matter is evident at once in the account he gives of his initial conference with Sandy Jenkins: “He told me that he could help me; that, in those very woods, there was an herb, which in the morning might be found, possessing all the powers required for my protection, (I put his thoughts into my own language;) and that if I would take his advice, he would procure me the root of the herb of which he spoke.” Nowhere else in the book does Douglass take pains to ensure that his reader knows how great a distance separates his English from that of an interlocutor, for that alone could be the purpose of the parenthesis. It is quite gratuitous; the plain business of indirect quotation hardly requires it, and indeed makes it superfluous. It is as if the vernacular embarrasses Douglass—and, after all, for good enough reason, at least in 1855. Rightly enough he shrank when the Garrisonians said, “Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not; ’tis not best that you seem to learned.” They would prefer a Sandy Jenkins, a meek, “good natured” man, a man who doesn’t show too many of the “signs of power.” Douglass makes them uneasy.
So we can forgive him if his portrait of Sandy is tendentious; and we can look instead to Charles Chesnutt, in The Conjure Woman, for the first adequately nuanced treatment of the “folk culture” of the slave, and of the slave’s vernacular. Of course, even Chesnutt was “embarrassed,” to an extent: having “a little of the plantation manner” in their prose was something white editors still demanded of black authors in 1899, when The Conjure Woman first appeared. It was hard work, the work of several generations of African-American writers, to redeem the vernacular from bondage to the “priestcraft of slavery.” Langston Hughes was still at it in 1926.
For his part, Douglass is “assimilationist” and “rational.” He is an “Enlightenment” republican, and, fittingly, his neo-classical prose everywhere shows it. He rejects the “folk” culture of the slave, notwithstanding that it has a special relationship to what he calls his “roots.” Even “juba dancing,” a festivity popular on the plantation, and much encouraged by slaveholders, has its small but invidious role to play in shoring slavery up, and this despite the fact that some of the songs the slaves sing while “juba dancing” illustrate “the meanness of slaveholders”:
We raise de wheat,
Dey gib us de corn;
We bake de bread,
Dey gib us de cruss;
We sif de meal,
Dey gib us de huss;
We peal de meat,
Dey gib us de skin,
And dat’s de way
Dey takes us in.
We skim de pot,
Dey gib us the liquor,
And say dat’s good enough for nigger.
Walk over! walk over!
Tom butter and de fat;
Poor nigger you can’t get over dat;
In To Wake the Nations, Eric Sundquist suggests that this song, as Douglass presents it, is itself one of the “safety valves” slavery employs the better to redirect and carry off insubordinate energies. That is to say, the “letter” of the song may be rebellious, but its rebellion is chiefly allegorical, chiefly figurative. It is an example of what Kenneth Burke might call “symbolic action”; it is, or can be, a substitute for insurrection, which is presumably why the slaveholders under whom Douglass worked never objected to “juba dancing.” To sing “We raise de wheat” while “beating juba” on holiday is—or so Douglass allows us to conclude—like carrying a “root” in the pocket, rather than a menace in the eye, to ward off the blows of Old Master. It is to engage in what Douglass calls the “wild and low sports peculiar to semi-civilized people.”
For all of these reasons, then, Douglass will have none of “the plantation” in his manner, though that is precisely what the Garrisonians wanted him either to fabricate or to “retain.” He makes himself master of the culture of the master-class; and he’ll have nothing to do with a “vernacular” counter-culture whose contours, or so he believed, were dialectically shaped by the needs of that same master-class. It is pretty easy to see where Douglass would stand in debates among black writers about the role “vernacular” speech and “folk” culture ought properly to have in black art. He finds his “roots” not in the folk culture of Sandy so much as in an Enlightenment culture unfriendly alike, as he sees it, to slavery and to “Old World” superstition—to anything that smacks of “mystery” and “irrationality.” Douglass’s relation to his African “roots” is always dubious. Ultimately, he “chooses the west,” which is what makes this book so thoroughly “American” in its bearing. When he actually confronts Covey, at the moment of crisis, he “forgets his roots,” as he puts it, with a pun surely deliberate, and instead stands up in violent protest.
This severs his tie to the Old World, as it were, with its un-republican superstitions—superstitions that nurse feudal feelings in Sandy Jenkins. This marks his deracination, his point of passage into the New World, into “Columbia.” This is where he himself first stands before us as the essential Columbian orator. “Book-learning” had already freed his mind; now it would free his body. Douglass throws off “humility” and “pacifism,” both of which the Garrisonians had required him to sustain: “My hands were no longer tied by my religion,” he says. He forsakes Uncle Tom for Madison Washington and Denmark Vesey, but also for Patrick Henry, as he makes clear in the chapter called “The Run-Away Plot”: “Patrick Henry, to a listening senate, thrilled by his magic eloquence, and ready to stand by him in his boldest flights, could say, GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH, and this saying was a sublime one, even for a freeman; but, incomparably more sublime, is the same sentiment, when practically asserted by men accustomed to the lash and chain—men whose sensibilities must have become more or less deadened by their bondage.” That “even for a freeman” turns the trick; to Henry’s claim on liberty, and to his protest against tyranny, Douglass’s are as the things themselves to the shadows of the things.
Clearly, this invocation of Henry and other American revolutionaries, is a defiant reply not only to Covey and to Sandy—involved as they both are in slaveholding “priestcraft”—but to the romantic Christian racialism of a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as to the pacifist Christian “non-resistance” of the Garrisonians. This is Douglass’s “Declaration of Independence”: “I was resolved to fight,” he says, aligning his personal emancipation, ultimately, with the “national emancipation” the Founding Fathers achieved. And he would, in realizing that aspiration to liberty, remake the American dream of possibility, taking it to higher and “incomparably more sublime” regions. Douglass’s fight marks his passage into the future, into futurity as such—and also into “manhood”; this is where he puts on his wings. My Bondage and My Freedom is ultimately a coming-of-age story of both personal and “national” dimensions. Like so many other works of the American Renaissance, it heralds the coming of a real “Columbia,” with the difference that its New American Adam is, of necessity, forged in the crucible of slavery. My Bondage and My Freedom is a book dedicated to “unceasing progress,” to the ideal of a “republican” Promised Land; dedicated even to the perfection of the Reformation itself. Douglass engages all of the foundationally “American” narratives.
N.B. Donald Rumsfeld now owns the house in which Edward Covey lived, having paid $1.5 million for it in 2003; the place has borne the name “Mt. Misery” since its construction in 1804, and the author of The Era of Casual Fridays likes to think of Rumsfeld at his ease there. As fate would have it, a number of men associated with the first G.W. Bush administration purchased second houses in or near St. Michaels in Talbot County, MD. Finally, I reprint as a “comment” below the entirety of the passage from the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave dealing with Edward Covey. The reader may judge, if he wishes, how different it is in tone and verbal detail from the portion devoted to the same experience in My Bondage and My Freedom, where Douglass devotes three full chapters to the interval.