“I found employment, the third day after my arrival, in stowing a sloop with a load of oil. It was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my own master. It was a happy moment, the rapture of which can be understood only by those who have been slaves. It was the first work, the reward of which was to be entirely my own. There was no Master Hugh standing ready, the moment I earned the money, to rob me of it. I worked that day with a pleasure I had never before experienced.” (Douglass, 78)
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself is one of the best known autobiographical slave narratives. It utilizes the juxtaposition between being free and being a slave and thus between working for yourself and working for a master. This close reading will argue that this juxtaposition is made in favour of capitalism.
Capitalism, which is an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state (OED), has as one of its characteristics that it’s based on voluntary exchange. Slavery, which is a system that makes people work under forced conditions, and which doesn’t allow the workers to keep a part of the profit that is made from their labour, therefore is a system which can never be part of a true capitalist society – one reason for abolishment.
As this paper will explore, Douglass uses binary oppositions (Gates 88) and his eagerness for self-fashioning (Stauffer 201) to emphasize how happy free market capitalism makes him. Even though he already had self-fashioning inclinations as a slave (Douglass learned to read while being in slavery), these inclinations seem to thrive when he is free. Douglass “passed through every gradation of rank comprised in [the] national make-up and bears upon his person and his soul everything that is American” (Stauffer 201). Douglass can be placed in the lineage of self-made men, a lineage which is dear to American capitalists and a celebrated symbol of the American Dream.
“I found employment” seems to be a phrase that can be uttered only by a person that was previously able to seek employment – one previously without a job. When born as a slave, there is no need for you to search for a job, you’re born into a system which requires you to work non-stop. The phrase inexplicably lets the reader know that Douglass was a free man at time of seeking. Even though it was “dirty, and hard work”, Douglass “went at it with a glad heart and willing hand”. The power in these lines comes from what Douglass does not say, the power in these lines comes from the fact that Douglass was ready to do a dirty job just as well as he had to do in his slave days, but now from the position of being a free man. This seeking for a job as a free man is part of Douglass’ self-fashioning: the action of going from a free man without a job to a free man with a job depicts a ‘reversal, [that] reflects a state of continual evolution and flux’ (Stauffer 205). This flux is apparent on a micro-level, and Douglass would fight the rest of his life to let it apply to a macro-level, to let slaves know what it is to ‘find employment’ instead of ‘being born into employment’.
The “œload of oil” that Douglass stows the sloop with can be seen as a capitalist symbol. Oil is needed in factories, the churches of capitalism, which became more and more prevalent in Douglass’ day, as America was going through a process of industrialization. It seems no wonder that out of all things, Douglass carries oil, the sacramental wine of capitalist industry, and thus helps to facilitate a capitalist system that makes him happy.
Douglass follows: “I went at [the work] with a glad heart and a willing hand” with “I was now my own master”. Douglass works hard and happily because he chose to do it, not because he was forced into it. Here he implies causality; these sentences cannot be seen apart from each other. Because Douglas is his own master and can choose what he does, he works “with a glad heart and a willing hand”. As for the emotional aspect of this causality, Douglass explains that “[i]t was a happy moment, […] I worked that day with a pleasure I had never before experienced”. With regards to the rationale, Douglass has found that working as a free man sets him free. The work is a part of the binary opposition (88) which is poses this part against the time that work enslaved him. By including this binary opposition Douglass creates unity on a symbolic level (Gates 89): Douglass clearly prefers working as a free man to working as a slave. He enjoys the voluntary exchange capitalism brings him.
Let’s look at the sentence “I was now my own master” in greater detail. The word ;own’ is used as an adjective. In that case it’s ‘used with a possessive to emphasize that someone or something belongs or relates to the person mentioned’ (OED). This means that together with ‘my’, ‘own’ accompanies ‘master’ to indicate that Douglass was his own master, that he could choose what kind of job he’d take. The freedom to choose to sell your time to one employer or the other according to your market value is part of the voluntary exchange that is a feature of capitalism. When separating the word ‘own’ and analysing it on a word basis, it can also be used as a verb. In that case, it has the meanings: “Have (something) as one’s own; possess, admit or acknowledge that something is the case or that one feels a certain way, take or acknowledge full responsibility for (something), acknowledge paternity, authorship, or possession of” (OED), all meanings which correlate with Douglass’ new status as a free man and rightful consumer.
In the sentence “[Working] was a happy moment, the rapture of which can be understood only by those who have been slaves”, Douglass comments on his past and states that only ex-slaves will know how good it feels to work as a free man. Even though the job is ‘dirty and hard’, just like in his slave days – how ironic! – his work fulfils him. While Douglass states that only slaves will know why it feels so good to go from working as a slave to working as a free man, he makes an attempt to explain himself in the following sentences.
Douglass uses the binary opposition (Gates 88) between “[his] first work, the reward of which was to be entirely [his] own” and “Master Hugh standing ready, the moment [Douglass] earned the money, to rob [him] of it” to highlight the pleasure in keeping your own profits as a labourer. The word rob has a negative connotation, in that keeping wages from another man’s labour seems unfair to Douglass. He, through the use of this single word, not only demonizes Master Hugh but with him also the system of slavery. The binary opposition (Gates 88) between keeping your own money and having your money taken from you is also part of Douglass’ self-fashioning process (Stauffer 205). Douglass learns how good it feels to keep your own wages, which is a feature of capitalism. In these lines, Douglass asserts his ‘liberation’ and ‘power’ through the use of language (Stauffer 205).
In conclusion, Frederick Douglass’ Narrative celebrates capitalism in various ways. It must be emphasized that since slavery is a system which is built on involuntary labor, it is not part of a ‘true capitalism for all’ although the plantation holders might be viewed as unethical capitalists. Douglass seems to enjoy free market capitalism and articulates that by using juxtapositions to describe the joy that he feels when he can keep his own wages, by stating that he chooses his own job, and by choosing a voice that represents the happy employee.
“Capitalism”. Def. 1. Capitalism | Definition of capitalism in English by Oxford Dictionaries. 2019. Oxford Living Dictionaries. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/capitalism. Web. Accessed May 2019
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. Print.
Gates Jnr, Henry Louis. “Binary Oppositions in Chapter One of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave Written by Himself.” Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the ‘Racial’ Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 80-97.
“Own”. Def 1, 1, 2. Own | Definition of own in English by Oxford Dictionaries. 2019. Oxford Living Dictionaries. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/own. Web. Accessed May 2019
Stauffer, John. “Frederick Douglass’s Self-Fashioning and the Making of a Representative American Man”. The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, edited by 6 Audrey Fisch, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 201-217. Cambridge Companions to Literature.