Frederick Douglass' Name ; the Duality of His Nature
Frederick Douglass was an emancipated slave who passed from one master to another until he
finally found the satisfaction of being his own; he went through almost as many names as
masters. His mother's family name, traceable at least as far back as 1701 (FD, 5) was
Bailey, the name he bore until his flight to freedom in 1838. His father may or may not
have been a white man named Anthony, but Douglass never firmly validated or rejected this
possibility. During transit to New York (where he became a freedman) his name became
Stanley, and upon arrival he changed it again to Johnson. In New Bedford, where there were
too many Johnson's, he found it necessary to change it once more, and his final choice was
Douglass, taken, as suggested to him by a white friend and benefactor, from a story by Sir
Walter Scott (although the character in that story bore only a single 's' in his name).
All throughout, he clung to Frederick, to 'preserve a sense of my identity' (Norton, 1988).

This succession of names is illustrative of the transformation undergone by one returning
from the world of the dead, which in a sense is what the move from oppression to liberty
is. Frederick Douglass not only underwent a transformation but, being intelligent and
endowed with the gift of Voice, he brought back with him a sharp perspective on the blights
of racism and slavery. Dropped into America during the heat of reform as he was, his
appearance on the scene of debate, upon his own self-emancipation, was a valuable blessing
for the abolitionists. In their struggles so far, there had been many skilled arguers but
few who could so convincingly portray the evils of slavery, an act which seemed to demand
little short of firsthand experience, but which also required a clear understanding of it.
Douglass had both, and proved himself an incredibly powerful weapon for reform. While the
identity of his father is uncertain, it is generally accepted that the man was white,
giving Douglass a mixed ancestry. Mirroring this, he was also blessed with an eye that
could bring into focus different perspectives and, just as many multi-racial children today
are able to speak multiple languages with ease, he had the ability to translate in the most
eloquent fashion between the worlds of the black man and white man. Thus, ironically, the
torturous beginning of Douglass' existence was inadvertently made (by him) into a treasure
for 'us' (being mainly white America). The story of the American Dream, wherein a young
man, born into a hostile world, never loses sight of one goal, is not all that distant in
theme from Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass. The story of the American Dream
has been embedded deeply in our (American) culture from the beginning. Similarly anchored
in the American consciousness is the presence of a 'slavery-complex'. Along these lines
Douglass' role is a major one, for relatively few first-hand accounts of slavery as
powerful and representative as his exist, in light of the magnitude of the crime, and few
voices have been as far-reaching. More recent heirs of this 'office' such as Malcolm X
have carried the torch further, just as America's racial sickness still clings to our
collective consciousness. Frederick Douglass has been described as 'bicultural'. In other
words, he occupied a middleground shared by blacks and whites alike. This designation
proves to be thematically consistent with his biological (if we are to take his word for
it) as well as psychological characteristics. Dual-natured in this fashion, he is made
accountable for both sides. This can be seen in his gravitation towards freedom when he
was a slave, and manifests itself just as strongly in his vision, once he was able to look
back, of the 'graveyard of the mind' that American slavery was for him -- as it was for the
rest of black America. "They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most
rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone...they would
sing, as a chorus...words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which,
nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere
hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of
slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do. I did
not, as a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs.

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I was within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see or
hear." (Norton, 1944) With the duality of perspective came also one of language, a fact to
which we owe his writings and abolitionist activism. This is seen in Douglass' reflection
on slave-songs (above). Men such as Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass do not occupy the
niche of translator accidentally; they each earned the title of spokesman because it takes
a certain kind of man to bridge the gap between the two worlds of black and white, or
freeman and slave. This job calls not only for access to the two worlds which he must
inhabit, but also for the ability to pass freely back and forth between them, in body, mind
and spirit; most importantly, such a man must be capable of acting as a human filter or
channel, so that each side can see the other. Becoming such a bridge extracts a profound
price from the individual and leaves scars just as deep as those of slavery itself. It
makes fundamental alterations in the very identity of the host, who is morally obligated to
present his boons to the world. A man in this position is called upon to balance his
experiences of the two realities. He must embrace the new world he finds himself in and
glean as much as he can from it; he also must continue to carry the weight of his past so
that he can interpret it for others, who must learn from it. So did Douglass learn and
master the 'power dialect', or upper-class English, and use it to show the very same group
who invented and hoarded it, the evil that they and their withholding of language caused.

In a world where knowledge is sat on by the 'have's, language is power, and language was
first Frederick Douglass' first key to freedom, then his armor, and finally his sword. He
turned on his oppressors and raised it against them. But Douglass and his gift of language
underwent yet another transformation, and his words became a healing balm and a fixer of
wrongs. From slavery to freedom, from the South to the North, from a young man of many
names to the adult named Frederick Douglass, in revealing songs of happiness to be ones of
woe, and 'singing' those songs so that all could hear, this gifted man helped America come
to terms with slavery as it really was.

1. Douglass, Frederick. 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave'.
Norton Anthology of American Literature, 4th edition, vol.I. 2. Sundquist, Eric.
'Introduction to Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays'.