“From the slave’s point of view”: towards a phenomenology of witnessing in Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative

Lewis, J (2019) '“From the slave’s point of view”: towards a phenomenology of witnessing in Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative.' ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, 65 (2). pp. 257-291. ISSN 0093-8297

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Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/esq.2019.0006


Douglass’s description of his master, Anthony, beating his Aunt Hester, in the opening pages of his 1845 Narrative, has long troubled critics. The way Douglass presents Hester as a sexualized spectacle and his younger self as spectator has led scholars to argue that his act of seeing is identical with Anthony’s and that this identification results in both Douglass, and the reader, who also vicariously takes up this Douglass/master point of view, becoming voyeur. In this essay, I argue that these arguments stem from too narrow an understanding of what it is to see, especially in the circumstances Douglass finds himself in. Drawing on phenomenology I show how sight, as an embodied experience, contributes to humans’ sense of self: how sight orients and organises, enabling a stable (figurative and literal), point of view. Turning to the Narrative I interrogate Douglass’ representations of seeing and argue that he presents the slave’s point of view as destabilised: radically disrupted by the violence he is forced to view. Rather than reading scenes such as Hester’s beating as spectacles from which Douglass keeps a safe, voyeur’s distance, therefore, I argue that his representation of them reveals witnessing, when the witness stands in fear of violence, as an experience that draws the viewer in, collapsing bodily boundaries and committing a kind of violence on the observing subject. This article raises important questions concerning studies of African American literature. Slave narratives have often been read as too subject to abolitionist generic conventions to be revelatory of the interiorities of their narrators. Here, phenomenology opens up Douglass’ text and demonstrates the ways in which the Narrative does reveal something profound about the lived experience of enslaved people and the nature of witnessing violence. Used as a lens through which to view Douglass’ complex narration, it offers a critique: of the literature that assumes that looking means being a voyeur, and also of a phenomenology that posits a normative visual experience that elides where the seeing subject resides within a social hierarchy.

Item Type: Article
Keywords: African American literature, slavery, slave narrative, Douglass, Hester, witnessing, phenomenology, embodiment, sight, empathy, violence
Subjects: E History America > E151 United States (General)
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and Literature > PS American literature
Divisions: School of Writing, Publishing and the Humanities
UoA: English Literature & Language
Identification Number: https://doi.org/10.1353/esq.2019.0006
Date Deposited: 07 Aug 2019 17:09
Last Modified: 15 Aug 2021 09:52
URI / Page ID: https://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/id/eprint/12218
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