Approaches of Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain in Presenting the Black Experience

Written by Marjorie Montenegro

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Approaches of Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain
in Presenting the Black Experience

Frederick Douglass's autobiographical portrayal in The Narrative of a Slave and Mark Twain's characterization of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are demonstrative of the differences between the Enlightenment period and the Romantic period.  Douglass looks at events and uses reason to reach into our minds and eradicate our ignorance, while Twain allows the humanity of Jim to reach into our hearts and dissolve our indifference.  Both characters clearly teach their reader, primarily white Americans, that slaves are not inhuman chattel to be dominated but human beings capable of reaching great depths both intellectually and emotionally.  The different methods used to define the characters of Douglass and Jim accomplish a similar goal while taking different roads.

Douglass writes of himself in the first person narrative in the voice of an experienced and learned adult who is able to portray the horrors of slavery without depending upon sentimentality.  Reading Douglass's account of life on the plantation, the rational person can envision the pain and despair without actually knowing the thoughts of the victim.  Douglass is able to step back from his anger and express opinions on the reasons men feel justified in placing the yoke around other men.  Douglass's voice throughout Narrative could also be seen as a warning to the oppressors that the vile actions, once ignored, will no longer be tolerated.  The character in this book does not merely report, but demonstrates the growing insurgence occurring among slaves because of the brutal treatment of the slaveholder.  Douglass's fervor to learn to read shows that the harder the slaveholder applied pressure the stronger the desire was to fight back.  I see this as a diplomatic declaration of war.  Douglass not only educates "white America" by telling his tale, but also shows consistently that the slaves will not merely succumb, but will invariably strike back.  By gently taking off the gloves, Douglass puts the reader on alert that this miserable state will no longer be tolerated.

Jim's description is filtered through the eyes of Huckleberry Finn, via the pen of Mark Twain.  It is important to remember that Huck Finn is a young person who looks at life with the innocence of childhood and the ignorance of the unlearned.  Twain uses this method to allow readers to formulate their own conclusions without the tedium of a Sunday Mass.  Twain dispels the belief that African Americans lack humanity and moral conviction by giving Jim one of the central voices in the novel, and demonstrating Jim's capacity to feel deep, human emotions.  

Both characters teach that slavery is an abomination, one intellectually and the other emotionally.  These two approaches are complements that used together are tantamount to a full-blown attack on prejudice.  The two lone voices of Douglass and Jim, although singing acappella, can easily fill a cathedral of the soul.

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