Douglass’s Pictures

Through Frederick Douglass’s creation of his narrative and through him becoming an active public figure with speaking and writing, his words were meant to shape an image of himself. Douglass was always aware of his audiences, including of their prejudices and the things that mattered to them, and he worked to control both his words and the actual pictorial imagery of himself to both address these prejudices and preferences. 

Throughout Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass writes of both his deep desire to learn and his deep desires for freedom; further, he sees learning–collecting information, paying attention to how the rivers turn and how to go north, learning to read–as ways to have access to attaining freedom. One such place where Douglass illustrates his resourcefulness with learning is:

“The plan which I adopted, and the one which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return” (110).

While illustrating Douglass’s resourcefulness and dedication to learning to read, these lines also may affect white readers whose heartstrings are tugged at imagining the idea of not having access to a schoolhouse or a governess or even legally having the right to learn to read. Douglass then continues:

“I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow on the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge” (110).

These lines may appeal to liberal British audiences, who were largely concerned with working-class poor in Britain in adition to anti-slavery and abolition. With this statement, Douglass shows himself not only to be a resourceful man (or boy, at the time), but also a person with compassion for people who possess various amounts of power and privilege. 

“I want the Americans to know that in the good city of Cork, I ridiculed their nation–I attempted to excite the utter contempt of the people here upon them. O that America were freed from slavery!” (232).

With this quote, Douglass establishes that he is a transnational man. He seems to say that he is not American with the line “their nation,” yet, earlier in the speech, Douglass also says:

“Particularly am I indebted to the press [of Cork] for their freedom in copying the few feeble words I have been able to say in this city, that they may return to my land, and sound terribly in the ears of the oppressors of my country-men” (229).

At the beginning of the speech, Douglass establishes himself as being from the United States with saying “my land” and “the oppressors of my country-men,” though I think it is important to note that he never says the “United States” or “America;” he only refers to the “land” and his “country-men.” This might indicate that Douglass does not associate himself with the colonial and white supremacist institutions and ideas of “the United States” and “America.” 

Yet, even though Douglass praised the press and people of Ireland, within Ireland and Britain, he still struggled to have control over the images disseminated about him and of him. Within Shawn Michelle Smith’s lecture, she recites a quote by Douglas for the Northstar. She quotes, “It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features.” This quote is important in that it reveals that biases, racism, and prejudices go into the production of illustrations. Photography and daguerreotypes provided a way for Douglas to have almost complete control over the image that was produced of him; he could dress how he wanted, and he could control his facial expression. As Michelle Smith says, “The daguerreotype becomes a vehicle through which one can display the habitual self-containment and control central to self-possession.” With a photograph, there is less space for the photographer to input “interpretation” or bias into the image, whereas illustrations and traditional portraiture leave a lot of power to the illustrator and leave room for damaging and offensive characterization. 

Douglas was particularly frustrated by a frontispiece portrait published in an Irish edition of his novel. He wrote to Richard Webb, his Irish publisher:

“‘You asked my opinion of the portrait. I gave it, and still adhere to it. That the picture don’t suit is no fault of yours–or loss of yours.–I am displeased with it not because I wish to be, but because I cant help it. I am cirtain the engracing is not as good as the original portrait. I dont like it, and I have said so without heat or thunder.’ For Douglass, the newly commissioned portrait failed to capture the angst and anger characterizing the ‘face of the fugitive slave’ by offensively trading in his benevolently smiling physiognomy and an ornately dressed, dandified figure” (173-174).

Further, Douglass points out to Webb that Webb has nothing to lose: conversely, Douglass does: his image is his own self possession, and the frontispiece image will guide how readers interpret him and his narrative.

In “Slave Narratives and the Rhetoric of Author Portraiture,” Lynn Casmier-Paz writes:

“In order for slave narrative frontispiece portraits to preface and guide the readers’ interpretation of the narrative, the avoidance of satire and irony is critically important… The portrait of the slave is therefore a frontispiece threshold, whose apparent resistance to ironic interpretation can be clearly seen in the posture and deportment of the author’s countenance, whose features gaze and follow, guide, and instruct an interpretation of the slave narrative. That is, frontispiece portraits are serious evidence of the credibility and truthful authority of slave narratives as auto/biographies. The images are used as persuasive evidence of the ex-slaves’ class status, and their current membership among the literature elite of western culture at the same time that they illustrate the contradiction of the writing slave” (92-93).

This analysis by Casmier-Paz reveals how important frontispiece imagery was to 19th century British and American literary culture and readers. This understanding further reveals why Douglass was so frustrated by his facial expression being changed from anger and sadness to one  “benevolently smiling.” As noted in Appendix A of the Broadview edition of Douglass’s Narrative, “According to this representation of Douglass’s jaunty and jovial facial expression, he was burdened neither with his own memory of his enslavement nor with the enslavement of his family members, for whom there was no liberation except in death” (174). Douglass wanted audiences to read his narrative with the utmost seriousness. And he wanted readers to know and feel the anger in his countenance for his family, for himself, for all others who have been or were enslaved, and against the patriarchal and white supremacist institutions which created these abonimable conditions.

Further, looking at many of the European frontispiece engravings, many of them anglicize Douglass’s features. This is another form of censure and whitewashing. Casmier-Paz notes in her article that:

“Dr. James M’Caine Smith who introduced Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom immediately references the frontispiece portrait, “But this full recognition of the colored man to the right, and the entire admission of the same to the full priveldged… of manhood requires powerful effort… the negro must prove himself equal’… To understand the extraordinary talents, of which the narrative is a prime example, Dr. Smith explains that Douglass has ‘Anglo-Saxon blood” (100).

First of all, I want to address the first line of this quote: Smith writes that Douglass and other Black folks or people who are or were enslaved must “prove themselves equal.” Smith’s ideas are based in white supremacy and Anglo-centric ideas of “civilization.” Because of attitudes like this, which were prevalent in the culture he was publishing in, Douglass must have felt some level of pressure to present himself in a way that affluent white folks would deem “respectable;” at the same time, the anger he strove to have within his frontispieces is a loud political statement, which could have and must have made people feel uncomfortable (obviously, or the illustrator for the Irish edition would not have made his expression “benevolent”).

To address the second half of this quote, Smith attributes Douglass’s writing abilities to “Anglo-Saxxon blood,” revealing his white supremacist belief that only white Anglo-Saxxons or their decendent could write so powerfully. This returns back to criticism of the anglicization of Douglass’s features within several of the European frontispieces. By the illustrators anglicizing Douglass’s features, they present imagery that comes from and perpetuates white supremacy, affirming or creating more damaging stereotypes around writing, who can write, who can write well, and what is “civilized.” This puts even more into perspective who Douglass wanted to be photographed so much, and why he became the most photographed man in the 19th century: illustrators could draw in their own agendas and biases, but the camera gave Douglass much more control over his image, so he could challenge racist imagery and ideas.  

Works Cited

Casmier-Paz, Lynn A. “Slave Narratives and the Rhetoric of Author Portraiture.” New Literary History, vol. 34, no. 1, 2003, pp. 91–116. JSTOR, Accessed 4 May 2020.

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave.” “Broadview Press, Ontario, 2018. 

Smith, Shawn Michelle. “History, Photography, and Race in the South: From the Civil War to Now Part 4—Pictures and Progress: Frederick Douglass on Photography.” National Gallery of Art, 12 June 2018,

Photo Credits:

Frederick Douglass, circa 1879. Wikipedia Commons, from National Archives and Records Administration.

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