Frederick Douglass & The Image He Controls

Frederick Douglass made sure to create a self-image that would make him a credible black abolitionist in the 19th century. His image was dependent on the photographs that were taken of him, his speeches, and how he wrote about himself in his narrative.

In the video titled History, Photography, and Race in the South: From the Civil War to Now Part 4—Pictures and Progress: Frederick Douglass on Photography, they discuss how imperative photography was to Douglass. Photography was a newer invention that was used for record keeping rather than leisure like it is today, yet for someone like Douglass, he used it as a tool to distinguish himself as a free person in an era of enslavement. He wanted to emphasize his freedom and photography helped him do so by showing his self-possession and that no one owned him, except himself. He believed that pictures distinguished him from a thing, an object, and showed him as an equal person. This was crucial because as an abolitionist, he had to appeal to the common white man who often did not see a black person as an equal.

In fact, Douglass thought so much of the social influence and power of photography that when a portrait of him was “edited” and manipulated to look different than what he intended, he was extremely unhappy. This was one of the most interesting facts about Douglass and it shows how vital it was for him for the portrait to look a certain way. The picture, as shown in Appendix A of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, showed him with a happier expression than what he originally had. He expressed his distaste for the photo in a letter to Richard D. Webb. Right before telling him in a previous letter that he asked for a different, slight change in the portrait. He mentioned that the happy expression was one that an enslaved person would never have. As a previously enslaved person, he knows that enslavement is not something to smile about and the manipulation of the photo ultimately undermined the seriousness of his career as an abolitionist.

Douglass creates this image to seem like a credible and serious person who can convince others to be abolitionists. But similar to how Clotel was written and dramaticised, it often takes emotion for white people to understand the extremities of system they are complicit in. In the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, he creates graphic imagery that highlights the trauma in enslavement and because it is written by him, he will explicitly speak about his feelings whilst writing it. For example, on page 101, Douglass recollects emotional memory of songs that were sang by enslaved people. He says,

“Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a payer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek.”

The way he incorporates his personal feelings so explicitly in this quote is really effective, especially after creating a credible image of himself. An emotional outreach by a person they respect, or at least find credible is more effective than someone who is not, especially if they are black or enslaved. That is why Douglass prioritized his image the way he did, he knew that otherwise, people would not have treated his work or him the way they did.

Another tactic that he used in the previous quote was religion. In the Narrative he often says that the worst slaveowners were the most religious ones. This shows how religion in the lives of slaveowners encourage their behavior rather than discourage it. One would think that Douglass holds resentment toward religion because of his treatment from religious slaveowner. Yet in his speech in Cork, Ireland, he spoke about religion and ended the speech with a religious call to action. He used religion in a transatlantic setting where it would be more efficient to apply religious imagery and appeals to create the image he wants of himself. It’s important to note that it was also in a transatlantic setting where his portrait, as mentioned earlier, was manipulated for him to appear with a happier expression. He cared that his image was consistent but makes sure his speech is fitting for the audience. It marks the difference between the abolitionist movement in the United States and in Europe. Ultimately, Frederick Douglass was careful to appear as a black person who was equal and therefore was respected by white audiences rather than someone who would always be associated to their enslavement or their proximity to enslavement.


Douglass, Frederick, and Celeste-Marie Bernier. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Broadview Press., 2018.


2 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass & The Image He Controls

  1. Douglass’ use of emotion as a rhetorical means is very prominent through his text, but I believe it is a highly effective tactic, especially for this content. It makes his story all the more heart-wrenching and devastating.

  2. His emotional appeal is quite apparent. He presents his image as strong and tough, while still making you feel for him. I feel like the reason for this is that he doesn’t want people to just feel sympathetic towards him, but to feel inspired to act.

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