Social and Legal Definitions of Slavery Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

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Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment -- from whence came the spirit I don't know -- I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. (Douglass 112, chapt. 10)

In Chapter 10 of Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of... an American Slave, Douglass describes an important incident in which he forces backward the standard master-slave hierarchy of beating privileges against his temporary master, Mr. Covey. The victory proves for Douglass a remarkable source of renewed yearning for freedom and of self-confidence; as he "rose" physically, standing up to fight, he "rose" in spirit. Covey did not "have" Douglass
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An examination of the Narrative through a signification-sensitive lens, as defined by Abrahams and discussed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Signifying Monkey, with attention to narrative detail, will reveal how Douglass both achieves and reflects through his Narrative a powerful independence of self and spirit which itself is independent of both Northern allies and legal and bodily freedom.

Many would argue with justification that Frederick Douglass has adopted, to forge his narrative voice, a strong tool of the white, educated society which, in its Southern substantiation, has held him captive. Douglass in part takes the reins of his destiny by (eventually and initially nervously, according to the Narrative) addressing an audience which would once have been unaddressable. When Douglass was a slave the most contact he had with the abolitionists was, at best, their addressing of him, in small, distant doses, through the literature of which Douglass managed to get a hold. A slave can take orders from Southern whites and occasionally receive information or ideas from Northern whites (or abolitionists), but a certain degree of power or status, springing out of ability and freedom to articulate, is required to address them in return. The power to address is, in a small way, a sign of equal intellectual and social footing.

Literacy and articulation are very closely linked for Douglass. During his struggle to learn how to read, he says, some anti-slavery arguments