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Picturing Frederick Douglass’s Mother

December 16, 2013

A chief difference between Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself (1845), and his second, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), is the representation of his mother.

Douglass describes her in Narrative with alarming stolidity. Tellingly, the personal, “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant,” dissolves to type in the very next sentence:

“It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age” (13).

In Narrative absence of the mother gives rise to Douglass’s more pressing indictment of slavery.

But in My Bondage and My Freedom the figure of the mother is no longer a maternal void carved out by the horrors of slavery. She no longer signifies the author’s alienation from dominant cultural and linguistic tropes. On the contrary, she signals and—to borrow Henry Louis Gates’s term for repetition with a difference—signifies on the author’s mastery of both literary and extra-literary devices of characterization.

Douglass not only describes her in detail, he even goes so far as to inform the reader that he has come across a picture of her. It’s an illustration in James C. Prichard’s fully-illustrated text of historical ethnography, The Natural History of Man (1848). According to Douglass, the picture fondly reminds him of his mother’s appearance.

The picture’s features, Douglass explains,

“so resemble those of my mother, that I often recur to it with something of the feeling which I suppose others experience when looking upon the pictures of dear departed ones” (52).

In this important act of citation, Douglass establishes a rapport with his readers based upon a shared relationship to pictures. Though he does not possess an image of his mother, it would seem that the accretion of mass market images in mid nineteenth-century America affords him a likeness of her none the less.

Yet, upon locating the cited volume and page of Prichard’s book, one encounters a most unexpected sight. Instead of the slave woman suggested by Douglass to be “quite dark,” we get an engraving of Ramses II–an image of a bearded, quite white, mythical man (Fig.1).


Douglass’s cited image of his mother defies the usual validating power ascribed to sentimental portraits. It displays no apparent correlation between the beloved described in the words of the text and the figure presented in the image.

Indeed, the odd citation of this picture may be a mysterious response to slavery’s trauma. Still, it is no less communicative, for in it we glimpse Douglass in the very act of self-creation.

His use of the picture acknowledges, parodies, and perhaps represses anxieties of race, ancestry, and identity—first by courting the fictional trope of sentimental nostalgia and then by flouting expectations of representational veracity which underpin traditional conceptions of illustration.

As this example shows, peeling back the layers of referential ambiguity that result from the interplay of images and texts in slave narratives exposes a rich and sometimes complicated context. Doing so also fosters interpretive possibilities that would remain unavailable through one medium alone.


< For more, see my chapter on the Douglass in Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative (Indiana, 2009) >

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