Written Word Used as Propaganda The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is an account of Frederick Douglass’ life written in a very detached and objective tone. One might find this normal for a historical account of the events of someone’s life if not for the fact that the narrative was written by Frederick Douglass himself. Frederick Douglass used this tone purposefully in an attempt to use his narrative as propaganda to convince others to join in the abolitionist’s movement.
According to Donna Woolfolk Cross in “Propaganda: How not to be Bamboozled,” propaganda is “simply a means of persuasion” (149). She further notes that we are subjected daily to propaganda in one form or another as advertisers, politicians, and even our friends attempt to persuade us to use their product, vote for them, or adopt their point of view. Propaganda is usually considered in a negative sense. However, when viewing propaganda as just persuasion, one can readily appreciate that it is neither good nor evil; the good/evil effect is the direct result of the purpose for which it is used.
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Politicians and leaders have used propaganda to further their goals; Hitler’s use of propaganda as a means of controlling the population of Germany is the most recognizable example of propaganda used for evil. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he urges non-violent resistance in the cause of racial equality, portrays persuasion used with good intentions. Although speeches are highly effective at delivering ideas, the written word can be even more influential. In the early days of America, literature was used extensively as a means of persuasion.
As early as 1589 Richard Hakluyt published stories in a book he wrote for the sole purpose of persuading people to sail to America and settle land. These stories which were told to Hakluyt by captains and sailors appeared to be straightforward and narrative, however Hakluyt edited each piece so that he was able to successfully persuade the people who read his stories to sail to America and settle the land thus securing critical natural resources for England. Such was the goal with the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
Douglass’ objective was to appeal to the middle-class people of that time and persuade them to join in the movement. Although the Narrative was ostensibly written to prove that Douglass had actually been a slave, Douglass, working for the abolitionist group headed by William Lloyd Garrison, wrote for a specific audience: white Puritan Christians whom the abolitionists hoped to convert to their way of thinking. Thus, what began as a telling of his life experiences evolved into a tool of persuasion. As with all propaganda, Douglass’ Narrative contains certain elements that appeal to the emotions of the reader.
Douglass’ writing style was descriptive as well as convincing. This emotional hold allows the writer to sway the opinion of the reader. His horrific details of the time, helped him grasp the attention of the women who he hoped in turn would convince their husbands to help, by donating money and eventually ending slavery. He used his words effectively in convincing the readers that the slave owners were inhuman and showed how they had no feelings for other human beings as evident when he wrote: ‘The louder she screamed the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest” (Douglass25).
Although a self-taught writer and orator, Douglass makes use of sophisticated elements of persuasive writing. Simultaneously, he chooses these events for how they will affect the Northern audience’s opinion of Southern slaveholders. Considering the fact that this was written during the height of the abolition movement the novel had to be effective in order to advance the success of the movement.
The distant tone was effective because if Douglass had written with an impassioned tone, readers would have noticed it and simply wrote it off as a biased work, unable to see the issue from both sides. Through personal anecdotes, Douglass draws an accurate picture of slave life. Douglass also shows that slavery was not a constant source of pain and suffering: “I was not old enough to work in the fields, and there being little else than field work to do, I had a great deal of leisure time,” (Douglass 71).
This is effective in proving his point because it allows him to show the whole of slavery and not be biased in his views. Douglass uses family relationships, starting with his own birth, to gain the compassion of his target audience. “Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor” (749).
Douglass mentions this particular anecdote to specifically capture the compassion of his targeted audience; white women. In Douglass’ autobiography however, the elements alone do not prove his intent to write for any reason other than to prove his background as a slave and defend his credibility against the critics of the abolitionists that charge that Douglass could never have been born a slave as he claimed (McKivigan 18). The most convincing argument for the contention that this was written as propaganda is the manner in which the persuasive elements are used.
The body of the narrative is written in a simple and straightforward manner; the story is told quite matter-of-factly, even the horrific scenes of the cruel beatings and killings of slaves. This lack of histrionics is true even when the targets of the overseers’ whips are Douglass’ own family members. Yet, when Douglass speaks of Southern Christianity defending slavery, he works himself into a fury of emotion and uses the more obvious elements of propaganda. When he writes of the religious practices and hypocrisy of the same slaveholders, he again reverts to persuasive rhetoric.
Some chapters are genuine throughout, while others contain much propaganda. One segment in particular, that having to do with the fate of his grandmother, is written in a style that is not consistent with the rest of the book. Rather, extremely histrionic, in which the believable, factual Douglass disappears, and is replaced by someone writing solely for effect “My dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse to die in the woods-is she still alive?.. Send me my grandmother! ” (Preston 167).
It appears that Frederick Douglass did begin his autobiography with the intention of writing his story in a realistic manner; the basic narrative bears that out. But in the course of writing his intent strayed, and he became aware of the power that could be unleashed by inflaming the emotions of readers. Undoubtedly encouraged in his use persuasive rhetoric on an oratory level, he eventually created a masterpiece of propaganda. Works Cited Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Signet, 1968. Douglass, Frederick. A Slaves Family Life”. Thinking and Writing About Literature. A Text and Anthology. Ed. Michael Meyer. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 749. Cross, Donna Woolfolk. “Propaganda: How not to be Bamboozled. ” Language Awareness. Ed. Paul Escholz, et al. New York: St Martins Press, 1994. 149. McKivigan, John R. , ed. Frederick Douglass. People Who Made History. Michigan: Greenhaven Press/Thomas Gale, 2004. Preston, Dickson J. Young Fredrick Douglass The Maryland Years. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.