Adapting through Voice and Authority

Throughout the past few classes of Dr. McCoy’s African American Literature class, we have been talking a lot about authority, originality, and voice. This has gotten me to start thinking about Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass’ stories in Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Jacobs and Douglass both told their stories about their own lives through slavery, and how they may have changed their story to grab a certain audience’s attention. Douglass and Jacobs use their voices to show their audiences about their own experiences and what happened during their lives as slaves by telling their stories.

Voice is a major subject on which we talked about in Dr. McCoy’s class over the past week. Douglass and Jacobs both use their voices to tell their own stories about slavery, but also, they use their voices to grab certain audiences’ attention, as I mentioned earlier. Both Jacobs and Douglass use certain statements to draw their audience’s attention. When reading Douglass’ story, you see that he is going after a few types of audiences’: one being white woman. Douglass is telling his story in an attempt to get the audience to try and connect to his story so it can be believed. One example is when Douglass explains how he was able to write several protections for then to escape. This may not be believable from the sense that when he signed it under his masters name it was all in his hand writing. It says “This is to certify that I, the undersigned, have given the nearer, my servant, full liberty to go to Baltimore, and spend the Easter holidays. Written with my own hand, &c., 1835”  By reading this I was unsure if Douglass really did this because when it says “written with my own hand” seems like a far stretch of what someone would say. But through the authority of the book and of the editors I believed this statement to be true. Another factor that made me believe that this was true would be that people in high school would forge letters all the time in High School and they almost always got away with it.  Douglass also uses his originality of the story and voice to connect to his audience in order for them to read his story and believe in everything he is telling them.

Jacobs’ writing is similar to Douglass’ in the sense she uses her voice to go after a certain audience. However, Jacobs also differs from Douglass in she attracts an audience that is more family-based. By doing this, she changes the audience of people who read her story; for example when she talks about watching her son grow up through a small hole in the wall. I was drawn to this because I am a big family-based person. Her statements of her family are used on purpose to draw the attention of people who care so deeply for a family aspect. Jacobs also talks about sexual abuse during her story and by doing this she is able to grab a difference audience. In order to get slavery abolished Jacobs had to tell her story about sexual abuse.  Also, by telling this story Jacobs is using her voice in the story to gain a female emotional connection and by talking about this she is also using a gender narrative to ‘manipulate’ the readers. Through Jacobs using the originality of her story, she is getting her readers to believe exactly what she is saying in her writing.

In order to show that Douglass’ and Jacobs’ stories are original, a preface was included before both of their stories. By doing this it portrayed that they both need a fugitive slave narrative to be read before their own stories are told in order for it to be verifiable. By adding the preface, it adds authority to the story from the extra voice of the editors. This addition of text from the editors builds on to the idea that these stories are both ‘real’ and ‘true’. The editors additionally use authority in Call and Response is when they change parts of the book for the readers. They choose what details to not put in the book and which parts they want to include. They have the authority to change Jacobs’ or Douglass’ voices if they so choose to. The preface is a major example of where you see the editors authority being used to show the readers their stories are in fact believable. This is due to all the extreme circumstances that Douglass and Jacobs went through that may have never been believed if it wasn’t for the editors. For example, Jacobs hiding in an attic for seven years without leaving until she was able to escape. We don’t know if Jacobs was stretching the truth during this part or if that is really what happened. The readers only know what is put into the book from the authority of the editors. The editors are using their own voices to tell the readers that Douglass and Jacobs are credible writers. This is furthermore portraying that white scholars have to write a preface in order for a slave to be believed.

Another example of the editors using authority is when they decided to leave out two chapters from Jacobs’ story. It skips from Chapter Two on page 440 to Chapter Four also on page 440. This leaves the readers with questions about why there are whole chapters being left out. There could be critical information that the readers were not shown. One reason this could happen is that the editors are placing a value judgment on what should be included. Maybe the editors considered this portion of the narrative to be boring and they didn’t want the readers to put down the book; maybe they are shaping Jacobs’ story to go along with Douglass’ story which is right before Jacobs story in the book. Another reason could be because space is money and the editors didn’t want less important parts to be overshadowed.

The use of authority, originality, and voice helps the readers see Douglass’ and Jacobs’ narratives as more credible. However, one point Dr. McCoy brought up that stuck with me is to not believe anything until it is proven true. We don’t know if any of these stories stretched the truth or added details that may never have happened. Through this aspect we raise the question “So what?” in many ways, but for me, I use it to think “is this really credible? or could this really happen?” Many times, a story may be changed to grab the audiences attention for example directors may add details where they think an audience would find it more interesting. If a movie is based on a true story the whole movie is not completely accurate. Directors may add details to make the movie more relatable or more interesting for the audience to watch. This may be the same for the editors of Call and Response.

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