Freedom & Liberty: The Seed Shape of Engaging an American Audience Through Ideals

An important seed shape within the African American works and slave narratives discussed thus far is the authors’ ways of recruiting their audience, specifically, by appealing to core American ideals. The term seed shape is conveyed by Ron Eglash in African Fractals as the “starting shape” that will eventually create a fractal. It can be any shape, and then each part of the seed shape is replaced, “with a reduced version of the original seed shape;” this process continues infinitely, creating a fractal—a visual representation of infinity. Applying the idea of a seed shape within literature would/could refer to an element—theme, arc, symbol, event, purpose, structure, etc.—that appears within a piece or genre and continues to appear at different scales. Douglass and Jacobs recruit the attention and sympathy of their audiences on many scales, sometimes explicitly as Jacobs directly addresses the “reader,” and often implicitly through emotional connection. A common throughline is how these authors implicitly utilize American values, and the American (or patriotic) identity to appeal to readers. The ideals of ‘liberty,’ and ‘freedom,’ are a core of American goals and the American identity. Each of the authors expresses that slavery denies the rights of liberty and freedom. So as long as slavery exists within America, the country has not and cannot actualize these ideals. This argument, and the narrative form it takes, is likely to pull at the heartstrings of many devout Americans and abolitionists, thereby recruiting their sympathy and support.

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Douglass defines the contradiction between freedom and slavery. While he was sent out to live with Mr. Covey, to break his spirit, Douglass could see the sailing ships on the Chesapeake Bay. In his narrative, he writes an apostrophe to ships, which expresses the freedom belonging to the ships, but also the freedom that he is denied, as well as the torments of slavery. Douglass states, “‘You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free!'” Douglass’ apostrophe demonstrates his longing for freedom, but also the depths of this disparity for all slaves. The ships have more freedom than Douglass; they are free to sail and travel, but Douglass is held down by the chains of slavery. He is not free to go where he pleases, he is stuck at Mr. Covey’s property. The ships are objects and yet, these objects have greater freedom than any slave. The personification of the ships furthers this idea. Douglass’ yearning and longing to be free of the chains and torment of slavery is evident. The use of the word freedom harkens back to the American ideal. Its continuous use within this section draws greater attention to that linkage. In engaging audiences, the notion of freedom is a long-held American value. Thereby, it may be a linkage audiences can easily grasp. Meanwhile, the ship having greater freedom than a slave may be revelatory to readers. Douglass’ apostrophe shows that this freedom is no small desire. Even if readers were not abolitionists, they may be able to connect this idea of freedom and understand that slavery deprives and denies the freedom on which the nation was founded.

While Douglass’ apostrophe centers on his yearning for freedom, Jacobs focuses on the system that denies her (and other slaves) this freedom, in The Fugitive Slave Narrative. Jacobs utilizes notions of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom,’ similar to Douglass, but she also calls out America’s false perception of itself as civilized. She criticizes the hypocrisy inherent in America/Americans asserting themself as a civilized society while practicing and/or enabling slavery. In her piece, Jacobs writes about the moments before she boards the boat that will take her to New York. She mentions her friend Peter, a slave who helped ensure her safety, but wouldn’t be leaving with her. He would still be subject to the torments and injustices of slavery. She expresses her indignation, stating, “that intelligent, enterprising, noble-hearted man was chattel! liable, by the laws of a country that calls itself civilized to be sold with horses and pigs!” While Jacobs is undoubtedly thankful for her coming escape, she is aware the torture of slavery will continue for her friends and all other slaves like Peter. And no matter the goodness in their heart, they will still be seen and treated as nothing more than livestock. Her narrative, like many, humanizes and shows the true experiences of those who were enslaved. In this section, Jacobs engages readers by utilizing an implicit violation of American ideals. This violation is exemplified by Peter not having freedom or liberty. It is a reminder that true freedom does not exist for everyone in America. Her condemnation of calling America ‘civilized’ while these heinous violations of liberty occur is a wake-up call. Even though Jacobs is leaving for the north she reminds readers that while she may have escaped, many did not. Simply because she eventually obtained freedom did not mean the battle was over, the institution of slavery still stood strong. And her outrage at the system is not quieted after she arrives in New York, and neither is her struggle.

After heading north, Jacobs is still not safe. Following her arrival in New York, Jacobs is hunted down by Mr. and Mrs. Dodge, who are seeking to bring her back South and enslave her. Jacobs is physically and mentally fatigued. Throughout her life, she has been subject to the system of slavery and witnessed the hypocrisy inherent in American society. As the church bells in the city ring, she monologues, “‘Will the preachers take for their text, ‘Proclaim liberty to the captive, and the opening of prison doors to them that are bound’? Or will they preach from the text, ‘Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you’?'” She contrasts this against the open discussions of slavery, as “John Mitchell was free to proclaim in City Hall his desire for ‘a plantation well stocked with slaves;’ but there I sat an oppressed American.” Jacobs condemns the faulty assertion that liberty and slavery can occur simultaneously. They cannot coexist: inherently, slavery denies liberty and true liberty would not allow slavery. Jacobs’ words might’ve been motivating, if not to abolitionists, then to others who prided themselves on holding fast to American ideals but remained impartial to slavery. Another aspect that may have engaged readers is Jacobs’ self-reference as an “oppressed American.” There is a unity in the American ideals, America as a nation and as a people. This may be a branch-off (or recursion) of engaging the audience through core American ideals. The larger identity seems to rest upon these ideals. Thinking in common speech, the statement “fellow Americans” is a uniting sentiment. Jacobs’ statement might’ve evoked this common identity in her audience. The idea follows that if Jacobs’ was oppressed, already having fled the South, slaves were still Americans suffering oppression. This could’ve been a greater rallying cry for her readers, connecting with the American identity.

The slave narratives presented by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs exemplify the recruitment of readers by appealing to deep-rooted American ideals. Developing from these ideals is a uniting American identity. Simply because these elements recruit readers may not mean they are entirely intentional acts by the writers. Both these authors crafted their lives on the page and took into account what information may be important to exclude or include, but they also wrote of personal, emotional, and physical experiences. Not everything may be a purposeful move to engage audiences in support of the abolition of slavery, which is important to keep in mind. The ways in which Douglass and Jacobs engaged audiences through the utilization of American beliefs is a seed shape within itself, which presents on smaller scales such as the activation of an American identity. As with mathematical fractals, seed shapes exist recursively, possibly appearing on smaller scales within these works as well as others. The significance of this seed shape—engagement of the audience—is how it leads the writer, reader, and text to interact. These interactions affect readers’ understanding of the world in which they live and have the power to change minds, attitudes, and actions. The recruitment of readers, especially the northern, abolitionist, American audience could have helped manifest change in the real world.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.