April 9, 2013
Slavery’s Optic Glass
Beyond the Black Body: Visual and Auditory Perception in The Heroic Slave
Frederick Douglass’s novella The Heroic Slave reconfigures the trope of the slave hero with the character Madison Washington, a phenotypically black masculine figure who is physically dominant with a gentle disposition. Madison’s black masculinity is tempered with qualifications, as the narrative ensures that he does not appear to be over-aggressive to white characters in the novella. Madison is thus scrutinized through both the auditory and visual senses of other characters, allowing them to understand his masculine identity in differing ways. Indeed, the stereotypes surrounding the black male body are deconstructed when perceived through multiple senses. This multi-faceted perception of Madison allows the white characters to sympathize with the slave because they are convinced of his benign and caring nature, as opposed to being frightened by his powerful physique. My essay will examine the manner in which the white character Listwell understands the masculine, physically powerful slave figure of Madison with his auditory and visual senses. The shrewd use of sensory perception is a narrative tool for which the white characters of the story, and by extension a larger white spectatorship, can empathize with slaves through the auditory sense and convert to abolitionism without fearing a physically powerful black male slave subject.
The narrator’s depiction of Madison Washington as a heroic slave begins by using ocular-centric language in recounting the slave’s heroism. About Madison the narrator states, “Glimpses of this great character are all that can now be presented. He is brought to view only by a few transient incidents, and these afford but partial satisfaction” (emphasis mine, 2). Indeed, the visual phenomena of a “glimpse” is said to provide an unsatisfactory portrayal of the extravagant life of the slave. The ephemeral nature of the momentary visual glimpse provides an inadequate means of understanding the contours of an enslaved black subject, suggesting the need for other sensory perceptions in order to sympathize with enslaved subjects. The next sentence continues the use of visually-centered language by using the phrase “He is brought to view.” The failure of the human eye is again emphasized by the narrative – the eye is capable only of capturing “a few transient incidents” which result in an imprecise depiction of a black hero in the antebellum period. The subtle yet palpable narrative diction comments on the futility of understanding Madison solely through the eyes and longs for a shift away from the visual. White spectatorship demands another form of sensory understanding of slaves.
The white over-reliance on eyesight is problematized by a peculiar spectatorship that takes place in the trajectory of the novella’s plot. As told by the narrator, “a Northern traveler through the State of Virginia drew up his horse…the rider caught the sound of a human voice, apparently engaged in earnest conversation” (emphasis mine, 2). Mr. Listwell, who is a white slave owner referred to as the “Northern traveler,” hears the voice of Madison speaking to himself alone in the woods. Listwell’s curiosity concerning the Madison’s speech makes him pay close attention to Madison’s narrative: “he stealthily drew near the solitary speaker” (emphasis mine, 3). At this instance, Listwell’s interest is piqued and he postures himself to hear the slave’s speech. This passage thus presents the alternative of understanding Madison through hearing as opposed to seeing. Whereas the narrator indicated that glimpsing Madison wasn’t an adequate means of comprehending his narrative, hearing provides a more complete portrait of his psychology. Listwell’s imaginative capabilities are facilitated through his auditory sense – his ears are a reliable instrument for understanding a wide range of...
Cited: Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. Radford: Wilder Publications, 2008. Kindle file.
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