Frederick Douglass testified often to his experiences and the injustice of slavery. Yet how did he explain those who were unmoved, and what did he envision as compelling them to act? I turn to The Heroic Slave to investigate Douglass on white unwillingness. A fictional account of the factual mutiny of the enslaved Madison Washington in 1841, Douglass’s novella narrates Washington’s emancipation through the perspectives of a white northerner and southerner who waver in response to testimony when confronted by the spaces and scripts of white society. Although Douglass suggests that friendship may encourage whites, I find in the story’s contents as well as its publication a heroic imagination in which black resistance is inevitable and natural, independent of white alliance, opposition, and judgment itself. This story was for Douglass another means of motivating whites, and for us illustrative of how racial justice demands not only evidence but imagination.
The anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman wrote her 1931 autobiography to evaluate both her early politics and American radicalism at the turn of the century. I find in Living My Life two approaches to antiauthoritarian thought, which I distinguish as adversity and empathy. Adversarial politics seeks to emancipate the people by contesting the agents of state, market, or patriarchy, but falters when radicals act on behalf of a people with whom they share few experiences. Empathetic politics builds that needed solidarity, by encouraging radicals to learn from the masses and by educating the masses on the conditions that motivate radicals to act. I follow Goldman’s transition between these approaches in her descriptions of experiences with family and colleagues, in prison and as a nurse, and of her assistance with Alexander Berkman’s attack on Henry Clay Frick and her defense of William McKinley’s assassin. Goldman’s Life proposes that radicals build popular authority through shared experience, expanding our understanding of anarchist thought and the relevance of autobiography for political theory.
What political problem can autobiography solve? This article examines the politics of Frederick Douglass’s antebellum personal narratives: his 1845 slave narrative, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, written at the opposite ends of Douglass’s transition from the abolitionist politics of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips to Douglass’s defense of political action and the Constitution as anti-slavery. Placing the two texts alongside Douglass’s distinction to narrate and denounce wrongs, I argue that that Douglass writes My Bondage and My Freedom as a mode of denunciation: an autobiographical critique of injustice that balances analysis of collective oppression with advocacy for communal emancipation. Although Douglass’s first narrative recounts his enslavement and escape, abolitionist use of slave narrative and “slavery on trial” rhetoric framed Narrative within a racial hierarchy of black testimony and white advocacy. Whereas to narrate wrongsencouraged readers to judge Douglass’s story alongside popular criteria of justice, to denounce wrongs in My Bondage and My Freedom is to implicate readers within the structures that create antebellum subjects on and off the plantation, by revealing the coercions and conditionings of society that make not simply slaves but slaveowners, sympathizers, and abolitionists. This article claims that autobiography is a distinct genre of political theory, one that challenges present relations between the individual and the state by representing not simply its author but an expanded view of “the people.”