The Intersubjective Matrix of the Slavocracy: Experiencing the World of Frederick Douglass

  • Danjuma G. Gibson
Part of the Black Religion/Womanist Thought/Social Justice book series (BRWT)


This chapter characterizes the psychosocial environment of the slavocracy. Far more than a historical account of the context, this chapter intentionally seeks to draw the reader into the world of fear, horror, trauma, paranoia, and the grotesque—a world which in many ways was normative for Frederick Douglass (but foreign to his humanity). Unless the reader is able to empathically imagine the range of human emotion and experience that was normative for Douglass, the psychodynamic question of the etiology of Douglass’ selfhood cannot be adequately investigated. In order to address the primary question of “where did Douglass come from,” we must understand his location and imaginatively feel the context that he experienced. Affect or emotion, embodiment, and cognition, engaged collectively, are at the heart of any substantive qualitative investigation.

The above passage captures well the environment in which Douglass existed. Even when physically free from the material confines of his enslavement, his selfhood and agency were still enthralled in the intersubjective matrix of a slave nation. In Chap.  1, I defined the intersubjective milieu as the interpsychic space that a group of individuals or community in a specific context (be it geographic, sociopolitical, class, religion, ethnicity, race, etc.) co-create and inhabit based on individual and collective subjectivity, agency, narratives, histories, cultures, or heritages. When this collectively constructed interpersonal psychic space pushes the limits of human survival—such as slavery—I suggest the most basic psychosocial task is to experience selfhood within that intersubjective space. In order to better understand the subjectivity of Frederick Douglass, this chapter captures the terrifying intersubjective milieu of the slavocracy and the stranglehold it had on the persons and psychic space within its grip.

In contemporary psychoanalytic literature, the point of departure for human subjectivity tends to be on how an individual uses the immediate parental or caregiver environment to form an object relation, create self -objects, establish relatedness, or form interpersonal affective connections. For the most part, this literature gives scant attention to the social, political, historical, and economic contexts in which the individual is embedded and how such complex environments and culture inform subjectivity and identity formation. This is not to suggest that culture was never considered at all in the annals of classical theory or object relational literature. In the early stages of psychoanalytic formulation, Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1913/1990) used an evolutionary lens to make a connection (albeit limited) between the individual subject and the evolution of civilization. Interpersonalists such as Harry Stack Sullivan (1964) went well beyond what classical theory was willing to recognize in culture, rebuffing the notion of an isolated individual who stood apart from culture. Sullivan protests that “no great progress in this field of study can be made until it is realized that the field of observation is what people do with each other…no such thing as the durable, unique, individual personality is ever clearly justified” (p. 221). Erikson’s (1994) work on the life-cycle stages is of note as well, as he enumerates the requisite psychological tasks within each stage is using a psychosocial lens. Notwithstanding such efforts, the momentum and trajectory of psychodynamic discourse seems to have aligned itself with modernity’s quest for universality, individualism, and independence.

Seldom is the question asked about how overarching narratives or the constructed history of a group, culture, or nation is formative for the psychic structure of the individual. Psychoanalytic theory does little to address how social and political narratives prop up or undermine ego strength. For much of contemporary psychoanalytic discourse, the environment of the theorist is rarely taken into consideration when reflecting upon the respective theory. The absence of such deliberation mistakenly assumes that time and space are irrelevant to the formulation of a theory of mind and that any given theoretical formulation recognizes the humanity of all persons equally. This is not the case for people of African American descent.

In all of his autobiographies , Frederick Douglass gives witness to the extreme forms of torture and violence that were routinely inflicted upon persons of African descent during slavery and postbellum. His firsthand accounts of this emotionally, psychologically, and traumatizing environment are crucial to this project. Yet the caregiving social environment that depth psychology presupposes is available (immediately or eventually) to nurture the pre-oedipal subject reflects a critical theoretical assumption that people of African descent could not take for granted in the slavocracy. For Frederick Douglass and his contemporaries, to internalize basic trust was not a realistic psychical option. Elliott (2002) critiques Erikson’s linear psychosocial developmental theory for a similar assumption when he observes that such a presupposition postulates that “contemporary social conditions provide an all-inclusive framework for affirmative identity, an ideological vision which is at one with much contemporary multinational advertising, such as the projected world unity of ‘The United Colours of Benetton.’ Here Erikson’s positive gloss on society…becomes a way of underwriting the cultural values of late capitalism” (p. 71).

The environment into which Frederick Douglass (and other victims of the slavocracy) was born was sadistic and violent toward black bodies and black subjectivity. Immanuel Kant’s (1793/2009) coining of the term radical evil, while useful in pointing toward evil that transcends even the most extreme self-serving, malignant, or unconscionable human passions, only scratches the surface in describing the physical, religious, and psychosocial environment in which black subjectivity was embedded during the slavocracy. Martin Matustik (2008) characterizes Kant’s description of this brand of innovative evil as “gratuitous destruction and invidious violence…shaming radical evil’s logical self-contradiction…does us existentially no good…Radical moral evil lies in humans willing destruction even at the cost of their own downfall” (p. 8).

In examining the narratives of Frederick Douglass, it is reasonable to conclude that the radical evil (and its purveyors) entrenched in the slavocracy was immune to theological or political critique. Douglass (1845) challenges this hypocrisy in the appendix of his first autobiography: “we have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen…all for the glory of God and the good of souls” (p. 119). Over time, such tolerance of the genuine evil inherent in the slavocracy ossified the soul of a nation and subverted the democratic principles upon which it was founded. For both the architects of the deadly system as well as the onlookers and bystanders, the toleration of radical evil anesthetizes and eventually denigrates the internal moral compass that leads humanity to communal love and justice.

In the wake of World Wars I and II, the Shoah, and other twentieth-century atrocities, scholars have extended significant intellectual capital to examine and understand the irrational, incomprehensible nature of radical evil. It seems that twentieth-century human atrocities are the point of departure for much of this needed work. In Bernstein’s (2002) philosophical examination of the nature of radical evil, he ponders the work of several scholars including Nietzsche, Freud , Levinas, Jonas, and Arendt. For Bernstein, in the wake of inconceivable and unimaginable atrocities against humanity that have occurred in the twentieth century alone, we must rethink our conceptions of evil:

Traditional concepts are no longer adequate in helping us to understand what appears so incomprehensible. Each of these thinkers warns us that there is no reason to think that in the future we will not face new forms of evil and new questions. The truth is that we do not have to wait for the future. For we are constantly being confronted with unanticipated forms of brutal ethnic cleansing, militant religious fanaticism, terrorist attacks, and murderous varieties of nationalism. (p. 226)

Bernstein is sound on this point. The contours of innovative social evil remain prevalent in the American democracy experiment. The events of Charlottesville, VA, in August 2017 where a white woman was killed and several others injured while peacefully counter-protesting a neo-Nazi, white supremacy, and alt-right demonstration convincingly turns a common conventional wisdom on its head: the erroneous belief that the passage of time automatically (or magically) precipitates racial progress. The old adage that time heals all wounds has permitted the latent and malignant evil that resides in the western psyche to go unchallenged as if it doesn’t exist, while such evil continues to yield deadly material results.

Commendable scholarship continues to be generated in examining the nature and causes of human atrocities. In a collection of essays on group violence and trauma edited by Robben and Suarez-Orozco (2000), scholars reflect on how nation-states can be consumed with the proliferation of innovative destruction (mass rapes, ethnic cleansing, torture camps, etc.). The editors suggest that an interdisciplinary approach that engages soft sciences such as sociology, psychology, or anthropology can shed light on questions of extraordinary evil. Again, the point of departure reflects data taken from twentieth century atrocities as the authors assert “in the last decades of the twentieth century we have witnessed the resurgence of systematized torture, forced disappearances, group rapes, and ethnic massacres and ‘cleansings’ as organized practices for dealing with historical and cultural chagrins, political dissent, ideological orthodoxy, and ethnic and gender difference” (p. 6).

While such scholarship is laudable, what is conspicuously missing from these philosophical and psychological reflections on radical evil is the over 400-year-long holocaust of slavery in the western hemisphere. Of course, there are a few scholars who note this. For example, as it relates to trauma literature, Gump (2000) laments that “slavery is peculiarly absent from the trauma literature…[A] lthough attention is given to the Holocaust, Three Mile Island, the Buffalo Creek Disaster, floods, earthquakes, sexual abuse, rape, even the Depression, except for a brief mention here and there slavery is missing from the canon” (p. 625).

To understand the psychodynamic framework of his life as understood within his autobiographies , we cannot skip the psychosocial environment of the slave nation into which Frederick Douglass was born. For the psychosocial environment of slavery reflected the sociopathic, concupiscent, and sadistic craving of constituents beholden to the white power structure to mutilate, rape, torture, and destroy black bodies and black subjectivity. All such actions were carried out arbitrarily and with impunity. Contemporary historiography interpretations that delimit the slavocracy to an economic rationale are inadequate, misguided, and represent the pervasive propensity to diminish feelings of cultural guilt, anxiety, or shame-related historical culpability. They deliberately ignore the overwhelming evidence of the sociopathic brutality and genocide foundational to the slavocracy. The documented record of depraved brutality that Frederick Douglass and his contemporaries were subjected simply impeaches the economic hermeneutic—as the sole rationale—for the creation of a slave nation.

The Slavocracy

I use the terms slavocracy and slave power to describe the ubiquitous stranglehold of white slaveholding power over every aspect of society. The ideologies that willingly and often energetically sustained the slavocracy included philosophy, religion, culture, politics, social contracts, and interpersonal relationships. The historical institution of slavery was absolutely not limited to the workings of a few people or a small group of individuals in the American South. Nor was the institution of slavery incidental to the building of America. No, it was absolutely foundational to the emergence of the American democratic project.

The existence of American slavery is in no way unique to western expansionism. Despite it being among the most brutal systems of genocide and oppression in modernity, slavery has long existed throughout human history. Rehearsing this history is well beyond the scope of this project. Generally speaking, scholars of history of slavery tend to differentiate between cultures or social orders that had slaves within them and social orders whereby slavery was constitutive of its very cultural identity (Berlin 2003). According to Berlin, in the former, slave labor represented but one production resource among others. Nevertheless, brutality was still a part of the slave system. Conversely, in societies in which slavery was integral to the cultural identity, “slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations: husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee” (p. 9). So central was the enslavement of black people to western expansion, American identity formation, and its alleged manifest destiny, that Baptist (2014) makes a rather compelling argument that America’s capitalism and economic prowess owes its success—and has it foundation—in the brutal labor market of the slavocracy. While particular strands of historical accounts attribute the success of modern-day American capitalism to nineteenth- and twentieth-century financial moguls, venture capitalists, or clever inventors, according to Baptist, “the expansion of slavery in both geography and intensity was what made American capitalism[;]…the more that enslaved people were tortured, the more efficiently they produced” (p. 421). Indeed, Douglass’ own account of the slavocracy would seem to suggest that America was indeed what Berlin refers to as a slave nation. Understanding that the psychosocial context in which Douglass and his contemporaries existed was that of a slave nation is crucial to a psychoanalytic examination of his subjectivity and identity formation—as well as other psychological categories such as trauma, self -objects, and agency.

In explicating the evils of the slave power, Douglass not only exposes the evil of individuals who were advocates of slavery, but, through the prose of personification, he illuminates the ubiquitous grip that the slave power imposed on the collective unconscious and imagination of the nation. In book 2, he describes slavery as if it were a nation itself or society within a nation. In other places, Douglass (1855) spoke of slavery as if it were a person. Depicting the slavocracy as a living personality that desired to hide itself from others, Douglass described the evil institution in the state of Maryland as living in “secluded and out-of-the way places…where slavery, wrapt[ed] in its own congenial, midnight darkness, can, and does, develop all its malign and shocking characteristics: where it can be indecent without shame, cruel without shuddering, and murderous without apprehension or fear of exposure” (p. 62).

Douglass notes a social caste system within the slave power, a hierarchy made of up slaveholders, overseers, and those in bondage. Douglass further notes that the slavocracy values isolation, in that broader public opinion serves as a kind of buffer against the “cruelty and barbarity of masters, overseers, and slave-drivers, whenever and wherever it can reach them” (p. 61). Unfortunately, there were many such places of seclusion and isolation throughout the south (and even in the border states) that were ripe for the cultivation of and perpetuation of cruelty and thus slavery. Such was the place in Maryland where Douglass grew up in slavery, as he describes here:

That plantation is a little nation of its own, having its own language, its own rules, regulations and customs. The laws and institutions of the state, apparently touch it nowhere. The troubles arising here, are not settled by the civil power of the state. The overseer is generally accuser, judge, jury, advocate and executioner. The criminal is always dumb. The overseer attends to all sides of a case. There are no conflicting rights of property, for all the people are owned by one man… religion and politics are alike excluded. One class of the population is too high to be reached by the preacher, and the other class is too low to be cared for by the preacher… the politician keeps away, because the people have no votes, and the preacher keeps away, because the people have no money…In its isolation, seclusion, and self-reliant independence, Col. Lloyd’s plantation resembles what the baronial domains were, during the middle ages… there it stands, full three hundred years behind the age, in all that relates to humanity and morals.1 (p. 64)

Numerous sources describe this heinous environment in which Frederick Douglass existed, including firsthand accounts by human beings formerly in bondage as well as the testimonies of slaveholders. Among them is that of Weld (1839), a nineteenth-century abolitionist, who compiled the testimonies of dozens of witnesses who attested to the arbitrary and brutal nature of the daily life of slaves. The accounts are alike in their testimonies of rapes, murders, beatings, mutilation of flesh, and torture. Further, on many occasions, it seems as if the slave power inflicted its brutality with a sense of enjoyment or internal fulfillment or a psychotic sense of self-righteous, all evidence of a sociopathic nature. Weld’s observation is worth quoting at length:

Many masters whip until they are tired—until the back is a gore of blood—then rest upon it: after a short cessation, get up and go at it again; and after having satiated their revenge in the blood of their victims, they sometimes leave them tied, for hours together, bleeding at every wound.—Sometimes, after being whipped, they are bathed with a brine of salt and water. Now and then a master, but more frequently a mistress who has no husband, will send them to jail a few days giving orders to have them whipped, so many lashes, once or twice a day. Sometimes, after being whipped, some have been shut up in a dark place and deprived of food, in order to increase their torments: and I have heard of some who have, in such circumstances, died of their wounds and starvation. Such scenes of horror as above described are so common in Georgia that they attract no attention. (p. 20)

Black existence was so unbearable in the slavocracy, Kreiger (2008) identifies a common theme of preferring the “horror” of death over life in slavery. For many persons in bondage like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, “death wishes are expressed so often that they become the mantra of the enslaved, their echo enhancing the narrative’s already morose tone” (p. 610). The nineteenth-century literary genre of the gothic illustrates the brutality and terror experienced by black women embedded in the patriarchal structure of plantation life. Kreiger describes a scene from the biography of Harriet Jacobs where a person was punished by being encased in a cotton gin for four days. After succumbing to such horrific torture, the person was found partially eaten by rodents and vermin.

Foster (2011) highlights that not only black women but also black men were subject to the horror of rape throughout the plantation system. Rape was so common and intertwined in slavocracy that Foster argues it served as a “metaphor for enslavement” (p. 445). The sexual exploitation that slave masters and mistresses imposed upon black men ranged from sodomy, forced breeding, castration, and genital mutilation. Ultimately, Foster believes that the sexual abuse of black men by masters and mistresses is seldom recognized due to the “current and historical tendency to define rape along gendered lines, making both victims and perpetrators reluctant to discuss male rape … The sexual assault of men dangerously points out cracks in the marble base of patriarchy that asserts men as penetrators in opposition to the penetrable, whether homosexuals, children, or adult women” (p. 448).

But there is more. That whites abused the bodies of those in bondage for medical experimentation is seldom recognized. Yet in her work to expose medical experimentation on the victimized, Washington (2006) details multiple accounts of black females being subjected to various gynecological surgeries without anesthetics by the man who is venerated as the father of gynecology, Dr. James Marion Sims. Washington wrote an account of a black woman in bondage named Betsy, who is depicted in an oil painting along with Dr. Sims as fully clothed, calm, and compliant, while Sims and other physicians observe her. Washington contrasts this painting with the reality of black female victims engaged in a violent struggle, having to be restrained on a bed by other physicians, while “Sims determinedly sliced, then sutured her genitalia … The other doctors, who could, fled when they could bear the horrific scenes no longer … It then fell to the women to restrain one another” during the enforced surgery (p. 2). Washington poses the rhetorical (but sarcastic) question of whether Sims was a savior or a sadist.

Bruce (2007) highlights the prevalence of such sadism, unconstrained passion, and arbitrariness in the violence imposed on slaves and black bodies. He notes that the violence frequently inflicted by slave owners “slipped over into sadism: ingenious, gratuitous, even inflicted for pleasure … sadism was both possible and prevalent in the slave regime” (p. 39). He offers an account of a slave named Patsey who was stripped, staked to the ground, and beaten until she became unconscious, all while her mistress observed the event with “an air of heartless satisfaction” (p. 39). Similarly, in book 1, Douglass (1845) testifies to the arbitrariness of the violence imposed by slave masters in everyday situations:

A mere look, word, or motion,—a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while ploughing, break a plough,—or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped. (p. 79)

This pathological brutality of the slaveholding imaginary consumed the entire country, implicitly and explicitly, directly and indirectly. The brutality on black bodies manifested itself in other ways as well, even with how the slavocracy conducted itself on the national seen with its political counterparts. Epps (2004) describes as such the context that precipitated the crafting of the 14th amendment, arguing that the slave power was an intimidating threat that extended beyond blacks in the south to the Northern political power structure. For Epps, “the southern…civilization was from the beginning inclined toward obtaining its way in national affairs by bullying and threatening Northern politicians into bartering sectional rights for Southern votes … Northern victory ensured…a new nation purged of the constitutional influence of slavocracy” (p. 185). Epps characterizes the growing power and influence of the bullying slave power in the decade preceding the civil war. Provoking fears in the northern Republican party, Epps argues that this slave power “or the ‘slavocracy,’ was bent on using the federal machinery to take over the free states and impose a slave system on them” (p. 199).

Similarly, the slave power imposed an infinite and existential terror on black people everywhere in the Union. Its terror was not limited to enslaved victims in the south. This terror also extended to the few who were either born free or had escaped north to a free state but were in constant danger of being kidnapped or recaptured. Indeed, even after he fled captivity into the northern free states, Douglass (1881) laments that the joy of having escaped from his slaveholder’s grasp was temporary because “I was not out of the reach and power of the slaveholders … a sense of loneliness and insecurity again oppressed me most sadly” (p. 203). The mesmerizing influence of slavocracy in the north held out the real possibility that Douglass could be captured and returned to the south, where he would be sure to experience unfettered punishment and torture. Douglass describes an encounter with a fugitive slave that he knew from the south, depicting the precariousness of his situation in the following:

He told me that New York was then full of southerners returning from the watering places north; that the colored people of New York were not to be trusted; that there were hired men of my own color who would betray me for a few dollars; that there were hired men ever on the lookout for fugitives; that I must trust no man with my secret; that I must not think of going either upon the wharves, or into any colored boarding-house, for all such places were closely watched; that he was himself unable to help me; and, in fact, he seemed while speaking to me to fear lest I myself might be a spy, and a betrayer. (pp. 203–204)

When you can’t trust or be trusted even by people of your own color, when you fear for your life even when you are free, then the intrapsychic terror and horror imposed by the slavocracy is indeed complete.

The Intrapsychic Horror of the Slavocracy

In several places, Douglass offers firsthand accounts of the extreme cruelty to which those in bondage were subjected. Just several pages into his first autobiography, Douglass (1845) describes one of the first scenes of violence (and experience of terror) he ever witnessed, at the age of five or so, of his Aunt Hester being beaten by their master, Aaron Anthony, for dating Edward, a slave on another plantation (a prior experience being his forced removal from his grandmother’s care to enter the plantation system):

I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it … Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d–d b–h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for … I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over. (pp. 6–8)

Douglass’ inability to “commit to paper the feelings” he experienced some 23 years removed from the traumatic incident when he writes his first autobiography in 1845 reflects a post-traumatic stress reaction consistent with trauma literature. Judith Herman’s (1997) work in trauma seems to support this position, as elevated levels of alertness can haunt victims of trauma well beyond the actual traumatic event. As time progressed, and subsequent autobiographies became materially longer than the first, Douglass was able to articulate his feelings around this event in much greater detail.

It was not simply a matter of chance that Douglass’ subsequent writings were much longer than the first. A significant portion of each autobiography contained the same information as the previous book. However, at the time of the first writing in 1945, Douglass had not been long out of the direct trauma of slavery (approximately seven years removed) and, as such, was arguably living in a relative state of hyper-arousal and shock. He had not yet internalized a relative sense of safety and, consequently, did not have the emotional faculties to adequately remember and mourn the traumatic losses in his life—hence his statement “I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld” the beating of his Aunt Hester. At that moment, words were inadequate and could not fully capture the event in question. Such responses mesh with Herman’s articulation of trauma recovery in three main stages: the establishment of safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection with ordinary life.2

By the time he writes book 2, having experienced a greater sense of safety (which included being removed from his traumatic environment by his travels in Europe), Douglass (1855) offers far more description and interpretation of the horrific scene he witnessed, saying of his Aunt Hester, “this was a young woman who possessed that which is ever a curse to the slave-girl; namely, personal beauty” and that “slavery provides no means for the honorable continuance of the race” (pp. 85–86). By the time of book 3, when he is even further removed from the direct traumas of childhood and has had more time of safety and for remembering, Douglass (1881) seems to remember additional details of the event with Aunt Hester, noting that “the scene here described was often repeated, for Edward and Esther continued to meet, notwithstanding all efforts to prevent their meeting” (p. 38).

From a very early age then, Douglass knew nothing of the facilitating or holding environment commended by traditional psychoanalytic theory as necessary for a child’s health development, and indeed such theory does not take into account those forced to live in traumata, those who exist at the edges of meaning. For Douglass, an environment of wholesome relationships and the availability of amicable self -objects were effectively nonexistent. Instead, the psychosocial environment to which Douglass was subjected is best summed up in book 3 when he laments as follows:

One of the commonest sayings to which my ears early became accustomed, was that it was “worth but a half a cent to kill a nigger, and half a cent to bury one.” While I heard of numerous murders committed by slaveholders on the eastern shore of Maryland, I never knew a solitary instance where a slaveholder was either hung or imprisoned for having murdered a slave. The usual pretext for such crimes was that the slave had offered resistance. Should a slave, when assaulted, but raise his hand in self-defense, the white assaulting party was fully justified by southern law, and southern public opinion in shooting the slave down, and for this there was no redress. (p. 53)

Given this psychosocial space of the slavocracy, we can logically conclude that there was no place that Frederick Douglass (or any other bond-person) could avoid being subjected to terror and violence. The violence of slavocracy was inherently and pervasively traumatic, systemic, structural, and chronic. If the reader finds the description of the slavocracy unbelievable, revulsive, depressive, or horrifying, at least such reactions reflect the potential for a hermeneutic of affective attunement. This would be consistent with Gadamer’s conception of a fusion of the historical and present horizons of the historical subject and the reader of Douglass’ narratives. The feelings of frustration, repulsion, shame, or even unbelief that one experiences as one reads scenes of pervasive terror in Douglass’ or others’ firsthand accounts are necessary in order to understand the environment to which this slaveholding society subjected black selfhood. This project’s central question is how Douglass’ remarkably agential selfhood was constructed in such a hostile environment.

Context then is an inextricable consideration when considering a clinical picture of any life or human being. Moreover, a violent context that forces people to the edges of meaning is necessarily informative to psychic structure. The life of Frederick Douglass, as told through his own words, problematizes how various schools of thought in depth psychology (ego psychology, object relations, self-psychology, relational, etc.) conceptualize the human project. The common point of departure for psychoanalytic theory—a relatively safe environment that can facilitate emotional and psychological growth—reflects the uninterrogated presupposition of colonial privilege afforded to white existence and subjectivity. This nefarious prerogative locates the etiology of psychic health on the privileged assumption that an individual subject will have access to parents or caregivers, a typical expectable environment ,3 viable object relations, a facilitating environment, self -objects, relational dyads, or intersubjective dyads that facilitate the accrual of a healthy psychic structure. Within this paradigmatic framework, the etiology of neurosis or pathology tends to be situated in compromises to this privileged psychic space.

Yet, in the psychosocial environment of a slavocracy, these universal assumptions are turned on their head. In the life of Douglass, while individual instances of self -objects, object relations, or caregivers can be identified, on balance he endured trauma his entire life. Psychoanalytic literature does not take into account that an individual could be born into a universe of terror. We have already read above discrete and pervasive descriptions of this terror. In every segment of the slavocracy, black bodies and black subjectivity were objectified and rendered abject. Black bodies were subordinated to every other body in society and as such were experienced as objects to be used at the pleasure of the stakeholders and observers within the slavocracy: that is to say, there were no innocent bystanders that could not benefit from the exploitation of black bodies.

While it is conceivable to use psychoanalytic theory as a hermeneutical tool in certain instances to understand slave narratives, it cannot be done uncritically or universally. For to do so would erroneously suggest that elements of slavery may have been psychologically and spiritually redemptive to black selfhood. Said differently, if it is argued that within the slavocracy, over the long run, Frederick Douglass or his contemporaries could find structure-building objects to internalize, or that facilitating environments or viable self -objects, then this suggests that the suffering imposed by the slavocracy was in some way psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually redemptive. Western guilt, fragility, and anxiety that props up the illusion of American innocence and exceptionalism stands ready and willing to adopt such nefarious hermeneutics.

A converse way to argue this position is to note how psychoanalytic literature significantly underestimates the extent to which political, social, economic, and historical narratives prop up and sustain individual and group psychic structure. Traditional psychoanalytic theory alone seems inadequate to account for black subjectivity amid the psychosocial terror of the slavocracy and the concomitant unconscious deep structures of oppression. As currently constructed, depth theory makes little to no mention of the slavocracy, its primacy in the American democratic project, its impact on the psychic structure of the architects and benefactors of the slavocracy and souls that were in bondage, or its anthropological and psychosocial legacy in contemporary American life. The uninterrogated assumption that all persons (to varying degrees) will be accepted and embraced in a social milieu that recognizes them as subjects (and not denigrated as objects to be acted upon) reflects an unconscious colonial logic. In such a schema, the grand narratives of western expansion, socioeconomic progress, and manifest destiny cover over and trump the counter-realities of Native American genocide, the Middle Passage, and the slave industrial complex.

Furthermore, psychoanalytic theory does not mention the extent to which historical and contemporary western narratives of grandeur, power, and manifest prop up the ego structure building processes of western subjectivity. Spillers (2003) critiques the psychoanalytic field’s silence on race. She observes that “its initial subjects were, to a degree, quite comfortably installed in the environment and were even ‘at home’ in it … It seems that Freud wrote as if his man/woman were Everybody’s, were constitutive of the social order, and that coeval particularities carried little or no weight” (p. 384). Indeed, while object relations, self-psychology, and relational theorists sought to distinguish and distance themselves from Freud’s contention of drive and libidinal motivations, they remained well within his tradition by failing to account for how the psychosocial environment impacts the availability of early life-cycle psychic resources or how the social environment necessarily influences any conception of a developmental trajectory. Spillers is correct to warn that “because its theories seduce us to want to concede, to ‘give in’ to its seeming naturalness, to its apparent rightness to the way we live, we must be on guard all the more against assimilating other cultural regimes to its modes of analyses too quickly and without question, if at all” (p. 385).

In recent years, a growing number of psychoanalytic theorists, specifically ethnic minorities and people of color, have begun to recognize and publish on the impact of culture and society on the individual psyche and subjectivity. Relatively speaking, however, such recognition still remains greatly underemphasized in western depth psychological discourse, especially as it relates to black experience in America. Joy DeGruy Leary’s project Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (2005) highlights the enduring traumatic effects that the legacy of slavery has inflicted upon African American psychological and emotional health across generations. Kimberlyn Leary (2000) talks about “racial enactments” within the therapeutic encounter; she notes that no matter how its effects are denied, the underpinnings of race inevitably influence both therapist and client, suggesting “when racial enactments emerge in treatment, they offer—perhaps even more acutely that other enactments—the potential to open up an important piece of clinical understanding or to derail the exchange if they are not effectively metabolized” (p. 642). Janice Gump (2010) focuses on the nuances of the identity formation and how cultural and sociopolitical factors influence subjectivity. She argues conclusively that “African American subjectivity is marked by trauma…infusing and determining both intrafamilial and societal traumatic acts is the historical fact of slavery” (p. 48). Dorothy Holmes (1999) argues that when ignored and repressed, racial enactments or phenomena can undermine the success of the therapeutic process, especially in the countertransference of the therapist, as race is an inescapable social construction that is foundational to western society. Instead, she suggests the therapist must be intentional in addressing issues on race in their own therapy, as “therapists who achieve conscious, voluntary management of racially conflicted affects and drive derivatives are optimally suited to help patients who express their conflicts in racial terms” (p. 327).

In my own experience and observation, it is quite shocking to observe the number of seasoned analysts and therapists that oversee and direct psychoanalytic training programs and are responsible for the future of countless students but remain oblivious (and in denial) to personal, interpersonal, and institutional racism. Many will go so far as to argue that race has no place in the therapeutic encounter nor should be brought up—despite the growing literature that suggests otherwise. Ethnic minorities in training programs continue to face significant challenges, often arguing to no avail that the instantiation of race—if ignored—presents a clear and present danger for change and healing in the therapeutic space, as well as the training institution. While Holmes made this argument in 1999, her point remains compelling and relevant today.

Altman (2010) suggests the broader culture influences the individual meaning-making system, arguing that “any attempt to understand how the interpersonal world looks to a patient or how meaning is created within a dyad must account of the cultural meaning-making systems brought to the interaction by each participant” (pp. 167–168). For him, based on context or circumstance, cultural considerations may be in the background, and in other situations, in the forefront. While Altman acknowledges the role of culture and the interpersonal world, he does not take the argument far enough. In examining the narratives of Frederick Douglass, I suggest that culture is not simply juxtaposed against the individual psyche but that it encapsulates the individual psyche, thereby being either accretive or derogative to psychic structure and subjectivity.

Suchet (2007) highlights the conspicuous absence of race in the majority of depth literature and employs psychoanalytic tools to deconstruct the ideology of whiteness. Naming the backdrop of white invisibility that has pervaded psychoanalytic discourse for most of the twentieth century, she rightly observes that “the burden of writing about race has until very recently fallen on those with darker skins who have been trying to tell us for decades that a racialized subjectivity is crucial” (p. 868). She goes further than Altman and closer to the contention of this project that contemporary and historical grand narratives are additive to psychic structure building (or destructing) when she posits that “psychoanalysis has been especially neglectful of the importance of power in the structuring of psychic processes. Foucault showed that … psychoanalysis cannot be separated from the power structures in which the knowledge was created” (p. 869).

Seeley (2000) contours a detailed critique of the supposed universality of psychoanalytic theory and its inability to recognize its own cultural embeddedness, as well as the political and social structures that formulate and sustain the theories. Challenging what Pine has called the four psychologies (i.e. classical psychoanalysis, ego psychology, object relations, and self-psychology) and even the individualism-corrective that relational theory purports to solve, she calls into question depth psychology’s holy-grail concepts of transference, drives, self -objects, the unconscious, and so on. For Seeley, “both clinical theory and clinical practice embed taken-for-granted” presuppositions and narratives “which are particular to limited segments of Western societies at the turn of the twenty-first century” (p. 31). Seeley espouses a postmodern construction of theory which postulates that any theory is culturally and historically conditioned. She calls into question theory that divorces human subjectivity from the social structures in which it is contained, concluding that “despite its claims that it is scientifically objective and value-free, psychotherapeutic practice works to produce a relatively narrow set of treatment outcomes, all of which embody contemporary Western ideals of selfhood and behavior” all the while eschewing “forms of behavior, consciousness, and relationship that are highly valued by other populations, but that do not resonate positively in the West” (p. 31).

Sheppard (2011) offers up a much-needed corrective, even going beyond the critique of other black psychoanalysts. For Sheppard, there is an irreducible link between gender and race. While it remains a crucial (and conspicuously missing) element in the vast majority of psychoanalytic discourse, race alone is inadequate for deconstructing psychoanalytic theory in a way that recognizes those existing on the underside of modernity. Otherwise, for black people and other ethnic minorities who exist outside of a heteronormative framework, “we find that it is close to being nonexistent” in the psychoanalytic project (p. 101). Although Sheppard has been trained in self-psychology and is a psychoanalyst by trade, she recognizes that “black women’s experiences problematize many assumptions in self psychology because placing black women at the center of self psychology reveals that the conceptualizations of self -objects’ functions have presumed a privileged position for the developing child in the family and the broader culture … we must reckon with the impact of a mirroring that projects not only opportunities for healthy acceptance but also a distorted reflection” (p. 120). She argues that negative mirroring by cultural objects requires active intervention from the child’s caregiver. As we will see in the next chapter, a sound argument can be made that such intra-communal interventions by older black people within the plantation system shaped Frederick Douglass’ formation of subjectivity.

Pastoral theologians and pastoral psychologists have long lamented the obvious omission of broader social constructs in psychoanalytic theory and universal conceptualizations of the human project. Archie Smith (1982) is concerned about the black church’s identity and call as a liberation vehicle against personal and systematic evil and oppression against African Americans. While his immediate concern is the black church, Smith believes that the black church and the community it serves reflects a microcosm of American society and is symbolic of any victim of oppression. For Smith, the emergence of the middle and bourgeois classes within the black community has compromised the liberating mission and potency of the black church. Smith believes that social sciences, such as ethics, sociology, and psychotherapy, can be used as deconstructive tools that “engage in radical criticism of the existing structures of domination” (p. 25). Yet, Smith also recognizes that the same social science resources he seeks to use as deconstructive tools have “served to adjust the individual within the established norms and structures of society, thereby strengthening the status quo … [R] ather than serve as a source of radical criticism of society, the practice of psychoanalysis has often helped to legitimate established social practices … it has often served to dull even more the potentially critical and emancipatory, reconciling and healing task called for in the suffering of victims” (p. 26).

Based on this critique, Smith recognizes that western psychoanalysis, because of the oppressive system in which it was crafted, can be self-deluding for its theorists and practitioners and harmful to its clientele. Consequently, such social science tools cannot be engaged uncritically. As a pastoral theologian and counselor himself, Smith argues that “psychoanalysis premised on a different, but historically self-critical and liberating paradigm, will require the support of a different human subject and social order to be effective” (p. 25).

The work of Drs. Lee Butler and Carol Watkins-Ali seems to have received relatively little attention within the academy but remains critical in their call for a life-giving psychologic for black experience. Watkins-Ali’s (1999) work was groundbreaking in that she employed womanist theology in her approach to crafting a pastoral theology for African American experience. She takes to task the traditional presupposed pastoral functions of healing, sustaining, and guiding as posited by Hiltner (1958) and proposes instead a pastoral approach whose “point of departure for theological reflection [is] the experience of those who inhabit the cultural context” and that “the pastoral caregiver’s experience be regarded as secondary to the experience of the cultural context” (p. 123). Her call for a change in praxis methodology has gone largely unheeded in the field of pastoral theology. With cultural context as her point of departure, and informed by womanist theology and an African American context, Watkins-Ali adds nurturing, empowering, liberating, and an expanded understanding of reconciling to the traditional pastoral functions. But more specific to this project, Watkins-Ali rejects any form of western psychology (even if modified or contextualized by a theorist of color) as being useful for understanding the African American experience. Borrowing from the work of Kobi Kambon, Watkins-Ali posits that only a psychology informed by an Afrocentric worldview can be considered viable for African American pastoral care.

Butler (2006) has long held that psychoanalytical discourse fails to recognize the presence of oppressive structures and presumes a universality of its theories, with theorists that are oblivious to the context and culture in which their theories were crafted. Butler concludes that “using the psychodynamic personality theories to evaluate the African American community without making any theoretical modifications will result in inappropriate assessments and inaccurate conclusions” (p. 81). In Liberating Our Dignity, Saving our Souls, Butler critiques the psychodynamic theories of Freud , Jung, and Erikson , questioning their effectiveness in assessing African American experience. Rightfully being recognized as foundational to the field of psychoanalysis, all three theorists have had a profound influence on the field of pastoral theology and psychology in the latter half of the twentieth century, informing notions of anthropology, pathology, the human capacity for change, and human development.

Butler interrogates these theorists in his work. After problematizing the universality of psychodynamic development, Butler goes on to conceptualize an alternative schema of identity formation he calls the Theory of African American Communal Identity Formation (TAACIF). For Butler:

the TAACIF suggests that the African American psyche, which moves according to its roots in African spirituality, makes accommodations according to the circumstances of a given moment … the African American psyche does not respond according to the expectations of the context … it cannot be predicted by the stage descriptions … the African American psyche moves according to the psyche’s understanding of the issues and self-conception”. (p. 159)

The point made here is not to question the veracity of any arguments or conclusions Butler makes but to highlight his methodological approach in using psychological theory to explicate black experience.

Similarly, Ed Wimberly (2006) observes the sociopolitical impact on black subjectivity when he reconceptualizes pastoral counseling as inherently a political process in the black church. Consistent with the major premise of this chapter, Wimberly believes that political power is about the capacity to shape the discourse and conversations that impact how people experience themselves and form selfhood. The intent of this observation is not to smear the distinction between psychotherapy and pastoral counseling. But as a clinician in his own right, Wimberly does well to point out the inseparable connection between social and individual contexts. To this end, he concludes that “the role of pastoral counseling is to enable individuals, married couples, families, and mediating structures that bridge between the individual and the wider society to edit or re-author the negative internalized stories and identities that African Americans have embraced. The editing needs to facilitate and enable us to participate fully in society” (p. 22).

In this project, I seek to expand on the work already done by various black psychoanalytic theorist, psychotherapists, pastoral theologians, and other scholars, by situating the point of departure for studying black subjectivity in one of the most extreme and heinous periods in modern history: the American slavocracy that was fundamental to the western democratic experiment. If progressively minded scholars, theorists, and practitioners take seriously the culture of African Americans, then methodologically the task of a culturally relevant African American psychoanalytic inquiry must necessarily include history and heritage, beginning its observation in antebellum slavery, postbellum reconstruction, Jim Crow, and subsequent sociocultural periods. The proposed methodology reveals how in the most heinous environmental circumstances generations of people nonetheless preserved their human agency and subjectivity. The historicizing of African American subjectivity then is a critical—but relatively absent—component to how we understand the human enterprise.

The Slavocracy, the Patriarchal Family, and Caricatures of Humanity

The preponderance of psychoanalytic literature privileges the nuclear family as the basis of the emergent self. Classical theory’s conception of the self is predicated on how successfully the parents or caregivers assist the child in managing drive frustration and negotiating oedipal conflict. In Freud’s ([1927] 1961) conception of subjectivity, the structural model recognizes the influence of the parents in the superego. He goes so far to assert that “genetically the super-ego is the heir to the parental agency … it often keeps the ego in strict dependence and still really treats it as the parents, or the father, once treated the child, in its early years” (p. 164). In the tradition of classical discourse, the conception of selfhood in object relations locates the etiology of selfhood in the parental dyad as well and presupposes the availability of caregiving objects that are able to be internalized. Winnicott’s (1960) formulation of selfhood presupposes that nurturing caregiving objects is available for the child to depend upon and that a facilitating environment is accessible. He even goes so far to assert that “there is no such thing as an infant, meaning, of course, that whenever one finds an infant one finds maternal care, and without maternal care there would be no infant” (p. 587). Obviously Douglass and generations of other African Americans who were snatched away from their maternal caregivers by the evil dictates of slavery greatly challenge this position.

On balance, psychoanalytic theory has remained lodged in this parental dyad construct, with a view that the human project, in one way or another, is fundamentally in pursuit of other humans (whether in the form of objects, self -objects, or relational experiences). Summers (1994) succinctly characterizes object relations theory as “the view that the fundamental human motivation is for object contact” and that “all object relations theories view the formation of object relations as the primary human motivation” (p. 345). Kohutian thought conceives of parental figures as self -objects that can be idealized or provide mirroring (i.e. self-affirming functions) to the individual subject in an effort to bolster psychic structure and self-esteem. Kohut (1984) casts the human project in the form of a tension arc where the self seeks to “establish an uninterrupted tension arc from basic ambitions, via basic talents and skills, toward basic ideas. This tension arc is the dynamic essence of the complete, nondefective self; it is a conceptualization of the structure whose establishment makes possible a creative-productive, fulfilling life” (pp. 4–5).

Yet the psychical use and privilege of a nuclear family or the availability of amicable objects was foreign to Frederick Douglass and others who were the victims of a slavocracy. The reality of the slavocracy and its destruction on the black family is undisputed. Thus the reality of Frederick Douglass seriously calls into question the tradition of psychoanalytic theory’s etiology of selfhood within a parental dyad or nuclear family.

In all four books, Douglass speaks with utter contempt for how slavery destroys the experience of family among the slaves. In book 1, he speaks of his mother in more of a detached manner than he does in subsequent books. In books 2 and 3, Douglass extols his mother with a kind of compassion that reflects a deep regret for never having the opportunity to establish a familial or emotional connection with her. However, in all of his autobiographical writings, Douglass makes it clear (notwithstanding the first five years of his life that were spent with his grandmother and grandfather, Betsey and Isaac Bailey) that the slavocracy allowed for no emotional connection or relationship with a family. In the first couple of pages of book 1, Douglass (1845) introduces the precarious nature of the family victimized by slavery:

My mother was named Harriet Bailey. She was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey, both colored, and quite dark. My mother was of a darker complexion than either my grandmother or grandfather. My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. 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. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result. I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.

Douglass’ observation that the child’s affection toward the mother and that the natural affection of the mother for the child are both blunted seriously puts into question whether or not individuals are fundamentally object or relational seeking. Any notion of fatherhood was essentially nonexistent. Information about his father reflected fleeting rumors at best. Douglass could only assume that based on the dark complexion of his mother, and his lighter skin tone, that his father was indeed white as postulated by rumor. Douglass concludes the discussion of his mother in book 1 in a matter-of-fact way, suggesting that for him, even upon receiving the news of her death, he felt no more connection and therefore sadness than if she had been any other stranger that he encountered:

Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger. Called thus suddenly away, she left me without the slightest intimation of who my father was. The whisper that my master was my father, may or may not be true; and, true or false, it is of but little consequence to my purpose whilst the fact remains, in all its glaring odiousness, that slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder , in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father. (pp. 3–4)

In book 2, Douglass (1855) further develops his argument on how the slavocracy destroys the black family and dehumanizes the individual, observing that

the practice of separating children from their mothers, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system … But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute … It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution. (pp. 37–38)

In positing that the slave can be “reduced to the level with the brute,” Douglass debunks the myth that slaves are somehow a subclass of human being that are unaffected by the destruction of one’s family or are somehow endowed with special strength to endure hardships. In recognizing that the slave can be reduced to “a level with the brute,” Douglass is indirectly asserting the full humanity of himself and his contemporaries that are engulfed in the terror of the slavocracy. In another place where Douglass reflects upon the horror he experienced when being separated from his grandmother so that he could be integrated into the plantation system, he laments, “children have their sorrows as well as men and women; and it would be well to remember this in our dealings with them. SLAVE-children are children, and prove no exceptions to the general rule” (p. 39).
In the world of the slavocracy, classical theory’s developmental achievement of the oedipal resolution or even Kohut’s conception of an idealizing self -object are compromised, as both systems assume the availability of a father figure. But Douglass explicates how the system of slavery ravages the fraternal capacity within the black family system. Douglass asserts that his lack of knowledge with regard to his father is not only normative in a slavocracy but an intentional effort to ensure the viability of a hegemonic systemic social structure:

I say nothing of father, for he is shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate. Slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families. Slavery has no use for either fathers or families, and its laws do not recognize their existence in the social arrangements of the plantation. When they do exist, they are not the outgrowths of slavery, but are antagonistic to that system. The order of civilization is reversed here. The name of the child is not expected to be that of its father, and his condition does not necessarily affect that of the child…my father was a white man, or nearly white. It was sometimes whispered that my master was my father. (pp. 51–52)

In reflecting on the tradition of psychoanalytic discourse, Mitchell (1999) extols human relatedness as universal. He challenges a key argument in this project: that theory is culture specific. For Mitchell, such an argument is self-defeating, as the notion of cultural specificity makes the similar universal claim that it is arguing against. I quote Mitchell at length because he gives voice to many who view relational theory as a universal lens useful for dissecting the human project:

Why is everything culturally relative? It can only be because human beings are fundamentally, thoroughly cultural creatures. But why would culture be so important? It can only be because human beings become human beings through attachments to and internalizations of their caregivers and the particular culture they embody. Thus, the postmodern critique of relationality as universal and fundamental depends on the presumption of relationality as universal and fundamental. We are so much embedded in our relations with others that those very relations are difficult to discern clearly. We are so in the thick of relationality that it is almost impossible to fully appreciate its contours and inner workings—a bit like the eye trying to see itself. (p. 89)

Mitchell’s argument is compelling. Indeed, relational discourse is a welcome departure from the notion of the isolated mind that dominated classical theory as well as modernity’s anthropological conception of what constitutes humanness. Nevertheless, what seems to be taken for granted is the very context in which Mitchell and others are embedded: the context allows for the development of a free self or a structurally unoppressed self whereby human relatedness represents the fundamental drive of a healthy clinical picture. Mitchell’s position fails to consider the subaltern subject and the abject body that cannot experience either life, well-being, or survival as a foregone conclusion. My argument is not to suggest that relationality—or any other object need—is irrelevant to the nature of selfhood but just that it is not universally fundamental to human subjectivity as many contemporary psychoanalytic thinkers contend. A prime example of this is the countless number of bonds-persons who escaped to the north, while leaving family behind. Albeit a difficult choice to make, Frederick Douglass (and countless others) made difficult decisions (and oftentimes fateful choices) to abandon familial systems for the sake of freedom. Even in northern free states, a relational framework seems problematic in understanding Douglass’ subjectivity, as he contended that the threat of being betrayed or recaptured prohibited his basic trust of anyone, white or black, enslave or free.

I cannot overstate this point. For when a particular clinical orientation is posited as fundamental, it necessarily determines how we understand and interpret pathology, wholeness, development, and ultimately, the human project. That those forced to exist at the edges of meaning in the slavocracy challenge how twentieth-century psychoanalytic theory understands familial systems, object relations, classical theory, interpersonal theory, or even self-psychology is a challenge to which we simply must attend, a challenge we must honor. They know something that many of us do not. They have experienced something many of us have not. Another way of stating this argument is that many contemporary psychoanalytic theorists and practitioners fail to appreciate the social matrix and narratives (both historical and contemporary) that prop up their own self-structures and influence even the way they theorize. At the margins, survival is not a foregone conclusion. At the margins, life and relationships are different than at the center. When such is the case, the clinical equation must account for this critical variable if it is not to be considered shamefully and willfully uninformed about life beyond a western Eurocentric worldview.

Any effort to envision subjectivity or selfhood is precarious work. So we proceed with caution, a sense of humility, and acknowledgment of the psychosocial context in which we, as observers, are embedded. The attempted canonization of any anthropological or psychosocial project is a slippery slope that opens the door to oppression and colonization of the other.

Fanon (1952) recognized the dangers of universalizing subjectivity and selfhood within the domain of psychoanalysis. He notes that

ontology does not allow us to understand the being of the black man, since it ignores the lived experience. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man…the black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. From one day to the next, the Blacks have had to deal with two systems of reference … Their metaphysics, or less pretentiously their customs and the agencies to which they refer, were abolished because they were in contradiction with a new civilization that imposed its own. (p. 90)

When social context (like the slavocracy) threatens the very survivability of the self, or construes the black self as abject, theories that conspicuously ignore such harsh conditions cannot be universally imposed as the fundamental essence of human experience. For example, in the following passage, Douglass’ own (1855) account of his strained emotional connections to family and siblings seem to turn on its head human relatedness as the fundamental emotional task of the human project on its head:

I had never seen my brother nor my sisters before; and, though I had sometimes heard of them, and felt a curious interest in them, I really did not understand what they were to me, or I to them. We were brothers and sisters, but what of that? Why should they be attached to me, or I to them? Brothers and sisters were by blood; but slavery had made us strangers. I heard the words brother and sisters, and knew they must mean something; but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning. The experience through which I was passing, they had passed through before. They had already been initiated into the mysteries of old master’s domicile, and they seemed to look upon me with a certain degree of compassion; but my heart clave to my grandmother. Think it not strange, dear reader, that so little sympathy of feeling existed between us. The conditions of brotherly and sisterly feeling were wanting—we had never nestled and played together. My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had many children, but NO FAMILY! The domestic hearth, with its holy lessons and precious endearments, is abolished in the case of a slave-mother and her children. “Little children, love one another,” are words seldom heard in a slave cabin. (p. 48)

Despite his protestations, we do witness the fundamental nature of relatedness in Douglass’ connection with his grandmother for the first five years of his life. The love and care Douglass’ grandparents provided during the first years of his life had a profound influence on his emotional and character formation. The internal object constancy that was realized by Douglass’ unique situation (in the slavocracy) that allowed him to exist in a relatively non-traumatic environment with his grandparents proved to be a major psychical asset once he was exposed to the horror of plantation life. In his work on object constancy and psychopathology in adult years, Akhtar (1994) observes,

The attainment of object constancy assures the mother’s lasting presence in the child’s mental structure. The attainment of self constancy establishes a coherent, single self-representation with minimal fluctuations under drive pressures. Together, these achievements result in (and in a dialectical fashion, are themselves contributed to by) the disposal of aggression towards self and object by repression, rather than by splitting. Capacity for tolerating ambivalence now emerges on the psychic horizon. (p. 443)

Consistent with an object relational lens, Akhtar goes on to suggest the growing capacity for an individual to develop sophisticated object relations and tolerate ambivalence—all because of the object constancy of a caregiving object internalized in adolescent years, even in the absence of the originating object. Frederick Douglass’ reference to the importance of his grandmother in several of his autobiographies evidences her influence over his life and grants credence to an object relational lens. However, even this relationship was not unaffected by the slavocracy and cannot be compared to an environment that is conducive to fostering the kind of viable subjectivity that is envisioned by object relations or any other contemporary psychoanalytic discourse. Even with his grandmother, Douglass experienced a continuous and pervasive threat, although he was too young to fully comprehend it. Douglass (1855) relates that

children have their sorrows as well as men and women…the liability to be separated from my grandmother …haunted me…I dreaded the thought of going to live with that mysterious ‘old master,’ whose name I never heard mentioned with affection, but always fear … I look back at this as among the heaviest of my childhood’s sorrows”. (pp. 39–40)

Although he could not fully appreciate the danger, Douglass was haunted by a cloud of dread that somehow this experience of life with his grandparents was only temporary. And even while he was with his grandmother, to imagine that the early relationship with his grandmother—under the traumatizing influence of the slavocracy—can fully account for the robust subjectivity we witness in Frederick Douglass is a tenuous proposition at best.

Of course, there is the temptation to imagine that even within the slavocracy, while less than optimal, Douglass and other bond-persons may have been able to form object relations or encounter mirroring self -objects through their interactions with other enslaved persons or the free white persons within the patriarchal family structure in the south. Perhaps. Yet, to envision nourishing object relations or relational dyads in the context of extremity necessarily means minimizing, denying, or even romanticizing the reality of the everyday terrors the slave power perpetrated. It blurs and trivializes the distinction between victim and perpetrator, compromises sustained theological reflection on modernity’s project of western expansion, and problematizes pastoral ethics and a theological praxis that should compel a nation and society to mourn an unspeakable heritage of genocide and enslavement.

To conceive of life-giving psychic structures that could be cultivated within the slavocracy begets a treacherous agenda that endeavors to identify redemptive elements within slavery. Moreover, such thinking is contrary to the firsthand account of what Douglass (1855) puts forth, as he challenges the idea that anything redemptive can come from people victimized in the southern patriarchal plantation. Even when the slave owner is the father of an enslaved child, the victim’s relationship within that family is precarious at best. It is hard to conceive of healthy object relations, self -objects, relational attachments, or any other life-giving psychogenic asset being formed and cultivated. I quote Douglass at length here in order to reinforce the evil in psychologies or theologies that find the good in everything:

One might imagine, that the children of such connections, would fare better, in the hands of their masters, than other slaves. The rule is quite the other way; and a very little reflection will satisfy the reader that such is the case. A man who will enslave his own blood, may not be safely relied on for magnanimity. Men do not love those who remind them of their sins—unless they have a mind to repent—and the mulatto child’s face is a standing accusation against him who is master and father to the child. What is still worse, perhaps, such a child is a constant offense to the wife. She hates its very presence, and when a slaveholding woman hates, she wants not means to give that hate telling effect. Women—white women, I mean—are IDOLS at the south, not WIVES, for the slave women are preferred in many instances; and if these idols but nod, or lift a finger, woe to the poor victim: kicks, cuffs and stripes are sure to follow. Masters are frequently compelled to sell this class of their slaves, out of deference to the feelings of their white wives; and shocking and scandalous as it may seem for a man to sell his own blood to the traffickers in human flesh, it is often an act of humanity toward the slave-child to be thus removed from his merciless tormentors. (p. 59)

The task of this project centers on understanding how a selfhood like that of Douglass could emerge in the terror of the slavocracy. Exercises in reductionism that explain away the everyday horrors experienced on the plantation short-circuit the possibility of developing a more robust understanding of human subjectivity in the American democratic experiment.

Caricatures of Religion, Family, and Black Subjectivity

Consistent with Douglass’ testimony about the fallacy of alleged benefits in the patriarchal plantation family system, Andrews (1986) highlights the ongoing tensions between abolitionists and slave proponents regarding the would-be familial advantages of the plantation system. Not unlike present day examples where Christian symbols and rituals are employed to justify white supremacy, structural evil, and systemic oppression, in a show of brazen irony and passion, proponents of slavery put forth allegedly “biblically based” arguments for the institution of family and Abrahamic patriarchy as support for maintaining the hegemonic slave system. The collective psychic space that supported slavocracy was replete with ideological red herrings that propped up the normalcy of slavery and the alleged religious, social, and familial benefits that it brought to black existence. Conversely, many abolitionists sought to dispel the redemptive myths of slavery by using firsthand accounts of escaped slaves to expose the diabolical nature of the plantation. Andrews asserts that

Each side of the slavery issue claimed the institution of the family as its guiding ideal and the protection of the domestic well-being of black slaves as one of its chief reasons for existence…southern apologists labored to domesticate the so-called domestic institution of slavery by likening it to the idealized Victorian family, wherein one found “cheerful obedience and gratitude on the part of children (read slaves), and paternalistic wisdom, protection, and discipline on the part of the father (read master).” Masters compared themselves favorably to…patriarchal authority and claimed that they presided necessarily and benevolently over…the blood family, the slave families, and the larger family of the entire plantation community. (pp. 242–243)

In speaking of abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and others, Andrews says that these individuals “stigmatized the ‘patriarchal institution’ as a haven, indeed, a harem, of interracial libidinousness, in which the ‘absolute power’ of the unholy patriarch combined with the male’s supposedly innate ‘lust of dominion’ to produce the lurid image of the ‘Erotic South’” (p. 243). Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find nourishing objects to internalize or mirroring self -objects in such an environment. But even the abolitionist’s characterizations of the horrors of the plantation patriarchal family reflected the objectification of black bodies, as most descriptions reflected moral themes of lust or eroticism. Such descriptions of what occurred in the plantation caricature of family may have been directionally correct but were still misguided. Terms like erotic, lust, and libidinal indicate an interaction between two mutually recognized subjects, which was not the case in the slavocracy. The plantation family was a place of rape and sadism imposed upon objectified black bodies by plantation masters and mistresses. The autobiographies of Douglass affirm this representation.

The work of Hartman (1997) sheds further light on the essence of this chapter. For Hartman, the terror of the slavocracy and its impact on black selfhood is not only found in explicit acts of terror and dehumanization (such as beatings, torture, and mutilation) but in the parodies of subjectivity and enjoyment imposed by the slave power upon the black subject. Such examples include enactments of the blackface mask in the minstrel, scenes of “black happiness” at the auction blocks, or even circumscribed events of lasciviousness (such as rape being recast as black lust or seduction) or festivities that were contrived by the slave power. In such instances, slaves were compelled to mimic joy and contentment with their situation and their slave masters. Hartman contends that “the barbarism of slavery did not express itself singularly in the constitution of the slave as object but also in the forms of subjectivity and circumscribed humanity imputed to the enslaved” (p. 6). Consistent with the inner workings of the slavocracy, Hartman’s project rests upon the overlooked fact that “in civil society—the submission of the slave to all whites” (p. 24) was the normalized way of life.

This is the danger of uncritically applying psychoanalytic discourse as an interpretive lens to the life of Frederick Douglass or any other slave narrative : it does further violence to the narrative and identity of a people already burdened with cultural trauma. It risks romanticizing the horror and trauma of the slavocracy just to fit neatly with a psychodynamic framework (or religious framework, for that matter). To apply insight theory uncritically risks misconstruing contrived images of subjectivity (that have been imputed by the slave power) as authentic black selfhood. Because by law, social contract, and ideology black subjugation was virtually total, Hartman rightly surmises that, “the laws of slavery subjected the enslaved to the absolute control and authority of any and every member of the dominant race. At the very least, the relations of chattel slavery enhanced whiteness by racializing rights and entitlements, designating inferior and superior races, and granting whites domination over blacks” (p. 24). But the totality of domination runs deeper into the recesses of personhood to how the victimized on the plantation engaged in leisure activities, as such activities were used as an indirect method of emotional control. Hartman observes “the contours of antebellum enjoyment reveal less about ‘the nature of the Negro’ than the terms of interracial interaction that engendered the understanding and imputation of black excess” (p. 24).

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Douglass’ (1855) testimony and interpretation of why plantation owners permitted bond-persons to celebrate Christmas. According to Douglass, the only time enslaved persons on the plantation were allowed off during the year was the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The celebration that was demanded by the masters was imposed upon the slaves and carried an “expectation” of appreciation and ingratiation. Understood through a Freudian lens, it is almost as if the celebrations served as a kind of perverse fetish for the slave power: the celebrations were a symbol and practice that served to absolve guilt, making the plantation owners think that they were something (i.e. good-willed, noble, altruistic, etc.) they were not. Speaking of the victimized participating in such celebrations, Douglass observes,

The majority spent the holidays in sports, ball playing, wrestling, boxing, running foot races, dancing, and drinking whisky; and this latter mode of spending the time was generally most agreeable to their masters. A slave who would work during the holidays, was thought, by his master, underserving of holidays. Such an one had rejected the favor of his master. There was, in this simple act of continued work, an accusation against slaves; and a slave could not help thinking, that if he made three dollars during the holidays, he might make three hundred during the year. Not to be drunk during the holidays, was disgraceful; and he was esteemed a lazy and improvident man, who could not afford to drink whisky during Christmas. (p. 252)

Indeed, the requirement of bond-persons to satisfy the colonial imagination and of the slave power was complete.
As Douglass saw it, the slave masters used such celebrations strategically to get bond-persons to take their minds of the true state of their infirmity. The holiday celebrations were meant to change the subject, such that the enslaved might not think of insurrection and escape, and to make them more cooperative and content with the idea of bondage. Similar to illusions of a benevolent patriarchal family, slave masters preferred for bond-persons to be drunk or preoccupied with “celebration” during this short week of the year. Taken uncritically, one could become affectively enthralled in scenes of mimicry that caricature images of black selfhood shrouded in celebration that is supposedly attributable to slave-power benevolence. It would be mistaken to believe that in such environments sustainable and suitable relations or self -objects were available for psychic structure building. We would be left with the belief (often portrayed in Hollywood projects) that plantation life couldn’t have been too awful. Douglass warns of the ulterior motives that underwrite such illusions of humanity. Again, I quote Douglass at length here because he offers profound insight into the sadistic psychic space of the slavocracy in which he and his contemporaries were forced to exist:

The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder , knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed: many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field,—feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery. I have said that this mode of treatment is a part of the whole system of fraud and inhumanity of slavery. It is so. The mode here adopted to disgust the slave with freedom, by allowing him to see only the abuse of it, is carried out in other things. (pp. 75–76)

This description of the motivations of the slave power calls into question that the universalization of any contemporary psychodynamic theory can exclusively account for what we observe in the agency and subjectivity of Frederick Douglass. The sadism inherent in the slavocracy compels us to search deeper in a robust account of a clinical picture of one of the most prolific thinkers of the nineteenth century. Hartman (1997) is thus correct in noting that “the barbarism of slavery did not express itself singularly in the constitution of the slave as object but also in the form of subjectivity and circumscribed humanity imputed to the enslaved” (p. 6).

Even today, concocted illusions of the antebellum southern plantation system in history books, Hollywood, and the media tend to trivialize at best, or romanticize at worst, the psychosocial space of the slavocracy, all in an effort to alleviate American guilt and shame about the systemic and unspeakable atrocities of slavery that effectively underwrote and enabled the country’s democratic experiment. There seems to be no institution or western discourse (including church and theology) that in one way or another does not minimize the extent to which the legacy of slavery has (and continues to) overrun the American psyche. For example, in 2012, while significant attention and conversation was given to the film Django (a spaghetti western which depicted a slave attempting to rescue his wife from a southern plantation owner), far less attention and conversation was given to the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer, a story about Abraham Lincoln partnering with enslaved persons and others to kill vampires that had taken over the south. Viewing the film from an affective perspective, one could almost come away feeling that the southern plantation system wasn’t that bad and that the horror of slavery was a black problem that is historically compartmentalized to African American culture, as opposed to it being intertwined with (and in many respects, the essence of) American history. Contemporary scholarly and literary discourse continues to undermine the historicity of American complicity in slavery and genocide, and to run roughshod through black phenomenology and subjectivity over the last four centuries.

Noted scholar and historian James Oliver Horton (1999) observes the difficulty of articulating and integrating the reality of slavery in American history. He asserts that most northern public schools teach very little on the subject matter, and that southern public schools are even worse. Many Americans choose to understand slavery as a southern problem that surfaced just prior to the Civil War. Horton laments about how many people have accepted the pro-slavery argument of a “benevolent system, well suited to the limitations of black people.” He quotes a nineteenth-century historian as rationalizing slavery on the basis that “blacks were ‘indolent, playful, sensual, imitative, subservient, good-natured, versatile, unsteady in the purpose, devoted, and affectionate’” (p. 22). And indeed, from a psychosocial perspective, these are character stereotypes that are still at work today. Hartman (1997) is right to conclude that the “fixation on the slave’s ‘good times’ conceals the affiliations of white enjoyment and black subjection and the affective dimensions of mastery and servitude….the seemingly casual observations about black fun and frolic obscure this wanton usage and the incorporation of the captive body in realizing the extensive and sentient capacities of the master subject” (p. 25). In book 3, Douglass (1881) echoes this when he laments,

The remark in the olden time was not unfrequently made, that slaves were the most contented and happy laborers in the world, and their dancing and singing were referred to in proof of this alleged fact; but it was a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sometimes made those joyful noises. The songs of the slaves represented their sorrows, rather than their joys. Like tears, they were a relief to aching hearts. It is not inconsistent with the constitution of the human mind, that avails itself of one and the same method for expressing opposite emotions. Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy, and peace. It was the boast of slaveholders that their slaves enjoyed more of the physical comforts of life than the peasantry of any country in the world. My experience contradicts this. (pp. 44–45)

The matrix of the slavocracy was thorough in overwhelming and captivating the hearts and the imagination of its citizenry; both black and white, slave and free, victim, perpetrator, or bystander. Politically, legally, socially, and ideologically, black bodies and subjectivities were rendered subhuman, objects to be used at the pleasure not only of slave masters but of any white persons. Efforts to compartmentalize slavery to some small facet of western history or to confine its motivations to economic rationales reflect efforts to repress group and collective guilt and shame and to reorchestrate grand narratives that prop up the psychic space of the majority.

Patterson’s (1982) seminal work on the dynamics of slave societies describes well the slavocracy in which Douglass and his contemporaries were embedded: a web of human power relations at all levels that emphasize domination and powerlessness. Patterson understands three essential elements that govern the power relations that underwrite the slavocracy: (1) physical violence to assert control over the subordinate subject, (2) psychological persuasion that convinces victim slavery is in their best interest, and (3) a cultural ethos that transforms the hideousness of slavery into narratives of obedience and obligation. It was in this horrific matrix that black selfhood was objectified and subjectivity was defined.

This is the environment in which this project examines the subjectivity of Frederick Douglass. It cannot be smoothed over for the sake of universalizing and uncritically imposing twentieth-century depth psychology on human subjectivity across space, culture, and time. In the American democratic experiment, canonizing the formation of agency and human subjectivity presupposes that survival is a foregone conclusion. For Douglass and his contemporaries, any psychic space that allowed them to endure the day was an achievement in and of itself. Conceptions of the fundamental motivation of selfhood are necessarily dependent on the cultural and sociopolitical environment in which the individual is embedded. And this was Douglass’ environment.

Slavery and the Corruption of the Bystander

Studies of genocide, or cultural and group trauma such as slavery in the United States, rightfully focus on the deleterious effects these human atrocities had on their victims, future generations of the victims, and the prospective legacy of structural and systemic oppression that is the offspring of gross crimes against humanity. Post-Holocaust scholarship—especially within the psychoanalytic community—has produced exceptional work in this regard. Fewer studies, however, focus on the effects that human atrocities have on the surrounding onlooking community—the bystander(s). Again, I argue that for the most part this gap in scholarship regarding the effects that human atrocities have had on the surrounding community is ok. Otherwise, we run the risk of facilitating an erroneous equivalency (which some actors try to create in order to absolve group guilt). To state it succinctly: there is unequivocally no comparison to speak of in terms of suffering and adversity in how the legacy of human atrocities—whether speaking of slavery or any other heinous crime—negatively impacts the posterity of those who have been brutalized and victimized.

That being said, there are other considerations in terms of the more latent psychosocial and spiritual effects that the slavocracy had on the larger community—the bystanders. Such considerations include group-level maladaptive behavioral and personality disorders that position the broader society to function as enablers who collude in some way to underwrite present and future human atrocities. In the slavocracy, there was no such place as a demilitarized zone. One was either a victim, a perpetrator, an intentionally disquieted beneficiary (i.e. abolitionist or other anti-slavery advocate), or a bystander, defined in this project as an intentionally or unintentionally quieted individual or community who through (conscious or unconscious) privilege can exercise their sociopolitical right and psychosocial capacity to ignore radical evil and oppression—and exist amidst evil and oppression—as if evil and oppression does not materially exist.

Bearing witness to the ubiquitous and arbitrary nature of the extreme violence inflicted upon slaves, Douglass tells of events that demonstrate that the slaveholding community was not unaffected by the violence that occurred. In addition to the actual owners of bond-persons and the direct perpetrators of atrocities against black bodies, there were enablers and bystanders in the slavocracy, both in the church and in the greater community, that helped to maintain the slave culture. In examining Douglass’ firsthand testimony, it seems that the slavocracy, similar to how a psychologist described the surrounding German community in the Shoah, displayed a collective split or dissociated psyche, where part of the person (or group) yielded to a position of inflicting terror on black bodies, while another part of the same person (or group) recognized the wrong that was being done. In book 1, Douglass (1845) describes how in Baltimore two girls in bondage, Henrietta and Mary, were regularly beaten so severely by their mistress, Mrs. Hamilton, that “the head, neck, and shoulders of Mary were literally cut to pieces” (p. 35). Douglass describes Mary’s head as being covered with sores because of the punishment inflicted by Mrs. Hamilton, while the mistress spewed out epithets such as “take that, you black gip” or “move faster, you black gip” (p. 35). In book 2, Douglass’ (1855) description of public opinion on Mrs. Hamilton and her treatment of her slaves reflects a kind of collective vertical split, where on the one hand the community disapproves of the abuse and torture, but on the other hand, the community believes it is more important not to interfere with the actions of the slaveholder and her slaves.

It is some relief to this picture of slavery in Baltimore, to say—what is but the simple truth—that Mrs. Hamilton’s treatment of her slaves was generally condemned, as disgraceful and shocking; but while I say this, it must also be remembered, that the very parties who censured the cruelty of Mrs. Hamilton, would have condemned and promptly punished any attempt to interfere with Mrs. Hamilton’s right to cut and slash her slaves to pieces. There must be no force between the slave and the slaveholder , to restrain the power of the one, and protect the weakness of the other; and the cruelty of Mrs. Hamilton is as justly chargeable to the upholders of the slave system, as drunkenness is chargeable on those who, by precept and example, or by indifference, uphold the drinking system. (p. 150)

Douglass’ account of how the community viewed Mrs. Hamilton’s actions is indicative of a collective unconscious splitting of the ego, where two diametrically opposed ideas that are held within the group psyche are not denied but are split apart and disavowed, prevented from being fused together or put in dialogue with each other. To put such competing ideas in conversation with each other (full awareness of torturing a human being vs. maintaining the system of slavocracy) would be intolerable to the individual or collective psychic space of the community—a community in and through which the idea of American freedom and democracy propped up individual and collective experiences of identity. To be sure, knowledge of the heinous acts of the individual slaveholder and the community is fully available to them, but as Douglass describes it, such awareness is disavowed for the sake of self and communal preservation.

Kohut’s (1971) conception of a vertical split is useful here to demonstrate how incompatible perspectives or psychological positions can coexist within the same psychic structure. For Kohut , “the ideational and emotional manifestations of a vertical split in the psyche—in contrast to such horizontal splits as those brought about on a deeper level by repression and on a higher level by negation —are correlated to the side-by-side, conscious existence of otherwise incompatible psychological attitudes in depth” (p. 177). To be sure, the slaveholding power knew the heinous nature of what it enacted, but at the same time, it didn’t want to know.

In book 3, Douglass (1881) provides another account of an enslaved girl who was killed by her mistress. The vicious murder was precipitated by the mistress’s own crying baby: she felt the enslaved girl did not respond quickly enough to the child during the night. Douglass indicated that the girl was beaten to death by her mistress with a piece of fire wood. The scene he describes reinforces the arbitrariness of the terror that was imposed on black bodies:

This wicked woman, in the paroxysm of her wrath, not content at killing her victim, literally mangled her face, and broke her breast-bone. Wild and infuriated as she was, she took the precaution to cause the burial of the girl; but, the facts of the case getting abroad, the remains were disinterred, and a coroner’s jury assembled, who, after due deliberation, decided that “the girl had come to her death from severe beating.” The offense for which this girl was thus hurried out of the world was this, she had been set that night, and several preceding nights, to mind Mrs. Hicks’ baby, and having fallen into a sound sleep the crying of the baby did not wake her, as it did its mother. The tardiness of the girl excited Mrs. Hicks, who, after calling her several times, seized a piece of fire-wood from the fire-place, and pounded in her skull and breast-bone till death ensued. I will not say that this murder most foul produced no sensation. It did produce a sensation. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Mrs. Hicks, but incredible to tell, for some reason or other, that warrant was never served, and she not only escaped… punishment, but the pain and mortification as well of being arraigned before a court of justice.4

The bold portions of the above passage again show evidence of this collective split; on the one hand, there was enough awareness to have the body of the slave girl exhumed for examination as well as to have an arrest warrant issued for the mistress, but on the other hand, the warrant is never executed. Whether it was the torture of Mary and Henrietta by Mrs. Hamilton, or the murder of a little girl by Mrs. Hicks, both acts represent the acts of sociopaths and the most extreme forms of archaic grandiosity and exhibitionism (the destruction of another human life). Kohut (1972) alludes to the destructive behaviors and actions that can be enacted by the individual with a vertical split, suggesting that “defensive and archaic forms of exhibitionism and grandiosity are split off from the ‘reality ego’ and as such are no longer subject to modification by “later external influences” or by a “corrective emotional experience” (p. 372). I suggest that this collective unconscious split was necessary to preserve the individual and collective identity of the slave power.

The group and psychosocial behavior of bystanders as described by Douglass is consistent with observed behavior of citizens of Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. In his examination of the rise of genocide in the twentieth century, Kressel (1996) employs the concept of cognitive dissonance to explain how German citizens became enablers and bystanders to the atrocities carried out in concentration and death camps. For Kressel, cognitive dissonance reflects that anxiety or tension that arises in an individual or group when one’s internal belief system conflicts with one’s external behaviors. The goal for the individual or group then is to reduce the tension. Kressel argues that, unfortunately, it is easier for individuals or groups to adjust or change their attitudes or belief systems than it is to change behaviors that have gained traction and momentum. When cognitive dissonance is present, reducing the tension becomes the unequivocal goal of the neurotic group. Kressel concludes that,

to reduce this dissonance, they developed consistent Nazi attitudes…by performing Nazi behaviors publicly, they became committed to the behaviors…watching others model the behaviors contributed to the pressure to conform…if people whom you respected were behaving like Nazis, then perhaps such behaviors were not immoral after all. (p. 153)

Kressel’s conclusion aligns well with Douglass’ firsthand account of the surrounding community within the slavocracy.

Identifying the role of the bystander in the slavocracy is crucial in order to rebuff the tendency to assign the culpability of slavery to the actual owners of slaves. The slavocracy was mature, ubiquitous, and entrenched in every aspect of society. Slavery was a community effort; it was maintained by the community. In Douglass’ account, those who didn’t own slaves but were bystanders and turned a blind eye to the violence perpetrated against black bodies were nonetheless partakers in a depraved society. Douglass’ observations of the community at large in the American south and its propensity to ignore brazen violence toward a particular group of human beings is strikingly similar to Barnett’s (1999) examination of the psychosocial behavior of bystanders during the Holocaust. She examines the role of religion, institutions, groups, the social role of totalitarianism, and attitudes of indifference, among other factors, that contributed to the advancement of Nazi objectives. Similar to Douglass’ position, Barnett contends that “the genocide of the European Jews would have been impossible without the active participation of bystanders to carry it out and the failure of numerous parties to intervene to stop it…The Holocaust did not occur in a vacuum…There was a general failure” (p. 11).

Reflecting on the terror of the environment in which Frederick Douglass and his contemporaries were forced to exist is a condition precedent to understanding his genius to survive, live, and create, such that he was arguably one of the most prolific thinkers of the nineteenth century. Moreover, it further emphasizes the crucial role that the proposed interior force of being plays in the lives of the subaltern at the margin.


  1. 1.

    My emphasis.

  2. 2.

    Judith Herman’s last stage, reconnecting with ordinary life, is problematic in the context of understanding the selfhood of Douglass or for that matter, any other enslaved person. For Douglass, the definition of trauma must extend beyond a violation from normal life, as African Americans were born into a life of extremity. They lived and died in a world of violence. This violence perpetrated by the slavocracy was not the exception, but the rule. It begs the question then of how to expand our understanding of trauma beyond a baseline of normativity.

  3. 3.

    Term used by Heinz Hartmann (1939). Psycho-Analysis and the Concept of Health. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 20: 308–321.

  4. 4.

    My emphasis.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Danjuma G. Gibson
    • 1
  1. 1.Calvin Theological SeminaryGrand RapidsUSA

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