Frederick Douglass and “the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny”

On July 4, I will be speaking at the annual celebration of Frederick Douglass’s oration for the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region (URHPCR) in Albany, NY. For four years, I co-directed a week-long summer camp operated by Hartgen Archeological Associates, Inc. and hosted by the URHPCR and the Albany County Historical Association. They are hosting their seventh year of the summer camp this July and I am very sad to not be a part of projects like this anymore. Anyway, I wrote about my work with URHPCR here and managed to squeeze a graduate thesis out of the work as well at the University at Albany. You can read about the great work the URHPCR does for the community and history at large here and if you are in the area, go by and see the house.

A broadside from an 1854 meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

The URHPCR owns a handful of properties on Livingston Avenue, including the former residence of Stephen and Harriet Myers, a married pair of black abolitionists and publishers who lived at the house for just a few years in the 1850s. During the late 1840s and 1850s, a cluster of African- American families occupied a half-dozen houses in a neighborhood that was increasingly becoming whiter due to immigration from Ireland and Germany. Their neighbors included people like Thomas Elkins, an African-American dentist and apothecary, and several men and women employed on the Hudson River and Erie Canal as dockworkers and riverboat crewmembers. Historical documentation concretely positions many of the residents of this little enclave in Underground Railroad activities.

In preparation for my speech/lecture/presentation, I read through Douglass’s original oration from July 4, 1852 (which is only appropriate, I suppose, considering the occasion). A few things struck me about Douglass’s speech, not least of which was his “slow burn” style, which builds into a solid condemnation of the institution of enslavement and complacency in the face of oppression. Douglass starts his speech with references to “your nation” and “your holiday,” in effect denying himself and—implicitly—other African Americans any ownership of July 4th and independence. But, then there was this passage from early in the speech:

Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history—the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.

I can imagine him putting special emphasis on the second-person pronouns, jabbing an index finger over the precipice of the lectern at the audience with every “you” and “your.”

But, did you catch that? There is an artifact buried in that passage: “the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.”

If you consider a chain as a thing—an object, an actual artifact—if you found a chain on an archaeological site, your mind might immediately go to thoughts of confinement, incarceration, and restraint. Historic sites and museums depicting and interpreting enslavement invariably have some form of chain or shackle on display as a reminder of the physical evidence of enslavement. Places of unique brutality in the American slave trade, like the Richmond slave market in Virginia, are linked in intimate ways in our national memory to chains.

For enslaved people and enslavers, chains were a physical reality, but for abolitionists, chains became a powerful symbol. Depictions of enslaved people rarely appeared in abolitionist propaganda without some visual form of confinement and the inclusion of chains and shackles clearly marked someone as a slave. The use of chains and shackles in illustrations sent an unambiguous message about the legal status of an individual without the visual awkwardness of applying an actual label to a person with the word “slave” on it.

One of many depictions of the “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” motif in abolitionist literature.

Perhaps the most famous use of this symbology was the “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” or “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister” motif, which was popularized by the Wedgwood pottery company in England after about 1787 and was reproduced, bootlegged, and outright copied onto just about every piece of abolitionist material culture imaginable. Even today, the “Am I Not…” imagery is seen on an album cover by German hip-hop acts,  t-shirts (modeled by white people, nbd), anti-abortion/pro-life propaganda, support for marriage rights opponent Kim Davis, and Mr. T-inspired artwork.  Kendrick Lamar recently used a variant of the “supplicant slave” image on album cover art for his single “King Kunta,” a thematic variation on the cover art for his album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” In order to not confuse the message conveyed by the man or woman and the chains, the original Am I Not design has just one other artifact: a loincloth.

Today, mashups and memes based on this image place other artifacts onto the design to convey new messages.  A t-shirt design by the “Libertarian-minded” apparel company Liberty Maniacs puts a revolver in the hand of the slave and replaces the banner script with “I am not a slave, motherfucker.” In another recent example, an editorial cartoon by Kirk Anderson depicts the man as prisoner held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay. The man wears not just the infamous orange jumpsuit, but also other artifacts associated with controversial “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including sensory deprivation.  Anderson created this “Am I Not…” remix to protest a speech by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as part of a distinguished lecture series on civil rights at the University of Minnesota in 2014.  Cleverly, the image was featured on a  Condy “fact sheet” handed out by protesters inside the lecture hall.  The tone and content of the text accompanying the image conveyed Rice’s more controversial civil rights achievements in a “just-the-facts” style, which highlighted the “Am I Not…” image as a powerful, nearly non-verbal condemnation.  The original “Am I Not…” image’s simplicity allows for a mix-and-match of symbology, creating new messages where only one was intended. But for abolitionists, the image was a one to one equation: whole chains equal enslavement, broken chains equal emancipation.

Am I Not a Man and a Brother
The “Am I Not…” design in Guantanamo Bay prisoner attire. From an illustration and protest literature by Kirk Anderson (2014).

But, historians today know this design as a variation on a commonly used trope known as “the supplicant slave” and are actively engaged in interrogating this symbol and its intended audience.  In the peer-reviewed journal Slavery & Abolition, Zoe Trodd wrote about four general tropes of abolitionist visual sentiment: the “scourged back,” the auction block, the Brookes slave ship, and the supplicant slave.  For Trodd, the supplicant slave consists of the most basic elements: wrists held out and bound coarsely by chains or rope.  Karen Halttunen critiqued the historical use of this suite of imagery as abolitionist pain pornography. According to Trodd, “With some exceptions, this is a visual culture that heroises the abolitionist liberator, minimises slave agency, pornifies violence and indulges in voyeurism,” all wrapped up in an image originally intended to appeal to a white audience. Trodd highlights several modern appropriations of these tropes, which tend to repeat these sins in shocking and racially tone-deaf ways today.  The imagery is often used by organizations aimed at dismantling international slavery, but regardless of the good intentions of the artist, the message is still somehow “off.”

Literature from the Abolish Human Abortion organization. Members of the group liken their pro-life campaign to that of 19th-century abolitionists.

But, back to Douglass’s oration. He takes an artifact inextricably linked in the minds of abolitionists (presumably the majority of his audience) to human confinement and closely associated with the political and personal body of the enslaved person, and subverts it. He turns this powerful symbol on its head and puts it back into the hands of the celebrants by making it into a symbol of foundation, an object mooring white America to political and social stability during what was widely seen as a fraught period (eventually culminating in the Civil War). Perhaps more dangerously, Douglass’s use of the chain metaphor could be read as an attempt to bind all white Americans to the sins of enslavement, so that whatever consequences eventually arose from the continued tolerance of this institution, white Americans would be sure to suffer as well.

Clearly, Douglass was doing something clever with at least the image of the chain, if not the actual chain itself. By this point in time, Douglass was sliding from the moral suasion side of the abolition spectrum popularly associated with William Lloyd Garrison towards an increasing call for political action to ensure immediate emancipation by whatever means necessary. The “Am I Not…” imagery was a great example of moral suasion: flood the market with powerful imagery in an effort to shame people into dropping their political support for slavery. On the other hand, the work of Stephen and Harriet Myers and their neighbors on Livingston Avenue was a great example of the kind of work that could be accomplished when a community coalesces around an issue and decides to do something about it. Think about the difference between posting something on social media with “#blacklivesmatter” versus actually physically being at a protest. But the “Am I Not…” imagery may have also been a depiction that rankled the African-American cadre of the Underground Railroad. By subverting the meaning of the chain and turning it around on his abolitionist crowd, Douglass transcended “preaching to the choir” and used material culture and iconography to level a pretty heavy warning to American society.

Big Thanks to Kirk Anderson, an artist from St. Cloud, MN, and creator of the Guantanamo “Am I Not…” remix. You can check his work out at his website as well as in the Onion, the New York Times, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Recommended reading: My nine-year-old daughter learned a bunch about Frederick Douglass at the end of the school year and became really interested in him. We got Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American out of the library and fell in love with it. Great read and fascinating study of not just Douglass, but also his complicated relationship with photography.


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