The male figure in Fredrick Douglass’ “The Heroic Slave”


Black slaves were subjected to inhumane treatment at the hands of their slave masters. White slave masters had to reduce the black African slaves to inferior species in order to justify their actions against fellow humans. In this period, masculinity was an important aspect of manhood white men. However, there was no identification of slaves as male or female slaves. All slaves were treated equally and performed similar duties in the farms. It this flawed view of slavery and masculinity that Fredrick Douglass sought to confront in his novel The Heroic Slave.

Oppression is a double edged sword to the oppressed. It reduces the oppressed in such a way that whichever choice one makes, the result is equally bad. This applies very well to slaves, especially the male slaves, in the United States. Because they were enslaved and could not do anything about it, they were assumed to inferior and therefore, unmanly. On the other hand, if they rebelled violently they would be regarded as beasts and therefore, inferior to white men. This inescapable truth was the same norm he sought to counter.

In order to save his fellow men from being further emasculated, he had to create a figure of a male hero upon the mind of the slave masters. In his novel, Madison begins by giving the Hero a physical figure of a man, a typical male figure. In describing the hero Douglass says “Madison was of a manly form. Tall, symmetrical, round, and strong” (Douglass 179). With description, Madison gives the male slave the physical distinction as a man. His description of the male slave would amaze a white reader by creating a parallel comparison of the physical traits of a male slave to those of the lion and the legendary Hercules. The depiction of a white traveler awed by the physical traits of masculinity and the higher intellectual capacity is useful in recreating the male figure.

Before giving account of what a man is Douglass begins by offering allusions to the equal measures of masculinity between Madison Washington and other heroes. According to Bushnell, Douglass establishes his intentions to recreate the slave as a man by comparing Washington to the founding fathers at the beginning of the novel (Bushnell 52). By creating this close association between the figure of Madison and other male figures, Douglass is declaring “that a black man, specifically this man, can be just as good as the best of the white men” (Bushnell 52).

Because black oppression was not carried out by fellow black people, Douglass focuses his narrative to a white audience. Critics see this as a wrong move in his writing but they fail to focus their attention of Douglass’ intentions. On the use of the white voice, Bushnell contests that Douglass uses this voice to in order to suit the needs of the white readership. This would help him achieve the objective of racial equality and acceptance (53). The narration of the white male voice recounting the masculinity of the black slave would be deemed more reliable than using a black voice.

Douglass does not dwell entirely on the physicality of men as the only representation of masculinity. This would have denied him the noble chance of introducing human character to the black slaves.  Douglass introduces the idea of a black man as family man. While explaining his present predicament to Mr. Listwell, Madison explained that “the thought of leaving my poor wide and two little children caused me indescribable anguish…I still found myself on my master’s grounds” (190). Through this explanation of how Madison lost his wife and was subsequently captured, Douglass was trying “to make Madison Washington a slave revolutionary whom whites could admire instead of fear” (Weinauer 196). This dispelled the notion that Black slaves did not love their own people. The idea that black people did not have compassion or affection for one another was a creation of the white supremacists. It was meant to make the black figure appear primitive and therefore inferior to the white race. However, with his portrayal of Madison as a compassionate human with intelligible enough to have higher capacities such as compassion was effective in recreating the male slave as an equal man.

Madison also recreates the male figure in the black through his relations with his wife. The wife is given little mention in the novel. However, in explaining why he chose to go back to Virginia and get caught, Madison brings out another twist to masculinity. Madison introduces the concept of family relations and gender roles. He explains how her wife well deserved his love for her desirable qualities: undying affection and virtuous fidelity to Madison. His role as a man in the family was to protect his family from danger and to provide for their needs. This is why Douglass writes “I could not bear the thought of leaving her in the cruel jaws of slavery without making an effort to rescue her. First I tried to get money to buy her; but oh, the process was to slow” (28). Because he could not raise enough money to buy her freedom, he had to risk his own liberty in order to protect his wife from harm. This was an important attribute of a man among the white males at the time.

Madison’s elaboration of his relations with his wife not only humanized the male figure and established masculinity. His explication of how he and his wife were tied up in a relationship where he was expected to be the source of protection, Douglass gave Madison a masculine role in the society. This was an important factor in recreating the masculinity of slaves in the society. Slaves were given equal roles and importance in the hands of their masters. Because both men and women frequently performed similar duties, it was easy to see them not as men or women but as slaves. This explication however gives the men and women different roles based on gender giving man his masculine duties. The consistent lack of mention of women in the slave liberation exploits also served the same purpose. It showed that males only were capable of carrying out such risky activities as trying to resist slavery.

Douglass also used two names that were very significant to the history of the United States. James Madison as a president helped in the construction of a new constitution. The Constitution was adopted by an assembly that was headed by George Washington. Madison Washington, the name of the hero was therefore an intentional creation by Douglass. The constitution envisioned a situation where all men would be equal and Douglass was actively seeking the emancipation of African slaves from slavery (Bushnell 62). The actions of the hero character resemble the ideals of a male figure who is courageous, reasonable, ambitious and sensitive to the needs of others. The hero in the narrative embodies all these characters which can also be attributed to the courageous founding fathers of the United States. For instance, he was not shy to fight for the freedom of the slaves who were held captive with him in the ship.

Douglass succeeded in every way in trying to recreate the male figure among the slaves. The heroic character Madison Washington exemplifies the ideal male figure that was embodied by white males. Douglass especially succeeded in restoring the masculinity of his fellow slaves by using the voice of a white male. Such a testimony would be seen as credible source that can be accepted easily. Most importantly his characterization of the male figure dispelled the myth of lack of masculinity as a result of one’s race. Regardless of race, the hero would still be regarded a hero and his exploits enviable.

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  1. Bushnell, Marissa. “Douglass’s Madison Washington: A Heroic Slave and “a Man, – Yes, A Man.” DIESIS Footnotes on Literary Identities, 1(2), 2012, 52 – 65.
  2. Fredrick, Douglass. The Heroic Slave. In Griffiths, Julia (Ed). Autographs for Freedom. John P. Jewett and Company. 1953, p. 174 – 239.
  3. Weinauer, Ellen. “Writing Revolt in the Wake of Nat Turner: Fredrick Douglass and the Construction of Black Domesticity in “the Heroic Slave.” Studies in American Fiction, 33(2), 2005, 193 – 202.
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