To illustrate his point in the speech, Douglass also uses narrative techniques similar to the ones he uses in his autobiography. Douglass tells a story of how a minister had all the black members of the congregation stand by the door while the whites received the communion. The minister implied that it was Gods order that blacks be treated in that way. In another anecdote, Douglass explains that to racist Christians the Kingdom of Heaven is “like a net,” that leaves out those with “black scales.” Douglass describes a story of a young black girl who received holy Communion. The deacon reluctantly passed the cup to the black girl, but the white woman next to her stormed out of the church. “When the cup containing the precious blood which had been shed for all, came to her, she rose in disdain, and walked out of the church. Such was the religion she had experienced!” Just as Frederick Douglass criticizes the United States for supporting slavery in a supposedly free and just society, he also criticizes Christianity for supporting slavery under the supposed rubric of love and universal brotherhood.
In Chapter 7 of his autobiography, Douglass explains how he taught himself how to read and write. The chapter also addresses the philosophical and political role that education plays. Education is one of the main reason why whites are able to subjugate blacks and continue to scourge of slavery. Douglass shows how his Mistress actually wanted to teach him how to read, but was afraid of retribution.
The prohibition of education enabled slavery to continue, and also allowed whites to accuse blacks of being ignorant and therefore inferior. Douglass echoes this argument in his speech to the Plymouth County Anti-Slavery Society in 1841. He states, “You degrade us, and then ask why we are degraded — you shut our mouths, and then ask why we dont speak — you close our colleges and seminaries against us, and then ask why we dont know more.”
Douglasss writings and speeches reveal a conscious use of rhetoric in the abolition movement. Relying primarily on personal anecdotes, Douglass uses his ethos to convince audiences that slavery is even more inhumane than they would have imagined. The stories contained in his autobiography are filled with gross detail, including rapes and bloody beatings. Even audience members who thought Douglass might be exaggerating or lying are left with the images in their heads. Douglass also uses logic and pathos to convince readers that slavery is categorically wrong. By pointing out the hypocrisies inherent in supporting slavery, Douglass can convince almost any listener. Neither on practical nor on religious grounds can slavery possibly be defended. The message seems like common sense in the 21st century, but it was not so in the 19th century.
Douglass, F. (1841). The church and prejudice. Speech delivered at the Plymouth County Anti-Slavery Society, November 4, 1841. Retrieved online: http://www.frederickdouglass.org/speeches/index.html
Douglass, F. (1845). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Retrieved online: http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Literature/Douglass/Autobiography/.