“Within the Circle”: Space and Surveillance in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Abstract: The detailed and chilling descriptions of physical violence in many slave narratives often overshadow the fact that slaveholders in the American South also relied on an intricate system of surveillance to control and exploit their slaves. In this essay, I argue that Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave pictures surveillance, especially its production of space, as a central tool of slavery. The resulting spatial boundaries are invested with metaphorical meaning and serve as an expression of Douglass’s emancipation. The first part of the paper considers the plantation architecture and outlines how overseers, slave patrols and panopticism create seemingly impermeable boundaries for Douglass, which are both of physical and psychological nature. I further demonstrate how the architecture of Baltimore’s city space leads to a loosening of surveillance and allows Douglass to become literate. Finally, I draw on Jurij Lotmann’s theory of aesthetic space in order to analyze how spatial boundaries are crossed and metaphorical boundaries between whiteness and blackness are rendered contingent in the Narrative.

In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,1 Frederick Douglass often appeals directly to the reader. His autobiography is an impassioned call for the abolition of slavery and was aimed mostly at free, white citizens of the American North. When he talks about his attitude toward the desperate songs of his fellow slaves, however, Douglass addresses his audience very subtly: “I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear” (27). The different interpretations of Douglass’ spatial metaphor determine who exactly is addressed, since the circle can stand for the plantation, the South, or slavery itself. More noteworthy in this regard is Douglass’s connection between a location in space and its influence on perception. He urges “those without” to put themselves into his position because his view on the world is structured by a space radically different from theirs. Throughout the Narrative, Douglass finds himself in highly hierarchical and bounded spaces whose power structures influence his movements, words, and even his gaze. There are tight regulations about who watches and who is watched, what is visible and what is invisible, which space is open and which space is closed. These binarisms are created by the surveillance of Douglass’s masters and represent an obstacle to his escape and construction of identity and subjectivity. Consequently, he expresses his struggle with slavery and his eventual emancipation through the interplay of surveillance and space.

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