Volume V, Number 1, Spring 2009

"God is an Activist: Religion in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Nina Bosnicova

Nina Bosnicova has a PhD degree in English and American Literature from Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Her academic interests include African American literature and culture, multiculturalism and gender. Currently, she works as a project manager for the Prague-based NGO Gender Studies, o.p.s. E-mail:

This paper takes as its field of exploration two African American life stories – Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) and Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964). At first sight, the two men that I wish to discuss appear to be quite distant from each other. Although both were important race leaders, they lived and produced their autobiographies in two different socio-historical contexts. Douglass’s existence is linked with the times when the institution of slavery and the Abolitionist crusade against it represented a dominant reality in American society. Malcolm X’s leadership, on the other hand, falls into the turbulent period of the 1960s when African Americans were fighting to attain long-denied civil rights. While Douglass believed in and hoped for the post-bellum integration of the white and black segments of the American population,1 Malcolm X described integration as undesirable and, as a Black Nationalist, advocated cultural and economic separatism.

And yet, despite all their differences, the two men’s lives and autobiographies reveal a number of similarities. Although adopting ideologically divergent means, both Douglass and Malcolm X were ultimately fighting for the same goal. This was the destruction of white America’s rampant racial discrimination and the improvement of life for African Americans in the US. I attempt to track the parallels between the two men and their life stories by discussing their approach to and their interpretation of religious faith. This paper should illuminate the question of how (if in any way) black leadership and its attitude toward religion developed from the nineteenth century to the second half of the twentieth. As the analysis below will show, religion functions on several parallel levels in both Douglass’s and Malcolm X’s autobiographies: it is a form of social and political criticism and activism, an integral part of the books’ structural and generic layout, and finally, an important element of the works’ imagery and symbolism. What might strike the reader most in relation to this list is that it does not include religious belief as the realm of the narrators’ inner lives. Spirituality per se is not, so it seems, what is most at stake in the two life stories under exploration. Rather, as race leaders and public men, the authors employ religion as an effective means of addressing their readers and offering them a political program for black liberation. This is not to deny either Douglass or Malcolm X their own belief in God or the importance of spirituality in their lives. Rather, it is to show that the authors’ conjuring up of their autobiographies as documents of their leadership within the respective sociopolitical movements of Abolitionism and Black Nationalism (and not merely as works of literature), has left its imprint on the way their stories treat religion.

Douglass’s voice in Narrative reaches its most critical dimension in those passages in which the author discusses white Americans’ practice of Christian religion in the ante-bellum South. Douglass’s thinking seems to be characterized by the dichotomy of fake/true Christianity, the latter of which is clearly not present in the behavior of the slave-owners and other whites involved in slavery. From Douglass’s perspective, there is a huge disparity between Christianity as “an ideal system of beliefs and behavior, and as general practice” in the slaveholding South (Orban 656). Douglass observes: “The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. … He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity” (Narrative 74). Clearly, the religion of the South is permeated with hypocrisy, which Douglass attacks through his repeated use of irony.

One might ask why Douglas, after witnessing how easily Christianity can be abused and employed to maintain slavery, does not dismiss it altogether as a religious system that blocks black Americans’ freedom in the US. Why does he make sure, after the scorching criticism of Christianity throughout his narrative, to appease his readers by writing the following?:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper (Narrative 75).

To understand Douglass’s motivations, one must read his work in the context of his own time and profession. Narrative was published at the height of Abolitionism in the US and as an extension of Douglass’s own work as an Abolitionist lecturer. In order to be listened to and accepted by whites, the persona Douglass is impelled to create is that of a respectable American citizen. In the context of nineteenth-century America, Christian piety forms a significant element of civic respectability and is thus a necessary part of Douglass’s rhetoric in Narrative.

Douglass’s approach to Christianity is more pragmatic than spiritual throughout the book. Rather than passively waiting for God to deliver him from bondage, Douglass decides to work for his freedom and ensure it through his own agency. The religious philosophy that seems to stand behind Douglass’s thinking is that God will, first and foremost, help those who help themselves. Later in his life, Douglass often claimed that he had “prayed with his feet” and that it was only through the acts of conscious men and women that he “could get a glimpse of God anywhere” (Stephen 91). On the basis of such pronouncements, Douglass was accused by some of his contemporaries of infidelity. Rather than perceiving him as an atheist, I propose that Douglass’s attitude be viewed as representative of black theology (Gibson, “Faith” 92). Although deeply concerned with the spiritual life of African Americans, black theology accords itself another important role – that of a practical agent struggling (via the Black Church) for the improvement of the life of the African American community. In the black Christian tradition, as Peter J. Paris puts it, “the thought and practice of religion, politics and morality are integrally related … the one always implies the other” (12).2

This linkage of religion to sociopolitical activism can clearly be seen in Narrative. Douglass’s leadership of the Sabbath school on his master’s plantation has at least as much to do with the spiritual mentoring of other slaves as it does with his teaching them to read and write so that they may one day be able to write their passes and escape slavery. Douglass’s Abolitionist lecturing mentioned above, it can be argued, is the ultimate and most important outlet for his religious belief. Arguing for the incompatibility of slavery with Christian values, Douglass “saves” souls through his fierce public denouncement of the sin of slavery and his request for its immediate abolition. Dolan Hubbard correctly concludes that for Douglass “the Nation was his pulpit” (30).

As a black theologian, Douglass consciously fashions his Narrative to fit the general genre of the black sermon, or its more particular subtype – the jeremiad.3 Robert G. O’Meally sees Douglass’s use of “alliteration, repetition, parallelism” in the text of Narrative as characteristic of the black sermon (198). If we accept the definition of the jeremiad as a kind of political sermon that serves mainly to rebuke the status quo in a society, then Douglass’s work fits even better into this second and more concrete category. According to William L. Andrews, “Douglass employs the rhetoric of the jeremiad to distinguish between true and false Americanism and Christianity” (158).4 The following passage from Narrative demonstrates the textual qualities of orality that O’Meally brings up as well as the critical nature of the jeremiad that Andrews emphasizes:

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! The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of the pious master (Narrative 76).

The anger and passion of Douglass’s sermonic voice in this passage come through most clearly through his employment of highly dramatic language and exclamatory sentences.

In addition to the black sermon, Narrative has been described by some scholars as a conversion narrative. This might come as a bit of surprise, taking into account that the work does not quite fit the traditional conversion narrative pattern. The narrator does not lead a sinful life for which he would have to repent after he has been visited by the Lord and decided to lead a godly existence. And yet, as numerous scholars have pointed out, a conversion of sorts plays a central role in Narrative and is crucial for one’s understanding of the interconnection between religion and activism that takes place in the book.5 The conversion Douglass experiences in Narrative is embodied in the scene of his fight with Covey.6 Although depicted in heavily loaded Christian rhetoric,7 the conversion seems to be of a psychological, rather than a religious, kind. What Douglass calls “a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom” proves to be his sudden realization of the true nature of his enslavement (Narrative 50). What is born through the conversion is not an extremely pious individual, but rather a highly conscious political subject prepared to fight for his own rights and later, for the rights of his community as a whole. Realizing that slavery is both a mental and a physical state, Douglass decides that “the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact” (Narrative 50).

Narrative abounds with religious imagery and symbolism. James H. Evans, Jr., for instance, has pointed out that Douglass’s description of Colonel Lloyd’s garden corresponds to the Garden of Eden in the Christian imagination. Douglass takes up the Christian image of the Edenic garden and, in his activist vein, uses it to discuss the issue of slave morality. As Douglass remembers, the garden’s fruit “was quite a temptation to the hungry swarms of boys, as well as the older slaves…, few of whom had the virtue or the vice to resist it” (Narrative 20). The fact that Douglass chooses the expression “the virtue or the vice” (italics mine) implies that those categories have a radically different meaning when applied to the institution of slavery.8 It is the master’s determination to keep the slaves hungry in the midst of abundance, Douglass suggests, that is to be viewed as sinful and not the slaves’ helping themselves to their master’s fruit. The master’s use of tar to mark slaves who have taken the fruit can be read as his need to create “an outward sign of guilt”, where “the spiritual inner conviction of sin” is actually lacking (Evans 32). It is not a coincidence that tar is used as a means of marking the slaves’ guilt – in Christian symbology, its black color connotes sin and moral degradation. Douglass himself is not totally free of this Christian color symbolism. The ships he observes in the Chesapeake Bay are compared to “swift-winged angels” and are described as “robed in purest white” (Narrative 46; italics mine). While associating freedom with whiteness, Douglass talks about the slaves’ bondage as the “dark night of slavery” (Narrative 45; italics mine).

Evans sees the “reemergence of the [Edenic] Garden” in Narrative in the scene of Douglass’s fight with Covey mentioned before (40). As he writes: “In this field cum Garden of Eden, Covey manifests all the characteristics of Satan,” including the fact that the slaves name him “the snake” (40). Donald B. Gibson, on the other hand, proposes that Douglass’s fight with Covey be read as resembling the biblical story of Jacob’s “long struggle with … the angel of God” (“Christianity” 594-95). Houston A. Baker, Jr., in addition, calls Douglass “a kind of New World Daniel” (Journey 37) because after his escape to the North, Douglass writes he felt “like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions” (Narrative 69). Last but not least, Douglass’s text is rich in direct allusions to the Bible.9 The Christian story patterns and Christian language that are present in Narrative enable Douglass to effectively address his readers, who were well read in the Bible, and establish close contact with them. Once again in Narrative, religion is employed for a very pragmatic reason – to create the most convincing and the most engaging narrative possible with the aim of impelling its audience to join the antislavery camp.

Not ideologically forced, like Douglass, to be embraced by white readers, Malcolm X rejects Christianity as the “white man’s religion” and adopts Islam, “advertising” it as “a special religion for the black man” (The Autobiography 320). From Malcolm X’s perspective, Christianity has been strategically employed by whites to brainwash African Americans, fill them with self-hate (by making them worship “a blond, blue-eyed God” (The Autobiography 319)) and rob them of much-needed political agency. As he puts it, “Christianity had made black men fuzzy, nebulous, confused in their thinking” (The Autobiography 424). It is intriguing that Malcolm X, as pragmatic and down-to-earth as he proves to be throughout his story, does not wholly rid his thinking of a religious outlook. Many activists from the Civil Rights era (like Angela Davis, for instance) discarded religion and turned to Communism as a viable solution to the oppression of African Americans in the United States. Perhaps conscious of the importance attached to religion by African Americans since slavery times, Malcolm X deems it more productive to offer a spiritual alternative to his fellow blacks than to ask them to wholly turn their backs on God.

Moreover, Malcolm X’s approach to Islam enables him to use Islamic philosophy as a convincing way to criticize white society and to offer black Americans recommendations for their own social and political progress.10 Malcolm X does not seem to dwell much on the spiritual part of his experience as a Black Muslim. His goal as the Nation’s minister is to “save” black souls by instructing them, above all, in how to resist white exploitation. In fact, Malcolm X’s urge to be more active in political and social terms than most other members of the Nation of Islam ultimately leads to his rift with the organization. Although a number of Malcolm X’s opinions on race relations change after his trip to Mecca and his second conversion, his conviction about the need to be politically active on behalf of the African American community remains the same, and some would say, leads to his murder.

Malcolm X’s first conversion is presented (like Douglass’s) as first and foremost a political awakening. Scholars like Carol Ohmann and Paul John Eakin have pointed out that “the whole account Malcolm X gives of his conversion to the Nation of Islam dwells very little on the subjective [and spiritual] nature of experience” (Ohmann 139). What the reader learns about the spiritual side of the conversion comes from Malcolm X’s stories of his vision of Master W.D. Fard and his refusal to eat pork (which Malcolm X interprets as his “first pre-Islamic submission” (The Autobiography 250)). By far the most memorable achievement of Malcolm X’s conversion is his realization of the social and psychological consequences of American racism on African Americans. Just like Douglass, whose conversion leads to his determination never to allow himself to be a “slave in fact,” Malcolm X decides “to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself – or die” (The Autobiography 280). The chapter entitled “Saved” (which tells of Malcolm X’s first conversion) is much more a fierce rhetorical crusade against the whitening of black history than a detailed description of the narrator’s spiritual fascination with Islam.

The second conversion Malcolm X undergoes in Mecca, although depicted in more intimate terms, is still linked less to some distant and abstract deity and more to the practical world of the people the narrator encounters. Malcolm X comments on this second conversion in the following words: “In my thirty-nine years on this earth, the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being” (The Autobiography 482). What makes Malcolm X feel finally whole is his renewed hope in the possibility of brotherhood among human beings. It is through the behavior and attitudes of people in Mecca that he, like Douglass, catches “a glimpse of God.” A new kind of Islam that Malcolm X discovers is appealing to him primarily because of its potential to bring about significant social change in US race relations. Talking about “true Islam”, Malcolm X claims that “this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem” (The Autobiography 454). Being a person who has, from the beginning, intertwined spirituality with sociopolitical activism, Malcolm X immediately incorporates this new vision into a reformed political program.

The sermonic quality of Douglass’s text manifests itself even more strongly in Malcolm X’s autobiography. Most parts of the book that do not directly narrate various events from Malcolm X’s life are constructed in such a way as to appear as quotations from Malcolm X’s sermons to his Black Muslim congregations. The jeremiadic quality is clearly present in Malcolm X’s scorching social criticism in such examples as this: “‘When you recognize who your enemy is, he can no longer brainwash you, he can no longer pull wool over your eyes so that you never stop to see that you are living in pure hell on this earth, while he lives in pure heaven on this same earth! … Oh, yes, that devil is our enemy’” (The Autobiography 354). Alex Haley has made certain that passages like these are transcribed in such a way that they evoke as powerfully as possible the cadences of Malcolm X’s speech (hence, the use of italics) as well as the passion of his sermonic expression (hence, the use of exclamation marks).

Malcolm X’s autobiography transforms Douglass’s use of the Christian color symbolism by reversing it. He accomplishes this reversal, for instance, through his, rather shocking, connection of the words white man and devil. In Malcolm X’s narrative, whiteness is no longer associated with goodness, purity, and beauty, as in Douglass’s story, but rather comes to stand for exploitation, hypocrisy, and wickedness. Further, much of the Black Nationalist philosophy which Malcolm X represents is about evoking black pride and proclaiming the beauty of blackness. In The Autobiography, Malcolm X addresses his congregations as ‘“…my beautiful, black brothers and sisters’” (The Autobiography 209). Farah Jasmine Griffin argues that this affirmation by Malcolm X of the beauty of African Americans is “of profound significance” when “considered in light of constant white supremacist assaults on notions of black beauty” (220). The problematic aspect of Malcolm X’s deployment of inverted color symbolism is that it leads to a mere reversal of stereotypes, rather than a complete disposal of the limiting sphere of binary oppositions. It is not until his second conversion that Malcolm X overcomes this dualism and comes to think of the world in more complex terms.

By comparing such seemingly different and temporally distant figures as Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, this paper has attempted to reveal the extent to which there is a sense of historical continuity in the autobiographical representation of black leadership. Although standing on two diverse ideological plains and leading the race in two different socio-historical contexts, the two autobiographers share a number of similarities in their approach to social activism and its reflection in their works. Both figures clearly believe in religion as a means of framing their political program and as the most effective way to address and convince the American public. One of the questions that this paper raises and touches upon, but leaves open for a more thorough exploration, is to what extent Douglass’s and Malcolm X’s attitudes towards religion are affected by their attempt to present public rather than private selves in their autobiographies. One could also inquire whether Douglass’s and Malcolm X’s approaches to religion can be seen as representative of the African American community as a whole. An application of the feminist perspective to the two works would illuminate the question of whether the religious views we encounter in Narrative and The Autobiography are typical of the male perception and representation of the racial struggle. Only a more extensive and profound study of autobiographical works by African American men and women authors from different eras and different professional and class backgrounds can lead us to a more objective understanding of the role of religion in the African American community throughout history. I propose that this paper be read as a tentative beginning of that long and, in my opinion, important process.


1 For more information, see Waldo E. Martin, Jr.’s The Mind of Frederick Douglass (219-20).

2 Robert Booth Fowler and Allen D. Hertzke claim that this phenomenon has the Old Testament as its model, “where the paths of religion and politics are often crossed and sometimes converged” (155).

3 As William L. Andrews points out, Douglass was, for some time after his escape, a preacher at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of New Bedford, Mass., and was thus well acquainted with the genre of the black sermon (596).

4 Houston A. Baker, on the other hand, argues that “Douglass effectively applies sophisticated literary techniques … rather than fiery rhetoric. In fact, it is the passages in which he lapses into oratory that detract from the overall effect of his work” (Long Black Song 79).

5 See, for instance, Houston A. Baker, Jr.’s A Long Black Song (Chapter IV) and James H. Evans, Jr.’s Spiritual Empowerment in Afro-American Literature (Chapter I).

6 I would argue that the fight scene with Covey has its precursor in the scene in which Douglass overhears Auld’s conversation with his wife concerning Douglass’s education. The experience opens Douglass’s eyes, for the first time, to the importance of literacy as a way to freedom.

7 Gibson compares Douglass’s experience to that of Jesus Christ when he argues that Douglass’s abuse by Covey and his ultimate defeat of him are “analogous to the crucifixion and the resurrection [of Christ]” (“Christianity” 595).

8 In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass makes this point even more explicit when he writes: “The morality of free society can have no application to slave society. Slaveholders have made it almost impossible for the slave to commit any crime, known either to the laws of God or to the laws of man. … Slaveholders I hold to be individually responsible for all the evils which grow out of the horrid relation” (104-05).

9 See pages 5, 7, 10, 41, 73, 77, 78, and 79 (pointed out in the Norton edition of Narrative).

10 Malcolm X’s belief in sociopolitical activism already finds its reflection in his telling of his childhood experiences. He admits that, as a child, he was strongly impressed by his father’s “crusading and militantly campaigning with the words of Marcus Garvey” (The Autobiography 84). In contrast, the religiously fervent jumping and shouting that his Baptist preacher father evoked from his congregation never seemed to him of much consequence.

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