“Having no resources within himself, he was compelled to be the copyist of many, and being such, he was forever the victim of inconsistency.” (Douglass on Captain Auld)
Lack of knowledge robs people of the ability to control. This seems to be one of the great messages Frederick Douglass wants to convey. We see examples of this within both factions in Douglass’s narrative. Slaveholders losing control through the lack of knowledge of themselves (mistress Auld not realising that her once independance is lost in her marriage, and mr Covey’s inability to break Douglass because of his own social vanity) and slaves not taking control because of their lack of knowledge about their masters.
The slaveholders give the slaves holidays in order to keep them calm, stable enough to not cause an uproar. They want to make the slaves “as glad of their ending as of their beginning.” They “disgust the slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation,” and as they are tricked into wasting their few days of freedom on just drinking, “there was little to choose between liberty and slavery.” They might as well be “slaves to man as they are to rum.”
Can we not find a resemblance of this in many free people’s lives nowadays? They go on about with their lives, old as young, longing for the weekend, summer break, vacation, not realising that the presence is escaping their grasp through between their fingers. And once they are there, free from work, free to do what they want, they are unsure of what exactly they are supposed to do. They too often realise that they have either too little or too much time at their disposal. So what do they do? They do what is expected of them: drink, party, celebrate, relax. But expected by whom exactly, other people? From where did they get this expectation? Soon they realise that this lifestyle is very taxing on the body, mind, and soul. It takes its toll on the body and mind to be in a state of constant rewarding, and the soul can never flourish in such a chaotic condition. Therefore it is not surprising that these people, the very people who would show little to know commitment in what they do on normal weekdays, eventually begin longing for work and with it control, in the last days/hours of their freedom.
Now, compare this to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp”. This bare sound without any restrictions is the culmination of the whole poem and serves as a less refined, but no less striking, statement against society. It is after all a form of expressing oneself, and here Whitman is declaring that he is not paying attention to social norms.
The slaves and slaveholders, and many free people today, do not possess the ability to make this yawp: they might meet all the physical requirements for creating a scream, or a yelp, or an action, but it is the mind that is falling behind, as it is the lacking knowledge of self-expressing that is holding them back.
“I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”
This is what Frederick Douglass is realising, when his master tells him that he should not read, and when he sees the conceit that is rotting away all the people with power over him can be so easily exploited for someone resenting the sickly clutch of social vanity. With this newfound knowledge that brings him up to the same level of his masters, and then even beyond, he can cast of the chains of slavery. His days are no longer in a cloudy haze of chaotic condition, and the months, days, and hours until next break are no longer counted; his mind is no longer displaced in an unsteady future, because it is set in the presence, and consequently, the presence does no longer escape his grasp. And so he might continue under the confinement of other people, but it is only temporary, but even if it was not, he could no longer be a slave to his own limitations enforced by his surroundings. His freedom is no longer defined by outside observerstions, as it is rather a fire within him that is rekindled by expression of defiance: a yawp.