My knowledge of my mother is very scanty, but very distinct. Her personal appearance and bearing are ineffaceably stamped upon my memory. She was tall, and finely proportioned; of deep black, glossy complexion; had regular features, and, among the other slaves, was remarkably sedate in her manners. There is in Prichard’s Natural History of Man, the head of a figure—on page 157—the features of which so resemble those of my mother, that I often recur to it with something of the feeling which I suppose others experience when looking upon the pictures of dear departed ones.
Frederick Douglass’s citation of James Cowles Prichard’s Natural History of Man (1843) is surely one of the best-known representations of reading in the social sciences in the history of American letters. Following Douglass’s reference, his own readers have found themselves looking at an etching of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, and have puzzled over what to make of this moment in Douglass’s second published autobiography. While one interpretation considers the gesture as the sign of Douglass’s deep ambivalence, perhaps unconscious, over his own genealogy of racial mixture, a more convincing approach reads the passage in light of his continuing engagement with the American School of Ethnology. 1 As “The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered”—an address that he delivered approximately a year before the 1855 publication of My Bondage and My Freedom—makes clear, Douglass claimed a historical relationship between ancient Egypt and contemporary descendants of the African diaspora as a way of defying race scientists such as Samuel Morton, George Gliddon, and Josiah Nott, whose theories of polygenesis played a significant role in the antebellum politics of slavery. Mia Bay has documented that Douglass was hardly alone among African American intellectuals of his time in contesting the racial science of ethnology, nor was his response—which both asserted the unity of humanity and yet made its own claims about distinct racial traits—unique.2 The similarity that Douglass finds between the remembered face of his mother and the outlines of an Egyptian king may have been a rhetorical gesture meant to evoke the depths of his emotional loss in being torn from his mother, but it was also a strategic maneuver that served as an ironic commentary on those who would use science to justify the enslavement of his kin.
For the purposes of this article, I am not going to elaborate fully the context of antislavery politics in which Douglass wrote this passage, nor am I going to place this moment within a fuller interpretation of his autobiographical writing. Instead, what I am interested in is the way that the passage figures a particular type of reading, one that pushes Douglass’s autobiography from the domain of ethnology (the scientific account of race) to the domain of ethnography (the scientific description of culture). Douglass begins with the physical features of his mother—the “tall, finely proportioned” body, the “deep black, glossy complexion,” and the “regular features” of the face—all of which he presumably finds in the etching that appears in Prichard’s book. Yet the connection surpasses physical genealogy; the “sedate manners” are reminiscent to Douglass, one assumes, of royalty. The body of the mother, moreover, has been replaced by the physical object of the printed text. Racial genealogy has been supplanted by textual referentiality; we are out of a world in which bodies simply exist, and into one where they must be described, historicized, and documented. Small wonder that the chapter in which this passage appears, “The Author’s Parentage,” will be followed by another that enters fully into the mode of ethnographic description, “A General Survey of the Slave Plantation.” In leading readers from his slim memories of his mother to the pages of Prichard’s Natural History, Douglass is signaling a larger move from personal history to generalizable knowledge about a social system and the people it has ensnared. We might say that even though he describes himself as reading an ethnological text, he does so to produce an ethnographic effect.
This scene of reading, most significantly, performs its disruption of...