In the 1850s, Frederick Douglass set out to nurture emergent antislavery commitments within the most advanced political milieu of the antebellum decade, the Free Soil movement. Douglass developed a protoenvironmentalist critique of capitalism's alienation of workers from the land, arguing that liberty achieved its truest expression when free people mixed their labor with nature in the pursuit of self-reliance. Democratic access to arable land was a precondition of real emancipation, which required reversing capitalism's expropriation of the commons. Douglass fictionalized these ideas in his only novella, “The Heroic Slave” (1853), in which Madison Washington, leader of the 1841 Creole mutiny, declares his independence in a forest glade that functions as a chapel of natural rights. This kind of radical republican pastoralism also shapes My Bondage, My Freedom (1855). The trope's polemical function is especially apparent when it is contrasted retrospectively with The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), in which nature is a paralyzing wilderness rather than a theater of self-emancipation. Ecocriticism has failed so far to engage substantially with black cultures of nature. Part of the problem may be that the lithified historical experience of slavery in rural settings has prevented black writers from developing ecocentric ways of thinking. Douglass's integration of radical pastoralism into abolitionist rhetoric is not only a spotlight example of an alternative black tradition and experience of nature, it also showcases the organic connection between the struggles for social and environmental justice.
Lance Newman; Free Soil and the Abolitionist Forests of Frederick Douglass's “The Heroic Slave”. American Literature 1 March 2009; 81 (1): 127–152. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2008-053
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