By Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II
Students often complain about Douglass’s archaic language use. His language in 1845 is much different than how we speak in the 21st century. However, what we’ve learned by looking at Douglass’s word usage that he frequently uses the word “man” (75 times) in the Narrative, a term that carries considerable weight today.
We used Voyant Tools’s “collocate” feature to identify if there were any recurring words that appeared alongside man in the Narrative. A collocation is a sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance. The following terms are the top 5 words associated with “man”:
Douglass most often uses the word “man” to characterize his experiences with white masters and overseers. At one point, he says, “I saw in every white man an enemy,” and at another point, he goes, “to strike a white man is death by Lynch law.” [emphasis added.]
Douglass uses words such as “poor,” and “cruel” to describe interactions with other overseers. He recalls, “Mr. Covey was a poor man, a farm renter.” He also describes a former overseer, Mr. Plummer by noting that, “He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding.”
Douglass’s descriptions of these men typically describe their cruel behavior towards him and other enslaved black people. In that regard, using the word “man” is a not a marker of respect, but cruelty.
Deborah McDowell and Mary Helen Washington among others scholars, have rightly critiqued the masculinist biases and erasure of black women in Douglass’s works. Text mining confirms those biases and erasure by calculating the frequency of “man” and the scarcity of references to “woman” or “women.” In addition however, Voyant’s “collocate” feature reminds us how often Douglass spoke disparagingly of the men he encountered.
• #FrederickDouglass: Technology & African American Literary Studies
• African American Language and Culture Lab