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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1261

Essay

To say the least, the life of a Frederick Douglass was very difficult; it was comprised of oppression and cruelty. According to Douglass’s account of life as a slave, one can infer that slavery permanently affected the morale of the slave. Because slavery was so unjust and inhumane, there were no laws that dictated the proper treatment of slaves. For example, “I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot County, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”(Gates, p. 21). As a result, slave masters were free to treat their slaves in any manner they chose. Slaves were bound by slave codes that forced them to steal, fornicate, and commit adultery. Although Douglass’s narrative seeks to convey the fact that slave masters kept slaves ignorant by denying them the right to learn to read and write, he elaborately discuss the manner in which slave masters used physical violence as a means of keeping slaves afraid and submissive. Douglass used his narrative to shed light on the awful horrors of slavery and show people that slaves had feelings, were capable of thinking, and were not satisfied with being slaves. Prior to Douglass’s narratives, much of the white population felt that African Americans were content with slavery.  Slavery was inherently wrong because its corrupting powers destroyed the mental, emotional, and physical state of being of every slave it encountered through violence, victimization of female slaves, and separation of families.

Violence and degradation played a dominant role in keeping slaves submissive. In the book, Douglas gives a vivid account of an incident when a slave severely beaten and killed. According to Douglass, Demby had been beaten repeatedly for no apparent reason. Trying to soothe his broken and cracked skin, Demby jumps into a nearby creek. After being ordered to come out of the water several times by an overseer and refusing, Demby was shot and killed. Douglas also recounts the beating incident of his aunt. He says:

“The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.” (Gates, p. 20).

Slave masters used various ways to punish slaves for failing to obey. Often slaves were shackled and chained to trees, but the most common punishment was beatings with a whip. Slaves were punished for various reasons –lying, not working hard enough, stealing, disobeying, or talking too much.  For example,

“I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember anything. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.” (Gates, p. 16).

Nonetheless, whenever a slave was asked about the conditions of his/her living he or she would always say something positive in favor of the slave master. According to Douglass, it was common for slave masters to have spies to listen in on slave conversations and report back on what was said. The idea of this deterred slaves from speaking negative of their masters, even among themselves (Gates, p. 16).

Being a slave equated to a lack of the needed daily necessities. The deplorable conditions of slavery are clearly displayed in the manner in which children are treated. Although Douglass admits that he was seldom whipped, he suffered greatly from hunger and cold. He says:

“I was seldom whipped by my old master, and suffered little from anything else than hunger and cold. I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked—no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed.” (Gates, p. 23).

Douglass goes on to explain how he would steal a sack to sleep in on the very cold night. He would sleep with his head inside the sack and his feet protruding from the opening of the sack. A technique that left his feet exposed to the cold. Due to this exposure he said that his feet became severely cracked by the frost. He explained that the gashes were so deep he could place a writing pen within them. Later he discussed the conditions of the way in which they ate. They ate a substance called mush, which was boiled cornmeal. It was dumped in wooden troughs; the same type troughs that pigs ate from. The slaves ate with their hands or just put their entire heads in the troughs just as the animals did. The slave that could eat the fastest got the most. Consequently, children were often hungry because they could not eat as fast as their older counterparts. For example:

“The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.” (Gates, p. 23-24).

The threat of family separation was a constant fear for the slave. Slaves must have questioned why love anyone or anything because at any point it could possibly be taken away. Slaves were often separated from their families even after arriving on the plantations. Most often, children were taken away from their mothers. Because of the way slaves coped with these loses, they were often viewed as incapable of loving. Douglass recounts how he was withheld access to his mother as a form of punishment and never learned the origins of his birth. He believed that a slave master was his father. This depravation had the more profound effect on him than the depravation of food and clothing. According to Pargas,

“Virtually no slave family in the nineteenth-century American South was completely safeguarded from forced separation, yet the extent of family breakups throughout the slave states remains far from clear. Much of the historical debate has focused on the domestic slave trade and its effect on slave family stability, thereby downplaying other methods of forced separation, which were surely just as disruptive, such as local sales and estate divisions” ( Pargas, p.252).

The effects of slavery played a major role in all parts of the slave and his descendant’s life. Slavery was an atrocity to human beings and will never be viewed as a necessary evil. No person has the right to own another. Although some slaves had nice masters who genuinely cared for and provided for their slaves, it does not make the practice of slavery just or forgivable.  Slavery destroyed families, cultures, and the very being of each slave it touched.

 Works Cited

Gates, Henry Louis. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Signet Classic, 1987.

Pargas, Damian Alan. “Disposing of Human Property: American Slave Families and Forced Separation in Comparative Perspective.” Journal of Family History 34, 251-274. 2010

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