The institution of slavery was something that encompassed people of all ages, classes, and races during the 1800’s. Slavery was an institution that empowered whites and humiliated and weakened blacks in their struggle for freedom. In the book, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, slave Frederick Douglass gives his account of what it was like being a slave and how he was affected. Additionally, Douglass goes even further and describes in detail the major consequences the institution of slavery had on both blacks and whites during this time period. In the pages to come, I hope to convince you first of the mental/emotional and physical damage caused by slavery on black slaves, and secondly the damage slavery caused in the mental well-being of white slave-owners.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which the institution of slavery has negatively impacted black slaves is physically. Slaves were often times beaten and whipped until bloody because their white masters felt they were being disobedient and needed them to learn to be subservient. In his narrative, Douglass describes and recalls a time when he witnessed his aunt being badly beaten by his heartless master.
“[Master] was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slave holding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I had often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, was whipped upon her naked back till she was to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush…” (Douglass, 3-4).
He also described the numerous ways in which many slaves’ needs were not met. Slaves were not treated as human beings like you and I today; they were poorly fed and no slave ever felt full after a meal. Slaves were not provided beds but were forced to sleep on the floor and hardly ever had blankets to sleep with. In addition, slaves were forced to work long hours in the hot sun or in freezing weather without adequate clothing and were left little time for sleeping. Many slaves did not own shoes and pants and went naked several times throughout the year if their allowance ran out. The instances of physical neglect and abuse of slaves happened often and many times without real reason. But to go even further, this was not the only way in which slaves were abused.
Black slaves were not only physically mistreated, but they also suffered much mental and emotional damage from white slave-owners and overseers as well. Douglass describes in his narrative several ways in which blacks suffered mentally and emotionally due to slavery.
Above all else, whites felt their slaves should be obedient to their masters and learn a sense of respect for them. Additionally, white slave-owners felt that it was essential to keep slaves obedient by keeping them ignorant and barely satisfied. Therefore, slaves were not taught to read or write and they did not go to schools like the white children. Most slaves never learned their birthdates or their ages because it was unimportant to the whites. Slaves were also raised to believe they were worthless and created solely to serve whites. Douglass described the mental states of other slaves just like himself. “Their minds had been starved by their cruel master. They had been shut up in mental darkness (Douglass, 48-49).
In addition, due to the severity of their master’s cruelty both physically and mentally, many slaves came to distrust everyone. Douglass said in his narrative, “I was afraid to speak to anyone…the motto which I adopted when I started from slavery was this- “˜Trust no man!’ I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust” (Douglass, 64). Slaves were taught to fear the white man, especially their masters. Yet another cause of mental torment on blacks was the separation from friends and family. When women slaves had children they rarely ever had the chance to develop real relationships with their children because the family was separated and sold to different slave-owners.
At one point in the narrative, Douglass described what it felt like to be separated from his loved ones. “The thought of leaving my friends and family was so decidedly the most painful thought with which I had to contend” (Douglass, 63). The white masters and slave-owners during the time of slavery were above all cruel, uncaring, and responsible for damaging slaves mentally, emotionally, and physically. Mr. Covey, one of Douglass’ masters was especially cruel to his slaves.
“Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broke in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (Douglass, 38) While black slaves were being tortured mentally and physically by whites, the consequences slavery had on people did not stop here. Whites too were damaged mentally due to their involvement within the institution of slavery.
Douglass described several white people who were different before they owned slaves. Perhaps the largest way in which whites were negatively affected by slavery was that they became dehumanized and desensitized to the violence of other people. Another one of Douglass’ masters was Mr. Gore. Mr. Gore was a prime example of the many white slave-owners who let their power go to their heads. Whites during this time period were overcome by a huge sense of prejudice and hatred for blacks.
Additionally, they grew to become greedy, wanting more and more slaves, and proud, degrading and torturing blacks for no reason at all. Mr. Gore once said: “‘It is better that a dozen slaves should suffer under the lash, than that the overseer should be convicted, in the presence of the slaves, of having been at fault.'” No matter how innocent a slave might be–it availed him nothing, when accused by Mr.
Gore of any misdemeanor. To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other with immutable certainty. To escape punishment was to escape accusation; and few slaves had the fortune to do either, under the overseership of Mr. Gore” (Douglass, 13).
Slavery placed white slaver-owners and masters in an unhealthy and unkind state of mind. Through his experiences as a slave, Frederick Douglass was able to witness many people transform into evil and cruel people right before his eyes. Douglass describes his mistress upon his first encounters with her as being a tender-hearted woman who fed, clothed, and taught him to read. He then says, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.
Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness” (Douglass, 22). She had conformed to both her husbands orders and the societal-norms surrounding that time period and was eventually negatively transformed by slavery.
Slavery had caused many white people to lose sight of the value of human life and this affected them very negatively. The whites were brimming with power and soon, excuses were made for any action taken by a white person against a slave. An example of this is when Mr.
Gore shot a slave in the head because he refused to be whipped. Mr. Gore was never taken to prison or even repremanded for the crime of murder. Like Mr. Gore, many other whites believed that blacks needed to learn to obey whites. “[Gore] argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites” (Douglass, 14). Unfortunately this was the unjust and immoral mentality of whites towards slaves during this time. This was also a mentality that left whites trapped in an ignorant and power-hungry world.
In conclusion, Frederick Douglass’ book, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, gives its readers a clearer picture of how slavery consequently impacted both whites and blacks. White slave-owners damaged and tortured blacks both mentally and physically and at the same time, whites were also being negatively transformed mentally through their own actions and involvement in slavery. There is much to be learned about slavery and its consequences on both blacks and whites and Douglass’ book does a fine job of aiding its readers in understanding both sides.