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Frederick Douglass's Rhetorical Legacy

Paper type: Essay
Pages: 6 (1318 words)
Categories: Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass Narrative, Narrative Life Of Frederick Douglass, Slavery In America
Downloads: 15
Views: 16

Written in 1845, the “Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass” is a book written in autobiographical style by Frederick Douglass in which he recounts his own experiences as a slave in Baltimore, bringing several examples of violence and brutality that his enslaved peers and he suffered. Through the use of rhetoric and detailed imagery, Douglass articulates his remembrances of the cruelty faced by the slaves as a way to denounce how slavery was an unnatural societal practice, and to criticize hypocrisies found in some highly regarded parts of what constitutes the American tradition, such as religion (more specifically Christianism), and democracy.

He can, through his work and pain detailed in it, appeal for the end of slavery, becoming one of the greatest figures in the American abolitionist fight history. In the book, Douglass brings several objects or moments that, at first might not seem relevant but have a deeper meaning to the whole context when carefully studied.

One of these aspects which have a deeper significance than just their literal one is the whip, which is used to exert control over the enslaved population and punish them. As will be explored through this essay, however, the whip reveals a bigger picture in the book of how the violence exerted by the slave masters is used to dehumanize slaves and gives insight into other metaphorical types of violence used to keep dominance over the slave population.

First, it is important to acknowledge that throughout literature and art, the whip is represented as a way to assert authority, domination, and a way to punish sins. Historically, men beat other animals into submission. The first significant instance in which the whip appears is in the first chapter when Douglass, who was only six years old at the time, witnesses his aunt Hester gets brutally whipped and cursed at because she was in the company of another fellow slave Captain Anthony, the slave master, said she shouldn’t be with and shows. Seeing first-hand the violence that centers the relationship between slave and slave masters, Douglass writes, “I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I will 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 the most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.” Witnessing such brutality at a young age showed Douglass and, consequently, the readers of “Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass” the mercilessness of the slave owners, who did not take emotions or any sense of pity into account before acting. The account of how a simple misunderstanding or lack of compliance brought cruelty upon the slaves or even death brings the readers one of the first senses of how slaves were treated in that societal context.

Another very visual example of this phenomenon that once again involves the whip is when Mr. Gore, a slave master overseer, murders Demby, a slave who runs away to a river stream after being nearly whipped to death. Gore says he will shoot if Demby doesn’t move away from the river, and, without hesitating, proceeds to shoot and kill the slave. Furthermore, Douglass recounts in Chapter 9 the story of Henny, one of Thomas Auld’s slaves. She is handicapped due to an incident in her childhood, and, because she is unable to perform manual labor, she is seen as a burden to the farm by the master, and, one day, out of pure perversity he decides to brutally whip throughout the entire day. The whip in these instances helps to illustrate how at many times the slave masters and overseers did not have any real motivation or principle of justice to support their decision to apply punishments other than their sheer will of mutilating the slaves’ dignity and moral or the pleasure they felt in subjugating them. Additionally, Douglass account saying that “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” strengthens the idea that slave lives were insignificant and did not have any meaning for the slave owners, who practiced the cruelty, nor to the general society who didn’t present any objections to this behavior and, at many times, endorsed it.

Besides the stories that Douglass recounts about other slaves, the whip is also imposed upon himself, which brings to the story what might be the clearest depiction of the purpose and the effect behind this type of subjugation and humiliation on the human being. In Chapter 10, when Douglass is owned by Mr. Covey, who was known as a “slave-breaker”, we learn that Douglass is obligated to work for an inhumane amount of time and was regularly beaten until Covey was able to break Douglass’s body and will of living. Douglass, who until that point had strongly expressed his desire to escape from slavery and find refuge in the north, writes, “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!”. This point allows the reader to understand how the whip is used to turn a man into a slave by making them docile and not able to contemplate the idea of a rebellion or escape.

Throughout “Narrative Of Life Of Frederick Douglass”, it is possible to detect several types of violence other than the whip, such as obviously depriving slaves of freedom, raping female slaves, imposing ignorance over the slaves by not allowing them to read and have an active voice in civil society, or even hinder them from knowing their identity by concealing their birthday and father’s name. However, all of these recurring examples brought through the symbolic meaning of the whip summons one of Douglass’ main objectives writing this work, which is to expose crudely how slaves were treated like animals at best, and objects at worst, but always as property. The slaves were bought, sold, punished, and switched among masters who literally “owned” them, without any sense of consent or agreement on the part of the enslaved and they were only useful while they could work. At many times, if a slave had an injury or did not comply with orders, he was expendable and treated as livestock to be sacrificed. The entirety of Douglass’ work, but more specifically the whip, is a reminder of the American bloody and cruel past and makes sure that the voice of the humiliated, brutalized, enslaved, and dehumanized people are heard.

Based on previous course content, it is possible to classify Douglass’ work as a slave narrative as it presents the narrator’s childhood, his spiritual and personal growth as he became older along with a revelation that changed his objectives and way of seeing the world. In the end, as he finds refuge in the North and becomes a famous abolitionist writer, we can also see the presence of a very typical element of this genre which is the protagonist’s triumph against all odds. Additionally, he also is successful in evoking a feeling of empathy in the reader by weaving his main arguments with his personal experiences and the ones of his peers. This is important to this type of black autobiography because it brings a first-hand account on the sufferings experienced by the slaves, more specifically to Frederick Douglass since he is moved by abolitionist ideals so he needs to convince a larger audience that slavery is a despicable and inhumane institution.

Cite this essay

Frederick Douglass’s Rhetorical Legacy. (2020, Sep 15). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/frederick-douglasss-rhetorical-legacy-essay

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