Slavery in the 19th Century America: Through the Eyes of Frederick Douglas Essay
Slavery in the 19th Century America: Through the Eyes of Frederick Douglas
It is amazing how a nation can change in just a hundred years. The United States a century before was very different from the U. S. A. of the 21st century. The difference was not only in the infrastructure, the buildings and the highways. It was not only in the kind of technology available, there were no fast cars and of course there was no cyberspace. But there is something else, far more significant than what was already mentioned. Not all men born and raised in the “land of the brave” were free. Slavery was part of the social fabric.
It was there like a stain that could not be removed not only because it was close to impossible that time but also because only a few dared to see the truth. There were only a few who bothered to look into it and se the evil that it truly was. One of the few who took a stand and fought this wickedness was Frederick Douglas. There were others who are like him, commendable men and women who defied status quo and championed the oppressed. But this study focuses the spotlight on Frederick Douglas because he is one of the many black African-Americans who were once slaves in the place of their birth.
If anyone could explain slavery then who can do a better job than a former slave. There is no story more compelling than that coming from the lips of an eyewitness. Slavery in the United States was exposed and it is through the pen of Frederick Douglas. His narrative which was turned into a bestseller has captivated the imagination of the public. The force of such writing is difficult to describe because for the longest time Negro slaves do not have the ability to express themselves in the same level of intellectual maturity as the white people.
It is this simple reason that many were kept in the dark, no one could truly feel and understand what is going on inside the heart and mind of an enslaved child of God. Mr. Douglas broke that silence and here is his story. Born Free All men are born free, even for those whose skin color is black and whose birth date was somewhere between the 17th to 19th century. But this freedom lasts only for a few seconds after they come out from the womb of their mother.
Then reality sinks in and they social structure though invisible to the human eyes pronounces the baby as a slave, a property that could be traded and sold and like an animal can be forced o work like common beast of burden. In the year 1817, Frederick Douglas was born as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland. What makes the plight of Frederick Douglas (“Mr. Douglas”) more pitiful is the fact that his father is a white man. This brings the study to the first major area of discussion, of which will be discussed in detail in the following pages.
Wicked Slavery as practiced in 19th century America is a product of a depraved mind. It came from hell itself and the root is wickedness. The evilness of this practice could not be easily quantified and very difficult to fully comprehend. The only way to grasp this high level of wickedness is to look at the outward manifestations. Douglas knew from the very beginning that his father was white. He may have deduced this from looking at his mulatto features which he acknowledged in his writing. But most of all his suspicion was confirmed by his other slave companions in Maryland.
The question in everybody’s mind is how could young Mr. Douglas allowed to live as a slave if his father was white? In answer to that Douglas said the following by way of explanation,”…slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable…” (See Chapter 1 of the Narrative).
Instead of receiving a partial explanation to the seemingly great blunder of a master’s son becoming a slave, what the reader gets in return is additional exposure to evil. It is now very clear that at the heart of slavery is wickedness to the highest degree and the rest are the manifestations, the natural fruit of a corrupt mind. It is now understandable why slaveholders are unjust, controlling, cruel, and blind to all that. The following pages will explore all these in detail. Cruel
There is no better example of being unjust than the narrative on how a father can give up his own son to slavery. Douglas adds that in some cases the father himself will sell the kids coming from his loins but had the great misfortune of being born to a Negro woman. But cruelty emanating from the heart can be expressed in so many ways. Excessive punishment is one of the ways that a slaveholder can show his evil side. The whip is the favorite tool for inflicting pain and the naked backside is the favorite target.
Blood, sweat and tears even when given up in abundance will not deter the determined master in inflicting serious damage. Cruelty here is not seen only by the whipping per se although farm animals may even have experienced a greater degree of gentleness when it comes to the use of the whip – it is also seen in the reason insignificant cause of such punishment. Controlling Man’s wickedness is fully expressed and fully evident when it comes to his dealings with a fellow human.
A person may be evil inside but in the presence of pets, animals and plants his wicked ways may not be very obvious. This is because animals can be easily tamed and plants could not offer any resistance. But a fellow human being has that free will to defy him. His fellow human being has that spirit that will find ways to express its uniqueness and passion for life. For as long as the master-slave relationship had existed slaveholder have realized the potency of this truth – that man longs to be free, to be able to express his yearnings and desires.
There is now therefore a need to break their will and since the slaves are treated a little bit higher than farm animals then the slave master designed methods that will break their will just like a wild stallion broken and made submissive to the bridle and whip. One of the most moving parts of the narrative can be found in the very first chapter. Here, Douglas described a method of taming the heart and spirit of the slave. It is the despicable practice of taking a weaned child away from his mother. A considerable distance is put between mother and child and the effects are predictable but it does not make it less brutal.
The domination of the spirit was movingly captured by Douglas when he wrote, “For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child” (Chapter 1). To the modern reader the objective of such practice is clear. It is the effective methodology for breeding slaves. There is also a practical sense to it because a woman will do everything for her young, continuous bonding and staying together until maturity will increase the likelihood for escape and the desire to do so will not diminish.
A child also, especially the male child when bonded with the mother will do everything in his power to rescue the mother from such a harsh and cruel environment. The need to escape must be diminished, whatever it takes. Another popular method of control is education or better yet the lack of it. There is a deliberate withholding of this privilege for all the black slaves. The whip is cruel, the separation is cruel, and the poor living condition is cruel but nothing compares to the deliberate shrinking of the mind and not allowing it to develop to its full potential.
There is of course perfect reason for this for even if the slave masters require intelligent animals to operate their farms and to work their fields there is no need for Einstein’s and philosophers walking around their domain. Surely, a good debate about issues is far from the master’s mind he is more concern with suppressing the desire for escape and rebellion. In chapter seven of the narrative one can see the valiant effort of Douglas to learn to read and write and therefore attaining a very high degree of emancipation at the end. Unjust
Saying that a slave master is unjust is probably a great understatement. No slaveholder would receive the complement of being just as long as he owns and treats slaves like cattle. In the third chapter of the narrative, an example of this kind of behavior can be seen in the relationship between a slave master named Colonel Lloyd and his two slaves the young and old Barneys, father and son whose main job is take care of the colonel’s horse and how the master loved the horses more than the slaves: …for in nothing was Colonel Lloyd more particular than in the management of his horses.
The slightest inattention to these was unpardonable, and was visited upon those, under whose care they were placed, with the severest punishment […] They never knew when they were safe from punishment. They were frequently whipped when least deserving… Blind It is difficult to understand how white people become so unaware of what is going on in their society. There is no excuse for their behavior but at the same time one wonders as to the kind of social conditioning required to allow them to deny basic human instincts of love, affection, justice, fair play and caring for the weak and oppressed.
It is now clear that white people have to dig in and suppressed all that negative feelings and all that prodding from their conscience to stop what they are doing. Emancipation At the end the cry for freedom and realization of it with whatever means is justified. Many times in the narrative Douglas used the Bible as a reference to help understand what was going on. It is a well known fact that the Bible clearly instruct to honor the master and the slave should work in the best of his abilities. A slave should not run away.
But looking at the narrative and being privy to the evil and its numerous manifestations one has to realize that slavery in that period in human history is surely not the same slavery or master-worker relationship described in the Bible. Douglas has to escape and that is what he did. The freedom that he experienced allowed him not only a respite from the brutality of his masters and the traumatic experience of seeing his fellow slave get beaten up and humiliated – he also experienced about the many facets of life.
One could just imagine how hard life had been through the eyes of Douglas. First, he was a slave and then he was freed from that bondage but then for more than two decades he had known nothing but the master-slave dynamic and the labor-whip way of life. How ca one function if removed from a routine like that? Well, it will really take some getting used to. But therapy is definitely needed. It is just unfortunate that at that time no one knew how to handle a ran-away slave. No one knew exactly what has transpired in the life of a slave.
No one knew that a slave is a fellow human being that was placed in a system – designed by fellow human beings – so that the black man can be transformed into something else. The white people in 19th century America had one great need and it is intelligent beings that they could control. It is true that man should use beasts of burden and for all of human history this has been the case. But it is also obvious that in order to work the land without working so hard themselves they need a worker that is of higher intelligence. So they created a way to do just that.
They used the Bible and twisted it so bad so that they can justify the utilization of one of God’s finest creation – where God has placed his stamp of approval, his own image – and them make them their own. Douglas work is so fascinating because it was an eyewitness account of how the white race was able to get away with probably the greatest atrocity in the history of the world and that is to transform another human being into a beast of burden. An animal of superior intelligence yet whose will is so broken it does not have an identity apart from its master.
Worse yet, the master does not really treat the slaves like the farm animals – if they did the slaves would have been grateful – they treated them like farm tools as if they were inanimate objects that could not feel and express emotions. On the other hand it is interesting to note that perhaps it is not only the black man that needed to feel the exhilarating feeling of freedom. There seems to be a pattern happening in the lives of all the cruel slave masters. They turned into mean, unaffectionate people and some of them are in bondage themselves either to their anger, meanness, or to liquor.
It could be argued that the slavery that gripped 19th century America and the preceding decades before than – when slavery was alive and well in the land of the free and the brave – had a certain spirit behind it. That same spirit of wickedness does not only suggest to the white people what to do but it also seem to inhabit them. If this is not the case then at least one could argue that this spirit has to transform white people in order to change their hearts from a normal, caring, and loving nature into something unnatural and mean.
The basis for the assertion above can be easily observed in nature. When a baby is born there is no hint of meanness in that child. No one had yet seen a baby with a scowling face and wanted to whip someone. Even as that child grows into the early childhood phase and allowed to play with black people and if there is no suggestion from the parents that there is a social class that must be observed then the child will continually accept the black children as his or her equal.
But somewhere along the way, a hundred years ago from today, white children learned to despise black folks. And it is taking its toll. Happiness it seems is very difficult for these cruel slaveholders. The drunken master and the vile and sadistic slaveholder that Douglas described in the narrative is also a human being in need of emancipation as much as the black people do. This is because both are slaves, though only one of them knew it. Bibliography Douglas, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.