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The essence of slavery results in the concept of a group of people owning another group as property. Throughout history, the specific details and ramifications of slavery have changed but many experiences share many similarities. That is not to say every or any experience was the same, but many themes remain prevalent throughout time periods. It is essential to note the similarities and differences of separate experience to understand the notions of slavery in America. Three slaves who managed to tell share their journeys, Esteban Montejo, Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano, give insight into the life of slaves in the Americas.
Montejo must rely on himself and his own self awareness in order to survive. Meanwhile, Douglass uses the power of an education to help him buy his freedom. Equiano similarly focuses on his education along with faith to push him to survival.
Cruel conditions in each circumstance show the fear of slave owners as they tried to protect their investments and prevent any escapes; many slaveholders truly thought of slaves as property.
Not only physical conditions but emotional and psychological pain suffered by slaves restricted their sense of identity as they felt insecure and inferior. Even after slavery, poverty and inequality ran rampant through the african american community in the americas. W. E. B. Du Bois and Sankofa offer valuable insight into these issues. The emotional and psychological conditions of slavery hampered the African American community well past emancipation. Equiano and Douglass allow a view of the role education of slaves played.
Equiano was not born into slavery as Douglass was. His life began in Nigeria before being kidnapped and brought to Virginia for a short time before sailing back to Europe. It was on the boat where he began to learn and appreciate European culture and language. His African culture and heritage began to fade from memory.
An interesting moment comes when Equiano is bought by ship captain James Doran. Doran scolds Equiano for speaking too much english and threatens to subdue and sell him (Equiano 177). After years of learning religion, Equiano’s world is flipped as his former belief that no one had the right to sell him had been upturned (Equiano 176). Frederick Douglass had a very different experience of education. Douglass developed his sense of freedom when the wife of his master Hugh Auld began to teach him to read and write. However, Hugh soon found out about the secret lessons and said a learned slave would be unfit for the job (Douglass 33). However, Douglass, already on the path to literacy, continued his learning through several methods in order to assist his quest to freedom.
Equiano and Douglass had very different educational experiences, but both slave owners shared similar feelings. The effort to repress education of slaves was present in both situations. Slave owners attempted to stop the education of slaves in order to decrease the possibility of escape. If slaves did not know anything other than their lives as slave, they would have no reason to leave because there was no evidence that life out of slavery would be any better. Slave owners’ ability to inhibit the spread education among slaves allowed them to keep slaves obedient. This also hampered the ability for slaves to survive after freedom because a lack of education led to a shortage of jobs and ability to integrate into society. Du Bois underlines an important aspect of slavery which is “double consciousness” (Du Bois 47). He coins this phrase as a description of how blacks could not only view themselves from their own view but from others’ views. Slaves felt inferior because of their constrained rights and lack of education and therefore realized that white people looked down on them in society.
Esteban Montejo references white people in cuba who held the firm belief that blacks were created by God to work and be enslaved (Montejo 62). With no education, the only thing slaves knew was to be submissive and inferior. While slaves might believe themselves to be human and equal, they only knew a world where they were inferior and acted as such. Montejo criticizing the Catholic hierarchy for their hypocrisy and role in the relegation of africans in society (Montejo 80). The priests used their authoritative positions to influence the roles of black in society. Therefore, slaves that were born into slavery grew up with the preconception that catholicism was the one true religion. Catholic Priests preached that the roles of blacks in society was inferior to that of whites so therefore slaves grew up with evidence that they were inferior to white slave owners. Equiano faced a similar challenge.
Henry Pascal was the prominent master in Equiano’s life as he sailed with him often. Equiano notes that while with Pascal, he began to learn and understand European culture. European society started to become familiar to Equiano because of Pascal’s guidance (Equiano 111). However, Equiano was betrayed by Pascal when he forcefully sold him to the aforementioned Doran. Equiano began to trust a person who kidnapped and separated him from his family after years of working and was subsequently betrayed. Here, we see the mental toll that slavery can have on a person. Equiano felt as though the relationship with Pascal had mutual respect and emotion, which it clearly did not. Just as Du Bois points out, Equiano had to now see himself through other’s eyes. Even though Equino felt like a relationship was mutually respected, he had to consider that a white person still sees him as property and inferior. The emotional and psychological toll taken on Africans in slavery ruined their trust and ability to function in society because of betrayal and the sense of inferiority. Sankofa depicts the life of a slave in a way that people today cannot fully understand.
The scene of Sankofa that shows this distinction is after the main character, Mona, is asked to poison the white overseer. Coming from a modern mindset, she declines because she believes killing is wrong, despite her being raped constantly. She sticks to her beliefs about murder despite intense adversity. Towards the end of the film when she ends up holding a machete over the sleeping white overseer. Mona was raised in modern society where values like killing are obviously renounced and nearly unheard of in wealthy society. However, Sankofa delves into the harsh reality of slavery where everyday was a struggle between life and death and the psychological toll can force people to do anything. Frederick Douglass retells a tale of a fight between a white overseer and himself. After being caught during an attempted escape, an overseer is told to beat Douglass to which they begin fighting nearly to the death.
Douglass wins the fight and is immediately shipped away from the plantation (Douglass 66). In many cases the overseers come to a point where they beat a slave to death after attempted escapes without punishment. However, Douglass is shipped away because a powerful slave can disrupt the hierarchy of a plantation would be disrupted. What Sankofa is able to show is that the morals that society is built on are entirely changed during slavery. It is impossible to imagine the life of a slave without being thrust into the shoes of a slave and understanding the flip of culture. Montejo offers insight to Africans’ suicidal decisions with belief that it would bring them back to their homeland (Montejo 33). He posits that slaves were reduced to the thought process that drowning themselves to return to Africa was a better risk than suffering while enslaved. This is the type of decision that could not be made without proper understanding of the culture of slavery. Sankofa accurately portrays the desperation of the slaves and the brutality of the life slaves endured.
Slavery affected the lives of all blacks in America, and many themes were prevalent throughout history. As seen with Douglass, Equiano and Montejo every situation and circumstance changes for the person, but the ideas remain the same. Sankofa and De Bois offer valuable insight into otherwise unseen ideas and themes that could go unnoticed. The psychological and physical tolls on slaves was immense and it affected blacks far after slavery had ended. The emotional and psychological pressure from slavery hindered African Americans’ ability to adapt and adjust to society after slavery.
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