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Analyzing A Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass

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The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass gives a first person perspective on the life of a slave laborer in both the rural south and the city. Frederick Douglass, having educated himself against terrible odds, was able to read and think endlessly about the evils of slavery and the reasons for its abolishment. Throughout the narrative, Douglass recounts his life as a slave, and many conclusions can be drawn based on the writings. The various hardships of slavery are seen through Douglass’ eyes, and are very powerful because of that. The primary reason for his disgust with slavery was its effect of dehumanizing the slaves, as well as their masters.

Throughout his autobiography Frederick Douglass talks of the many ways a slave and master would be corrupted by the labor system that was so deeply entrenched in the south as a result of the cotton gin, the resulting demand in cotton, and other such labor-intensive crops. The master justified his actions through a self-serving religion and a conscious belief that slaves were meant to be in their place. However, Frederick Douglass noticed that in order to maintain the slaves’ belief in this system the master had to resort to trickery and the dissolution of a slave’s body and mind. According to Douglass, the treatment of a slave was worse than that of an animal. Not only was he valued as an animal, fed like an animal, and beaten like an animal, but also a slave was reduced to an animal when he was as much a man as his keeper. Douglass uses an example of a woman who had been found with a young man, Ned. The woman was stripped naked, tied up, and basically beaten to a pulp, bleeding all over (Douglass, ch1). This beating actually serves multiple purposes for the slave owner. First, this beating would teach a lesson to the woman whom he beat, by not only abusing her physically, but shaming her by making her strip down naked. But the more important part is the secondary effect the beating would have on the rest of the slaves the master owns. Whether they witness the beating firsthand, as Douglass did, or hear about it later through stories by the other slaves, chances are they would learn a lesson from the other slave’s beating, because they would not want to be beaten themselves. The mental faculty a slave had was diminished through the forbidden nature of reading and learning, as well as the constant drunkenness imposed on the slaves during holidays. In Douglass’ opinion, they were “among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection” (Douglass, ch10). The actual purpose these holidays served was to allow the slaves a way to vent, to celebrate out any rebellious spirit that they may have within themselves, by partying and drinking the day away. Douglass shames these activities as another part of the “gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery,” because they represent a false pretense on the part of the masters (Douglass, ch10). While the slaves believe they are getting a favor by the slave master, the holidays are yet another one of the mental games played on the slaves to keep them in submission and under control.

The most basic example of the mental games that contribute to the gross inhumanity of slavery is the fact that the slave would rarely know their family lineage, let alone who their father or mother was. While Douglass somewhat got to know his mother, he never really had a father. His father, according to practically everyone, was a white man, “... opinion was also whispered that my master was my father..." (Douglass, ch1). Although it is true that he knew his mother, it must be noted that they were separated while he was an infant and thereafter only met a total of four or five times. The fact was that Douglass was disconnected from his father, and did not know his family. By not knowing exactly where he came from, Douglass could never feel an entire sense of belonging, and had lost his identity. By not knowing his parents, a slave could find it very hard to identify with anyone, and would find it hard to band together with other slaves. The consequences of not knowing who he really was may not have fazed Douglass much during his childhood. However as he grew older and began to understand how the politics of slavery work, there is no doubt that this lack of principle human right (to which everyone should be entitled) certainly motivated Douglass towards achieving his goal of freedom. Overall, the lack of knowing his family was yet another hardship imposed on slaves by their masters used to keep them in line.

Another example of the slave owners using a loss of identity as a controlling device also came in the first chapter of the novel. Many slaves had absolutely no concept of time, in terms of factual dates. Slaves were kept "ignorant" as to the facts of the real world, in most cases not even knowing the year of their birth, preventing the knowledge of a captive's true age. A birthday is something with which people can identify, as they are a celebrated part of our culture, especially to youth. Douglass here identifies himself as a human being lacking what we may consider a normal childhood simply through the use of dates. We identify ourselves by the dates which surround the events of our lives. Part of our identity is formed from dates and this was a privilege he was denied. He is, however, provided with a general idea as to how old he truly is, "I come to this from hearing my master say, sometime during 1835, I was about seventeen years old," but there is no substitute for the absolute truth (Douglass, ch1). Not only is this ignorance on the slaves’ age a useful measure for controlling them, but the lack of information available to the slaves on the workings of the outside world also help maintain their obedience. Imagine if the slaves were able to hear about all the different uprisings that took place around the country, or were able to spread the word to coordinate their own uprisings. By keeping the information available to the slaves localized, the slave master would be able to keep any outside influence removed from his slaves’ lives, and would make it easier for the slaves to be controlled.

Another example later in the novel is when Douglass had moved into a new mistress’ home who had never known of slavery, but he saw her corrupted by it soon enough. While she had initially taught him to read, fed him well, and looked upon him like an equal human being, she eventually forbade him from reading and whipped him at her husband’s request. The kind woman he had known became inhumane and degrading because that was required to maintain the unwarranted power over slaves. Even the most kind of people can



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