The Struggles Of A Slave History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
What did enslaved African-Americans during the nineteenth century really endure? Frederick Douglass captures his struggles as a slave in his book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. In his narrative, Douglass describes how the white slave owners’ view of slavery is acceptable in the eyes of Christians, the violence that led to the problem of inequality among races, and how knowledge ultimately guided him to freedom.
A life devoted to faith in God was something Frederick Douglass valued. In his book, he states that the men who owned slaves spoke the Word of the Christian doctrine but did not actually practice it. In fact, they used Christianity to validate their ownership of slaves and slavery all together. At one of his presentations in Baltimore, Douglass explained the important components of Christian beliefs. He then illustrated how those beliefs contradict the way in which white men mistreated slaves. He finds it ironic that this faith values the virtues of mercy and compassion yet neither virtue was bestowed upon slaves during that time. In an excerpt from the Bible, it states “He that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (King James Bible, Exodus 21:16), proving Douglass’ point that the Bible does not condone the use of slavery in any form.
Throughout his narrative, Douglass calls attention to different religious views of the other slaves and their outlook on how the Bible portrays slavery; he also comes to the conclusion that there is a difference between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of the land. About this Douglass says “to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked” (120). This summarizes his idea that Christianity is incorrectly interpreted by the slave owners and that they may have just been making it appear as if slavery were accepted in the Bible. There are many explanations that can justify why the white men thought slavery tolerable. In the Bible, it says “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (King James Version, 1 Corinthians 12:13). I interpret this quote to mean that all people are the same, but also that there is no provision stating that owning another human is moral or immoral. Slave owners might have drawn this conclusion from the same words. These men whole heartedly believed that it was acceptable to keep blacks in retention, solely because of the color of their skin, but I believe common logic would tell them that it was indeed wrong. Christianity does not serve as evidence of their natural integrity, but simply a hypocritical cover that serves to boost their self-righteous cruelty.
In his narrative, Douglass mentions that the slave owners who claimed to be the most religious were often the most cruel. This is also said by nineteenth century rebellious slave Nat Turner “the more “faithful” they were, the more they beat on us and whip on us”(Greenburg 41). This, to me, is ironic in the fact that they think they are doing right by owning slaves, but they also think it is all right to beat their slaves. Douglass compares Mr. Freeland with some of the other masters he has had before. Douglass thinks Mr. Freeland is the best master he has had, in part because he is not a religious hypocrite. On the other hand, a large amount of the extremely religious masters were often the most brutal slaveholders. Douglass recalls one reverend, Mr. Rigby Hopkins, whom he believed to be the utmost religious hypocrite. Mr. Hopkins beat his slave for any and every reason, using piety as his justification. This example reiterates why Douglass believed slave owners completely misconstrued the concept of Christianity and its sacred values.
In Douglass’ narrative, there are countless examples of inequality as well as examples describing how poorly the slave owners treated their slaves. Some of the slaves went without food, and others were forced to sleep half-naked on cold, damp floors. In Douglass’ narrative you can ultimately tie together how inequality and violence relate to one another. The whole idea of slavery is depicted from the assumption that whites are more superior than blacks. Many of the slaves described in the narrative are treated differently based on their attitude and servitude towards their owner, as well as the owners expectations.
In 1832 Douglass arrives at the residence of Thomas Auld’s. Mr. Auld is particularly more cruel than the other slave owners because Auld does not give the slaves enough food. Douglass works in the kitchen alongside his sister, Eliza, his aunt, Priscilla, and an additional woman named Henny. They often had to beg or steal food from neighbors simply to survive. This shows the inequality they faced; just because they had a different color skin they did not get to eat they way humans rightly should. I think what was most horrible was that Thomas Auld always seemed to have food going bad in his storehouse, but could not spare any for his slaves. Douglass says in his book “not to give a slave enough to eat, is regarded as the most aggravated development of meanness even among slaveholders” (76). Physical and verbal abuse were, I think, experienced almost daily for most slaves, but the lack of food made their lives even more discouraging.
After living with Master Thomas, Douglass went to live with Mr. Covey in 1833. Mr. Covey was know to break disorderly slaves in order to turn them into the best slaves possible. Douglass refers to his time with Mr. Covey as the darkest time of his life. He was beaten time after time and was over-worked nearly every day of his stay. Douglass falls to a low point in his life where he no longer wishes to think, read, or even live anymore. He explains how he thought his behavior was unmanageable when he first started working for Mr. Covey, but after a few months of being beaten repeatedly, and worked to the bone, Douglass says,
“Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken 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!” (83).
Douglass used these words to explain how he felt about himself. I believe that when someone beats you down repeatedly and is in full control of you, one can become something they never thought they could.
The perception that knowledge would ultimately lead a slave to freedom is something most slave owners agreed upon. Douglass was undeniably more intellegent than most slaves. While he lived with the Aulds, the owner’s wife, Sophia Auld, took a special interest in him and taught him to read. Sophia was one of the few inspiring white owners Douglass ever came across. Hugh Auld, Douglass’ true owner at the time, did not apporve of his wife teaching Douglass to read. In Aulds words, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master” (Douglass 63). Mr. Auld thought that if she taught him, or any other slave, to read that he was spoiled and would forever be unfit for a slave. The most irony lies in the fact that Douglass actually learns something else from Hugh Auld; that knowledge was the path to freedom, which is why he did not want his slaves learning to read.
I believe that knowledge is one of the most important gifts a person can possess. Frederick Douglass thought the same, and he pursued knowledge as much as he could. Even when he was disciplined for trying to learn how to read, he still made sure he was taught to read. Some say “knowledge is freedom, and ignorance is slavery,” and this deems it self true in the eyes of Douglass. Many men, even white men knew that slavery was wrong. President Abraham Lincoln said “This good earth is plenty broad enough for the white man and the negro both, and there is no need of either pushing the other off” (“Lincoln’s Thoughts on Slavery”).
Frederick Douglass picked up on as much knowledge as he could during his time as a slave. He learned from watching other slaves and analyzing what they did and how the owners would treat them; he also came across many helpful tips after observing a few good slave owners. He concluded that freedom was achieved through knowledge. He learned how to use his knowledge to escape and be free.
Though Douglass himself gains his freedom in part by virtue of his self-education, he does not generalize this connection. He does not believe that knowledge automatically sets slaves free. However, knowledge helps slaves to articulate the unfairness of slavery, which is being brought upon themselves and others, and this helps them recognize themselves as men or women rather than slaves. When they realize that they deserve fair and proper treatment, such as all humans do, they become fully aware of their situation and the urge to escape that lifestyle comes to life.
Frederick Douglass’ narrative remains one of the few detailed documentaries that examines the true cruelties of slavery. He accounts for the misinterpreted views the slave owners held regarding Christianity and the practice of slavery: how they thought the Bible deemed slavery acceptable because there was never a mention of whether possessing the life of another human was right or wrong. He describes, in great detail, the physical violence he endured from the hand of a man whose ultimate goal was to break his spirit; few people know the feeling today because such behavior now is intolerable. After all the struggles and turmoil he faced however, Douglass expresses his idea that one who gains knowledge will eventually gain freedom also. His learning to read gave him the idea that, one who remains ignorant could never truly see the mistreatment occurring. Once they became learned however, they would discover that knowledge would guide them on to their freedom.
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