Fredrick Douglass(Book Report)
The brutality that slaves endured form their masters and from the institution of slavery caused slaves to be denied their god given rights. In the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Douglass has the ability to show the psychological battle between the white slave holders and their black slaves, which is shown by Douglass’ own intellectual struggles against his white slave holders. I will focus my attention on how education allowed Douglass to understand how slavery was wrong, and how the Americans saw the blacks as not equal, and only suitable for slave work. I will also contrast how Douglass’ view was very similar to that of the women in antebellum America, and the role that Christianity played in his life as a slave and then as a free man. The novel clearly displays the children’s animalistic behavior when they were not regularly allowanced. Douglass says, “Our food was coarse corn meal boiled, which was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied” (Douglass 41-42). This clearly describes how children where treated like animals and their inability to act in the manner of a normal educated child. Slave children were denied many luxuries that other children took for granted. The knowledge of their birthdays was one of these luxuries. Douglass states, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, springtime, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (Douglass 19). This passage clearly indicates differences between white children and slave children. These differences build the foundation for demeaning the child into a slave and removing his manhood from his soul. This is the start of the process that extracts a brute from a child. Throughout the narrative Douglass uses the word ‘brute’, to form the image that slaves were nothing more than beasts. This is only one of the numerous examples in which Douglass creates the image of a dehumanized slave though the use of his vocabulary. Douglass states, “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!” (Douglass 73). Douglass makes it clear to the reader that slavery degrades a man, and makes him loose his manhood. According to Douglass, slavery transformed humans into beasts. Douglass was no longer a man; he was in every essence an animal transformed by the brutality of slavery into a mindless worker. Divine further supports the idea by saying, “The plantation was seen as a sort of asylum providing guidance and care for a race that could not look after itself” (Divine 237). Slavery as an institution created animals from men; it bleeds the humanity from humans and formed beasts in it’s wake that need nothing but a comparatively small amount of cultivation to make him an ornament to society and a blessing to his race. By the law of the land, by the voice of the people, by the terms of the slave code, he was only a piece of property, a beast of burden, and a chattel person. Divine supports this thought by stating, ” slaves were also valuable property and the main tools of production” (Divine 235). With this, we are able to see how the slaves were not looked at as people but as commodities, thus demeaning them into objects and not humans. Frederick Douglass salvages his human nature though education and self-determination. When Douglass first got a taste of knowledge, he then understood the power in which it held. Douglass states, “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty-to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man” (Douglass, 47). This was Douglass’ first step towards freedom, which was learning what he had to do to get there, that was to learn and gain the white man’s knowledge. Douglass says, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass, 47). This revelation came upon him after hearing his master, Mr. Auld reprehend Mrs. Auld for teaching Douglass spelling. Mr. Auld states, “If you give a nigger and inch, he will take an ell” (Douglass, 47). Education and literacy would allow a slave to see that there was another way of living and were not inferior to the white man. Divine supports the idea that the white men felt they were superior to the blacks by saying, “Blacks, it was alleged, were innately inferior to the whites and suited only for slavery” (Divine 237). Douglass became aware that the efforts of the whites were to prevent a power struggle from ever occurring by preventing the slave from thinking that equality could ever take place. Douglass set his heart on becoming educated, allowing him to challenge the power of the white man. Douglass says, ” given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” (Douglass 51). Thus the desire for freedom was exited by his understanding of the whole and its functions. When Douglass was a plantation slave, he knew little of these facts and thus had no desire to escape, but as Douglass was gaining intellect he was breaking the chains of his enslavement. Along the way to gaining intellect, Douglass faced many obstacles, many of which were brought about by slaveholders, which brought him to his deepest despair in life. Mr. Covey is an excellent example of a slaveholder who would do everything in his power to prevent his slaves from thinking of freedom. His method was to work his slaves so hard that their spirit and aspirations were detached from them, seeming more like dreams than reality. The description of Douglass’ emotional state shows the tortured mind of the slave in a life of despair, “Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in sort of a beast like stupor I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality” (Douglass 73). The efforts of the whites to keep their slaves suppressed were so strong that even Douglass’ knowledge could barely keep him fighting. At times he even regretted knowing the things, which he had learned, for it made him all the more miserable for being a slave and knowing that there were others who did not share in his agony. Douglass says, ” I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing” (Douglass 53). Douglass speaks of this because the knowledge of freedom makes it more difficult to endure the suffering of slavery. He knows what it is like to experience something of a good treatment, and he is educated enough to realize that it is something entirely different to be free. Christianity also played a role in the way Douglass struggled with his existence and how he viewed the southern slaveholders that were so called Christians. Douglass would cry out, ” O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! Let me be Free! Is there any God?” (Douglass 74). Douglass started to see a pattern with his masters, in which the more religious, the more brutal their actions became. Douglass says, “I believe him (Mr. Covey) to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before” (Douglass 65). Sarah M. Grimke further backs up this notion in the antebellum chapter of Gorn Document 3 by saying, “In Christian America the slave has no refuge from unbridled cruelty and lust” (Gorn 212). How could a man call himself a Christian and still act out so much hate on an individual was a question that would come up often in the discussions of Christianity when viewed with slavery. Sarah M. Grimke writes in Gorn Document 3, ” gratify the brutal lust of those who bear the name of Christians” (Gorn 212). This shows that the slaves were not the only individuals that saw the wrongful placement of the word Christian on the shoulders of the southern men. Once in the north, Douglass saw that the south’s religion was not that of the truth, and is nothing more than a false testimony that was used to make the southerners look as though they were in the right. A good example of this is how Mr. Covey would recite scripture while beating a slave, Douglass says,” he would quote this passage of scripture ‘He that knoweth his masters will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many strips” (Douglass 66). Douglass backs this up further when writing a letter to Mr. Auld in Gorn Document 5, which says, ” They (North) have little respect for your honesty, and less for you religion” (Gorn 241). Douglass further supports this by saying, “that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, a justifier of the most appalling barbarity” (Douglass 84). The religion in which Douglass grew up knowing and hearing from the southern men was not that of the true religion of God, but that of hate. Douglass’ small steps toward freedom included more than just physical battles against the whites. He shows that to become free, involves more than simply running north, but the road to freedom, is instead, shown to be a power struggle and a long draining intellectual process of learning and maturing. One can see that Douglass’ determination to be free was a result of gaining knowledge. In a world where the ‘haves’ sit on knowledge, language was power, and language was Douglass’ first key to freedom, then his armor, and finally his sword. He turned on his oppressors and raised it against them, and his words became a healing balm and a fixer of wrongs of slavery. Douglass sums this up great when writing a letter to Mr. Auld in Gorn Document 5 by saying, “I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery-as a means of concentrating public attention on the system, and deepening their horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of me make use of you as a means of exposing the character of the American church and clergy-and as a means of bringing this guilty nation with yourself to repentance” (Gorn 242). We also see how the women in antebellum America shared the views of the black slaves, in seeing that it was inhumane to treat another human in such a brutal way. These women and the run away slaves such as Douglass helped to start the anti-slave movement in North America, and started to challenge the southern religion. Throughout the book, we saw Douglass go through several life changes, from slavery to freedom, from the south to the North, from a young man of many names to the adult named Frederick Douglass, thus in the end, this gifted man helped America come to terms with slavery as it really was.