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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Essay on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”

The title itself of the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” tells everything about this literary piece.  The theme that was quite prevalent throughout the story was the oppression suffered by slaves in the Southern States.  It is worth stressing that throughout the entire narrative Frederick Douglass discussed and shared with his readers the condition of slaves, and the treatment and brutalization they suffered in the hands of their masters.  Among these conditions were as follows: 1) slaves were subjected to hard work and toil in plantations of tobacco, wheat and corn.  They were given little food and clothing and even denied a comfortable place to stay.   Slaves were also denied decent sleep as they oftentimes return to work the following day without having slept. 

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Thus, in Chapter II Frederick Douglass describes in detail the provision of clothes allotted to the slaves, “their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes; the whole of which could not have cost more than seven dollars… The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.” (Chapter II, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave)  2) Slaves were often brutalized by their owners even with the littlest of mistakes.  They were totally subjected to the whims and caprices of their owners.  They are not expected to complain if ever their masters will inflict physical pain against them.  Any slave who dare speak ill of his master will find himself sold to other slave owners and separated from his family.  The brutality was explained by Frederick Douglass in Chapter I, “I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest.”  (Chapter I, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave) 3) Slaves were denied the right to vote, right to know, freedom, and even the right to life.  During this time, it was ordinary for a slave to be killed by their masters without being made to answer for his crime.  Frederick Douglass recounts in Chapter IV how Demby, another slave, was shot to death by Gore and how another slave was killed with the use of a hatchet.  The death of slaves in the hands of their master was not considered a crime.  It did not even arouse the sympathy of the people in the community.  Thus, Frederick Douglass explained in Chapter IV, “I speak advisedly when I say this,--that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community. Mr. Thomas Lanman, of St. Michael's, killed two slaves, one of whom he killed with a hatchet, by knocking his brains out. He used to boast of the commission of the awful and bloody deed. I have heard him do so laughingly, saying, among other things, that he was the only benefactor of his country in the company, and that when others would do as much as he had done, we should be relieved of ‘the d----d niggers."’” (Chapter IV, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave)

The second theme that was prevalent in the Narrative was the hypocrisy among Christians.  Frederick Douglass stated that the slave owners during this time were also Christians who regularly attended mass, read the bible and even prayed.  It is however very surprising that their acts contradicted the most fundamental of Christian belief which is to love and care for other people.  For instance, it is common for the masters to sexually abuse their slaves to the point that they these slaves become pregnant with the babies of their owners.  When the slave woman gives birth, the master sells the baby to the care of another master so that the baby will be separated from its mother. 

The third theme is the separation of the family by the separation of children of slaves from their mothers even before their first birthday.  After the slave woman has given birth she is allowed to take care of the child for at least one year.  Afterwards, the child will then be transferred to the care of a woman who was too old to work in the field.  Oftentimes, these children will grow up not knowing who their parents were.  In the case of Frederick Douglass, however, he was able to know his mother as she took the effort of seeing her son after she worked in the field.  He however did not know who his father was though there were rumors that his master was his own father. 

The fourth theme is that of resignation among slaves.  The worst part about the situation of slaves was the acceptance of the dehumanizing treatment in the hands of their masters.  They did not fight for their rights nor did they do anything to improve their situation.  They lost the desire to aspire and become something more.  In fact, for some slaves they are happy and contented that they are owned by a rich and powerful master.  Frederick Douglass stressed this point in Chapter III and said “They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man's slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!”  It is common for slaves to quarrel amongst themselves about who has the richer and more powerful master.  They seemed to think that their qualities as a person are dependent upon their masters.  This is said because it shows that the slaves have lost their individuality, sense of self pride and self worth.

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