A Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass: Slavery In The South Book Review

Published: 2021-06-18 05:27:00
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A clear depiction of the nature of slavery in the south of Antebellum America is present in Douglass’ “A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.”As an African American Born into slavery and raised as such, Douglass’ narration gives his readers insight into his life and his struggle with the slavery institution. The book revolves around Frederick Douglass’ experiences at the hands of different slave masters before finally escaping to the northern states and joining the abolitionists’ movement. As the book commences, Frederick Douglass shows his confusion over the basis of slavery and in turn, makes his conclusions about the white slave owners. Douglass’ story as a slave in the south tells of the southerners’ understanding of slavery and their methods of ensuring the survival of the institution. Consequently, this paper seeks to analyze the nature of slavery in the south and the ideologies that govern the same. For the purpose of said exploration, there is a need to look at the relationship between a master and his slaves and in turn, the methods used to support the whole institution.
Foremost, to the whites, more slaves portrayed more riches because slaves were mere property to their owners. In the autobiography, Douglass tells of an old black slave, belonging to Colonel Lloyd, killed by Mr. Beal Bondly for trespassing into his waters (p.33). Consequently, when Bondly comes to see the colonel, Douglass wonders whether he has come “to pay him for his property or to justify himself in what he had done” (p.33). Either way, the incident is “hushed up” and not revisited again. The incident shows the little regard whites give to the lives of blacks and in turn, the concept of a monetary price over the life of a slave. It is evident that the law gives white men free reign over the lives of slaves and in turn, allows southern slave owners to deal with their “property” as they please. The ideology explains the incidents of brutality and force used to ensure that slaves learned their place was beneath that of the masters. Again, Douglass' narration gives evidence to the superior status of the white man through different scenarios in which slaves receive thorough whippings. For instance, his first master is always hitting Aunt Hester (p.16) while Mrs. Hamilton whips Henrietta and Mary for no reason (p.51). On the other hand, there are his experiences with the "nigger-breaker" Edward Covey (p.63). The listed incidents are a few among many more where the brutality of slave owners is evident in their dealings with said slaves. Hence, very much like one would a beast of burden, the whippings and hostile scenarios against black slaves portrays the views of whites against blacks.
Another trait of slavery finds a basis in the fact that none of the slaves possesses any property, and most families do not stay together. Also supported by law, and the aim of slave ownership, whites in the south benefitted a lot from the slavery institution because of the free labor. The ideal example is at the beginning of the writing where Douglass tells of his separation from his mother. According to the author, it is common in Maryland for slave owners to “part children from their mothers at a very early age” (p.13). As Maryland is part of the southern states, one can safely conclude that the act is also common in other southern states. In addition to separating families, Douglass provides a list of food, and other personal items slaves receive as part of their “monthly allowance" (p.19). What the owner allocates is everything the slaves need to bring in maximum profits. Expectedly, anything acquired without the permission of the masters is illegal and punishable as the owner sees fit (p.34). Thus, slaves were not entitled to anything and avoided any forms of attachment with other slaves because of possible separation. The work of a slave is to live a life that benefits his or her master and not his or her personal desires.
In support of the slavery institution, slave owners saw a need to destroy all thoughts pertaining to equality between the black and the white race. Such deliberations revolve around the possibility of education making blacks "forever unfit" to be slaves (p.40). Consequently, Douglass points out that slave owners preferred seeing slaves “engaged in those degrading sports” instead of them “behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings” (p.81). Thus emerges the importance of illiteracy and ignorance in the maintenance of the slavery institution in the south. In the novel, Douglass dubs his discovery as “the pathway from slavery to freedom” (p.29). The development of education as a tool to achieve freedom happens accidentally in story. Upon discovering that his wife is teaching Douglass how to read and write, Hugh Auld reveals the importance of ignorance to maintaining a slave. According to Hugh, “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world” and in the presence of Douglass, Hugh points out the “evil consequences” of his wife's actions (p.40). In a bid to continue learning, after Mrs. Hugh stops teaching him, Douglass recruits young, poor white children as his informal teachers in exchange for bread (p.44). Education empowers Douglass that he later shows other slaves how to read and write and as his narration ends; his learned persona aids his role as an abolitionist.
Slavery to the southerners suffices as a religious act, and the peoples’ identification with Christianity approves the degrading institution. A good illustration is “that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right” (p.14). According to the southerners, the black race descends from Ham, Noah's cursed son (p.14). As dictated by the curse, Ham's descendants are slaves to his brothers' descendants, thus foretelling America's slavery institution. Consequently, slavery is acceptable because its system serves God’s purpose by fulfilling the expectations He has for his people. As seen in the novel, the more a slave owner convinces himself that Christianity advocates slavery, the worst he treats his slaves. With such facts in mind, readers ought to expect Douglass’ notion that “religious slaveholders are the worst” (p.78). As a result, any form of unwanted behavior amongst the slaves was, as per the religious slave masters, the work of the devil that “must be whipped out” (79). Such logic explains the ruthless nature of the Christian masters Douglass encounters.
Evidently, the slavery system constitutes multiple traits amongst the southerners, and as a result, assumes different characteristics. Economically, slave labor in the farms ensured massive harvests for the white owners. Douglass narrates instances in which slaves toil in the farms “between sunrise and sunset” (p.80). In addition, slaves are property of the whites meaning that because one needs to purchase slaves, the system represented the backbone of the southern states’ economy. Socially, the existing hierarchy that placed slaves as an inferior race belonging to their white owners dictated southern states and coexistence. Throughout the novel, the need to put blacks at the mercy of the whites is the whole foundation of slavery. By denying them an education and instilling fear into the blacks, slavery maintains its original nature of one person being at the mercy of the other. Finally, yet importantly, there is the political representation of slavery to the whites. Ideally, after independence, the constitution deemed all Americans as equals before the law. However, because of slavery, the black race assumed the position of lesser human beings or animals. Thus, because of the system, blacks were to amount to nothing.
All the facts Douglass includes in his biography explains the reasons for the southerners’ secession from the union to form the confederate states and later, the American Civil War. With the importance of slavery to the southerner’s existence and social cohesion, a destruction of the system entailed a rapid change in the white man’s society. Therefore, Douglass’ personal narration not only explains the views of the southern states but also gives insight into the perceptions of the people towards slavery.
Douglass, F. (2002). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself (2nd ed.). (D. W. Blight, Ed.) New York: Bedford/St. Martin's.

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