The institution of American slavery was fraught with many heart wrenching tails of inhuman treatment endured by those of African descent. In his autobiography Frederick Douglass details the daily horrors slaves faced. In Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave he depicts the plight of slavery with such eloquence that only one having suffered through it could do. Douglass writes on many key topics in slave life such as separation of families, punishment, and the truth that would lead him to freedom, and how these things work to keep slavery intact.
In the words of Frederick Douglass, “My mother and I were separated when I was only but an infantIt is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.” (22) The bond between mother and child was broken before it had chance to form. He went on to say how his brothers and sisters knew they were such, but the early separation of them made them strangers to each other. He, himself a witness and victim of separation, wrote of the horror the thought of severance from loved ones and friends inspired among the slaves. Slaves thought to be unmanageable by their masters were sold as a way of keeping the others inline.
A very sad tail of separation Frederick Douglass spoke of was that of his grandmother from her family. His grandmother was not sold, but instead deemed useless do to old age. In his words, “If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing for slaveholders it was their base ingratitude to my poor grandmother.” (61) She had been with her recently deceased master all his life. She and her twelve children “peopled” his plantations and brought much wealth to him. Upon her masters death freedom was not her reward for years of service. She had to watch as her children and grand children were sold off. Left to the will of strangers she was sent to live out the rest of her life alone in a little hut in the woods. Douglass describes his grandmother’s fate as follows:
She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl…And now when weighed down by the pains of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together-at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise toward a declining parent-my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone. (61)
The thought of separation from loved ones was horrible. Many who had the means to escape their bondage probably remained for fear of separation from family and friends. The slaveholders had an effective tool in keeping their captives in chains. Punishment, and the fear it implanted in the minds of the slaves also served the slave holders well.
Slaves were often whipped for the smallest infractions. As per Frederick Douglass, “It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave.” (87) He goes on to list some reasons a slave might be whipped for, “A mere look, word, or motion,–mistakes, accident, or want of powerDoes he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it.” (89) In one illustration of said treatment Douglass tells of how cruel his first master was.
Frederick Douglass’s first master, Captain Anthony, “would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave.” (24) Douglass wrote, “No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose.” He would lash his slaves to a beam and whip them until blood cover their bodies. One slave who received this treatment often was Douglass’s Aunt Hester. Her offence was seeing a man when her master warned against it. Douglass alludes to Anthony’s motives for the treatment of Hester. Anthony seemed to be jealous for Aunt Hester “was a woman of noble formhaving very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women of the neighborhood.” (25) In addition to the threat of separation from family and the whippings endured by slaves there was one single element that was more successful than any other at keeping millions enslaved for so long a period of time.
The key to keeping so many Africans in bondage was ignorance. From their birthdays to learning to read slave were kept as much in mental darkness as humanly possible. The turning point for Frederick Douglass was when he overheard an argument against teaching slaves to read:
“If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now, if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” (49)
This argument showed much cunning on the part of slaveholders and was for Douglass enlightening. Douglass said, “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty-to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” (49) Douglass was not content to remain a slave for life and resolved there after to change his predicament.
Frederick Douglass’s autobiography illustrates the atrocities faced by American slaves at the hand of slaveholders. The brilliance with which he writes speaks to the potential that laid dormant in the slave population. His is a story of resilience and want for a better life. In this all who read his life story are compelled to identify with it. The separation, harsh punishment, and the forced ignorance slaves suffered in bondage in inexcusable but much can be learned from this tragic period in American history.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave.
New York: The New American Library, Inc. 1968