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Frederick Douglass Persuasive Essay

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, is a first hand account of Douglass’s experience as a slave in seventeenth century America; how he lived, survived, and eventually escaped. The Condition of Black Life is One of Morning by Claudia Rankine is an essay written by an African American woman detailing the conditions of black life in America in the present day, and discussing acts of institutionalized racism and violence towards African American people.

In The Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, by employing biblical allusion, and ethos, Douglass attempts to convince his audience that slaves are human, therefore slavery should be abolished while Claudia Rankine’s The Condition of Black Life is One of Morning is crafted using pathos, and anaphora to convince the audience to actively recognize the effects of institutionalized racism in the present day in order to bring about equality.

Each text is effective in it’s purpose, however whether one is more effective than the other cannot be determined because of the differences in time period and audience; the texts are incomparable to one another in this regard. Frederick Douglass uses biblical allusion to find common ground with his audience and establish credibility. Douglass alludes to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden when he mentions the “large and finely cultivated garden” whose “excellent fruit was quite a temptation” (Douglass 36-37).

Douglass’s use of biblical anecdotes allows him to bridge the racial divide between himself and his largely white, Christian audience. He writes in such a way that is applicable to them so they can better understand the ideas he is conveying. The mention of a garden with forbidden fruit invariably leads the audience to make comparisons between slavery and the experiences of Adam and Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden, a popular Bible story which most Christians can recount by heart. This puts what Douglass is saying into a context the audience can interpret.

Given that the dominant religion of seventeenth century America was Christianity, many authors during this time period reference the Bible in their works to establish credibility with their audience. Douglass uses this information to humanize himself, both allowing his audience to see him as a person by demonstrating his knowledge of respected literature and the bible, and establishing his credibility. “I was hungry, and he gave me meat; I was thirsty, and he gave me drink; I was a stranger, and he took me in”(Douglass 124).

Here Douglass quotes Matthew 25:35 of the New Testament which, to a contemporary audience, may seem too subtle to be widely recognized. However, when read by an audience who has closely studied the Bible, this quote would remind them of the divine direction that love and obedience to God is to be shown by the care of others; In other words, the desire to be righteous and show one’s faith can be fulfilled by serving their fellow beings. This principle immediately forces the reader to be critical of their own actions day to day and how they treat the people around them.

With this in mind, Douglass intends for the audience to consider how this message from the Bible applies to slavery and hopes this will compel them to change the way they treat and think about black people. Not only this, but when taken into consideration who is reminding them of how they should be behaving, Douglass is suddenly viewed as somebody who keeps and lives by a moral religious code, making him appear even more human and relatable. In addition to relating to his audience, this also contributes to Douglass’s ethos.

The narrative has a strong ethos component, in that Douglass is proven to be credible as both a slave and an author. This credibility compels the audience to listen to what he is saying and not be dismissive based on his race. In the preface written by noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, he (Garrison) asserts that “[Douglass’s experience] as a slave, was not a peculiar one; his lot was not especially a hard one; his case may be regarded as a very fair specimen of the treatment of slaves” (Garrison 13). Here, Douglass is recognized as a credible speaker on the conditions of slavery.

The typicality of Douglass’s experience qualifies his accounts as representative of the experience of slavery. Because of this credibility, the reader cannot dismiss Douglass’s experience as an outlier of the normal conditions of slavery, or simply write it off as a purely biased and atypical account. Garrison goes on to describe Douglass as “capable of high attainments as an intellectual and moral being-needing nothing but a comparatively small amount of cultivation to make him an ornament to society and a blessing to his race” (Garrison 9).

This assessment establishes Douglass’s intellectual prowess, indicating his credibility as an author. This in turn counteracts the prejudiced belief that African Americans are inferior, or incapable of such eloquence and literacy. The effect on the audience is twofold: they both are forced to recognize that Douglass’s work is legitimate and also that African Americans are indeed capable of achieving the same things white people are if only given the “small amount of cultivation” needed to succeed.

In comparison to Frederick Douglass, Claudia Rankine crafts her argument with a strong pathos component, compelling her audience to feel grief and understand the necessity of her message. Rankine opens stating: “A friend recently told me that when she gave birth to her son, before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was I have to get him out of this country” (Rankine 2). Immediately, the mention of motherhood and childbirth gives at least half of the audience something to relate to, no matter their race.

The idea that one’s child is in danger is a common fear among women and they are biologically predisposed to be protective of children. Because Rankine’s friends first thought was that her child would be unsafe in America due to the color of his skin shows that the conditions of black life are such that mothers would not wish to bring their children up in that life. Motherhood is something Rankine brings up frequently, using examples of mothers of victims of race based shootings and hate crimes and how they were affected.

This makes her audience feel more sympathetic, and receptive to what she is saying about systematic racism. Later on, Rankine describes what Michael Brown’s mother was restricted from seeing his body after he was shot by the police, saying that “she was denied the rights as a mother, a sad fact reminiscent of pre-Civil War times, when as a slave she would have had no legal claim to her offspring” (Rankine 7). Again there is the pathos in drawing on motherhood and the separation of mother and child to provoke emotion.

In addition, here she compares the way Michael Brown’s mother was treated to the way mothers were treated in slavery. Comparing a modern issue so closely to something that America is proud to have abolished and teaches against in their schools and churches provokes a feeling of panic and a sense that something is wrong and that there needs to be change. This feeling of panic is brought about by the idea of fallibility in America; In its government, in its congress and in it’s people.

Americans enjoy being proud of their nation and boasting about freedom and equality; However, when Rankine shows how that vision of America is unrealistic because the past of slavery is still affecting lives when it was supposed to have been abolished, the audience feels disappointment in their country, and is tormented by the flaws in society. Rankine also uses anaphora to supplement the arguments she makes, and emphasize the applicability of her message.

When discussing the disadvantage that comes with being born into a black life, Rankine lists a series of activities one can not do or must be careful of, including: “no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black. ” (Rankine 2).

Here, the way Rankine repeats the word “no” followed by an action shows the limitations society has put on black life. They way it is listed, it specifically builds from smaller, less important actions such as “no hands in your pockets” to bigger more serious actions like “no living”. This build up enhances the anaphora and allows the reader to discover how deeply systematic racism affects black lives, to the point where they cannot exist without being subject to unfair treatment.

This list of simple everyday activities forces the reader to put themselves in the shoes of somebody who does not have the luxury of performing these acts, and challenges them to adopt a more mindful view on these issues. Later in the text, Rankine shows how “Anti-black racism is in the culture. It’s in our laws, in our advertisements, in our friendships, in our segregated cities, in our schools, in our Congress, in our scientific experiments, in our language, on the Internet, in our bodies no matter our race, in our communities and, perhaps most devastatingly, in our justice system” (Rankine 5).

Again, the repetition of the words “in our” followed by a shared belonging or trait, emphasizes the point Rankine is trying to make; That racism is deeply imbedded in the fabric of society, and in places that people are supposed to trust to have their best interests at heart, such as schools and congress. By repeating the word our, Rankine strongly suggests that racism is everybody’s problem and once again causes the reader to apply that lesson to themselves and discover what that means for themselves.

Frederick Douglass wrote his narrative to an audience he knew would be less than willing to hear what he had to say about slavery. However the unprecedented way in which he wrote about his experience by using biblical allusion and his own credibility to humanize himself and entice the reader to listen, made the narrative successful for its nature in its time period. Rankine’s essay came at a time where the issue she writes about was extremely prevalent and spoken about by the public. Using this to her advantage, she crafts her argument with pathos and supplements it with anaphora to convince her audience of her argument.

It is easy to say Rankine’s text is more effective because it reached more people, but that does not take into account the fact that her audience had just experienced the infamous Charleston shootings and therefore was more sympathetic to her message than Douglass’s was to his. When comparing these two texts, it is important to keep in mind that they were written in very different times and to contrasting audiences; To compare them in order to declare one more effective than the other would be an oversight of the circumstances leading to each one’s success.

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