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Slavery is defined as the state of being under the control of someone else, where this person is forced to work for another. Frederick Douglass, a famous abolitionist leader, was born into this horrific dehumanizing system in 1818 and lived to tell his story in his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom. Douglass argues that the institution of slavery victimizes everyone involved in the system by recalling the abuse and victimization of slaves, and the involvement of slave owners and non-slave owning whites. This essay will analyze Frederick Douglass’ views on slavery.
The dehumanization of slaves starts at the very beginning of their lives. Douglass refers to this process as the “grand aim of slavery”; children are almost always separated from their mothers and sold off to owners so far from their home that they would never even consider going back. This process severs the maternal bond that is often taken for granted. These children grow up not knowing when or where they were born, who their siblings are, and even who their real parents are. The white people that are buying and selling the slaves believe that they are doing this with “a clear conscience”. Yet this horrific process does not stop there, once the children are brought on to the plantation that they will be working on their conditions only seem to worsen. Douglass paints a heart-wrenching picture when he describes the living conditions of these little children, including himself. He mentions how everyone around him was in a constant state of nudity, the only thing they were given was “coarse sackcloth or tow-linen” that reached down to their knees. This was the one article of clothing they had not only during the boiling summers but through the unbearable winters as well. Wearing this day in and day out, it is understood that it would not be able to provide any protection and would soon be torn and useless to wear. Not only were they deprived of adequate clothing, but the sleeping arrangements of the animals on the plantation were also much better than what the children had to suffer through. They had no beds and no blankets, Douglass recalls sleeping in the bag that cornmeal was carried in, to create some sort of barrier from the cold. It is obvious that putting any human through these types of conditions has an everlasting psychological effect on them, many will be reduced into thinking of themselves as a brute, whose sole purpose in life is to serve and benefit another human being. Later on in his autobiography, Douglass recalls a time, after his old master had died, when he was sent back to his old plantation to be redistributed along with the rest of the “horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children”. This process of reevaluation is a common practice among the institution of slavery during that time, many are sent back to their original home and looked at and judged based on their “working” conditions, owners do not take into consideration the new “family” bonds they had made in their new locations, they merely asses on how useful the slave will be to them.
Douglass argues that the system of slavery also affects the slave-owning individuals. He does this by documenting the time he would serve for Hugh Auld in Baltimore. At first, his wife Mrs. Auld was a very kind, religious woman who had never owned a slave before. Because of this, she treated Douglass almost as one of her own, her compassion towards him was to a degree much better than what he had ever been a witness to. Mrs. Auld was the first person to teach Douglass the alphabet, a lesson that no slave owner would dare to teach because with learning how to read came learning how to write, which then would lead the slaves to understand other texts, ultimately learning that the conditions they were being put under are inhumane. When Mr. Auld finds out what his wife had been doing, he becomes exasperated and demands that the teaching stop instantly declaring that a slave “should know nothing but the will of his master”. Every time after Frederick Douglass was caught trying to read, Mrs. Auld would be more brutal in punishing him than his own master. This once kind, sympathetic soul had turned into this complete demon who became hardened and cruel. The sole cause for this change in character is the slavery system and the expectations it has for the relationship between the slave and the master. Throughout the book, Douglass documents various instances in which the white people at first treat him in the same manner as they would any other person, but then when they come to the realization of how slave-owning individuals are treating the black they succumb to this pressure and show the same outrage and cruelty.
Not only does the system of slavery affect the slaves and slave owners it also affects the non-slave owning whites. Because the slaves work for little to almost no money, they are often brought onto (in Douglass’ case) ship-yards to help with the building process alongside the paid white workers. Douglass points out that in this situation many of the white workers feel threatened and “robbed by the slave system”. They both work together in the ship-yard doing the exact same job, yet the slaves are not paid, this creates a frightening environment for the whites as they can easily be replaced. This whole process works against the interest of the working-class white men. The wealth was already concentrated at the top and the whites that are on the ship-yard are trying to get to that level, but because they are easily replaced there are fewer opportunities for them to attain that level of wealth.
Frederick Douglass effectively illustrates the consequences of slavery on not only the slaves themselves but the slave-owners and the non-slave owning individuals as well. He emphasizes the dehumanizing cruelty, and conditions that the slaves had to work under and brings into light that these circumstances allow for owners to manipulate them into doing the same job that the working class whites get paid to do. This specific point highlights how slavery is harmful to those who do not participate, as the slaves can take their jobs at no cost to the owners. Finally Douglass makes the argument that slavery would not exist if the blacks were not put under such harsh conditions, ultimately reducing them to the same level of a brute.
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