Frederick Douglass: Portraying Slaveholders

[email protected]

Learning and knowledge make all the difference in the world, as Frederick Douglass proves by changing himself from another man?s slave to a widely respected writer. A person is not necessarily what others label him; the self is completely independent, and through learning can move proverbial mountains. The main focus of this essay is on the lives of the American Slaves, and their treatment by their masters. The brutality brought upon the slaves by their holders was cruel, and almost sadistic. These examples will cite how the nature of Douglass?s thoughts and the level of his understanding changed, and his method of proving the evilness of slavery went from visual descriptions of brutality to more philosophical arguments about its wrongness.

Since Douglass was very much an educated man by the time he wrote the Narrative, it is as hard for him to describe his emotions and thoughts when he was completely devoid of knowledge as it is for a blind and deaf man to describe what he thought and felt before he learned to communicate with the outside world. Culture, society, and common beliefs are our bridge to communication with one another. Douglass, then, could never really explain all of what and how he felt about himself in his earlier slave days in such a way that those who read his autobiography would ever understand completely.

Our first glimpse of Douglass is as a small boy, without a birthday, father, or any sort of identity. ?I have no accurate knowledge of my age ? A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.? (p. 39) Forced to eat his meals of mush out of a trough, wearing nothing but a long, coarsely-woven shirt, and being kept in complete mental darkness, Douglass was completely dehumanized even before he experienced the horrible violence of the slaveholders towards their slaves. His proof of the evil of slavery, a main theme in the Narrative, is mostly through visual descriptions of the violence of the overseers towards the slaves.

?The louder she screamed, the harder he [the overseer] whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest ? and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease ... I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was ? a child, but I well remember it ? I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.? (p. 42).

These examples show some depth into the lives of a slave as some were treated unhumanly. It was not fair, nor was it just, but it was their life.

It is interesting to note that Douglass has to first learn how the slaveholders think before he can really explain just what it is about slavery that makes it so wrong. Obviously the bloody violence is a major part of what makes slavery so terrible, but there are other aspects, just as horrible, which are not so visible to the naked eye. As a child he could see only what was tangible; without the power of knowledge he could not truly understand the depths of the wrongs. Slowly, the truth opened up to him: ?The light broke in upon me by degrees.? (p. 62). He began to realize that he was his slaveholders equal and through knowledge and education, they were no more important than he was.

By the end of the Narrative, Douglass has proven his deservedness for equality with any white man alive. He has shown that a person doesn?t have to allow himself to be pushed into a generic mold (in his case, a slave), but with a strong personality can escape and better himself. His effective powers of persuasion incorporate not just visual imagery of blood, starvation, and other maltreatment, but also well thought-out descriptions of the true hypocrisy, brutality, and evilness of slavery. His most important point also comes across loud and clear: Lack of learning and knowledge is the only thing that keeps his black brethren complacently in their bonds ? the slaves themselves are in every other way their masters? equals. They are just as intelligent, decent, and capable as any white men.