Frederick Douglass and the Dehumanization of Slavery

Frederick Douglass illustrates the horrors of slavery in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. There is so much evil occurring in inherent in Douglass’ story that it is difficult to comprehend how such a barbaric thing can happen in the not too distant past. Douglass does a superb job of illustrating how dehumanization of black slaves by the white ruling class played a significant role in the continued proliferation of slavery and the brutal practices that came along with it. Without dehumanizing the black slaves, society would be unable to perpetuate the culture of violence necessary to keep a slave based economy intact.

The first instance of dehumanization Douglass illustrates to the reader is the separation of children from their mother at a very young age. He writes: “Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result” (Douglass 2). Just as people often separate animals from their parents at certain ages, the slave owners of the Pre-Civil War Era South separated small children from their parents, without putting much more thought into it than when separating cattle from their mothers.

Another instance that Douglass uses to display the dehumanization of slaves is when describing how slaves were fed. He writes: “It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied (Douglass 12). Douglass uses the word “pigs,” because slave owners did not deem it necessary to provide their slaves with proper eating utensils, because they simply did not view slaves as their equal human counterparts. Since slave owners viewed their slaves as more like pigs than actual human beings, it became quite easy for them to justify the culture of violence that made slavery possible. Slave owners wanted to feed their slaves the smallest amount possible to still be proficient at their jobs, because in the slave owner’s context, food for slaves is considered a business expense and it is a business owner’s job to keep expenses to a minimum.

Perhaps the best illustration of the dehumanization of slaves is when Douglass describes what happens in jail after his plot to escape has been foiled. Douglass writes: “We had been in jail scarcely twenty minutes, when a swarm of slave traders, and agents for slave traders, flocked into jail to look at us, and to ascertain if we were for sale… And after taunting us in various ways, they one by one went into an examination of us, with intent to ascertain our value” (Douglass 38). Douglass portrays the slave traders and agents for slave traders as men auctioning for cattle instead of human beings. The slave traders and agents for slave traders at no point stop to think what they are doing is wrong, instead it is business as usual and they are eager to acquire misbehaved slaves at steep discounts, much the same as farmers will bid pennies on the dollar for underweight farm animals. The most important aspect of this quotation in terms of the dehumanization of slaves, that it is a cogent example of how slaves were regarded as a commodity that can always be bought and sold at the right price, rather than human beings that have the same thoughts, feelings and emotions as everyone else.

Douglass’ first encounters with Mrs. Auld and her kindness is a testament to the dehumanizing nature of slavery. Douglass writes: “She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living. She was by trade a weaver; and by constant application to her business, she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery (Douglass 14). Mrs. Auld had never been exposed to the horrors of slavery before her encounter with Frederick Douglass and as such, she was able to accept Frederick as a human being, rather than as simply a slave. Mrs. Auld even went on to teach Frederick Douglass how to read, and to a certain degree, was almost like a mother and less of a master. However, as time went on, all of this changed and Mr. Auld put a swift end to Mrs. Auld teaching Frederick Douglass how to read. Fortunately, for Douglass, the ability to read three and four letter words was the only spark he needed to follow up his learning with more learning and eventually came to realize his own discontent with the concept of slavery.

Slavery cannot exist without the dehumanization of slaves by the rest of society. It is only when the society views the object of oppression as non-human can such evil as slavery occur. Douglass does an excellent job of giving the reader examples to demonstrate exactly how this process took place in the Pre-Civil War Era South. His depictions are graphic in nature but are necessary to get his point across to his target audience. The examples Douglass uses of dehumanization not only serve the purpose helping the reader understand sociocultural dynamics at work in that society, but also serve the purpose of perhaps shocking the already sympathetic North into action against slavery.

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22 Responses to Frederick Douglass and the Dehumanization of Slavery

  1. jm150621 says:

    Joseph Madera

    Great job Michael on your post. Everything you stated was on point. I agree, it really is hard to understand how is it that at one point in time humans could treat other humans the way black slaves were treated. Theres no doubt in my mind that Douglass’s objective in writing this narrative was to 1. tell his story and 2. persuade anyone who had any doubts of how severe and brutal slavery was. He definitely succeeded in doing that. As you stated he doesn’t shy away from telling us some of the grim details of the horrors that he encountered. You talked about how the dehumanization of slaves was one of many reoccurring themes in the narrative. There was one part in the narrative that you didn’t mention where douglass implies that to Colonel Lloyd, one of his many slave masters, his horse was of more value than any of his slaves. Douglass says “His stable and carriage-house presented the
    appearance of some of our large city livery establishments”. To put this into perspective, the Horse had much better living conditions than the slaves did who weren’t even allowed to sleep on beds. In regards to Mrs. Auld, Douglass implies that she was a product of the system. In other words in her heart she had no hate towards a black slave such as Douglass. The fact that she was willing to teach him how to read and write makes it evident. Unfortunately society isn’t willing to see things as she did. In society it is very rare for someone to stand up for what they believe in. We usually just ride with the flow. People like Martin Luther King or Rosa parks who stood up for they believed in, were seen as outlaws at one point. I think that thats how Mrs. Auld felt. Her husband did not agree with what she was doing and therefore she changed her attitude towards Douglass.

  2. Anna Savina says:

    Michael wrote in his post about Mrs. Auld and how she treated Frederick Douglass in the beginning. I agree with him that because Mrs. Auld was not familiar with slavery she “was able to accept Frederick as a human being, rather than as simply a slave.” In my opinion, this shows how the society influences people’s opinion. This woman didn’t have any experience as a slaveowner. When she met a boy (F. Douglass), she had a normal reaction. She treated him as a child, who needs to be educated and treated equally. She didn’t see any difference between him and white people. This is a natural reaction when one human being meets another human being. On the intuitive level, people don’t have a concept of the slavery. Slavery is invented by mean avaricious people, who want to use others for free. And it was very contagious. When people got the opportunity to get their job done by others, they really liked it. This is what happened to Mrs. Auld. She realized that it could be much more convenient if Douglass would be a slave, and not an equal, educated human being. She changed her mind very fast. Her personality changed. It happened extremely fast and she had some kindness only when Douglass came to their house and was beaten working for Mr. Gardner.
    Reading about this situation, we can come to a conclusion that Douglass made a point about the right for equality for black and white people. Also, that it was very difficult to convince the society to change the attitude towards the slavery.
    I think that points out the difference of treating people in the society who knows about slavery and who doesn’t know. Mrs. Auld is a person who didn’t have a strength to follow her instincts and she makes what her husband and society expects her to do.

  3. jl135076 says:

    I thought Michael made an excellent point about the dehumanization of slavery in the story. The slave owners viewed the blacks as a tool where they were incapable in contributing to the society therefore they should be kept as workers for the slave owners. Douglass illustrates this example through this though dehumanization. As Michael stated in his blog, “Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it is to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result” As soon as the child was born at a young age he/she was taken away from his mother. This shows how the slaveholders already dehumanized the baby because the slave owners are keeping the basic facts from them, such as their birth date and paternity. By keeping the slaves illiterate, slave owners maintain control of the slaves because they know the salves won’t know how to write, reader, or even tell their side of their story. One thing I have to disagree with you on is Mrs. Auld. I don’t think she was trying to be nice to Douglass, but more of a playing a female role in the 19th century. What I mean by that is Female was viewed as a sympathetic and loving character. So it would have been appeared unnatural if she was an evil slave owner, but she turned into a cruel slave owner. On the other hand, without her help Douglass wouldn’t have known that knowledge was the way to freedom, so the ability to read and write made a huge impact on his life.

  4. Michael’s post provides a great observation to Fredrick Douglas’s literature with outstanding points. I also thought about how much an individual has to overcome to break that mold in which you are placed in since birth. Fredrick was degraded since childhood and for someone growing up in those conditions being free is something that seems unimaginable. I cannot even imagine what it is like growing up separated from your mother and not having someone to be that mother figure. I have to admit this is inspiring to have a firsthand account of what a slave encountered in those days. Not only did he become a free man but having been taught by his master’s wife he was able to read and write. Although this text drew many different emotions it also inspired me because this is someone who had absolutely nothing to succeed in his time. I also cannot forget the open conversation we shared in class that day. I felt passionate about some of the topics that were part of our class discussion and I felt we were able to clarify many of them. I will say that I was shocked at the idea that some people felt that there were no inequalities for people in this country. I respect people’s views and opinions on this topic because it is a difficult one to understand and especially if you have never been discriminated against; but let’s think of this for one moment. There are cases in which two people come from different races or backgrounds having committed similar, if not the same exact crimes and both have been sentenced differently. The only two things that differed in these cases was the color of their skin and the time they were sentenced to serve. I agree we have come a long way from how things use to be but there is so much more work to be done. Until we (I include myself) all don’t change the way we think and treat each other there will always be that inequality and we shall never be free.

  5. at147850 says:

    Michael does a great job highlighting the instances of the dehumanization of slaves. Douglass makes numerous references of slaves being compared to animals. This underlines the terrible nature of slavery, treating another human being as chattel, stripping them of any dignity to benefit yourself. Throughout every chapter Douglass’ paints a gory picture of a lashing, the one that sticks out is when he witnessed his Aunt get lashed. This again shows the brutality of this terrible institution and the violence behind it. Lastly, Douglass also uses numerous religious images, mainly though people defending themselves through or quoting scripture. This shows the incorrect usage of scripture. The gory images and dehumanization of slaves is a stark contrast to the religious images. His powerful Narrative provided a beacon for others to oppose slavery. He brought reality to masses who had not seen it before.

  6. Ka Sin Hui says:

    I think Michael did a good job in providing us lots of ideas of slave dehumanization. I totally agree with the part where the kids are separated by their mothers once they reach certain age. It is certainly absurd that they are treated like animals. They have no rights of thinking, learning and being human. Captain Anthony sees himself as a powerful master that he whips them when they do not follow his instructions. However, we are all human being who have our own mind in doing what we think is the right way to do. Since he had seen the most horrible scene of the whipping, he can surely express the most out of it. I can feel his way of thinking while reading it. They lost the rights of being literate which is the most horrified part. When we do not get in touch with literary, we will not have our own minds of thinking. That’s why Mr. Auld was preventing that from happening. The appearance of Sophie Auld gave Frederick a chance to approach the meaning of life. She finally figures that treating Frederick as a human is the right way to help Frederick from escaping from slavery. He finally sensed “the tomb of slavery verse the heaven of freedom” which triggered his thoughts of getting out of slavery and making people rethink about the inevitable dehumanization.

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