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.