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Essay: History of slavery in the United States

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  • Published: 7 December 2018*
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  • Words: 2,144 (approx)
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  • Tags: Slavery essays

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The United States has had challenges and flaws during every era throughout its history. One such flaw that is particularly regretted by Americans today is the institution of African-American slavery from the beginning of the United States until the abolition of American slavery under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Institutionalized slavery in the Southern United States proved conspicuously horrific for its exploited African-American captives. The accounts of slave-life were recorded in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. These books revealed to the world the terrors that slaves experienced. In Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the two authors argue similar claims that because slavery forces race as a determining factor for identity, and slavery is corrupting, one’s identity becomes corrupted as well. However, the two authors back their claims using different reasoning and in doing so offer unique perspectives on the topic.

In the American South, slavery corrupted the identities of all by fracturing important aspects of the identity. For example, one aspect of people’s identity that was corrupted by slavery is religious values. Both Douglass and Jacobs explained and proved that race and slavery corrupt religious values. However, the ways they proved this issue were unique to their works. In Douglass’s book, he approaches the corruption of slavery by looking in depth at the destruction of white, christian values. He recalls numerous instances during which the actions of white individuals, especially white male slave-owners, directly impacted the corruption of religious values. One instance of religious corruption occurs after Captain Auld attends a church gathering. Douglass hoped that religion would convince Auld to be kinder to the slaves but instead, Auld “found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruely” and he became “more cruel and hateful in his ways” (Douglass, 32). It is clear from Douglass’s book that Southern whites were quite hypocritical in their application of institutionalized bondage and abuse. They preached strong religious codes and even used religion as justification for their oppression of African-Americans. However, it is clear that their horrific actions toward their slaves directly violates biblical values that teach kindness and equality. By directly violating their own religious codes, Southern whites are hypocritical in their practice of slavery and thus, their religious values are corrupted. By including this criticism in his book, Douglass exposes the flaw of slavery in that it corrupts christianity for whites. These details serve to show his audience why slavery is bad for white people in addition to black people as the religions of both groups were corrupted.

Jacobs, telling her own story through the alias Laura Brent, also recognizes the corruption of religion in her book. In contrast to Douglass, Jacobs shows the corruption of slavery from her own experiences. Jacobs goes into detail to show how white slave-owners directly corrupt the religious identities of slaves. One strong example that proves her argument is her fragile relationship with Dr. Flint. Repeatedly throughout the book, Flint is abusive toward Jacobs, often sexually. Jacobs fears that Flint will try to force her into a relationship, so she is forced to go to extreme measures to prevent this from happening. Eventually, she finds a solution in having a relationship with Mr. Sands, a nearby neighbor. She has two children with Mr. Sands. This incident reveals a corruption of religion because Jacobs is forced to have bare children before marriage to avoid a forced, abusive relationship with Dr. Flint. Having children before marriage violates Jacobs’s religious codes as a devout and faithful christian. She is forced, against her personal desires, to go against her religious values because she knows that the alternative could be far worse. Furthermore, Jacobs recognizes the corruption that is Southern christianity. She notices that in the North, religious men are held accountable for their actions whereas in the South, a pastor may have relations with slave and it would not “hinder his continuing to be their good shepherd” (Jacobs, 71). This difference outlines a main conflict for religious slaves, especially slave women, who are treated poorly by religious white men with no repercussions.

Both Douglass and Jacobs go after slavery as a corruptor of religion. However, the two arguments are different in the ways that they are backed. While Douglass reveals the corruption of religion as a universal issue, especially amongst whites, Jacobs discusses the corruption of slavery on a personal level and describes how it relates to her and other slaves in her position as a slave in the religiously corrupt South. Despite the differences in their backing, both authors effectively prove their claim that slavery corrupts religious identity, and as a result, race corrupts religious identity. This message was meant to appeal to an audience of Americans who valued religion greatly in the 19th century.

In addition to religion, slavery causes gender identity to be corrupted by race. Both Douglass and Jacobs both proved that race corrupts gender identity. However, the two authors use different rhetoric and backing to support their claim since Douglass spoke from the perspective of a man and Jacobs spoke from the perspective of a woman. Douglass centers his support around the negative effects of race and slavery on traditional masculinity and male gender roles. In his book, Douglass describes the process and tactics by which white slave-owners serve to emasculate and degrade their male slaves. The actions of these slave-owners detract from Douglass’s identity as a man which is based on male gender roles at the time. While working for Mr. Covey, Douglass makes an attempt at re-asserting his gender role by fighting Mr. Covey and proving himself physically dominant. Douglass explains how the fight strengthened his “sense of my [Douglass’s] own manhood” (Douglass, 43). While the fight temporarily improved his masculine identity, he was unable to completely overcome the challenge of maintaining his traditional masculine identity during the entirety of his life as a slave due to the harsh abuse. While working in Baltimore, Douglass is intimidated by a group of white men “armed with sticks, stones, and heavy handspikes (Douglass, 57). By overpowering and physically defeating Douglass, the white men diminished his gender identity. At the time, men were expected to be tough, strong, and physically able. By taking away Douglass’s ability to put up a fight, his oppressors effectively took away a key part of his traditional male identity. He could no longer be physically dominant and the white men, in turn, wrecked and corrupted his gender identity.

As revealed in her book, Jacobs also experienced a strong incapacity to fit into traditional gender roles. During the time of slavery in the United States, women were expected to follow a strict set of social guidelines known as the Cult of Domesticity. Followers in the Cult of Domesticity believed that women should be kept to higher moral standards given the belief that women are at a higher moral level by nature. However, African-American slaves, as shown in Jacobs’s book, were unable to fit into these social guidelines because they were looked on as unequal to white women. As described in the book, Jacobs wants to follow the Cult of Domesticity. However, due to the abuse that women face at the hands of their white masters, Jacobs is unable to accomplish her goal. For example, Jacobs describes the regular sexual crises that she and other slave women went through. After being selected to watch over for Dr. Flint’s daughter during the night, Jacobs finds out that she was selected “to sleep in the doctor’s room” (Jacobs, 31). Sleeping in Flint’s room subjected Jacobs to constant vulnerability to abuse and Jacobs refers to herself as a “victim of her [Mrs. Flint’s] husband’s perfidy” (Jacobs, 32). By taking control of the sexual preferences and decisions of women, slave-owners, especially men like Dr. Flint, prevent Jacobs and other women from practicing strong feminine values and moral codes. In addition, Jacobs wanted to practice traditional motherhood. At the time, women were expected to a large extent to delay having children until marriage. However, in order to keep herself safe from Dr. Flint, Jacobs finds it necessary to go against traditional motherhood and have children with Mr. Sands. Therefore, the actions of Southern slave-owners, like the abuse by Dr. Flint, not only corrupt the religious values of slave women, but also corrupt the traditional gender roles that many slave women wanted to follow.

For a long time in United States history, gender roles were seen as very important and going against gender roles was highly discouraged. By targeting appeals to gender tradition, both Douglass and Jacobs effectively showed slavery as an issue that men and women could protest in order to preserve American tradition. The arguments are different, however, as Douglass appeals to men and Jacobs’ appeals center around women.

One last aspect of identity that slavery and race compromise is family values. Throughout the era of slavery, and as proven in both books, slavery took a harsh toll on the family values and family traditions of both white and black families. A common practice is this institution was the separation of families. Children were often separated from their parents very early in their childhoods. Like many other slaves, Douglass experienced this horrific practice when he and his mother were separated when he “was but an infant” (Douglass, 1). By revealing to Americans the harsh reality of family separation and the destruction of strong family bonds, Douglass appeals to the family values of many Americans who cherish family tradition. Douglass further emphasizes the substantial flaws in slave families in describing that his “master [possibly] was my father” (Douglass, 1). The fact that Douglass father is not only unknown, but may also own him as property would have evoked anger and disappointment in many Americans as they learned of the destruction of strong family bonds and interracial procreation.

Jacobs also uses her personal experience to show the issues surrounding family values under slavery. The fact that Jacobs’s family was formed before her marriage already violates traditional American family values. In addition Jacobs is powerless when her own children are introduced and thrown into the slave trade. Jacobs’s abuse by Dr. Flint becomes so extreme that Jacobs begins to wish for her children to be sold, with the possibility of separation, just so they can escape Dr. Flint. She describes that her “cheerful vision” saw Dr. Flint becoming “willing to sell my [Jacobs’s] children” (Jacobs, 97). Jacobs included these details to show the large magnitude to which slavery corrupts family values to the point where a mother hopes that her children are sold and separated from her, just so they can avoid further abuse at the hands of Dr. Flint. Harriet Jacobs and her children endure years of separation and short contact. Eventually they are reconnected, but they are still aggressively pursued by Dr. Flint’s daughter Emily. Traditional American values of the time preached togetherness and devotion. It is clear from Jacobs’s book that institutionalized slavery prevented families from upholding these values. This truth reveals to her audience that slavery is harmful to family values the traditional American family. Jacobs’s argument around family values differs from Douglass despite the fact that they both support their claim with personal anecdotes. The difference is that Douglass shows the issue as an issue for children as he gives examples of his empty relationship with his mother. Jacobs, on the other hand, tells her story of family separation from the point of view of a mother and appeals to American parents. The two authors made identical claims. There backing, however, came from opposite perspectives.

Slave narratives and other anti-slavery literature were essential to the abolitionist cause that climaxed in the North in the 1850s. Anti-slavery books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin combined forces with narratives like those of Jacobs and Douglass to reveal the horror that was institutionalized slavery to all Americans. It goes without saying that slavery made race the sole part of a slave’s identity in the American South. The corrupt nature of slavery, in turn, corrupted the identities of all Americans, especially in the South. As shown in the narratives of Jacobs and Douglass, religion, gender, and family values were especially affected for the worse. These key aspects of any person’s identity were turned ugly and corrupt by the horrific nature of slavery. As the young country continued to battle toward abolition in 1865, exposing the corruption of slavery became a tool for the abolitionist North. Thus, books written by the oppressed did as much for the abolitionist cause as any musket used on the fields of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, or Chancellorsville.

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