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Essay: Frederick Douglass: Conqueror of Denial Through Education to Escape Slavery

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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At the age of, well, he didn't actually know, Frederick Douglass proclaimed  “…the white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege”.  This was an example of the many dehumanizing processes that occurred making Douglass a slave because he was denied knowing something as simple as his own birth date. Douglass was born in Tuckahoe, Maryland around 1818. He was a slave who went through the struggles of freeing himself physically and mentally from slavery before finding his way to freedom to write his autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave. In his autobiography, Douglass illustrated how slave owners made him into a slave by gaining power over him through dehumanization and physical abuse in order to help the reader understand slavery and why it worked. Along the way, Douglass was able to start his escape from slavery by gaining an education through gaining the ability read and write.

During his life, Douglass was made a slave by having power held over him through dehumanization. No one did anything to stop this dehumanization because slavery was a practice that reinforced white supremacy. One of the first events he recalled was his lack of emotion towards his mother's death. As a child, Douglass only saw his mother four or five times and stated he didn't know her due to the little communication that occurred.  This occurred because she was required to work during the day and needed to request permission from her master to travel to see Douglass — permission which was rarely granted. When she became ill, Douglass’ master did not permit him to go see her. As a result, he described her death's impact on him as “the same emotions I should have felt at the death of a stranger”.  Slave owners were able to control basic human emotion by not letting Douglass see his family, which created a platform for dehumanization. Slave owners would deprive slaves of basic human connections so they would feel empty and powerless to be less likely to rise against whites. This example helps understand slavery because it showed how whites lived in fear of slaves rising against them due to more slaves than owners. Therefore, this psychological fear drove slaveholders to seek strategies to build and maintain power over slaves in more ways than just dehumanization. As he grew up, Douglass noticed that his master would  “take great pleasure in whipping a slave,” which showed that dehumanization was one of many strategies used to gain power.  

As his early life continued, slave owners asserted power over Douglass through him witnessing physical abuse because the psychological impact was just as damaging as physical one.  Douglass recalled the first time he witnessed the abuse of slavery and felt as though he too was a victim in that moment because he had no power to stop the event. Douglass was living at Colonel Lloyd's plantation after his mother died, where his master, Captain Aaron Anthony, worked. Douglass was traumatized when he saw his Aunt Hester beaten by Captain Anthony. One night, Captain Anthony called for Hester and learned that she sneaked out to be with another slave after being told not to. Resultantly, she was bound and whipped until red blood was dripping to the floor. This chipped away at Douglass, turning him into a slave through fear because he said, “I expected it would be my turn next.”   After this occurrence, his master held power over him through the fear that he would be hurt.  The psychological fear that he would be next for physical abuse was enough to hold power over Douglass. The incident didn't happen to him personally but affected him because slavery was brutal and inhumane. This event helps understand slavery because it shows how the psychological damage was as bad as the physical abuse. Slave owners wanted to keep slaves in line. Slavery worked because if they feared for their physical safety, they were likely to do what they were told without resistance. After this event, Douglass was sent to work as a slave in Baltimore for a short time.

When Captain Anthony died,  slave owners gained power over Douglass by dehumanizing him because as a slave, he was viewed as property.  Douglass had to return to his original home in Maryland so the lawyers could appraise him based on his ability to perform labor. The slaves were lined up next to livestock to be inspected and their worth decided. Slaves were distraught because they knew that they would be separated regardless of marriage or family ties. This was dehumanizing for Douglass because he was treated as though he was an animal rather than getting the respect a human would. He felt that he “had no voice in that decision than the brutes among whom we were ranked.”  This means he started to characterize himself as an animal since he was lined up next to some. That concept ate away at Douglass, which decreased his self-worth, giving power to his owner. Slave owners did this because they wanted to remind slaves that they were subhuman and property. Slavery constantly picked at slaves by reminding them they had no rights. As a result of the division of property, Douglass was assigned to Lucretia Auld. Lucretia was Captain Anthony’s daughter, who sent him to back to Baltimore.

During his time in Baltimore, Douglass started his process of escaping slavery to become a man by gaining an education through learning to read and write because knowledge meant power. When Douglass was sent to Baltimore, Mr. Hugh Auld's wife, Mrs. Sophia Auld, began teaching him to read and write. Douglass described her as “a women of the kindest heart and finest feelings” as seen through her actions of teaching him the A, B, C’s .  At this point, Douglass started to see the hope of becoming a man because he figured out that knowledge was “the white man's power to enslave the black man.” However, when Mr. Auld found out, he proclaimed that Douglass would become unmanageable and no use to his master. Douglass knew that knowledge was power, not because he was learning to read,  but because it was being taken away from him. The reaction Mr. Auld had was out of fear. His goal was to keep slaves ignorant so they were inferior. The concept that knowledge is power was key to understanding why slavery worked. Slavery was an act of keeping slaves inferior and powerless in order to have full control. If the slaves were superior, they would stop accepting the punishments and go against white authority. Slaveowners would be out of free laborers and consequently, feared slaves gaining knowledge. Douglass used this concept to make himself a man later in life. After being in Baltimore for some time, Douglass was eventually sent back to be with Thomas and Lucretia Auld. The act of moving Douglass around on a whim brought back the notion that he was property.  

Douglass was made a slave by his owners holding power over him through the dehumanizing actions of being starved because it reminded him that he was less than human. Douglass’s master, Thomas Auld, didn't grow up owning slaves; he only had slaves through his marriage to Lucierta. Even as a strong Christian, Master Thomas still believed he had the right to treat slaves inhumanely. Master Thomas didn't feed Douglass nearly enough, which made him feel “the painful gnawing of hunger,” even when there was “food in abundance lay mouldering in the safe.”  Slavery worked in this case because Master Thomas wanted to feel like he had power over slaves. He was inconsistent in the way he managed slaves. Yet, through starving them, he was able to remind Douglass that he was in control and Douglass was something less than human. Douglass showed slavery was not a natural way of life, but it worked because it was cruel. Eventually, Douglass hoped he would be fed when Master Thomas sent him to work for a farmer named Covey.

Douglass was made a slave by his slave owners holding power over him through physical abuse because slave owners wanted him to submit to authority. Douglass’s hope to be treated better was proved false when he was sent to Covey, known as “slave breaker”. Masters asserted control over slaves, such as Douglass, by sending them to Covey to physically work slaves to the breaking point, so they learned to behave. With Covey, Douglass endured months of beatings and hard labor in the fields until he was “wearied in body and broken in spirit.” During his time on Covey’s farm, Douglass only received one leisure day that he spent sulking with hindered spirits. Covey also worked in the fields with the slaves and made habit of sneaking up on them in hopes to catch them off guard. The regular whippings made Douglass feel weak and therefore gave power to slave owners. The constant fear that Covey was watching him, waiting to give punishment for any infraction, stole any hope of being free. The discipline wore away at Douglass and “the dark night of slavery” closed in on him as he got to the point where the power gained through dehumanizing acts and physical abuse turned him into a slave.  This happened because slave owners worked to make slaves feel inhuman and weak as possible in order to keep them from rising against white authority to gain freedom. Owners wanted slaves to be submissive and not retaliate against their owners, and in order to do this, they wore down slave’s spirits as they did with Douglass.  

Overall,  Douglass was made a slave through the dehumanizing practices and physical abuse of slave owners. Through this, owners gained power over him to keep him a slave. In his narrative, Douglass showed these themes through stories about him and what he witnessed.  Beyond the scope of his narrative, the significance comes from understanding slavery and why it worked. Douglass shared these experiences not to gain sympathy, but to shed light on an uncomfortable subject. He shared his story after it occurred in order to remind those of the brutal history slavery had. His purpose was to remind and warn against repeating history, or even repeat the idea of losing humanity and holding power over others. The way he used detail makes the reader feel his hopelessness and his dampened spirits from the disrespectful nature of slavery. Douglass constantly gave examples of what happened and invites the reader to wonder why it happened to him.

Through the narrative, the conclusion that slave owners made Douglass a slave by holding power over him using dehumanization practices and physical abuse was inherent. Douglass showed why slavery worked through mental struggles from dehumanization. He also faced mental and physical struggles from the physical abuse. His tale signifies what it meant to be a slave; he was not his own person and his life did not belong to him. During his experience of being turned into a slave, he figured out that knowledge was key, but he was constantly reminded that he had no power by being treated as less than human and constantly abused for minor infractions. Even though Douglass discovered that knowledge meant freedom, he still faced the physical and mental struggles of slavery that turned him into a slave.

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