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Essay: Exploring Slave Narratives: Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano’s Rhetoric Against Slavery

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: Slavery essays

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The Story of Two Slave Narratives

For almost 100 years in early American history, African-American slavery was the societal norm in the Southern states. Due to the slaves’ lack of education, most of our knowledge of the slavery life comes from outside and unreliable sources. However, there were some fortunate educated slaves, including Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano who were able to describe American slavery experiences from their own perspectives. Fortunately, both Douglass and Equiano’s slave narratives helped influence anti-slavery support, ultimately contributing to the abolishment of slavery. Through the use of rhetorical devices, both Douglass and Equiano were able to influence their audience into supporting the abolitionist movement by describing their traumatic experiences in the most persuasive way possible. In reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, one can analyze and understand the narrators’ use of rhetorical devices to emphasize the traumatic suffering of slavery, the pain of family separation, and the hypocrisy of Christian slave-owners.

In order to maintain control over the slaves and retain the slaves’ fear over them, slave-owners constantly abused and inflicted pain on their workers. Both Douglass and Equiano agree and similarly describe the horrors and suffering of slavery. In fact, the experiences of slavery were eternally traumatizing, both mentally and physically, as Douglass explains while being enslaved under Mr. Covey:

“I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

(Chapter X)

In this passage, Douglass uses pathos to relate to his audience by explaining how the traumatic events completely destroyed his motivation to follow any of his passions or goals, including his desire to read, learn, and to stay alive and fight through the slavery struggles. This event specifically helped influence the abolitionist support because Douglass’ descriptive imagery and traumatic language sparked sympathetic support in the reader’s minds towards slaves, acknowledging that slaves, too, are regular human beings who feel pain and hope for freedom and happiness. Most of Douglass’ audience, if not all, have at some time in their lives experienced an event or moment that negatively affected them, similarly resulting in depression, suffering, and lack of motivation. The personal relationships between the readers and the narrator helped persuade people into supporting Douglass’ abolitionist goal.

Similarly, Equiano also uses dramatic imagery to emphasize the brutal treatment towards slaves in the Americas:

“These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, but not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes.”

(Chapter V)

Equiano uses literary devices, including similes and metaphors, to describe the slave-owners’ dominance, control, and treatment of their slaves. By using the comparison of owners to butchers and slaves to the butchers’ animals, the readers grasp a raw understanding of the inhumane treatment of slaves. Similarly to butchers slaughtering and damaging their animals, slave owners also slaughtered, damaged, and ‘broke’ their slaves. Furthermore, Equiano’s use of diction in comparing the slaves to subhuman ‘brutes’ helped defend the masters’ reasoning for treating the slaves in an inhumane way, as they believed that slaves were on par with animals, not people. Equiano’s slaughterhouse comparison helped persuade the readers to support him, as butchering is a world-known, relatable contribution to society; however, readers would be quick to horror to consider slaves experiencing the very same treatment.

In addition to the physical hardships of slavery, both Douglass and Equiano had their families torn apart and separated early into their slave lives, and both explain how slavery is bound to separate many blacks from their families. Douglass describes his relationship and loss of his mother at the beginning of his novel:

“I never saw my mother, to now her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night… I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us.”

(Chapter I)

Douglass uses short sentences with many punctuation breaks to dwell on his sorrow and sadness of the fact that he was unable to form a close relationship with his mother, since in general, stutters and pauses in speaking show nervousness and overwhelming emotion; in this case, the breaks prove that Douglass did not have a close relationship with his mother, since he barely saw her and knew practically nothing about her. In addition, Douglass’ diction, in describing their meetings taking place “at night,” show that even when they saw each other, they did not fully get to experience the mother-child relationship that most people have. Douglass goes on to describe that “She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial” (Chapter I). This also displays psychological and emotional torture inflicted by the slave masters, as they were heartless enough to not even let a slave see his own mother for the last time. Unlike Douglass, Equiano initially lived with his family, until his sister was kidnapped from him early on into their slavery. Equiano explains his feelings during one of his last moments with his sister:

“The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated while we lay clasped in each other’s arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us; she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described.”

(Chapter II)

Equiano's use of pathos, similar to Douglass’ in describing his suffering, uses dramatic diction to show his devastation towards his sister’s separation. Equiano’s diction throughout the quote, especially when he describes that ”we lay clasped in each other’s arms,” emphasizes the brutal intrusion and breakup of the intimate relationship between brother and sister. The imagery of siblings torn apart surely would ignite a sense of remorse and sympathy in the readers towards Equiano’s experience.

Finally, a major connection between the two narratives is the attitude and focus on Christian values and teachings. Since both Douglass and Equiano learned Christian teachings from their masters, they started to understand that the so-called Christian slave-owners would use Christian teachings and values, such as the Bible, to hypocritically justify and defend their reasoning for the treatment of slaves. Douglass especially uncovers the hypocrisy in the owner’s self-description of being Christian while enslaving people:

“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,— a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, — a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, — and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.”

(Chapter X)

Douglass uses dramatic imagery and parallel sentence structure to draw emphasis to these so-called Christians who justify their evil ways by convincing themselves that the Bible defends and warrants slavery. Furthermore, Equiano also shares his thoughts towards this Christian hypocrisy. When his brothers are sold in an auction ran by “devout” Christians, Equiano doubts and questions the auctioneers’ true support and adherence of Christian values:

“O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you—Learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends, to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?”

(Chapter II)

Equiano raises one of Christianity’s principle values: “Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you,” explaining that Christians would never sell their own people among themselves. Equiano’s use of interrogative syntax, by transforming every sentence into a question, emphasizes his questioning of the validity and authenticity of these “Christian” slave owners’ adherence to Christian principles.

Through analyzing Douglass and Equiano’s rhetorical schemes towards the harsh treatment of slaves, the tragic separation of slave families, and the immoral hypocrisy of Christian slave owners, one can infer both narrative’s proposals for their audience’s support of the abolishment of slavery. The specific use of rhetoric in these narratives helped emotionally relate and appeal to the readers, ultimately summoning their support. Without such rhetoric, the overall outcome of the abolitionist movement may have seen an entirely different outcome.

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