Without Bias

April 13, 2010
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“When you engage in a work that taps your talent and fuels your passion--that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet--therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code” (Steven Covey). In his narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass uses his voice as a writer so others can understand the horrors of slavery. Born in Talbot county, Maryland, Frederick Douglass has the determination to make a change in his desolate life as a slave by having the courage to overcome his fear of this oppression and escape. Douglass, at the young age of seven, embraces the tiny morsel of education he amasses thanks to his mistress, Mrs. Auld, opening his eyes to the world around him and fueling his ambition to continue learning. Consequently, he also finds that this education only heightens his awareness of the evils and nefarious characteristics of his masters, their celebrations, and their religion. Perversely, Douglass thrives during his time as a slave and successfully triumphs over the physical and psychological bondages of slavery.

During Douglass’ early years living as a slave in the Auld household, his mistress, Sophia Auld, very kindly began to teach him the alphabet and assisted him in learning to spell small three or four letter words. Soon, however, Hugh Auld, her husband, discovered these private tutorials and quickly put an end to them, saying that along with being unlawful, they also “would spoil the best nigger in the world…making him unmanageable and of no value to his master” and “…fill the mind of the slave with discontent and unhappiness” (44). Through this seemingly harmless tutoring which Mrs. Auld so happily instigated, Douglass’ eyes were opened with the answers to the questions that had puzzled him from youth about slavery. “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty-to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man” (44). The pathway from slavery to freedom became clear to Douglass. The knowledge which he attained from this learning laid the foundation for the truly heroic events which would lie ahead for him, enabling him to realize that the understanding of the tactics of fear and cruelty employed by the slaveholders to suppress the naïve slaves was the key to helping to end slavery.

Lack of education and understanding of the tactics used by the slaveholders to keep discipline and order among the slaves caused the slaves to be controlled in a way which their masters felt suitable. One of these tactics was giving the slaves a false sense of freedom by keeping the days between Christmas and New Year’s day reserved as a holiday. During these few days, the slaves were allowed to spend their time however they pleased, giving them what they thought of as independence. However, they always had to return after the six given days or there would be severe consequences. This ploy incorporated by the slave masters was not one of mercy or of gratitude but “…to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholders in keeping down the spirit of insurrection” (76). They were incorporated by the master as a safety valve to release the pressure which the slaves had built up from the cruelness and pain of the year’s strenuous work without the knowledge of the slaves (76). Douglass points out that at the end of the holiday season, “…we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, marched to the field, feeling, upon the whole rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery” (77). This kind of treatment added to the inhumanity and fraud of slavery, which Douglass was able to detect with the aid of his education. Acknowledging such tactics as this helped with Douglass’ resolve to aid other slaves in becoming aware of these disgusting tactics and helped in his motivation to escape from slavery.

Throughout the narrative, Douglass describes the severity of these tactics various masters used to control their slaves. “Some masters took pleasure in manifesting their fiendish barbarity…while others whipped, but seemed to take no pleasure in it” (25, 26). However, a clear pattern presents itself again and again in the book. Douglass realizes that between the multitude of masters that he had, “I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could ever befall me. For all the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slave holders are the worst” (78). From Captain Auld’s Methodist conversion in 1832 to Mr. Covey’s profession in religion these pious, spiritual men were ruthless with the slaves that they owned. These supposedly devoted and faithful men of Christ found religious sanction and support for their slaveholdings from passages of Scripture-“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” From these brutal beatings and other inhumane acts in which Douglass and the other slaves are victims, Douglass renews his resolve to escape the bonds of slavery or die trying.

As a child, Frederick Douglass was unique among the other slaves due to his heightened sense of awareness concerning his surroundings as a slave. Because of the fragment of education that he received from his master’s wife, Sophia Auld, Douglass was able to understand the thought processes and tactics used by the slaveholders to keep them manageable. Therefore, as he witnessed the cruel, dehumanizing acts of his masters in the name of religion and the psychological cruelty administered, Douglass became committed to helping the slaves trapped there with him and to escaping from the spiteful bonds of slavery. With the combination of his education and self-determination, Douglass not only teaches other slaves the evils of slavery, but also overcomes the incredible odds that were placed against him and triumphs over slavery by both escaping and making the horrors of slavery known through his writings as a free man.

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