It is widely known that in historical America, slaves were significantly mistreated by their masters. One such slave was Frederick Douglass who even though his experience was not as bad as that of his fellow slaves, he got to experience firsthand disturbing scenes of slavery. Luckily, he was moved from the country to the city as he approached adolescence and as he narrates, the experience was much better there. It is also while there that he got an opportunity to learn how to read and write and with this came an even greater opportunity to fight for his fellow slaves. This essay will show that Douglass’s childhood experiences, including those that he got to see in the lives of his fellow slaves, inspired him to improve his life so that he could be at a better position to fight slavery.
Douglass’s childhood was unlike that which is expected of a child of his age. He was separated from his mother at infancy, and he only got to see his mother about five times before she died while he was still young. He was never allowed to see her in her illness or at the time of her death. He narrates of how her mother would only come to see him at night, as it was a grave mistake not to be present at her master’s plantation at the dawn of the following day. Even though he had a brother and sisters with whom they initially lived in the same house, being separated from their mother deprived them off the attachment expected between family members. In addition to all the loneliness he experienced, Douglass was subjected to gory scenes of masters mistreating their slaves. One victim was his Aunt Hester who was once whipped to an extent of shedding blood from her back and not even doing so could make her master let her free. Afraid that he was the next victim, Douglass ran and hid in a closet. It is also expected that being a slave child, Douglass was not getting enough food. These circumstances were not favorable for a child of his age, although it is important to note that his conditions were better than those of other children. This is probably due to what he indicates to have heard-that his master was his father.
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The family life of slaves and their masters was not desirable. Starting with Douglass’s own family, they had been separated from one another. His mother lived far away prior to her death and so was her grandmother. He did not enjoy any comfort of having a family and this is probably why he notes the excitement he experienced when he was sent to Baltimore to live with another family. He had nothing to lose for not having his family with him. Douglass also observes that rumors of children belonging to the slave were mostly untrue, and they were deliberately tailored so that children could grow up being loyal to their masters. This way, it was easier for the masters to manipulate them including during their adulthood. There also seems to have been deliberate efforts to ensure that families were not extended through birth of more children than were required necessary. The mistake that earned Aunt Hester the ruthless beating was that of seeing a certain man despite having been instructed not to do it. Douglass also gives an account of a woman who was whipped until she shed blood for the following thirty minutes, despite her children being with her and unsuccessfully pleading for her release. Such instances may have been meant to cause agony and instability within a family in the interest of the masters. The families’ clothing and food conditions were not any better. In the case of food, instead of it being adequately and freely availed by the masters, it was given as a monthly allowance for the slaves’ labor. Clothes were distributed amongst the slaves once in a year, but Douglass notes that for a single slave, the cost of the clothes he would receive did not go beyond seven dollars. As for the children aged between 7 and 10 years, they would hardly wear anything irrespective of their gender and the season in question (10). Child labor was also rampant and the children’s allowance would be given to the old women who looked after them or their mothers (9). As such, an extremely poor relationship existed between masters and their slaves. No one was expected to miss a day in the fields, apart from the old women who were considered unfit to work. One could have requested permission to be absent, but Douglass notes that such permission was very rarely granted. The slaves would be woken up by the sound of a horn and for those who either did not hear it or chose to ignore it, they would be mercilessly whipped. Attempting to run away would cause one to be further separated from his family and sold off to another slaveholder. After a long day’s work, the slaves would sleep on cold, damp floor, with only the men and women having a coarse blanket as beds were considered as luxury. Surprisingly, despite their number being higher compared to their masters (a single master would have several slaves) the slaves never attempted to defend one of their own as he or she was being whipped or mistreated. The slaveholders had successfully imparted fear in the slaves. This could explain why when they got an opportunity to shift loyalty to the British in the course of the revolutionary war; most slaves readily seized it preferring to be slaves under the British. What is most disturbing in the chapters is the account of the inhuman treatment that the slaves were subjected to by their masters. The bloody whipping of slaves is particularly disturbing more so considering that they were still considered to go and work in their condition.
The experiences that Douglass had in the country could have compelled him to seize every opportunity he got when he was relocated to Baltimore. His life improved significantly owing to the kindness of his mistress, at least until she changed to adopt the hostile character expected of a slaveholder. His mistress started to teach him how to read and write, but he was forbade from doing so by her husband who argued that teaching a nigger would cause him to become dangerously enlightened. However, as Douglass notes, overhearing this from his master was enough to see him embark on an unstoppable journey to know how to read and write. He got to read books and encounter persons of great interest to him, initially in the books and later in person. He became enlightened just as was feared by his master, and that is how he started his journey to advocate for the end of slavery. His experience after learning how to read and write explains why some slaveholders would go as far as disfiguring those slaves who were found to have learnt how to write so that they were not going to do it ever again.
In conclusion, Douglass’s experiences of the cruelty and hatred that was shown to slaves by their masters are what sparked in him a desire to advocate for the end of slavery. He witnessed violence and brutality being exercised on everyone who was caught in the wrong, and this included the women. Food was only for those who worked hard enough and clothing was never adequate. The living conditions of the slaves were clearly deplorable. Knowing this, when Douglass got an opportunity to improve himself and his fellow slaves, he readily seized it. He was determined to end the inhuman treatment of the slaves by their masters.
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