Theme of Dehumanization in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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Theme of Dehumanization in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass essay
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Frederick Douglass was born in Tuckahoe, Maryland around 1818 as a slave to a seafaring captain, Captain Anthony. The issue of slavery during the Antebellum Period in American history was a rather gray area. Generally, people of the South were known to promote slavery, while people in the North were thought to be opposed to it. However, many inhabitants of the North were rather indifferent to the idea. In an effort to provide a mind-altering account of the callous treatment of slaves, Douglass wrote The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American slave. Douglass’s images of violence and measured tone regarding his life as a slave during the 1800s establish slavery as dehumanizing and ungodly. In turn, his writing suggests that by keeping readers at a distance from brutality allows them to witness such hypocrisy and violence without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Dehumanization is an issue that can be seen beyond the harsh treatment and brutality that was inflicted upon slaves at the time. Douglass demonstrates how a slave is made from the moment of their birth and how slave owners distort social bonds and the natural processes of life in order to turn humans into slaves. He firsts suggest a taste of dehumanization when his master separated him from his mother shortly after birth. In reference to his mother he states, “Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tiding of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”

This separation at an early age ensured that Douglass did not develop any kind of natural affection for his mother. In this quotation, Douglass uses illustrative adjectives like “soothing” and “tender” to re-create an image of the childhood he may have had, had his mother been present and they were not born into slavery. What is unique about this is his appeal to his readers. During the nineteenth century, many people placed great value on family structure, viewing it as a place for safety and security. Describing the destruction of family structure creates an overwhelming feeling of sadness to the readers and further shows a larger morality issue in the culture of the time that is of dehumanizing nature. He goes on to show the brutality through the process of dehumanization by discussing white slave owners impregnating their slaves. “…and this is done to obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.”

The context of rape is taken in as a cruel and depraved behavior. Douglass suggests to the reader that slavery is dehumanizing to not only the slaves but the slave owners as well. It also creates a picture that slavery is not sustained through natural superiority of the white man, rather through tangible and forceful strategies of gaining and withholding power from people of color. During this era, power was a sign of strength, and many inflicted a great deal of cruelty and unjust treatment in order to obtain it.

Douglass’s narrative reveals a multitude of ways in which African Americans suffered under the brutality of slavery. His images of violence depict slavery as being rather infernal and of complete hypocrisy to what the white men would run around preaching. In the first chapter, he depicts his overseer as a monstrosity. “Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster.” His tone begins to shift towards slight anger and the term “savage monster” paints an image of a man that is just as ugly on the outside as Douglass is describing him to be on the inside. He further goes on to depict Mr. Plummer’s brutality when talking about his account of witnessing his aunt being beaten by him.

“No words, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose.” This image of violence leads the reader questioning the ultimate motive some overseer’s and slave owners had. Is it merely for the purpose to show who is in control? Or is it perhaps much deeper than that? Douglass portrays a side to such violence from a perspective of being the witness rather than the perpetrator to exhibit such cruelty and the harsh reality of slave life. Not even words of prayer could stop such a man from inflicting such cruelty. Not even the tears from his “gory” victim could bring him to a sense of humanity. Such a sentence brings a hellish form of reality into light. He later goes on to say after watching that account “It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass.”

Douglass had witnessed the beating of his aunt as a mere child. His metaphor to slavery as a “blood-stained gate” and an “entrance to hell” informs the reader of just how corrupt and hypocritical the practice was. For Christians who preach of kindness and doing unto others as you would want done unto you, the act of slavery is nothing more than infernal and utter hypocrisy. This is the first time religion is mentioned in narrative and suggests to the reader that slavery changes white people. Therefore, one can see how slavery is demeaning not only to blacks, but to whites as well. Furthermore, throughout Douglass accounts for several events that he witnessed during his time as a slave instead of just his personal memories, keeping the reader at a distance from the harsh reality he experienced.

Douglass is cognoscente to the issues underlying slavery as well as his words. He utilizes metaphors, imagery, irony, wit, pathos and other literary devices throughout his narrative. His tone is poised and removed; he relates the most horrific events in a sensible and straightforward manner. This can be seen when discussing the scenes of rape that often occur on the plantations, Douglass does not dwell on the actual rapes of the women slaves, but rather focuses on explaining the practical fate of their children. “I know of such cases; and it is worth to remark that such slaves invariably suffer greater hardships, and have more to contend with than others.” He states this directly after explaining such a horrific event that occurs rather often, diverting the readers from focusing explicitly on the cruelty of man towards women and towards the fate of their children, who by law have the same fate as their enslaved mother.

He further goes on to state “…and cruel as the deed may strike any one to be, for a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity for him to do so; for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother, of but a few shades darker complexion than himself, and ply the gory lash to his naked back…” Irony is brought into play with this sentence as we see that man is required by law to inflict punishment that is cruel in nature against his own blood. Douglass constantly jumps back and forth between personal accounts to his slave life and portraying the life of others around him.

From the beginning Douglass explains his own account of the dehumanizing nature of slavery by never having the pleasure of knowing his mother on an intimate level, and goes on to account for the abuse of female slave to depict the brutality of slave owners. His tone for the most part he remains indifferent and intellectual. One can see his matter of fact tone when he is describing the inferiority in which slaves lived through the songs that would be sung by slaves on their way to the Great Farm House. “…they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from the chains.” The metaphors and word choices used in this sentence speak of pain and suffering. He uses this to make a point that slaves were deeply unhappy and the singing of these songs portray that. He maintains his distance between himself and slavery further in regards to the slave songs by stating “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs.”

Douglass is suggesting that he did not fully understand the meanings behind these songs when he himself was a slave, but now recognizes and interprets them as expression of grief and sorrow. He is accounting for the slave population as a whole not just himself. This suggests his attempt to use his narrative as not just a personal account of his life, but rather as evidence of the dehumanization and cruelty of slavery.

Through images of violence and measured tone, Douglass portrays himself as a mediator between slaves and the audience he was reaching to at the time, Northern whites. Such a position helps build his intellectual argument by expressing his experience as a slave as well as displaying his outside perspective that now is liberated. His use of language in his narrative proves he is educated and can interpret how the establishment of slavery is dehumanizing and ungodly. Further, his double perspective of both being in the circle of slavery and now free allows the reader to view the harsh reality of slavery at a distance, without being overcome by it.

Theme of Dehumanization in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass essay

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Theme of Dehumanization in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. (2021, Oct 05). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/theme-of-dehumanization-in-narrative-of-the-life-of-frederick-douglass/


How was slavery dehumanizing?
Enslaved people were exploited as unpaid labor to build the British colonies and the new American nation . Enslaved labor cleared forests, raised bridges and built ships and mansions, including the White House.
What are some examples of dehumanization?
Prior work suggests that people who dehumanize often rate “others” as less evolved on an evolutionary scale. For example, people blatantly dehumanize and rate Arabs and Muslims as less human than other groups such as Americans or Europeans (9).
What are the two themes of Douglass's Narrative?
Slavery's Damaging Effect on Slaveholders In the Narrative, Douglass considers slaveholding to be damaging not only to the slaves themselves, but to slave owners as well. The corrupt and reprehensible power that slave owners enjoy over their slaves has a detrimental effect on the slave owners' own moral health.
What is the most important theme in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?
Slavery's Damaging Effect on Slaveholders The corrupt and reprehensible power that slave owners enjoy over their slaves has a detrimental effect on the slave owners' own moral health. With this theme, Douglass completes his overarching depiction of slavery as unnatural for all involved.
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