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    The Issue of Slavery and Character Expansion in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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    When Frederick Douglass wrote this story in 1845, he wrote it is as an autobiography, beginning at the time he was borm into slavery towards his escape into the north to find freedom. Throughout the 1840s and the 1850s countless ex-slaves wrote narratives regarding their lives and journeys to freedom. Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative stands apart because it addresses deeper philosophical issues. This narrative is an effective argument against slavery because instead of debating the legal status and politics of slavery, he questions the intrinsic definition of slavery, the effects of slavery on all people, and what it means to the human spirit to be free.

    Douglass was able to see through the fog of ignorance that blinded him for so long, and he is able to help share this knowledge with others through education. He sees literacy as the key to identity. Douglass paints a powerful picture throughout his Narrative about what the world really looks like from the bottom and what it feels like to live in a nation where the “home of the free” is really only free for those who are white. Douglass focuses strongly on the idea that freedom is something he created for himself. It wasn’t a gift that was given to him. Douglass leans that knowledge is the key to freedom when Hugh Auld commands Sophia Auld to immediately stop teaching him. Douglass over hears this and recalls feeling “gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master.” Hugh Auld’s words allowed Douglass to have the realization that in order to become free he needs to first be literate. Douglass’s beliefs are confirmed in this small turning point of the story, because he sees that white people are able to control and manipulate blacks through a series of strategies. If white people and black people are separated merely through a literacy barrier, then reading and writing are the first steps in gaining his freedom. This realization by Douglass confirms his belief that slavery is not natural, that there is no genetic makeup that brands black people inferior to whites. By keeping slaves ignorant of this fact, the white slave owners have power over them.

    Slaves in the south are taught to be slaves from the moment they are born. They are not told their birthdates or even told who their fathers were. By withholding this information, Douglass says that their sense of self and individuality is taken. He realizes that slavery is not a vindicated part of society, instead it is a series of tactics imposed on blacks to dehumanize and deprive themn of their independence. Frederick Douglass views schooling as the biggest offensive in the fight against slavery because he quickly figures out that slavery and education cannot coexist. He even views them as complete opposites. Douglass opens a small, secret school where he aims to teach other slaves to read and write. Slaves seeking education faced a big risk, Douglass wrote, “Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness.” He makes note of how many come despite the great danger. His reasoning for this is that all people, especially those deprived of it, desire education. Douglass’s mention of “mental darkness” is interesting, because it equates darkness and slavery, and light as knowledge.

    Throughout this Narrative, slavery proves itself to be harmful not only to enslaved blacks but also to their white masters. Douglass believes that slaves are not born, they are created. Slavery is not natural and therefore it is something that must be taught. He considers the idea that the same is true with slave owners, that they must be taught to see slaves as property. This idea definitely proves to be true with Sophia Auld once she is told not to continue teaching Douglass. He writes about her transformation by utilizing metaphors, “(Her) tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.” Sophia Auld immediately stops teaching Douglass to read under the influence of her husband, and more importantly, the influence of slavery as a lifestyle. She was once a sweet and caring woman, and having been taught to view slaves as possessions she becomes cruel and even more attentive than her husband in inhibiting the slaves from learning. The transformation that Mrs. Auld undergoes is described by Douglass much like the way slaves are “brutalized.” She starts out warm and tender-hearted, but after being hardened by slavery she becomes unsympathetic and harsh. Being a slave master makes her devoid of sympathy to other’s suffering and hardens her heart. The idea that racism and prejudice is not inborn is advanced still further through Douglass’s experience learning to read and write.

    Once Sophia Auld halts teaching Douglass to be literate, he turns to other “little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers.” Douglass seeks the help of some of the poorer white children to give him reading lessons, trading bread for knowledge. These young children have not yet been taught to shy away from Douglass because of his skin color. They speak with him like one of their friends, and willingly help him when they can. Children are borm with humanity. It is only when they are taught to be superior that they lose their sympathy and compassion for others. Children must be taught that slaves are equal to animals. Even though these children have experience firsthand through interaction with Douglass that slaves are capable of civil experience, feelings, and conscious thought. They still succumb to the influence of a slave driven society and hide their exchanges with him in order to avoid punishment from their parents. This encounter with the white children further proves Douglass’s idea that slavery is not a natural process, and that hatred and prejudice must be taught.

    Character expansion is a necessary part of fulfilling the human spirit. At this point in the story, Douglass knows that all people are born equal, but that freedom is something has to be found for oneself. To Douglass, self-improvement is one of life’s most important aspects, but slavery prevents self-improvement because it thwarts teaching. Just like it is one’s own responsibility to create a future and life for themselves, slaves can also be created. When slaves are kept ignorant they are easy to control, they are taught to believe they are objects to be bought and sold. Slaves must leam to see themselves as human. They have to define themselves ina way that makes them individuals, and the best way to do so is by leaming to read and write. Learning these valuable traits adds value and reason to life, and allows a certain freedom and liberty. The ability to define and record based on individual thoughts and feelings paves the way for self-expression and self-improvement. Douglass even marks the point in his life that he achieved literacy to his origin of self-consciousness. The widespread belief that blacks were incapable of functioning in civil society was believed not only by the slave owners but also the slaves themselves. Douglass knew this wasn’t true, and says he could detect the black’s humanity in the songs they would sing together. He describes these saying, “Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation.” Douglass often talks about how slaves are “brutalized” or turned into emotionless beasts without consciousness. By beating the slaves and teaching them to see themselves as no more than working animals, their desire or even ability to view themselves as anything more is destroyed. Just like white people have to be conditioned to view slaves as objects, the slaves are raised and taught the same practices. Their masters cut them down and squash their spirit.

    Colonel Lloyd dehumanizes his slaves, but Douglass is convinced that if he could only hear the slaves sings he would be swayed to believe in their humanity. By mitigating the slaves as human beings, slavery proves itself to be unjust.slaves can also be created. When slaves are kept ignorant they are easy to control, they are taught to believe they are objects to be bought and sold. Slaves must leam to see themselves as human. They have to define themselves ina way that makes them individuals, and the best way to do so is by leaming to read and write. Learning these valuable traits adds value and reason to life, and allows a certain freedom and liberty. The ability to define and record based on individual thoughts and feelings paves the way for self-expression and self-improvement. Douglass even marks the point in his life that he achieved literacy to his origin of self-consciousness. The widespread belief that blacks were incapable of functioning in civil society was believed not only by the slave owners but also the slaves themselves.

    Douglass knew this wasn’t true, and says he could detect the black’s humanity in the songs they would sing together. He describes these saying, “Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation.” Douglass often talks about how slaves are “brutalized” or turned into emotionless beasts without consciousness. By beating the slaves and teaching them to see themselves as no more than working animals, their desire or even ability to view themselves as anything more is destroyed. Just like white people have to be conditioned to view slaves as objects, the slaves are raised and taught the same practices. Their masters cut them down and squash their spirit. Colonel Lloyd dehumanizes his slaves, but Douglass is convinced that if he could only hear the slaves sings he would be swayed to believe in their humanity. By mitigating the slaves as human beings, slavery proves itself to be unjust.

    In conclusion, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass stands in a league of its Own in its argument against slavery. No other chronicle possess such conviction, emotion and ethical reasoning as the accounts Douglass describes. He courageously tells his story of overcoming the literacy barrier, discovering freedom for himself, and achieving his Own ideal of freedom first mentally and then physically. Douglass was an inspiration to the abolition movement and continues to be an inspiration for all people today.

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    The Issue of Slavery and Character Expansion in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. (2023, Apr 02). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/the-issue-of-slavery-and-character-expansion-in-the-narrative-of-the-life-of-frederick-douglass/

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