Slavery and Dehumanization in Abolitionist Literature

Frederick Douglass ends chapter two of  A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave with a description of the singing of the slaves on the plantation where he grew up: “The songs of the slaves represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears” (1188). Slave owns and slavery supporters claim that since the slaves sing, they are content with their lot but Douglass claims the opposite. His interpretation of these songs is that they are a way for the slaves to retain some resemblance of humanity in their miserable and degrading lives by expressing their emotions.

The theme of Douglass’s work is that the institution of slavery dehumanizes all who are involved with it; it turns the black slaves into ignorant animals and their white masters into sadistic monsters. A slave complaining about the poor treatment they receive from their master is unthinkable, due to the fact that the slave would be brutally beaten, possibly to death, if they they do complain: “It is partly in consequence of such facts, the slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind” (1190).  If a slave in the society which Douglass is asked about the treatment they receive from their masters, they will usually lie and say that they are treated well out of fear of punishments.

Douglass gives the character of Sophia Auld as an example of how slavery negatively affects the white slaver holders. Sophia starts off as kind and motherly towards the young Douglass but the absolute power given to her by the slave holding society corrupts her absolutely:

“But alas! This kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon” (1196).

This passage foreshadows how Sophia Auld’s character changes from kind to cruel due to the malign influence of slavery.

During his time with the Aulds, the young Douglass slowly begins to teach himself how to read and write and notice how different he is from his white playmates,“You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life. Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” (1199). With his new education, Douglass grows dissatisfied with his life as a slave. He is now more than ignorant animal that he is expected to be.

Harriet Jacobs begins her work, Incidents in The Life of A Slave Girl, with a description of the main character, Linda’s, happy childhood. Her family is owned by kind masters who treat them well, so well that Linda is unaware that she is a slave for the first few years of her life. Linda realises her position in the world when her mistress dies and she willed to her mistress’s granddaughter and is separated from her family. She learns the hard way that the world at large sees her as an object and property: “These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend” (924).

In the home of her new masters, Linda is subject to sexual harassment from the cruel, Dr. Flint. She falls in love with a free black man who wishes to buy her from Dr. Flint and marry her, which Dr. Flint refuses to consent to.

“Again and again I revolved in my mind how all this would end. There was no hope that the doctor would consent to sell me on any terms. He had an iron will, and was determined to keep me, and to conquer me. My lover was an intelligent and religious man. Even if he could have obtained permission to marry me while I was a slave, the marriage would give him no power to protect me from my master. It would have made him miserable to witness the insults I should have been subject to. And then, if we had children, I knew they must “follow the condition of the mother.” What a terrible blight that would be on the heart of a free, intelligent father!”

(Pages 927-8)

Linda is not free to live the life she wants or be with the man she loves. Her life is controlled by the whims of her masters.

In chapter ten, Linda begins an affair with a white man and becomes pregnant. She begs the readers not judge her harshly for what she has done because black slave women do not have the advantages of free white woman, who are protected by society and the law and are allowed to be with the men they love, “But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor slave girl too severely” (929).  Slaves, especially slave women, have little to no control over their lives.

The slave holding society which Harriet Beecher Stowe describes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin places black slaves at the mercy of their white owners: “So long as the law considered all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master,-so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil,-so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery” (813).  The life of a slave depends on the character of their masters.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Shelby family, who owns the heroine Eliza, are shown as being fairly kind masters, while Eliza’s husband George is owned by cruel people. George has become angry and resentful at his position, so much that he questions what right his master has to own him: “My master! And who made him my master? That’s what I think of-what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand,-and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him,-I’ve learned it in spite of him; and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?” (815-16). The power of slave owners is fragile when those they claim to own no longer accept their authority.

Frances Harper’s poem, Eliza Harris, refers to the heroine of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who escaped slavery with her young son. The Eliza of both the poem and the novel is determined to give her child freedom: “For she is a mother-her child is a slave-And she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!” (Lines 7-8). Harper’s poem describes one of the best known scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Eliza and her son cross the frozen Ohio river which divides the slaveholding South from the free North. Eliza is overjoyed that she and her son are no longer slaves:

“With the rapture of love and fullness of bliss, She place’d on his brow a mother’s fond kiss:-Oh! Poverty, danger and death she can brave,

For the child of her love is no longer a slave!”

(Lines 45-48)

Another of Harper’s poems, The Slave Mother, describes the plight of Eliza prior to her escape. The slave mother of the poem loves her child but is tormented by the fact that her child could be taken away from her at any time and sold far away:

“He is not hers, for cruel hands

May rudely tear apart

The only wreath of household love

That binds her breaking heart”

(Lines 21-24)

Both Harper and Stowe present a scenario to elicit pathos and sympathy from their readers. Eliza and The Slave Mother show recognizably human feelings: love for their children, a fear of losing those children, and a desire for those children to have a better life. The readers of Harper and Stowe’s works are expected to put themselves in the place of these slave mothers and imagine how heart-broken they would feel if their children were taken away from them.



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