Dehumanization in the Narrative
Dehumanization in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass tells the story of one of the most driven and determined slaves and his path to freedom. Throughout the course of his life, Douglass spent time on multiple plantations in Maryland. On one of the plantations he worked at, the wife of the slave owner taught him the first 3 letters of the alphabet before being scolded for teaching a slave. From that point forward, despite every possible adversary, Douglass learned to read and write. He later escaped to the New York and was able to marry and lead a very successful life.
Although this novel provides many specifics about Frederick Douglass and his path to freedom, it also offers valuable insights about slavery as a whole, especially the way slaveholders were able to commit these atrocities for hundreds of years. As in all genocides and gross mistreatments throughout history, it is necessary for the persecutor to see their victims as less than human. This theme of dehumanization is exemplified throughout the life of Frederick Douglass in the way his family ties were severed at birth, and how he and his fellow slaves were treated like animals.
How it works
The relationship between Frederick Douglass and his mother, like many other slaves, was very dehumanizing. The story of Frederick Douglass is similar to that of many slaves in that he was taken from his mother after his first year of infancy in order to sever any chance of an emotional connection in his life. In Douglass’ case, he was placed under the care of an old slave woman at another farm until he was old enough to work.
Douglass goes on to say that the purpose of separating a child from his mother is to, hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child (2). Coming into the world having no real emotional connection to anyone is considered by most to be extremely cruel and inhumane. The separation of mother and child is dehumanizing because it rids the child of any sense of direction or emotional leadership. This makes it easier for the masters to control the slaves, because it makes the slave more submissive and less hopeful.
One thing that stood out during the reading of the novel was how much the owners treated their slaves as they would animals. One example of this is how the slaves were fed. As Douglass recounted, [the food] was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set upon the ground. The children were then called like so many pigs, and like so many pigs, they would come and devour the mush (16). This clear example of mistreatment is only one of many written about in the book. Another comes after Douglass and a few of his fellow slaves were imprisoned for an attempted escape.
Douglass writes, A swarm of slave traders flocked into jail to look at us, and to ascertain if we were for sale [they] went into an examination of us, with intent to ascertain our value (54). These examples show how plantation owners treated slaves like animals in order to see them as less than human. From feeding and talking to them like pigs, to having slave traders look at them like cattle at an auction, slave owners used these tactics to beat the slaves into thinking they were nothing more than animals. This helped to keep slaves in submission, and it allowed masters to do horrible things to slaves without remorse because they saw them as animals, and not fellow human beings.
Frederick Douglass eventually achieved freedom in 1838. Then, he outwardly opposed slavery in any way he could. He became a very successful public speaker and spoke at many conventions. He was able to chorale audiences to the point of enormous cheer, and he widely influenced the anti-slavery community. Frederick Douglass’ life as a slave was demanding, demeaning, and most importantly, dehumanizing. The separation from his mother at an extremely early age was an attempt to destroy his emotional stability and sever all ties to someone who could comfort him. He grew up by himself, with no one to give him a sense of hope, or someone to take care of him. He and his fellow slaves were treated as if they were animals because they were fed with troughs and treated like cattle at an auction. The life of a slave was cruel and inhumane, which is clearly reflected in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Dover Publications. 1995.