Slavery is an aberration to some, but was at one time considered a very natural occurrence to others, those who were either born into the life or had lived so long as a slave that any other life was unimaginable. To live in bondage to another person was ever a matter of dispute between those who saw it as normal and those who saw it as evil, or even against God and humanity altogether. In truth, slavery was a way of life, particularly in the south during the times leading up to and even for some time after the Civil War. Slavery was considered a natural way of the world, a kindness rather than a cruelty.
Frederick Douglass was one such individual who was born to slavery, whether through the act of a white man laying with a slave or not is uncertain. Never once did he know of his birthday, as no slave was allowed to ask after such a date, kept in ignorance to keep matters simple and their minds from wandering too far from the tasks set before them. Slaves were kept for only a few purposes, and the majority of those was to work, and in the case of infants and children too young for work, to care for them until they came of age.
Such a life was not conducive to such practices as reading, writing, and free thought, but there were those like Douglass that were allowed to learn, though it was a rarity and never truly embraced. In fact, in Douglass’ own experience his learning was quit quite abruptly when his master demanded that his wife stop instructing Douglass, lecturing that an ignorant slave was a happy slave. This of course only made Douglass want that learning more, and made him yearn for what he did not yet have. Slaves were made for labor, for housework in some cases, but never to learn anything beyond their station, lest it give them ideas, the essence of free thought, and eventually the notion that the world they lived in was not all that lay open to them.
Slave owners were notorious at times for punishing slaves over the smallest of slights, whether it was perceived laziness brought on by being overworked, hoarding food, or even questioning their master in any way. Some owners were known to whip their slaves simply to hear their screams, while others, sometimes those same owners, would whip harder and with great fervor at the sight of blood. It was a cruel and often capricious manner in which to treat any human being, but during this era slaves were thought of as mere property, not actual human beings.
In fact if a slave was hired out to one owner by another and damaged in some way that could not be easily explained, the owner would often be compensated monetarily for lost wages if the slave was damaged beyond their capability to work. There were a number of methods by which a damaged slave was either salvaged or disposed of, but to spare the reader from this it will simply be said that not a single method was humane or in any way kind. A slave that could not work was a tool that could not be utilized, and as such they could easily be discarded and replaced.
Sadly this was still an acceptable role by those who fell under the whip and the rule of slave owners, an existence spent doing as they were told while expecting at any time to be lashed again and again for some perceived slight or for the mere sport of it. The life of a slave was hard to put it mildly, and horrific to be more accurate. Yet for all this those who found themselves in such a predicament stayed, figuring perhaps that they had little if anything that might help them if they found a way to leave. Also, there was the utmost fear that they would be hunted down and beaten senseless again and again, tortured in a manner not befitting even the worst of criminals for the mere desire to be free, a right that each human who draws breath is entitled to share.
Frederick Douglass was unlike his fellow slaves in that he strove to become educated, he did try to run away, but he was also cognizant of why and for what purpose. He was no different in that he got caught and knew that he would be beaten, broken, and still made to work. Aside from his desire to be free and the means he was willing to undergo to obtain it Douglass was quite the average person when it came to slaves. His life was lived under several different masters of whom he expounds concerning their practices insofar as to how they treated their slaves, how they went about procuring them, and how many each master tended to have.
At one point and time the owning of slaves was considered to increase the status of a slave owner, as this tended to mean they not only had the funds and capabilities to own so many slaves, but also because they were more than likely wealthy landowners who needed so many in order to work and harvest their crops, which were considerable in some cases. Owning slaves was a status symbol that many found to increase their standing in the eyes of their peers.
Unfortunately this status never managed to transfer downward to the slaves, as they were often penniless, worked for wages that were transferred directly back to their master, and were given yearly allowances for such things as clothes and monthly allowances for food. Those who went through their allowances too quickly were often whipped, as they were considered gluttons and ungrateful for what had been given, while those who were seen to go through their allowances not quickly enough, at least when it came to food, might be whipped as well for hoarding. The life of a slave was one with little balance other than to find ways that would not force the master’s hand.
Young children were often given little more than a shirt to cover up with, and sometimes if resources became scarce, they weren’t given even this token of decency. Materials were seldom wasted on those who did not need them or could not otherwise utilize them in the manner that their masters desired. Even blankets were doled out only to men and women, hardly ever to children.
Given over to a life that was regulated constantly and hardly ever fair in any manner that a slave could equate to their own existence, slaves were still a very feeling bunch. If any have ever heard the woeful, chorus-laden songs that have been handed down throughout the years it is apparent that despite the lot in life they had been given in life they still had the means by which to convey such emotion. Their songs, saddening laments as to their lives that were often rude, inappropriate and coarse tunes, were nonetheless an outlet that allowed them to vent any frustration or otherwise sorrowful feeling that they were required to bottle up during their time among their masters. These songs sound to some like hope, or wistful longing, but as Frederick Douglass explains the words and emotions felt within are meant to convey more the anguish and bitter resentment of slavery than anything else.
So in truth slaves were very aware of their circumstances, and in the only way they knew how they gave voice to that bitterness, well away from their masters most likely as such sentiments would almost seem a plea for the whip to some cruel, uncaring minds. To date many gospel and even other types of music have been inspired by the plight and saddened tones of the unwritten music that was a product of the downtrodden, though it carries little if any of the real emotions that were likely felt back in those times. Such feeling as that only comes around during times of the greatest stress and turmoil, and as slavery has long since been abolished, America and its woes have taken on an entirely different tune.
This was among the major differences between Frederick Douglass’ story and those of his fellow slaves. He was allowed to experience the kindness of another, a master in particular, and not for any other gain but to educate a mind hungry and wanting for education. He knew what was being lost despite being broken in body and spirit, and such longing is difficult to forget, or to let go. In this manner it was the plight of all slaves to know at least something of the world outside of their existence, but in truth nothing more than the mere fact that there was something beyond the next field, something beyond the trees that they could see, an ethereal something that had no true meaning in their existence as it has nothing to do with work, only the punishment that would come if their curiosity were to get the better of them.
Aside from the wonderment that something else might be there, the fear of consequences was enough to keep many slaves in line without the added weight of chains or even lashes upon their backs. The mere fact that their masters could do as they liked in a capricious manner, even going so far as to kill them for sport if the mood struck them, was enough to give pause. It was often enough to think that some might have abandoned such a life if only in favor of being killed elsewhere but in a manner that allowed one to be designated as free before their end came. It was not the case however, and as Douglass explains it the masters could, and would, kill their slaves without a hint of warning or remorse, even going so far as to brag about the act later on, like a farmer that had for some inane reason decided to break their plow for no better reason than spite.
Surprisingly enough some slaves actually took a certain amount of pride in belonging to one master or another, even going so far as to compare their own master to another’s by way of decrying what their master gave them as opposed to what another’s master would provide. It seems a bit perverse and even degrading in nature, but then one must remember that for many of those people unfortunate enough to be born into this life, it was all they had and all they had ever known. Humans will often take pride in something, anything, so long as they can think of that ideal as something worthy enough to feel proud about. Even someone who has nothing will find something to lift their chin over, even if it is a life that most would not wish upon their worst enemy.
For all the horrors, and there were many, and the degradations, a daily occurrence, that were foisted upon slaves, they were still counted as part of a community, a means to an end in a part of the country that still belied in slavery as the natural order. It could be argued that slavery was in fact a Christian act, a means by which to offer gainful employment, shelter, and a stable life to one’s fellow man. If not for the act of denying that slaves were in actuality real people and not simply property, it might be an argument that would make sense. But then one would have to be reminded of the horrible cruelties that were visited upon so many so as to show an example, and of the vast hypocrisy that slave owners told so many in regards to slavery to be necessary to keep the dark-skinned savages in line.
Though there were many that were tainted by the life of slavery, Frederick Douglass is one among the several that, once free, strove to make a decided difference. While his life was began in a miasma of uncertainty, pain, and suffering not unlike his fellow slaves, he strove forward in a time when colored folk were not allowed to do much more than work and survive, and he became a force for his people, a voice for the voiceless, and a hope to his fellow man.