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Slave Narratives

The life of a slave was very difficult. According to Jacobs account in Incidence in the life of a Slave Girl, the idea of a good slave master does not exist. She believed that slavery destroyed the morality of both the slave master and the slave. Because there wasn’t any system that governed the way slave masters had to treat their slaves, the slave masters were practically free to inflict whatever type of treatment they deemed necessary. She conveys the fact that slaves’ morality was forever affected by the influence of the system slavery. Because the slaves were bound by slavery codes they were forced to still, commit adultery, and fornication. Many slaves felt that by committing these acts, they were hurting their masters because they were not given any authority over themselves. Although most slave narratives were focused on given depictions of the physical torture slaves endured, Jacobs depicts the mental and emotional consequences of slavery. Likewise, Douglass’s narrative conveys his idea that slave masters kept slaves ignorant by not allowing them to learn to read and write. Douglass, in his Narrative, discusses the beliefs of many whites at this time. He felt that whites believed that blacks were incapable of participating in civil societies. This was just one strategy whites used to keep control over blacks. Nonetheless, Douglass discussed the horrific ways slave masters used physical violence and torture to keep slaves submissive and afraid. Although Jacobs and Douglass approach the horrors of slavery in slightly different ways, they both sought to expose the truth about the slave legacy from the slave’s point of view. Both Jacobs and Douglass expose the corrupting power of slavery on mental, emotional, and physical state of being on the slave through perversion of Christianity, literary devices, victimizations of female slaves, separation of families, violence, and degradation.

A comparison of the narratives by Douglass and Jacobs covers a wide range of the experience of being a slave. When Douglass wrote his novel the abolitionist movement was beginning; when Jacobs wrote hers the Civil War was beginning. Douglass had training as a speech maker and this persuasive tactic is evident in his narrative. He uses a great deal of repetition and persuasive techniques. Jacobs, on the other hand, has no trainings. She is merely appealing to middle class white female society. Jacob does not attempt to sugar coat any of the horrors she has encountered. Yet, Douglass talks very little about the horrors he encounters. He builds his narrative on the encounters of those around him. Of course, gender plays a big role in these differences.  Douglass was bold and outspoken, while Jacobs was a victim of domesticity. I believe her mildness came from the fact that she was a mother and her main objective was to protect her children. Despite their differences, both were willing to die for their freedom. Ironically, both Jacobs and Douglass wore the same disguise (merchant seaman suit) to escape from slavery. Another aspect of difference is Jacobs and Douglass view of literacy. Douglass warns it is absolutely necessary for the slave to learn to read, while Jacobs doesn’t stress the issue quite as much. Her main focus is on family relationships.

Although Douglass was able to distinguish between a true Christian and a fake one, many slaves felt that being a Christian meant being like their slave masters.  Consequently, they would flee from anything that had Christian connotations because of the way they viewed the slave masters. Douglass also pointed out the contradictions of what characterized Christian behavior according to the bible. He stated that Christianity was characterized by kindness, charity, and compassion. These are characteristics that he did not observer in any of the whites he had encountered.

There are many obvious examples of literary elements in both works.  For example, Douglass discusses superstitions in his work. He talks about a root that he was given by Sandy Jenkins. According to Jenkins, this root would protect slaves from being beaten by their masters. Douglass doesn’t believe the root has any such powers because beatings are common place on the plantation. Nonetheless, he takes the root to make Sandy happy. Douglass believes that Sandy’s belief in this root’s power is a metaphor or represents the ignorant ideologies of the slave population. Likewise, Jacobs uses symbolism in her work as well. I believe she uses Dr. Flint to represent her actual slave master, but in a bigger picture I believe he a paradox for the system of slavery. She discusses how cruel and monstrous he is. According to Jacobs, Flint is exceedingly conniving and manipulative. He seems to get pleasure from extending pain and grief upon his slaves. Because there were no laws to protect slaves, masters inflicted pain at will. I believe the characteristics of Flint represented slavery itself to Jacobs. Later, we see irony in Douglass’s work. He conveys his grief of being moved to one slave condition to the next when his previous mater dies. After going to Baltimore, Douglass intellectual self is born. Although he is still a slave, he is beginning to understand what freedom is through gaining knowledge. He later confesses that he believes that had he not been sent to Baltimore, he would have remained a slave. His new owner was unlike any other white women he had encountered. She had not been affected by the corruption of slavery. Although still a slave, in Baltimore he learned to read and write, and he even came upon a different perspective of whites. Finally, Jacobs uses symbolism, I believe that Aunt Martha is symbolized the yearning of black women to be nurturers.  Black women were unable to be nurturing and kind to their own families because they knew their children and husbands could be taken away at any time. A home and family is something that no black woman could have during slavery.

Female slaves were in constant fear of being victimized.  The relationship between the slave master and the slave was a notorious one. Many masters brutally raped their slaves. Other used forms of coercion. Many masters promised female slaves their freedom, as did one of Jacob’s masters. Other used religious teaching to convince the slaves that God intended for certain things to happen. Douglass explains early in his narrative that he was the product of rape. Douglass believed that his mother’s slave master was his father. This was common practice during slavery. Because slaves were looked upon as mere animals, masters used their female slaves as objects of lustful pleasures and experimentation.  Jacobs, too, was the victim of rape at the hand of her master.  She had to endure the constant harassment of her master and the malicious punishments of his jealous wife. She remained torn between escaping from him and remaining to care for her children. Jacobs recalls an incident where when her master finds out she is pregnant, he cut all of her hair from her head. He later throws her s down a flight of stairs in hopes of killing her unborn baby. Presumably, he knew this child was not his and felt she had been sexual with one of the slave men. After this incident, she was under constant supervision to ensure that she wouldn’t be with any other man. Jacobs doesn’t suffer the same physical labors that most slaves endured on the plantation, but she does suffer the mental and emotional anguish that they all suffered. She suffers internally because she is in great fear that her daughters will suffer the same fate at the hand of a slave master.  During this time, Jacobs expresses her feeling of utter despair. Incidences like these only give us a glimpse of the emotional and mental anguish slaves endured.

The threat of family separation is constant because slave masters dismiss the concept that slaves are capable of love. Jacobs opens chapter seven with the question why should a slave ever love. At this time in the slave legacy, this was a great question. What’s the point in loving anything or anyone when that very love could be torn away at any time? Both authors had witnessed the effect of slave families being torn apart first hand. For example, during the seven years that Jacobs spent in hiding she would still keep a watchful eye on her children. Jacobs hoped that her children would be sold to a kind slave master that would ensure a better life for them. The love a mother has for her children is a constant theme in Jacobs’s narrative. I believe she wanted the reader to understand that although slaves were viewed as incapable of loving, the fact was that they loved immeasurably.  Accordingly, children were a source of both joy and sorrow for slave mothers. They were a joy because they gave slave mothers a hope from day to day. They were a sorrow because slave mothers had to endure the fact that their children would most likely never be free from the legacy of slavery. Douglass also recounts his emotional depravation. He was withheld access to his mother as a form of punishment and never told the origins of his birth. Although he withstood other forms of depravation, such as food and proper clothing, this had the most lasting effect on him.

Violence played a large role in keeping slaves submissive. Douglass recounts an incident where a slave was severely beaten and then killed. The slave, whose name was Demby, was severely beaten with a whip for no apparent reason. To try to soothe his broken and blistered skin, Demby jumped in a nearby creek. He was ordered by his overseer to come out of the water. Demby did not respond. The overseer then told him that he had until the count of three to come out. Due to his failure to comply, Demby was shot dead. Douglass also gives an account of an incidence when his aunt was beaten. There were various ways to punish a slave for not obeying. Sometimes slaves were shackled or chained to tree. Most often they were just beaten with the use of a whip. Slaves could be punished for various reasons too. Not working hard enough, stealing, lying, or even talking too much were reasons a slave could be punished. The most feared of punishments was being sold away from their family. Many slave masters used this as a way to make slaves submit. Jacobs was resold into slavery after master’s death. Although she was promised freedom upon his death, there were no laws to protect slaves’ rights. Slaves had no rights.

One of the most degrading aspects of slavery for the slave was the auction block. Slaves were brought to the auction block like livestock.  Then, one after the other the slaves had to stand on the auction block.  Potential buyers would then thoroughly look them over.  They forced the slaves to open their mouths so they could examine their teeth. Sometimes they would even look into their ears. After endless poking and prowling, the buyers would make a bid. Douglass talks about how slaves were valued in chapter eight of his narrative.  He says that women and men, regardless to age or marital status were ranked with horses, sheep, pigs, and other livestock. Men were ranked with horses. Women were ranked with cattle. Children were ranked with pigs. He goes on to say that he has no words to express the slaves’ feelings at these times.

In conclusion, both authors used their narratives as an attempt to expose the horrors of slavery to white society. They hoped that exposing the horrors would cause northern whites understand the practice of slavery. Southerners had conveyed slavery as an economic necessity. They had caused many to see blacks as inhuman. By doing this, it made the practice of slavery seem acceptable. After all, according to them, blacks were incapable of love and emotions. Blacks were just like animals.  Masters sold slaves if they were in a financial bind just as a farmer would sell a pig or cow. The effect of slavery will forever be evident in the life of African American families.  Through slavery, blacks became beast of burden to carry the load of white society. Slavery produced self-hating concepts in blacks. Many blacks, even today, hate their physical features, skin tone, and the texture of their hair. Likewise, slavery sought to keep blacks uneducated. Nearly three hundred years of educational depravation had caused a great deal of the race of blacks to not value education. 

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