Racial inequalities always exist, and slavery in 19th-century United States was among the most horrible expressions of this stereotypic assumption, which many advocates worked hard to eliminate and abolish. Frederick Douglass, born around 1818, was a slave for life in Maryland before his successful escape to New York in 1838. His famous slave narrative not only made him a reputed figure in the anti-slavery world, but also contributed considerably to the abolition movement. He, who became a new representative for slaves, used his works to effectively expose the fiendishness and odiousness of slaveholders, to collect sympathies from his audience ; his efforts gave him much importance in the history of the United States.
In his autobiography, Douglass breaks and disproves the traditional and incorrect image of a slave, who is regarded as an uncivilized, savage barbarian, and thus reveals the importance of education to the enslaved Africans. He refers to religion often in this book, once writing “If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the South must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, … who… owe their existence to white fathers” (6). By stating that the religious foundation of justifying slaveholding is unreliable, Douglass establishes himself as a learned man and a devoted abolitionist who dare challenge strong religious elements. For the readers who do not know about him before, this statement serves as a source of intrinsic ethos and credibility. However, he also emphasizes his respect for the true Christianity, trying to strengthen himself as a religious person just like his audience, again an effort to be more credible and trustworthy. Douglass, while recalling his education, says it to be “the pathway from slavery to freedom” and writes that “to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black men…” (42). Trying to persuade the audience of literacy’s importance to slaves and to encourage the sympathetic ones to offer education to them. Furthermore; he also detailedly narrates his experience of establishing a secretive school for the fellow slaves, and describes their eagerness for knowledge. It is an example of “pathos”, for the white readers in the North would consider education as easily accessible due to emerging church schools, and the slaves’ belief that knowledge is a distant privilege would provoke their sympathies. Based on these established credibility and emotions, Douglass begins to elaborate his descriptions, introducing the real daily life of slaves, the difficulties they suffer, the horrible deeds of the slaveholders, and the terrible system under which such scenes are witnessed.
Douglass’ accounts of the brutal practice, some of which are personally sighted by himself, expressed his great hatred towards slaveries and compassion to his fellow slaves. Douglass describes many slaveholders and overseers in his book, and most, if not all, of them are portrayed as infernal characters; he recalls that when he is a child, once eye witnessed a slaveholder whip his Aunt Hester for meeting another slave without permission, “after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood came dripping to the floor” (9). This report, suggesting that the slaves do not possess even the most modest rights of friendship or affections, implies the inhumanity and cruelty of the slaveholders. Describing this, Douglass uses the terms “the blood-stained gate” and “hell of slavery”, an expression of metaphor, showing his great antipathy. Another testimony in his book corrects a common misunderstanding of the Northerners, “I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness” (18). Using his experience as a former slave and the intrinsic ethos he builds up early in the work, Douglass has the ability to change some of the most serious misconceptions of the audience, which would obstacle the abolition movement. He also shows the sorrow of the slaves and emphasizes that singing is their only means to express grievances, since any obvious expressions of dissatisfaction would potentially lead to severe punishments from those who were not at all impressed by the songs, those who have “no flesh in his obdurate heart”. These astonishing and touching stories attract many, and become one of the most famous slave narratives of all times, contributing much to the liberation of slaves.
His works, which consist of three autobiographies, were among the most famous and influential slave narratives, and not only were they powerful writings in 19th century, but also were precious sources of information in today’s historical studies. Frederick was an ardent advocate and public speaker, “In thousands of speeches and editorials, he levied a powerful indictment against slavery and racism, provided an indomitable voice of hope for his people, embraced antislavery politics and preached his own brand of American ideals” (History.com). From these speeches, he attracted a large crowd, gained wide respect, and deepened their hatred and disapproval to slavery, which eventually led to the Civil War’s victory and freedom for all slaves. The Gilder Lehrman Institute says, “…the revolution in African American history, which coincided with the modern Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, brought a renewed attention to and use of the slave narratives” (Blight). Douglass’ descriptive and thought-provoking works offer answers to many questions of modern historians, and a new perspective to view this system, which could effectively combat the earlier racially prejudiced study of historiography and slavery. His passionate orations and personality are still echoing till this day.
With his famous narrative, Frederick Douglass successfully got much attention from the Northerners and other sympathetic groups. He not only became a brand new and different representative figure of the slaves, but also an active advocate for abolitionist movement. Though the practice of slavery no longer exists in the United States, racial inequalities can still be widely seen. However, efforts are being put into the prevention of such deeds and the pursuit of equal rights for all, regardless of gender and race.
Blight, David W. “The Slave Narratives: A Genre and a Source.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute
of American History, 7 October 2016.
By Himself, Introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
An American Slave. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Austin.
“Frederick Douglass.” History.com, 7 October 2016.