Close Reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass1

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According to the narrative of Frederick Douglass, during the 19th Century, the conditions slaves experienced were not only cruel, but inhumane. It is a common perception that “cruelty” refers to the physical violence and torture that slaves endure. However, in this passage, Douglass conveys the degrading treatment towards young slaves in the plantation, as if they were domesticated animals. The slaves were deprived of freedom and basic human rights. They were not only denied of racial equality, they weren’t even recognized as actual human beings. The simile Douglass uses to describe the manner of which the children were fed, “like so many pigs” helps illustrate the treatment the slaves received. Douglass compares slaves to pigs, which is often associated with dirt and gluttony. This shows that, the slaves were treated not only racially as inferior, but as inferior to the human race. The slaves were fed “mush,” which was “coarse corn meal boiled” (16). Douglass uses the word “mush” in order to perfectly describe the texture of the food, which people often associate with food that is fed to animals. As if eating mush out of a “large wooden tray or trough[…]set down upon the ground” wasn’t degrading enough, the slaves were deprived of any real utensils and were forced to eat with objects such as “oyster-shells,” “pieces of shingle,” or their “naked hands” (16). The ability and desire to use utensils is one of the many things that set us, as human beings, apart from the animal kingdom. However, the slaves were completely deprived of opportunity to use utensils. Douglass describes the competition that the children must face during “feeding time.” They eat fast; those who eat quickly, eat the most. Like animals, those who are the most competitive, thrive. This also shows that the slave owners refused to give them the correct portions of food that they needed in order to thrive, as Douglass says “few left the trough satisfied” (16).

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