Frederick Douglass: Struggles of the American Slaves

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Frederick Douglass:
Struggles of the American Slaves

Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery around 1818, will forever remain one of the most important figures in America's struggle for civil rights and racial equality. As an ex-slave, his inspiration grew beyond his boarders to reach the whole world. Without any formal education, Douglass escaped slavery and became a respected American diplomat, a counselor to four presidents, a highly regarded speaker, and an influential writer. By common consent Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) is recognized as the best among the many slave narratives that appeared before the Civil War. He amazed people when he spoke bravely in his Fourth of July speech. He spoke out against oppression throughout America and abroad, and his struggle for freedom, self-discovery, and identity stands as a testament for all time, for all people. Although some people accused him of lying, exaggerating, and using his narrative and his well-known Fourth of July speech as part of an abolitionist plot, Douglass was able to clearly demonstrate his talents, sensitivity, and intellectual capacity by revealing the truth about the lives, culture, and psychological struggles of American slaves.

To be able to use Douglass’s Narrative as well as his Fourth of July speech as historical sources, one must distinguish between facts and opinions. Facts within both sources can be considered as historical base because they were written by someone who lived, experienced, and suffered in the same time and place of the events. People can learn and understand history from historians and autobiographers like Douglass. His opinions share the same importance but must be looked at differently. These opinions are his interpretations and thoughts about that period of time, however we may agree or disagree with them as well as have our own ideas and thoughts about them.

From the opening sentences of the narrative, Douglass defines the context by imposing the question of what it means to be human. Douglass reveals the fact that slave owners typically thought of slaves as animals. Douglass does not know how old he is, and he quickly declares that this is not unusual, since most slaves "know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs." It is instructive that this initial comparison of slaves to animals does not serve to express something about the minds of the slave owners; instead, it expresses something about the minds of the slaves that is the consequence of being born into an environment constructed and carefully maintained by their owners. In an environment that does not permit the idea that slaves are human, the only perspective available to them is that of their owners. Their own perspective therefore becomes an additional barrier to thinking of themselves as human. Douglass reveals more about the psychological struggles that slaves go through when he describes the pain of separation and death of his mother. He was separated from his mother when he was an infant. He never enjoyed his mother’s watchful care. Slaveholder’s don’t want slaves to be attached to their mothers or establish love bonds between them. They also “destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child.” He received the news about his mother’s death and felt “with much the same emotions I [he] should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”

In addition, slaves witness the harsh treatment and whipping of slaveholders at a younger age. Slave children were scared all the time and don’t know when their turn will be to be whipped or beaten for reasons they may not necessarily know about. Douglass witnessed the horrible exhibition of whipping his Aunt Hester and described it to be “blood-stained gate” and this was his “entrance to the hell of slavery.” Slaves cannot stop thinking about their conditions and the fact that they will be slaves for the rest of their...
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