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The Problem of Slavery in America

The two autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, using the penname Linda Brent, narrate the experiences of slaves in America before the abolition. Douglass and Jacobs show that slavery is an institutionalized abuse of human rights on the basis of race. It is the most barbaric cruelty that human beings can commit against fellow men. The two autobiographies converge on the theme of exploitation of minority groups in society largely because legal and social institutions support social injustices. This is evidenced by the religious hypocrisy that supported the holding of slaves in the southern states (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass) and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) that allowed slave owner to hunt down and repossess runaway slaves. However, although slavery as a social injustice is the common motif in the two texts, they differ in terms of their treatment of the subject. While Douglass presents slavery as a social ill that affects society at large, demoralizing slaves and slaveholders as well, Jacobs looks portrays slavery at a personal level. Douglass uses his personal experiences to portray the larger problem of social inequalities, social injustices and exploitation of minorities in society. In contrast, Jacobs focuses on her own sufferings in the hands of slave masters and her struggle to liberate herself and her children. In this light, this essay argues that The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass portrays the quest for a just society while Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a portrayal of a quest for personal freedom.

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Frederick Douglass’s life experiences and activities reflect his escape from slavery and contributions to the abolitionist movement. The abolitionists agitated for an end of slavery in America, especially in the southern states where slaveholding was legal. Douglass’s early life depicts the indignity and inhuman treatment that slaves suffered. Born by a slave mother in the farm of Colonel Lloyd, Douglass is subjected to the ills and immorality of slavery from infancy. He is separated from his mother soon after birth and offered to an old woman to care of him. This separation of child and mother at birth portrays the insensitivity of the slave owners about the sentimental attachment that a mother has to her child. This practice, together with the selling of slaves, is a manifestation of blindness to the role of family ties on the part of slave owners (Morgan and Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture 515). Slaves were separated from their families by force, thus destroying any existing social ties within families. Douglass presents this situation in the first chapter when he recounts how he grew up without knowing his father for certain or living with his mother. This situation shows that the destiny of slaves was determined by their masters at birth. As such, Douglass makes a philosophical statement on the right of men to claim authority over the lives of fellow human beings. The unasked question that his experiences as a child pose is whether each human being is not entitled to a natural right to chart their own destinies. The practice of separating children from their parents violates their right to receive parental care and love, which is critical for their social, psychological and emotional well-being. His early experiences, such as lacking parental care and witnessing the brutal treatment that other slaves experienced in the hands of overseers forced him to suffer silently. This is because there was nothing he could do about it, while the tortures reminded him of his place in society. The cruel treatment that older slaves experienced revealed to him the kind of life that awaited him. This awareness is what compelled him to seek a way out by acquiring education.

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In contrast, Jacobs’ childhood is not characterized by abuse and mistreatment. Although she was born into slavery, she was blessed with the opportunity to receive parental care. In addition, her parents were relatively well-off, thus suggesting an easier and comfortable childhood compared to Douglass’s circumstances. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Jacobs’ experiences is that her major concern was not the different forms of cruel treatment such as beatings and forced labor that slaves experienced, but rather the sexual advances of her master, Dr Flint. Under the circumstances, this could have seemed a far better option than toiling in the fields and putting up with beatings from farm overseers. However, there is an underlying aspect of exploitation since her master wanted to use her as an object for sexual gratification. Jacobs makes it clear that Dr. Flint was not interested in a mutual relationship, but simply having sex with her. In this regard, Jacobs’ experience shows an aspect of slavery that Douglass is not conscious of. Being a man, it is understandable that he was not exposed to the full cruelty of slavery, especially regarding the treatment of women (Buell 26). Thus, it is possible that Jacobs’ personal approach to the ills of slavery is because she suffered what women slaves suffered as individuals and not as a group.

The second point of distinction between the two narratives is their approach to freedom. While Douglass seeks education to liberate himself from the chains of slavery, Jacobs accomplishes her goal by running away from her abusers. Although Douglass eventually escapes to the north, he recognizes that running away does not offer true liberation. Consequently, he uses every opportunity to acquire an education. This is shown when he goes to live with the Aulds in Baltimore. There, he learns that the whites used ignorance on the part of blacks to perpetuate slavery. He realizes that the white man does not have any power over him, but manages to dominate and control black people because of their illiteracy. This realization explains Douglass’s broad approach to the question of slavery. He stops seeing himself as an individual being exploited and abused by a single master; instead, he sees himself as part of a minority group suffering under an unfair system. He also realizes that the major reason for the existence of slavery is because of ignorance on the part of slaves (Alexis 67). This ignorance is reinforced at childhood when children are denied the right to know their parents or their dates of birth. Douglass writes that “By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant” (Douglass 2). This practice not only violated the slaves’ natural rights, but conditioned them to know their place in society as equal to that of animals- the property of their masters. Not surprisingly, Douglass’s later activities as an adult focused on ending ignorance among slaves as a way of liberating them from slavery. He believed that slaves had to acquire a new self-identity, to regard themselves as human beings with rights. This awareness will then give them the courage to stand up and fight for their rights. Douglass exemplifies this idea when he refuses to be beaten by Covey, a feared slave breaker who slave owners used to “straighten” those who dared to show deviance to their masters.

On her part, Jacobs escapes from the exploitation of slavery by running away. Too late, she realizes that her way of confronting her problems, having an affair with a white neighbor to avoid the loathsome Dr. Flint, does not offer a long term solution. In any case, her affair illustrates the helplessness of being a slave and a woman. The fact that Mr. Sands cannot marry her shows that he simply took advantage of her situation to exploit her sexually. Her two children were treated as slaves despite the fact that they were fathered by a white man. This situation shows the unfairness of the legal system of the time that condemned blacks into slavery even when they were fathered by white men (Buell 26). Jacobs’ response to her problems shows that she was seeking a personal solution to a personal problem. First, she gets into an affair to make her master sell her off, and later runs away from her problems. This contrasts with Douglass, who confronts the problems affecting him and his fellow blacks. It is informative noting that she fails to realize her dream of freedom. When she concludes her narrative, she is still a slave under the ownership of Mrs. Bruce. Although she is not suffering the usual hardships that slaves experience, she is still answerable to someone. This is the condition that Douglass seeks to end in his agitation for the emancipation of the black race. He recognizes the complexity of slavery; he understands that freedom is not just being free from the hands of slave masters, but attaining complete liberation of the mind by gaining self-identity and restoring one’s dignity as a human being. 

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Nevertheless, both texts portray slavery as a monster that affects slaves in all aspects of their lives.  It is a cruel beast that does not spare even vulnerable children and women. In war, the death of women and children is justified as collateral damage, the victims of a confrontation that is beyond their power. Slavery does not make this distinction; even children and women are targets of abuse and exploitation. Most important, Douglass shows that ignorance is the tool that slave owners use to control slaves, and freedom is only attainable when the oppressed gain knowledge about their rights as human beings.

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