Slavery in the United States is a dark page of American colonial history, yet a significant reminder of the past mistakes that whether we acknowledge them or not, still affect the present day reality. Slavery has a substantial impact on racial prejudices and stereotypes that prevail in the contemporary society and separate the nation. Slavery is usually regarded through the myriad of lenses – historical, sociological, political, and psychological, etc. Among the variety of books on slavery, those that provide the firsthand account may lack accuracy and impartiality, but they give the readers a splendid opportunity to relive the past together with the main characters, feel their pain and sufferings and, what is more important, to liberate them from racial stereotyping and racism.
Frederick Douglas in his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave establishes a rapport with the readers through imparting the contents of his inner life and his impressions of the world around him. He begins his story, telling that he does not know the date and year of his birth like many other slaves. Concealing this information was done, in all probability, to deprive the slaves of their identity. Very early he was separated from his mother and his complexion indicated that his father was a white man. Familial connections were discouraged to make slaves feel lonely and unprotected. Douglas supposed that his master was his parent, as it was customary for slaveholders to use slaves not only for toiling and moiling on their farms and plantations, but also for satisfying their sexual desires. Slaves were fed and treated like animals rather than human beings. The slaves’ living and working conditions were terrible.
Even though singing was denied to the slaves, they found ways to express their sadness. “Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains”. The slaves’ songs were a temporary relief from the unbearable life. “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears”. For Douglas, hearing those songs was heartbreaking. Like cattle, the slaves had to be constantly kept under control or otherwise they could become an unruly mob and thwart the system of oppression. Physical punishments like whipping and beating were the forms that slaveholders and overseers relied on to assert their dominance. The cruelness with which they punished their slaves is palm-sweatingly harrowing and shocking. They could easily dispose of the slaves either selling them or killing them. In either case, slaveholders did not feel any pangs of remorse or legal liability. Douglas admits that “killings a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot County, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community”. Slaves could not voice their complaints for fear of being scourged or sold and separated from their families and friends. Hunger and cold accompanied the slaves’ lives, enhancing physical sufferings and a constant fatigue. The slaves’ lives were of little or no importance to their masters. “It was a common saying, even among little white boys, that it was worth a half-cent to kill a “nigger”, and a half-cent to bury one”. Douglas recounts about the instances of great atrocities that some of the slaves experienced. A white woman beating a young maid to death, an overseer shooting the brains out of a scared slave, a plantation owner killing the man fishing on his territory – these examples testify to the cruelness and impunity of the whites.
Douglas’ partiality and straightforward account win him a wide acclaim. On one hand, his biased perspective provides insights into the lives, minds and hearts of the slaves. On the other hand, his personal narrative style inevitably breeds hatred towards the white masters and the white race in general. Thrilling and harrowing, Douglas’ story is a reminder of former sufferings, tribulations and anguishes of the black people who have overcome a lot of obstacles to assert their freedom and rights. Douglas excels at evoking different emotions, appealing to readers’ hearts more than minds, encouraging them to overlook their attitudes to people who may have a different skin color, language, culture, religion, social status, education, etc. and accept them as equals.