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The primary source texts offer the readers unrivalled insights into the various aspects of history that they wish to understand. Such texts prove particularly useful in the study of history given the relationship they have with the era a historian may wish to study. One of the most prominent texts is the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas. Its context offers a highway map of the writer’s journey from slavery to freedom, both in the body and mind. In the publication, Douglas, who was born a slave, writes a memoir about his experiences as an American slave, and a highlight of his journey to freedom. This essay describes some of the major themes that are present in the book, Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas, which also highlight the way of life during that period.
The term theme is used in literature to denote to an underlying meaning of a given literary work, which can either be stated directly or indirectly. Themes make up the major ideas which are usually explored collectively in a literary work for the purpose of promoting a better understanding of a piece of literature amongst its readers. Some of the key themes that are apparent within the publication Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass are discussed below.
Ignorance as A Tool of Slavery
In the book, slavery is one of the major themes that is illustrated throughout the memoir. In the publication, ignorance as a factor influencing the continued existence of slavery amongst slaves has been portrayed. Despite the prevalent use of physical brutality as a threat to keep the slaves in servitude, it was not the most effective way to perpetuate slavery. Instead, the slaveholders ensured continued slavery by maintaining a resonant and sustained level of ignorance among the slaves. During this period, the slaves were never offered the opportunity to read and write. As such, they were barely aware of what was happening beyond the plantations where they worked. This meant that it was impossible for them to realize their self-worth as they could not communicate with each other in an effort to develop any form of rebellion.
In the publication, the aspect of ignorance is further advanced the protagonist, Douglas, where he says that “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.” “It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason”. Douglas uttered this statement out of the realization that his masters unfailingly deprived the slaves any form of knowledge. This was up to a level that the slaves could not even comprehend the meaning of being free. The slaveholders would often encourage excessive drinking and merrymaking amongst their slaves, especially during the holidays. This was meant to make them think of themselves as irresponsible beings who could exist or survive independently, without the guidance of their masters.
In addition, slavery was also perpetuated through the ignorant beliefs, which were held by the slaves themselves as well as the larger black community. Most of the people considered slavery as a societal status associated with the whites. As such, the blacks were robbed their identity since childhood, as well as the basic rights of their individuality. The blacks were deemed incapable of contributing to the civil society except at the level of being slaves for the whites. This was another way of keeping the ignorant black slaves at the time illiterate. For instance, in the publication, Douglass explains that when his master found his wife, Sophia, teaching Douglas how to read, he commanded her to stop. He said that “learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.”
Also, the fact that his master forbade his wife from teaching Douglas how to read develops the impression that education was his path to freedom. In the text, education is highlighted as the principal means through which Douglas was able to obtain his own freedom of mind. This later aids him to achieve his own physical freedom from slavery. It also acted as a tool with which he used to lobby for the abolition of slavery for all persons. Due to this awareness, the slaveholders used every means possible to deter their slaves from obtaining any form of literacy. They were worried that the enlightenment of slaves through education would have prompted them to start a rebellion.
The power that comes with literacy is also demonstrated by the disgust developed by Douglas once he came to understand the full aptitude of slavery. The information he gains through his little self-education exposes him to the full extent of the brutalizing institution of slavery. It also broadens his understanding of the unprecedented means that the slaveholders employed in sustaining ignorance amongst the slaves. This fuels his desires to liberate himself from the chains of slavery. Even after bouncing from one master to another, each of which tried to suppress his insurgency, he still manages to emancipate himself through his determination.
Religion and Christianity
The theme of religion and Christianity is expressed as a paradox within the publication. Douglas presents religion in two forms of Christianity, which he describes as the real and false versions of Christianity. The form of Christianity practiced by Douglas himself and the few white men that opposed the practice of slavery is what Douglas refers to as the true form of Christianity. He often regarded himself as a spiritual man whose Christianity was grounded in the teachings of Christ. Also, the true form of religion was the one considered as a saving grace. This is by most of the slaves who actively participated in religious activities such as hymns among other worship practices. Douglas refers to this form of Christianity as “the Christianity of Christ”
On the other hand, the Christianity practiced by the white slaveholders was regarded as the false form of Christianity. The text describes this religion to be a perfect hypocrisy that says one thing but end up practicing a completely opposite thing. Douglas goes ahead and proves this form of Christianity as a duplicitous practice, which is merely aimed at satisfying their selfish perversions. Douglas exposes Mr Covey, one of his many masters, as one of the partisans of slaveholders' Christianity. Mr Covey used his pretenses to devoutness as a cover up for his corruption and evil deeds. As such, Douglas referred to this form of Christianity as the “Christianity of this land.”
Douglas demonstrates the duality of Christianity by identifying the distinctions between the peaceful and generous principles of true Christianity. These are contrary to the fierce and immoral deeds of the slaveholders. In addition, Douglas derides the churches' participation in sustaining the systems of slavery. This is demonstrated when he accuses the southern churches of accepting Auld’s money, which is earned through the efforts of slaves. In effect, Douglass juxtaposes these two forms of Christianity as opposing forces that cannot exist at the same time. He suggests that even in the practice of true Christianity, the mere institution of slavery unavoidably corrupts the whole religious system.
The Damaging Effects of Slavery On the Slaveholders and The Society
Another important theme that Douglas reveals through his publication is the effects of slavery on the slaveholders themselves. He highlights the risk that the slaveholders’ posed to their own moral health. This is given the amount of uncontrolled and immense power that they held over their slaves. Douglas portrays the threat to the family unit that is instigated when the slaveholders committed adultery with their slaves. Fathering a slave’s child often bred an unhealthy relationship with the child as they were also treated as slaves and could either be sold off or served with punishment even from their own fathers.
Perhaps the best illustration of the damaging effects of slavery power was illustrated by Sophia Auld. She is a principled woman who changes for the worse after experiencing the unrestricted power of slaveholding. To make matters worse, religious slaveholders would often vindicate their immoral actions with irrational justifications based on the scriptures. This is because they assumed to have moral endorsements for the atrocities they committed simply because they were religious leaders. For instance, Thomas Auld quoted the passage ʺHe that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”. He uttered this statement as he was whipping a lame woman whom she had tied up.
In addition, through his experience, Douglas showed that the practice of slavery had corrupted even the religious leaders at the time. He demonstrated how the southerners, who practiced religion with the most zeal, were actually the most heartless towards the slaves. They would often condemn the slaves to punishment even for the slightest desecration of the scriptures, but at the same time rationalizing their own sacrilegious actions. Douglas recalls how a Sabbath school he once attended while at St Michael’s was cruelly disbanded. The school was meant to help the slaves to read the Bible. This action was led by Mr Fairbanks and Mr West, who read the scriptures for the white men. They stated that they did not want the slaves to know how to read.
The theme of fellowship is one of the important themes that run throughout the text. From the beginning, the reader is led to understand just how broken up the family ties were at the time. To Douglas’s consternation, he believes his father could possibly be his white master or another white slaveholder. He only just got to know his own mother whom she never knew. They only met a couple of times before she passed away. He was even prevented from attending her funeral. In addition, Douglass rarely mentions his other relatives such as his grandmother. Through his experience, the reader can understand that at the time, a family is something that Douglas was deprived of due to slavery.
The only place where Douglas got a feeling of family for most of his life was among the slaves such as himself. Despite the harsh cruelties the slaves experienced from their masters, they developed close relationships amongst themselves. Such relations offered Douglass the comfort he never got from family. In the publication, he says that “I was, however, somewhat indebted to the society of my fellow‐slaves….” “We were linked and interlinked with each other….” His closeness to his fellow slaves as a family unit is highlighted when he says that he suffered when he was on the run, away from his fellow slaves and unable to trust anyone.
In addition, the society presented in the book is depicted to be one that has no regards to communal relationships. This is illustrated through the unhealthy social order where people enslave their fellow men. In this society, the fellowship in religion is based on the social status as well as the color of skin. The white men consider their slaves as property rather than as fellow human beings. Particularly, the white man fails to comprehend the significance of the mutual fellowship such as that developed by the slaves. This is evident even within their families as masters can sell or punish their own children as long as they are born by a slave.
Abuse of Women
Although there only a handful of women mentioned in the text, the theme of abuse and oppression amongst women is quite evident. Most of the white women in the context are slaveholder’s spouses, who are accustomed to brutality and impulsiveness. However, it is the black women, most of whom are slaves, that fall as victims of abuse by their masters. For instance, Douglas recalls when Mr Covey bought one woman as a ‘breeder’ since he could only afford one slave at the time. He then forces the female slave on a male slave so that they could bear children whom he regarded as an additional wealth for himself.
In addition, Douglas himself is begotten when his mother is forced into sexual intercourse with a white man. Other enslaved women fell victims of physical abuse by their masters. Douglas considers Thomas Auld as a brutal man due to the series of beatings he procures to a physically challenged woman, Henny. He writes “I have known him to tie her up early in the morning, and whip her before breakfast; leave her, go to his store, return at dinner, and whip her again, cutting her in the places already made raw with his cruel lash.” Thomas could carry out this savage beating several times a day without remorse. This illustrates the harsh brutalities that women often had to go through during the period.
Inequality is another prevalent theme in Douglas’ autobiography. In the text, Douglas constantly attempts to show his readers that slaves were as much human as their white counterparts. However, on numerous occasions, he illustrates how the white people refused to consider the slaves as human beings. Even at an early age, Douglas was able to note the inequalities that were evident between the slaves and their masters. At one point he states that “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell his or her birthday….” “The white children could tell their ages.” “I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.”By stating that he was not aware of his background, he clearly exemplifies the inequality between the white and black children at the time
Douglas also speaks of the brutal adversities and punishments that were experienced by slaves. They were a normal daily part of life for the slaves. He states that “I looked for a home elsewhere, and was confident of finding none which I should relish less than the one which I was leaving.” “If, however, I found in my new home hardship, hunger, whipping and nakedness, I had the consolation that I should not have escaped any one of them by staying.”. This further demonstrates that such experiences were not only experienced while in their master’s plantations but also anywhere else that a slave could seek refuge.
In conclusion, it is evident that the publication offers a rich foundation of the history of slavery in the American society at the time. As illustrated above, the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas has managed to bring out the realities of slavery during the early 19th century through the key themes present in the text. As such, the audience of the text can comprehend the important details of slavery, education as well as the religion during that period. In addition, other themes such as inequality, the abuse of women and fellowships provide more knowledgeable insights concerning the kind of culture and social relationships that were prevalent during that period. As such, the readers can gain an understanding of any explorations they may have on this historical period.