Frederick Douglass is widely known as one of the more influential orators and figures for abolitionists during the times of slavery. While a slave, Douglass tirelessly planned his escape from the appalling conditions he had endured since his early childhood. Whipped, manipulated and deprived of human rights, Douglass had every right to feel that his terrible situation would never improve.
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Slowly but surely, Douglass equipped himself with the social skills and economic capital to escape from the South into the freedom of the North. Douglass eas influenced by the significance of the physical beatings he witnessed, including that of Aunt Hester. One of his owners, Mr. Auld, shares his belief that allowing slaves to read would endanger his ability to continue the plantation. The last significant event that Douglass experiences would be his sale to the breaker” Mr. Covey. All three events signify a clear and malicious attempt made by white slaveowners to deny African Americans their rights, for their own personal gain.
Much of Douglass childhood is detailed in his narrative. As a child, Douglass was separated from his family, his mother had died early on in his life – likely from the physical and mental toll of slavery – and he also believed his slave owner was his father. One could argue that the separation was deliberate, and meant to cause emotional pain for the child as well as the parent. The mother would have to obey the slaveowner because they could beat the child if the mother or father did not obey. At that point in history, most people knew and realized that slaves had little to no education available. Douglass did not have the social awareness nor the intellectual ability to understand what was going on, or why slavery was out of the ordinary.
Thus, one of the first significant events that shaped Douglass occurred when Aunt Hester was brutally whipped in front of him. Even from a neutral point of view, the idea of relentlessly attacking another human being, let alone an innocent woman, is a disgusting idea. White men and women who were on plantations used physical violence to deter slaves from insurrections. One has to ask themselves if you could not prevent someone from doing an action by merely convincing them on your own, was the action itself truly morally justifiable? Douglass was young and still in his formative years, so he was still making his judgments about the relationship between the slave owner and the slave. There are references to how quickly Douglass noticed and learned about the violent dynamic, and how he detested the idea that even when you told the truth as a slave, you were still beaten. White slaveowner thought that by beating their slaves, that they would teach young, formative slaves like Douglass to obey. These were the experiences, among others, in which Douglass began to realize that the dynamic made no sense from a logical or moral perspective.
The second event that was significant and proves the corruption of the white slaveowner is the conversations between Douglass and Mr. Auld about the power of reading. Douglass engages in an extramarital relationship with Sophia Auld, who is married to Mr. Auld. She provides care and primary education to Douglass, likely out of compassion. Sophia Auld’s actions contrast entirely with the actions of her abusive husband, Mr. Auld. Mr. Auld tells Douglass and other slaves that if they learn to read, slaves will become useless because they will be depressed and unmanageable. At this point, Douglass is now old enough to understand and make moral judgments about what his slaveowners say.
The first significant event in his childhood was observing beatings like that of Aunt Hester, seeded a natural distrust between Douglass and his slaveowners. Their reasoning is detestable, as they surely know that reading and having an understanding of what is going on outside of the plantation would lead to a loss of control which would be catastrophic for the economy of the south. Douglass understands that the slaveowners preventing slaves from learning to read or learn is part of a deliberate plan to suppress African American freedom, and as a result the relationship between Douglass and the slaveowners becomes fractured. One could argue that Sophia Auld indirectly inspired Douglass to truly see the corruption of the slave-slaveowner relationship. Douglass learns a lot of valuable lessons from this, as he begins to learn how to read despite the physical abuse that he gets as a result. He realizes that to be successful, he will need to learn how to read, obtain information, and plan his escape.
Both events fostered and seeded distrust between Douglass and his slaveowners. Their lack of respect, and deliberate mistreatment and mismanagement of the slaves, only exacerbated this. Douglass returns the favor by showing them no respect and regularly planning for how he can escape from the plantation. He eventually becomes educated enough to completely comprehend and loathe his treatment and how he is valued as property, which further causes distrust in his relationship with the Auldr’s son and daughter.
The final straw for Douglass, and final event to analyze, is Douglass beatings at the hand of the breaker Mr. Covey. Covey is much more outright with his abuse of slaves, including Douglass. He beats Douglass regularly because he feels that Douglass is awkward. If Douglass was a useful slave, and his demeanor simply pissed off the owner, what was the point of beating him? It would do nothing but anger Douglass to a point where he could no longer tolerate the condition. Eventually, the move backfired on Covey, because Douglass fought back and attacked Covey to the point that he had surrendered. There was no punishment because Covey knew his role as an enforcer would be questioned if they knew Douglass had been successful in beating him up. The whole situation and dynamic is proven to be pointless and easily backfires on the slaveowner. Eventually, slaveowners would learn that the only way to stop the abuse is to fight back. When a stronger, more intellectual slave can do it, the other slaves quickly realize that the owner is weak and susceptible. Even if the owner managed to deter or beat the winning slave back into submission, they would lose their credibility and continuously have to wonder whether or not other slaves will attack them at any given time.
The irony of the situation is that when Douglass can speak with his slaveowner that he had been loaned from, the slaveowner sends him back to the place that has been abusing him for no reason. One could argue that the actions by Thomas Auld drove Douglass to a fundamental breaking point. Douglass realizes that he can no longer be used as an example to others. He recalls the situation with Aunt Hester and does not want to be the man who is beaten in front of a child. He wants to inspire others, and teach them that what was going on was not acceptable and that they needed to take action to improve their condition. Douglass is imprisoned after his initial attempts to escape, but eventually learns and figures out how to make his way New Bedford in the North.
Everyone in contemporary society knows that slavery is wrong. It violated the human rights of the slave and was in no way justifiable for the slaveowner. The idea of beating a slave, let alone in front of a young child, would eventually inspire slaves to realize that what was going on was considered cruel and disgusting. The slaveowners themselves knew that if the slaves were educated, they would begin to revolt because they could understand they too should have the same rights as their slaveowners. Fredrick Douglass paved the way for other slaves to take up arms and fight for what was right, and as a result, he will always be remembered for it.
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