How, according to Douglass, do masters make their slaves comply with slavery?
Frederick Douglass puts forward strong arguments for the connection between the lack of knowledge and obedience of slaves. Speaking from experience, he argues that it is essential for masters to keep their slaves ignorant in order to make them comply with orders without even thinking of raising any questions. The famous expression that sums up this idea is the following: “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.” (Douglass, Narrative of the Life, Ch. X) Douglass explains that masters have to create an environment where slaves can never think that any change of their situation is ever possible. To add salt to injury, masters make sure that their slaves have neither any time nor any ability to consider the conditions of slavery and the moral side of it. The slave “must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right.” (Douglass, Narrative of the Life, Ch. X) The system does everything to cloud any reasonable judgment and to even consider such notions as liberty, justice, and equality. The inhumane and degrading conditions of slavery are the most powerful tool of obedience. Slaves are deprived of the possibility to think about their life and in greater terms. They can only endure suffering and think about the present day. Douglass demonstrates this by explaining that “during […] leisure times, those old notions about freedom would steal over me again.” (Douglass, Narrative of the Life, Ch. X) The immense hardships of the slaves cloud their judgment and vision of who they are and what they can achieve to change their life. Thus, it is primary masters’ objective never to ease the suffering of their slaves and keep them threatened and miserable during their whole life.
How did Douglass recover a sense of his humanity before he escaped slavery?
The sense of humanity is deeply related to the understanding of one’s own value and significance. Douglass explains that eventually his value to the master has increased as he began to bring significant revenues. His conditions have improved as a result giving him space to think about his future. Douglass notes, “In the course of one year from the time I left Mr. Gardner’s, I was able to command the highest wages given to the most experienced calkers. I was now of some importance to my master.” (Douglass, Narrative of the Life, Ch. X) In the end, the fact that his new master started giving him money solidified this growing feeling of self-worth. Douglass writes, “I became quite restless. I could see no reason why I should, at the end of each week, pour the reward of my toil into the purse of my master.” (Douglass, Narrative of the Life, Ch. XI) It was the humanization of his conditions that eventually pushed Douglass to plan and carry out his escape from slavery.
What makes Douglass’s perspective on freedom unique? How does his perspective on freedom differ from that of a person born free?
Douglass’s perspective on freedom is very complex and nuanced. He notes himself that “I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself.” (Douglass, Narrative of the Life, Ch. XI) His perception is unique because it offers a glimpse into understanding of what it means to gain freedom when you have never had it. His description of the experience is very fluid, as it explains a process of becoming a free person rather than points out a specific moment of becoming free. Douglass mentions that it is initially it is a time of “the highest excitement”. However, the excitement does not last but transforms into the feeling of insecurity and even loneliness. His best phrase to illustrate this is the following: “I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate.” (Douglass, Narrative of the Life, Ch. XI) Douglass’s perception of freedom is different from that of a person born free because only a former slave can embrace freedom as a completely alien situation. Douglass had to gain his freedom and pay the price that comes with this accomplishment.
- Douglas, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglas. Xist Publishing, 2015.