One of the darkest times in American history was that of the three to four hundred year timeframe of slavery. This unlawful enslaving of millions of African Americans has caused a tragic bitterness between blacks and whites that will never cease to exist. Everyone has there own interpretation of what slavery really entailed, but the typical situation thought of when thinking of slavery is that of a black person picking the cotton fields in the Southern American Colonies. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, shows us that there was much more to colonial slavery than that which is characteristically portrayed. Frederick Douglass shows us throughout his narrative that life experiences of a slave were all dependent on the mentalities of the masters, the location of enslaving, and the mentalities of the slaves. Not only did this narrative give a first-hand account of what it was like to be a slave, it also showed the world the cruelties and hardships of being a black in colonial America. The three examples discussed above were significant matters that helped Douglass explain how various factors made one slave’s experience of slavery different from another slave’s experience.
The blacks being brought over from Africa had no choice or say in the outcome of whom would be their master. They had no idea of the intentions that each slave owner had. All they knew was that they were kidnapped from their homelands and brought to America as free labor. These men, women, and children were at the mercy of their master. Some of the owners prided themselves on gaining respect from their slaves through kindness, while others demanded respect through brutality.
One man whom Douglass remembered in particular was a master known as Mr. Gore. He took over the place of Mr. Hopkins who Douglass believes “career was short because he lacked the necessary severity to suit Colonel Lloyd” (65). Mr. Gore was an overseer of one of the out-farms owned by Colonel Lloyd. “Mr. Gore, a first-rate overseer, was artful, cruel, and obdurate” (65). This was why the mentality of the overseer played such a significant role in the experience of the slaves. Douglass once stated, “To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished” (66). Slaves were never to argue with what they had done. The overseers’ cruelty towards insubordinate slaves was spiteful. Gore’s cruelty was shown through his barbaric actions towards his slaves. One slave in particular whom Douglass saw experience Gore’s cruelty was a slave by the name of Demby. Demby was being scourged by Gore and instead of continuing to get beaten ran and jumped into a creek. Gore gave him to the count of three to get out of the water. After Demby refused to get out, Gore pulled out his gun and shot Demby in the face. Gore viewed his slaves as more of an asset to his farm, rather than a human being. This is why the mentality of the overseer is so important. Demby stood no chance against Gore because of Gore’s barbaric tactics. Another master may have given the slave more time and a harsher punishment, but may not have shot them in the head.
Some of Douglass’s overseers had mentalities more like a boss than a master. Though disliking the lifestyle of a slave, Douglass dealt with it the best he could. He said of one of his owners, “she proved to be all she appeared when I first met her at the door,-a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings” (77). The mentality of most slave owners was that slaves were inferior human beings who were not privileged to look a white man in the eye. This woman, being from the city and having a more respectful mentality towards slaves, thought otherwise. “She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face” (77). She showed respect to Douglass. She soon began to teach him the A, B, C’s and soon after to read small words. This changed when her husband found out and said,
‘If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in this world…if you teach a nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.'(78)
This owner’s mentality sparked a fire inside of Douglass’s heart. What the master dreaded the most was what Douglass most desired. “From that moment on Douglass understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (78). Though he hated being a slave, the mentalities of his owners made slavery manageable some of the time and from that point forward planned on learning to read and write and eventually escape to the north.
Douglass, through the experience of the city, now realized that life of a city slave was completely different than the life of a country slave. While growing up in the country, Douglass was given one shirt, a pair of pants, and a blanket to share. Food rations were given out once a month and split up between all the other slaves. He lived a life that no human being deserved to live. The slaves were beaten into submission and treated with complete disregard for health. They were viewed as a piece of machinery rather than a human being in the country. This however, was not the case for a city slave. In Douglass’s eyes’, “a city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation” (79). These slaves were much better fed and clothed than any others. It was a rarity to be beaten until you could not stand anymore. Very few of the owners were willing to be loathed by their neighbors for being a cruel master. “He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of his nonslaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave” (79). While slaveholders in the country wanted to be feared, the opposite was true of the owners in the city. Country owners rarely cared about the health and well-being of their slaves. The opposite was true of the owners in the city. These owners wanted to be known for taking care of their slaves. The experience of slavery for these two groups of slaves was completely different. Life in the city made slavery somewhat bearable.
The living conditions of slaves created the mentalities with which they would live. The tortured and beaten, resented and hated their masters. They did what they could to please their owner, but quickly learned to keep their mouths’ closed when scolded. These slaves more than any other group of slaves wanted their freedom from oppression. Slaves in the city had a much less severe mentality toward being enslaved. Most respected their owners and just simply wanted their freedom. The oppression mentality is nothing close to the being free mentality. The oppressed slaves were those who worked from dusk till dawn. They were the ones who slept on wet floors, struggled to stay healthy, and wanted to kill their masters every day. The slaves who just wanted to be free were those who lived inside, got along with their masters, and saw the good of society.
Frederick Douglass was a slave who just wanted to be free. Though at times resenting his life, Douglass’s mentality was that education would lead to freedom. “Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell” (82). This shows the differences in mentalities of the slaves. Not only did the living conditions influence how these slaves thought, but the extent to which they were taught gave them an intellect that other slaves did not hold. Douglass learned that there was much more to being free than not having an overseer. He knew that in order to have a good freed life he needed to be educated. Slaves who knew nothing of education had no idea of the difficulties in front of them when they decided to run for freedom.
Slavery has been and always will be a thorn in United States history. It will always be the issue used to say why things are the way they are. Frederick Douglass took us on an inside tour of what slavery really entailed. He showed us the hardships, the cruelty, and kindness that was involved throughout slavery in colonial America. His personal accounts of slavery showed to us why things were the way they were. Not only did Fredrick Douglas show us what was bad about slavery, he also showed us what was good. He showed to us that not all slave owners were cruel heartless people like those portrayed in movies and books. In the end, he proved to us that a slaves experience was based mainly on their personal mentality toward it. A slaves’ mentality towards a situation would either make them or break them. In the situation with Demby, his mentality was that he was not going to deal with being beaten and tortured any more. The result of this mentality was death. Frederick Douglass on the other hand had a positive mentality toward slavery and dealt with it as long as he could until he was able to escape to freedom. A slaves experience and hardships were placed strictly on their own shoulders regardless of whether they were a slave in the city or in the country, and regardless of whether your owner was abusive or kind. Slaves had the opportunity to deal with the life they had been given and make the best out of it, or do what many slaves like Douglass did and escape to the north to pursue their desire of freedom.