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The Lives of Frederick Douglass & Harriet Jacobs

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the life of a slave girl and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass are two narratives by two former slaves, each producing their works around the same time on the topic of their trials and tribulations in slavery. Though both speak about the same issue, their stories are very different. Each of these narratives seems to materialize during a period where the “slave voice” is starting to emerge. The United States at this time is undergoing many societal struggles encompassing the abolishment of slavery, racial segregation, slavery, the hatred and cruelty shown toward blacks mainly in the south states, as well as women’s rights. With all these issues playing major roles during this time period it’s easy to see why two slaves writing about virtually the same issue may have fairly different stories to tell. One thing that is common between the two novels is the notion of growing up or the coming of age. Both Jacobs and Douglass lived most of their growing years in slavery and had to endure some of the harshest treatment any human being can imagine. Knowing that the circumstances they were unwillingly subjected to was wrong and having the hope and determination to remove themselves from their present situation fueled their desire to escape slavery and arrive at the means that made it possible for them to publish books and expose the institution of slavery in the southern states for what it really was.

The history of events that occurred in and around this time in our nations history was very interesting and needs some amount of regard in this specific matter. The United States America was founded on the principles that all individuals have certain inalienable rights. The government at that time and the individuals in control of the original thirteen colonies felt as if their innate rights were being impinged upon by the laws they were required to follow by their colonial power, Great Britain. They sought to break the ties with their oppressor and declared independence from Great Britain on July 4th 1776. The following quote is drawn directly from the introduction and preamble of this proclamation portraying the reasoning behind the necessity for independence.

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Though the nation was founded on these principles of equality and freedom for all this was not the case if you were black. For many years slaves had to endure the inequality and injustice at the hands of those who stripped them from their homes many miles away in Africa and brought them to this country to labor. Slavery took place throughout the time of the institution of the declaration of independence and lasted until 1865 with the ending of the American Civil war. In Massachusetts during the late 1700’s a female slave used the principles set forth in the document to sue her slaveholder and was granted freedom. This case set precedence and lead to the abolishment of slavery in the state of Massachusetts.

Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, the two authors of these extraordinary accounts of the hardships involved with being born into the devastating institution of slavery made it a point to do what they could to abolish slavery. Their drive to be set free was a right that they should have been afforded from birth but were denied. Throughout each of these books the reader is give very detailed accounts about what happened in the lives of these two remarkable individuals. We could feel their pain and understand the dire situation that they were in but in neither of these books do we gain a true account of the character behind the individual. Looking at Frederick Douglass’ story I can somehow come to understand why he may have been detached from the reader. He wanted to tell a story and from a males perspective a very heroic type tale of a man who came from a meager beginnings to blossom into the famous freedom fighting abolitionist most know him as today. I don’t think that his objective in writing his narrative was to become famous. I feel as if his goal was to do what was necessary to end slavery and become free. Jacobs sought to draw an emotional connection with the white women of the north. She exposed the evils of slavery but focused her attention more on how women were being oppressed at this time. I feel as if she had made a greater connection with the reader by showing how she truly felt about her position in life and giving the reader more inside on who Linda Brent really was her story would have been much more powerful.

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Linda Brent’s grandmother, who labored for many years, was promised by her mistress that she would be freed once she died as well as repayment of the money she lent her and the logistics of these matters were spelled out in her will. Despite this fact, Dr. Flint lied to Aunt Marthy and told her that it was necessary that she be sold. He put up and advertisement for the “public sale of Negroes, horses, & c.” this statement alone shows how dehumanizing slavery was. They were putting a price on human life and belittling her to the worth of an animal or inanimate object. Dr. Flint refused to repay her the debt owed to her and insisted on selling her knowing this was not the wish of his mother- in law. This is the type of unfair treatment that slaves had to go through. Fairness and justice were rarely taken into consideration when dealing with matters involving slaves. She was fortunate enough to be bought by her mistress’ sister who wanted the best for Aunt Marthy. This is the sort of injustice that Brent witnessed growing up.

When Douglass was a young boy, he witnesses for the first time a slave getting whipped, it was his Aunt Hester. Douglass hides in a closet during this encounter fearful that he would also receive such brutal punishment. This is Douglass’s first encounter with the extreme cruelty of slaveholders (3 Douglass). Years later, Douglass regards the treatment of his grandmother as a great tragedy. After years of dutiful service to her master, she is cast off to die alone. Douglass can only ask, “Will not a righteous God visit for these things?” (29 Douglass). Knowledge of such despicable acts happening to one’s family can only inspire feelings of abhorrence, disgust and hatred towards those inflicting it. Douglass, however, used this disposition as fuel to inspire his determination for freedom.

Brent was witness to the plantation slave that had just been brought to Dr. Flint tied up on a joist while the wails of pain from his treacherous beating haunted her for months. She knew of the extreme fear Dr. Flint’s cook had when preparing and presenting him with is food. She knew of the emotional pain that mothers had to endure when being stripped of their children not knowing what will become of them and not having any say in their rearing. She knew of the disgusting and immoral practice of raping and impregnating young slaves girls all to increase a masters slave population. She too was victim of this practice.

Dr. Flint attempts to use the assertion that he has never had her punished or treated as the slave that she is to his advantage. Brent states, “If I had been on a remote plantation, or lost among the multitude of a crowded city, I should not be a living woman at this day (55Jacobs). Brent is grateful for the fact that she is not treated as a plantation slave. She knows the severity of such a position and understands that such a circumstance would not only break her spirits but will most likely result in her utter demise. Even though she is happy not being in the situation of most slaves, her current conditions seemed to be none the better. The hatred that is directed toward her from Mrs. Flint her mistress is intense and not of her own doing.

“…Every day it became more apparent that my presence was intolerable to Mrs. Flint. Angry words frequently passed between her and her husband. He had never punished me himself, and he would not allow any body else to punish me. In that respect, she was never satisfied; but, in her angry moods, no terms were too vile for her to bestow upon me. Yet I, whom she detested so bitterly, had far more pity for her than he had, whose duty it was to make her life happy. I never wronged her, or wished to wrong her…”(51)

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Brent seems to be in a state of hopelessness. She even states, “I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me” She knows that the treatment that she is being subjected to is not just even if it is far less harsh than the treatment given to most of her persecuted race. She has been allowed to watch over her young mistress, never be beaten and live in a nice home. But with this “freedom” from painstakingly laborious slavery she was still held a slave and as she matured became a sexual slave to Dr. Flint. Brent had value instilled in by her parents and grandmother that she did not wish to compromise, but at the will of her master she had no choice. She had great morals and her ability to read granted her with strength she could gain from reading the bible. She would not allow Dr. Flint to have his way with her.

Frederick Douglass emphasizes the dehumanization aspect of slavery throughout his narrative. He too is all to familiar with this practice of being separated from his family as he was a product of this.. As is the general custom in slavery, Douglass is separated from his mother early in infancy and put under the care of his grandmother. He recalls having met his mother several times, but only during the night. This situation of being separated from a mother he can rarely see took a toll on his view of his mother and women. This distress of not being able to attain a normal and loving family unit for support is exactly what proponents of slavery wanted. The bond between members of a family and the communication and understanding was what could have potentially easily lead to changes in loyalty and ultimately uprising and coups that would eventually bring slavery to an end. Douglass had to endure this as well as all the life of a field slave. He worked for many years was beaten and mistreated but one day it had gotten to be enough. He was fed up living in this life that he knew was wrong and his master did not want to endure Douglass’ nature any longer so he sent him to a slave breaker to see if his spirits could be broken. Covey was no competition to Douglass and though he knew of him as the slave breaker he would not allow this man to break him. Douglass received a severe beating from Covey one day, and while in despair turned to a friend of his, Sandy Jenkins for support. Sandy told him that “..there was a certain root; which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me” (42 Douglass). After Douglass courageously stood up to Covey, he and vowed to allow no one to control his mind again. I feel as if this a battle between Douglass and the slave breaker what the crucial turning point which changed the course of Douglass’s life, and shaped him into a man who speaks and acts out against injustice. Douglass considers the first six months working for Mr. Covey the darkest time of his life, “During the first six months, of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me” (36 Douglass). The remaining six were considerably less intense and this is understandable after Covey became aware of the fact that he could not break Douglass.

Both Douglass and Jacobs were fortunate enough to be given the gift of knowledge. This was something that slaveholders despaired and made it a point to keep their slaves illiterate and in the dark about most things to ensure that no slave gained truth of the injustices in their enslavement. Many slaves had no concept of time in relation to of factual dates. Slaves were kept “ignorant” as to the facts of the real world, in most cases not even knowing the when they were born. A birth date is something that most people can identify, as they are a celebrated part of our culture, especially during childhood. Douglass identifies himself as an individual lacking a normal childhood simply through the use of dates. We identify ourselves by the dates that surround the events of our lives such as our birthday and other major milestones in life. Much of our identity is fashioned from dates and this was a privilege he was denied. He is, however, provided with a general idea as to how old he truly is, ” I come to this from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old” (1 Douglass ). Douglass and Jacob were taught to read or at least given the means by which they can themselves learn to read and write. Its very intuitive of the slave masters and those proponents of the institution of slavery to not warrant slaves the access to an education. It’s as if they knew what danger would come of such a thing. They knew that what they were doing was wrong and to keep the slaves from having concrete knowledge of such information would uphold the institution of slavery. The goals of the slave masters were to keep the slaves subservient, hardworking and ignorant because once a slave was able to read and write this would be their ticket to freedom. A major fear amongst slave owners is that their slaves will learn to read and write. One reason is because the less they know they better off the owner would be. The slave would then realize he was an equal to his master and question why his master has the right to enslave him. Douglas stated this saying, “The more I read the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers.” When Douglas learned to read and write, he looked at everything differently. He saw everything as a citizen and not a slave. He then began to envy the illiterate slave because they did not completely understand the terrible condition in which they lived. Douglass, however, did, and could not bear the thought of remaining a slave. Its ironic how very few of these slaves given access to an extremely modest education was needed to put a stop to the process and abolish slavery all together. Linda Bent and Frederick Douglass had the tools given to them to become great leaders in the fight against injustice.

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There was hope in the north. The north brought this sense of accomplishment and freedom from the anguish felt in the south. This is why the slaves chose to escape to the north to gain freedom, to gain spirit and to become whole again. Blacks were not enslaved in the north as they were in the south. Many people in the north felt slavery was wrong but did nothing about it. Some were blind to its severity by the façade put up my slave masters who didn’t want northerners knowing of their true barbaric nature. Slave families were not the only ones affected. That is why Mr. And Mrs. Flint played such a huge role. She confronts the silence of the northerners who stand around and what as this tragedy occurs to their south or takes part by sending back runaway slave as well as their inability to stand up for the obvious injustices taking place. She confronts the fact that someone needs to put a stop to an evil that should not be taking place. She confronts them by questioning their nature as a mother, a father, a family member, or even their nature as a human. She seeks to emotionally connect to the reader as she seeks out support that will help put a stop to slavery. Slavery destroys families and morals as well. Why would people remain silent if they have an opinion to voice? Citizens in the North may have seen slavery as neither good nor bad, but just a fact of Southern life. Frederick Douglass, knowing the North was home to many abolitionists, wrote his narrative in order to persuade these indifferent Northern residents to see slavery as a degrading practice. Douglass focuses on dehumanization and freedom in order to get his point across.

Though these two authors were reared during the same period of time and in the institution of slavery, they have very different accounts and driving motivations for seeking freedom and ultimately abolishing slavery. Douglass directed his story towards those who he felt would aid him in gaining freedom by exposing the institution of slavery for what it truly was, barbaric and inhumane. Jacobs also had the same goal in mind to gain freedom and abolish slavery but she went about it in a much different manner.