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Running head: THE LIFE OF BLACK AMERICANS DURING THE SLAVERY ERA

The Life of Black Americans During the Slavery Era


Rebecca T Oshinbanjo
University of Texas at El Paso

THE LIFE OF BLACK AMERICANS DURING THE SLAVERY ERA

Slavery was a common practice throughout the southern plantations in antebellum


America. Planters wanted cheap labor for their plantations to obtain greater returns so they began
to buy Africans who were already enslaving themselves to supply a cheap work force based on
forced labor. In 1660, slaves became a better investment than indentured servants. It became
more advantageous for plantation owners to buy slaves because they would do the plantation
work, they would live longer because they were used to the system and so they didnt die early
like the indentured servants. As different crops were successfully cultivated in the United States,
the demand for slave labor rose which resulted in the children of slaves automatically assuming
the status of slavery. The life of slavery as completely analyzed in the narrative of Frederick
Douglass shows how slavery became hereditary among African slaves through their mothers. It
also explains how black people were physically and mentally exploited without any form of
reward by the white planters and how freedom was an unrealistic expectation for them. Douglas
narrative gives the account of how black slaves suffered immense torture, family separation,
mental stagnancy, and untimely death at the hand of their masters, their masters wives, and the
society in general. His experience also review how religion was used by slave owners and
abolitionists to support their stance on slavery.
During the slavery era, colored people were seen as property. Men, women and children
of African descent were denied their freedom and their owners would keep them from getting an
education. Slave owners would do their best to prevent any slave from learning how to read and
write because they were conscious of the fact that the best way to keep their slaves loyal to them
was to keep them ignorant. They believe education would have planted ideas on the mind of
these slaves which would inevitably increase their taste and eagerness for freedom. Frederick
Douglass in his teens could not tell his age as a result of the illiteracy that ran through his

THE LIFE OF BLACK AMERICANS DURING THE SLAVERY ERA

enslaved generation. A white man would have done his best to give his children a proper
education but in the case of their slaves, they purposely kept them ignorant. As Douglas points
out in his narrative, The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be
deprived of the same privilege, (Douglass, p.1) drawing attention to the vast difference between
their upbringing. Furthermore, when Frederick Douglass was separated from his family, he could
not give account of the moment the change of residence took place due to the lack of simple
knowledge of time and days for at that time I had no knowledge of the days of the month, nor
the month of the year. (Douglass p.17) this shows how even everyday simple knowledge was
kept away from the slaves to keep them submissive to their owners. It also shows how families
were separated and prevented from interacting with one another.
Douglas realized the power of education when he overheard his owner Mr. Auid
forbidding his wife from teaching him how to read and write. Mr. Auid realized that his wife was
trying to teach Douglass to read and write and he got angry and instructed his wife to stop their
lessons If you teach a nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It will forever unfit
him to be a slave. It will make him discontented and unhappy, (Douglass, p. 20) this was when
Frederick Douglass discovered that, the route from living as a slave to freedom was through
education. Frederick Douglass with great determination regardless of any form of danger was
able to educate himself. Hearing his masters conversation with his wife boosted his self-belief,
he was sure that his master had said the truth. Within seven years he was able to teach himself
how to read and write. His masters wife would do anything to stop him if she saw him near
anything that could develop his mind I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury,
and snatch from me a newspaper. (Douglass, p.22) Despite all of this, he was able to learn how
to read and write through some white boys he met on the street. Soon after learning he became

THE LIFE OF BLACK AMERICANS DURING THE SLAVERY ERA

unsatisfied with his situation as a slave, his soul began to yearn for freedom; he had realized 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. (Douglass,
p. 58) Douglass now understood that education was purposely been kept away from the slaves so
that they would not question their masters authority.
The role of white women during the slavery era cannot be over emphasized for they acted
differently from the usual way women were portrayed. Some of the slave owners wives were
more cruel and unforgivable than their husbands. They would make sure slaves were whip within
an inch of their lives if not death at the slightest mistake as Frederick Douglas painted in his
narrative The wife of Mr. Giles Hick, living but a short distance from where I used to live
murdered my wifes cousin, a young girl between fifteen and sixteen years of age, (Douglass, p.
15) through this quote we are shown the white women non-remorsefulness about whipping
slaves in the most barbaric manner, they were cruel and irrational, they committed their brutal
acts without hesitations because no one would question them. Douglass continues his account of
the girls murder by saying mangling her person in the most horrible manner, breaking her nose
and breast bone with a stick so that the poor girl expire in a few hours afterwards, (Douglass, p.
15) which shows the absolute ownership they had over their slaves and they could just dispose of
them like common property they owned with their money and without any objection from the
law.
When Douglass moved to Baltimore, the wife of his master was at first nice and
welcoming to him, she was the one that taught him the alphabet, but she changed due of her
husbands influence. She became wild and unbearable That cheerful eyes under the influence of
slavery soon became red with rage, that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one harsh

THE LIFE OF BLACK AMERICANS DURING THE SLAVERY ERA

and horrid discord, and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon, (Douglass, p. 19) this
reflected how the women were been corrupted by the institution of slavery at that time. White
women could no longer influence their family positively but rather, they concentrated on making
children of color unequal to their own children by refusing to expand their knowledge even
though they were in the best position to do so in Douglass narrative. Some of the white women
like Mrs. Hamilton in the narrative of Frederick Douglas just delighted in whipping the slaves for
no reason, she enjoyed making colored people feel pain Hamilton used to sit in a large chair in
the middle of the room, with a heavy cowskin always by her side. (Douglass, p.21) This quote
gives an accurate picture of how women could be as cruel as their husbands.
Slavery also served to separate slaves families. Children were separated from their
families when they could barely recognize their parent faces denying them of emotional and
psychology attachment, something that Douglass narrates in his autobiography I never saw my
mother, to know her as such (Douglass, p.2). The affection that connects families were shattered
as slaves were moved from one master to another The ties that ordinarily bind children to their
homes were all suspended in my case (Douglass, p.17). Slavery became hereditary among the
African American families as children of slave mothers inherited the status of their mother.
Children were deprived of these basic needs such as good clothes and food, they were made to
survive in starvation and freezing cold as Frederick Douglass describes in his narrative, I
suffered much from hunger but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I
was kept almost naked, (Douglass, p.16) showing the level of carelessness expressed the slave
owners had towards innocent black children. Even the white children were forced by the system
to treat black children unequally. Children were made to live an empty life full of suffering, pain,

THE LIFE OF BLACK AMERICANS DURING THE SLAVERY ERA

hunger and adventure, no education even at the lowest level or the hope that slavery would end
one day. Many had to suffer constant abuse at the hands of their masters.
Furthermore, slave owners would find religious passages to justify their inhuman attitude,
they were of the notion that, God was in support of their exploitation act. They would claim to be
religious by attending of religious services using passages in the bible to corroborate their
arguments as Douglass narrates in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage
of the scripture- He that knoweth his masters will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with my
stripes, (Douglass, p. 33) which shows how Slave owners would justify their brutal beatings of
their slaves. However, despite all of these spiritual abnormalities expressed by slave owners,
there were some white men such as Mr. Ruggles and Mr. Johnson in the narrative of Frederick
Douglass who were committed to helping slaves escape successful. From Douglass narrative, He
explained how these people had better understanding of the religion and politics of the nation
compared to the slave owners who were only concerned about getting their work done and
enriching their pocket by selling the crops produced on their plantations by the unrewarded
African slaves. Douglass also explained in his narrative how African Americans that escaped at
that time were even better religious than the slave owners even though Christianity was not their
first religion as experienced by Douglass I found colored people much more spirited than I had
supposed they would be, (Douglass, p. 68) this is because the escaped slaves had experienced
the two sides of the religion and they had come to the understanding that, the slave owners uses
everything they know about Christianity to trick and cheat while the other set of people like Mr.
Johnson who had better understanding of Christianity and the forces driving slavery at that time
were able to create a different picture of the region in the mind of the colored people.

THE LIFE OF BLACK AMERICANS DURING THE SLAVERY ERA

One of the most inspiring phenomenal experienced by the African American slaves as
discussed in the class was the transition from their traditional religion to Christianity. Some of
the slaves brought from West Africa were familiar with Islam but many of them practiced their
traditional religion which was seen as witchcraft by the plantation owners. After a long process
of transition, some of the slaves accepted Christianity while some combined Christianity with
their own traditional religion and they would practice them together.
In conclusion, slavery as seen in the narrative of Frederick Douglass is a practice that
should be permanently eradicated. Douglasss narrative was an eye opener to the torture and
maltreatment experienced by colored people. The white men, their wives and their children made
life a living hell for their slaves. Black families were separated through the arbitrary sale of
family members, they were exploited to the plantation, beaten and some were killed as a result of
the cruelty of their master. Religion became a tool to control slaves in the hand of the slave
owners as they would use passages in the scripture to justify their exploitation of them. Slavery
in antebellum America left an irremovable legacy that sees Africans as disposable, as
commodities. This inequality that enacted from slavery still exists in society today, as white
people are been given privileges that are denied to their African American counterparts.

THE LIFE OF BLACK AMERICANS DURING THE SLAVERY ERA

References
Douglass, F. (1995). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications.

The book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass analyzes in detail the life of
African Americans during the slavery era. Frederick Douglass shared his experiences as a child
born into slavery and how he managed to gain his freedom. Slavery, which emerged during the
1660 as a result of planters quest for cheap labor was nothing but an act of inhumanity.
According to the book, slavery denied African American children the right to education and
healthy life, it separated families, corrupted white women and also misinterpreted religion.
According to Frederick Douglass, Black people during this era were seen and treated as property
that the owner could dispose of at will. They were beaten, exploited on plantations and many
were killed intentionally by their masters. There were no laws protecting the slaves in any form
and life was made a living hell for colored people. I used this book for my history assignment to
explain my understand of slavery in America during the 1660s because it accounts in detail the
kind of life an African American experienced during this time and also how inequality among
Whites and Blacks in todays world emerged.