Throughout his life as a slave, Frederick Douglass, probably the most famous American slave ever, was able to accomplish many things which were deemed impeccable for his time. With many accomplishments, from learning how to read as a slave to eventually escaping slavery and becoming an active abolitionist, he was a well-respected man who seemed like he could not be stopped. However, slaveholders were very close to inhibiting his accomplishments through the physical beatings that he both witnessed and received. The harsh physicality he was shown throughout his life was almost enough to break him down before he could escape slavery and tell of his story in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In this book, he gives many examples of how this physicality hindered him at a young age, how this physicality continued to affect him in all aspects of life, and how physical oppression was the most effective form of oppression that slaveholders put onto him.
One reason that physical oppression had the greatest effect on limiting Douglass’s self-empowerment was because it was introduced him at an extremely young age. From the earliest memories that Douglass ever recalls throughout the book, almost all of them have a relation to excessive physical abuse. At a young age, he recalls is first master’s overseer, Mr. Plummer, being violent and profane. Douglass says, “I have most often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heartrending shrieks of an own aunt of mine…I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I will remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember anything. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant” (23). His strong memory of this scenario and many scenarios like this show how the physicality he saw such a young age affected him, and it left a serious scar on him for the rest of his life. He also goes on to later say, “It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass” (23). This quote shows how the image of the brutal beatings he witnessed left a serious impression on his mind. These extreme sights and stories most likely hindered Frederick’s ideas of freedom and of being his own person by forcing him to focus on doing his job properly. This would force him to be a “good slave” in order to avoid any serious whippings or other forms of punishment. Introduction to these physical pains early on led him to have no thoughts of yearning for freedom until he learned to read around the age of 12, and he would wait to officially make a plan for many years until he worked under Mr. Covey. If these dangerous outrages of violence had not occurred, Douglass may have started looking for a chance of freedom at a younger age without fright of extreme physical beatings.
Another reason that physical punishment was the most effective form of oppression in keeping Douglass’s self-empowerment down is because it could literally have an effect on any point of his life, and it could cause slaves like Douglass to become paranoid every minute of every day. A slave could be punished for anything and everything that they did. Obviously they would be punished for disobeying orders, which while immoral was still expected for the day and age that the slaves were in. However, slaves were often punished with no reason at all other than their masters wanted to hurt them. One situation where there was no aggravation to cause violence occurred when Master Andrew and Mrs. Lucretia were splitting their father’s property. While Douglass was at this event, Master Andrew “took my (Douglass’s) little brother by the throat, threw him on the ground, and with the heel of a boot stamped on his head till the blood gushed from his nose and ears… [this] was well calculated to make me anxious as to my fate” (Douglass 60). This quote shows both how violent slaveholders could be, even when Douglass’s brother did nothing to bring this punishment to him, as well as how much violent instances like this made Douglass think about his future. His entire future would have drastically changed if he went with Master Andrew instead of Aunt Lucretia, and this would have likely limited Douglass’s self-empowerment by a significant amount. For slaves like Douglass, “To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other with immutable certainty” (Douglass 37-38). Because of circumstances like this, slaves needed to always be on lookout for their masters just looking for the opportunity to beat them. This was especially true for one of Douglass’s masters Mr. Covey, who was commonly called by his nickname, “the snake.” He was called this because he would always have an eye on the slaves, even when he was not supposed to. At times, he would act like he was leaving only to stay around and catch slaves slacking at their jobs and then seriously punish them. “There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us” (Douglass 72). This shows how the fact that they could be beaten at any time affected how they worked, and the more time they put into work the less time they could put into trying to escape slavery. This was very true for Douglass, who eventually left the field for one day because Master Covey had beaten him so brutally.
There are multiple reasons that physical oppression was the most effective form of oppression used on Douglass throughout the book, and there are also many examples that prove why other forms of oppression did not have as much of an effect on him. Some of these forms of oppressions include economic, legal, and intellectual oppression. Economic pains for slaves were, although extremely difficult, able to be coped with. Douglass was able to deal with these fairly easily, as it only affected their clothes and food supply. If he did not have proper shoes or proper clothing items for a specific job, it would at first be tough but over time calluses would form and the job would become gradually easier. The only other affect limited clothes had on Frederick was the little amount of body warmth during the winter, but Douglass only ever mentions this problem once throughout his book. None of this was a large factor limiting his self-empowerment at all. Legal issues were a huge problem for slaves at the time, but they did not have much of a direct effect on Frederick Douglass. For most slaves, whenever they were dealt with in an extremely harmful and disgraceful way, they could not “testify against [a white man who committed a crime,]… [and it was like] killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot County, Maryland, is not treated by a crime, either by the courts or the community” (Douglass 39-40). These legal issues mostly dealt with the unjust death of a slave, which Douglass did not have to worry about, at least for his own well-being, while alive. This was never a problem for Douglass, and the only time he ran into big trouble with the law was when he was caught before trying to escape slavery from Mr. Freeland, and this legal issue was soon not a problem as he was wanted elsewhere. As for intellectual oppression, this did not have a negative effect on Douglass at all and may have even helped him eventually achieve freedom from slavery. When Master Auld started to prohibit Mrs. Auld from teaching Douglass to read, Douglass was injected with a passion to further his intelligence on the subject and would persevere after it, as he said, “…I set out with a high hope , a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read” (48-49). This intellectual oppression led to him learning even more about reading and writing and showed him that this could lead to his eventual freedom, which he would one day achieve. These examples show how extreme physical treatment had a much more immense effect on Douglass’s self-empowerment than any of the other forms of oppression he experienced.
Physical pain has an effect on all aspects of a slave’s life. When being beaten with the same brutality that slaves like Frederick Douglass endured, an immediate feeling of intense fear is imbibed into his minds and it prohibits him from forming any ideas of what life would be like if he was not a slave, as he was too focused on avoiding any possibility of future pain. Douglass was luckier than other slaves though, and his mind continued to be enlightened by the idea of freedom. Throughout the book, the physical beatings that he as well as other slaves endured is the most stressed and most conversed form of oppression. The amount of time and detail put into these scenes as well as the effect it had on Douglass as an early child and throughout his entire life as a slave prove that this had the largest effect in holding back Douglass as person.
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