Reformers and Reform Narratives

The position of slaves in the USA was unbearable but the white majority, which played the dominant role in the US society, ignored problems of African Americans who suffered from severe oppression and discrimination. In fact, they were deprived of basic rights and were treated as commodities by their masters, who believed they were superior to slaves, while slaves were not worth treating like humans.

Nevertheless, slavery became an unbearable burden for African Americans and their resistance to slavery and slaveholders grew stronger as a few African Americans got freedom and education. Moreover, African Americans attempted to draw the attention of the public to the problem of slavery and to the position of slaves who had no rights and liberties. In this respect, it is worth mentioning narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ann Jacobs, who depicted the life of slaves in details and these details could not fail to terrify the audience, even at the epoch when slavery was a norm. In fact, it is due to such narratives the public grew conscious of the necessity of changes in the American society and abolition slavery as an inadmissible practice for a civilized society.

On analyzing the narrative of both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, it should be said that the authors convey true to life stories and, what is more, there works are autobiographical. Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”, and Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” depict their own stories and vividly conveys horrors of slavery and the life of slaves in the USA at the epoch. In this respect, it is quite symbolic that both authors attempt to show that their narratives are common descriptions of the life of slaves at the epoch, even the titles of their narratives prove this since both authors use indefinite article “a/an” instead of “the” to show that their narrations is a narration of an ordinary slave and thousands and millions of African Americans suffered from the same treatment and unbearable conditions of life.

On reading the narrative of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, it becomes obvious that slaves were a mere commodity, which their masters used as they wished. For instance, Harriet Jacobs in her “Letter of a Fugitive Slave” point out that her younger sister was fourteen when her mother “was hold as property by a maiden lady” (198). In such a way, slaves were deprived of basic rights and liberties and they could be easily separated from their families and often children did not even know their parents. At the same time, the major function of slaves was that of working commodities, property that could be used to satisfy the needs of their masters. However, the limitation of freedom and oppression of human rights and liberties were not the only hardships African Americans faced during slavery.

Frederick Douglass vividly depicts the life of slaves which were subjects to regular violence, which became a norm in the society where slavery ruled. In his narrative, Frederick Douglass describes “a regular whipping, such as any heedless or mischievous boy might get from his father” (130). He witnessed violence and oppression of slaves and he wanted to share his experience with the rest of the American society in his narrative. The same reason encouraged Harriet Jacobs to convey her story of a slave girl she was. Remarkably, the problem of violence could be traced in her narrative as well that proves the fact that the violence in relation to slaves was a norm.

Moreover, Frederick Douglass lays emphasis on the fact that violence was an essential element of “education” of slaves since masters always attempted to control their slaves and demonstrate their supremacy and implement the principle of “acting always up to the maximum, practically maintained by the slaveholders, that it is better that a dozen slaves suffered under the lash, without fault, than that the master or the overseer should seem to have been wrong in the presence of the slave. Everything must be absolute here” (121). In such a way, the violence was used not only to keep slaves obedient but also to demonstrate the power and righteousness of slaveholders.

No wonder, in her narrative, Harriet Jacobs describes a white slaveholder as a personification of Satan: “He boasted the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower” (198). In this respect, it is important to emphasize the fact that such a description of a slaveholder refers not to an exceptionally evil man, but it is rather a common description of slaveholders, which Harriet Jacobs knew in her life as a slave. At the same time, the cruelty of masters toward slaves was not viewed as a vice, because slaves were mere commodities for slaveholders and, thus, they were not worth pity or respect.

Moreover, Frederick Douglass argues that masters believed that slaves should be kept in obedience and fear in face of white men in order to make slaves good. Any attempt of slaves to stand for their human dignity was viewed by masters as an attempt of rebellion and such slaves had to be “corrected”. At the same time, Frederick Douglass points out that “if one slave refused to be corrected, and was allowed to escape with his life, when he had been told that he should lose it if he persisted in his course, the other slaves would soon copy his example, the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites” (123-124). Such a belief was widely spread among white masters and justified the violent actions against slaves and the maltreatment of slaves. In fact, such a view meets the description of white masters given above by Harrier Jacobs.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the fact that, at the epoch of slavery, African Americans had an extremely negative image of a second-class citizens and potential criminals. For instance, Frederick Douglass argues that African Americans were perceived by white as a potential threat: “the colored men, there, must not only shun evil, but shun the very appearance of evil, or be condemned as a criminal. A slaveholding community has a particular taste for ferreting out offenses against the slave system, justice there being more sensitive in its regard for the peculiar rights of this system, than for any other interest or institutions” (132).

Thus, the narrative of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs reveal the total oppression of slaves by their masters. African Americans were deprived of human rights and liberties, they were subject to violence from the part of masters and overseers, and they had an extremely negative image as a potential threat to white men.

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