The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery: A Narrative of Frederick Douglas

Slavery is a horrible act towards any human being because all humans are born free and equal, no matter what skin color they have. In the 19th c., many African- Americans and Indians came under the brutal life of slavery under whites from Europe. Slaves worked in farms and homes for small payments that could hardly support them. Often, they went through abuse and torture at the hands of their masters by getting treated like animals. For example, they lived in poor servant housings that possibly could not have a quality human life, and they were getting whipped till they bled. Sometimes, they were overworked and went days without food. Frederick Douglas’s book narrative argues the dehumanizing effect both on slaves and slaveholders.

The first dehumanizing incident in the narrative is the lack of age recognition of the slaves. Douglass, despite his curiosity about his age, could not be told the truth. Accordingly, the white master could not allow it. ‘He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit” (Douglass 1). Although the issue of age may seem unimportant, it was the most significant challenge that slaves faced as part of their life. The slaves could not access any kind of information, even about themselves. Slavery humiliated the slaves to the extent that they did not know much about themselves. The situation contrasts with the white children, whom Douglass argues that they know their ages.

Also, the dehumanization is clear in the book, how slaves did not know about his parentage. As a white man’s son born to a colored slave, the accurate parental information remains unknown to him. Furthermore, slaves cannot enjoy family relations, as seen in Douglass’s never knowing mother. “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of those times was very short in duration, and at night.” (Douglass 2). Even when his mother, with whom he had no relationship, passed on, young Douglass was not allowed to see her even in death. Slavery separated families (Dawkins). Certainly, that speaks to the inhumane nature of slavery at that time.

The slavery law at the time stated that children of slaves must continue the work of their parents before them. For some, it would be labor combined with pleasing the sexual needs of the masters, which was the very definition of inhumanity as it abused them extremely. In such a case, they would suffer at both the hands of their masters and mistresses. When mistresses discovered that the slave women pleased their husbands sexually and bore them mulatto children, they found pleasure in having them whipped and abused in ways one cannot imagine. ‘She is ever disposed to find fault with them; they can seldom do anything to please her; she is never better pleased than when she sees them under the lash, especially when she suspects her husband of showing to his mulatto children favors which he withholds from his black slaves,” (Douglass 2). The slave suffering only got worse.

Slaves, even women, were whipped continuously in a horrific manner (Acharya et al. 34). Douglass recounts his first slave owner, who was so inhumane that he had pleasure in seeing the slaves bleed. He would hit them with cow skin so hard that they bled a lot. However, the master did not care what they had to say or if they were praying and would go at it until when he desired. ‘No words, no tears, no prayers…the louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest” (Douglass 4). The Slaveholders were bloodthirsty. They had no feelings or compassion for any human being, especially slaves. The bloody whipping, torture, and killing had turned them into animals. Slavery had turned both slaves and slave owners into animals by torturing the slaves in a way that animals would and not human beings.

Once a year, the slaves received clothing allowances. The few items consisted of two shirts, two trousers; one for winter and the other of coarse linen, one jacket, a pair of stockings, and shoes. The items were to last a whole year! Their cost could not exceed seven dollars. As for children, many of them went naked for most of their lives until they were old enough to work. That was inhumane, leaving families in desperation for lack of food and clothing. The slaves’ sleeping amenities were wanting in the sense that only men and women had one coarse blanket. However, that was not even much of a problem because they had little time to sleep (Douglass 6). They had other duties, such as washing and cooking after their regular slave labor.

For speaking their minds, slaves faced severe punishment. The narrative shows a case where one colored slave was sold off for unknowingly telling Colonel Lloyd of his mistreatment and overworking of slaves. “He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he has snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death” (Douglass 11). Taking a man away from his family without his prior knowledge depicts the inhumanity slavery brought. Therefore, the risk of talking, many slaves often lie about the real conditions of their work.

Slavery as a societal condition also brings harmful effects to the masters themselves. When Douglass lived under Mr. and Mrs. Auld, he felt happy given the mistress’s kindness and love since she accepted Douglas as an equal human and not as a colored slave. Douglas says, ‘this kind of heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands and soon commenced its infernal work” (Douglass 19). She turned into a typical slave master and lost her kindness for Douglas when Hugh Auld discovered that Douglass was learning to read and write with the help of his wife, he claimed that they could not keep him and he would eventually be considered unfit for a slave and that through reading he would demand freedom instead. He says, “there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave” (Douglass 20).

Additionally, Sophia Auld shows the natural suffering of the white slave owners as she struggles in her new role of having slaves. “Slavery proved injurious to her as it did to me… Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” (Douglass 22). In her effort to prove her husband right, she changed for the worse. Also, Douglass claims that “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all the sweet accord… and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon (Douglass 28).” Douglas means that slavery has the power to change nice people like Sophia.

The dehumanization of slave master’s revealed in the way they responded to Mr. Gore’s murder of Demby. His explanation was that Demby was a bad example that received acceptance to show how low the slave owners went to maintain authority over slaves. “Mr. Gore’s defense was satisfactory. He was continued in his station as overseer upon the home plantation” (Douglass 14). The masters show inhumanity in their treatment of the death of a slave.

In conclusion, the dehumanizing effect of slavery is, indeed, very relevant in Frederick Douglas’s book. On the one hand, slaves like Douglass were subjected to difficult situations like getting whipped, being abused on farms, and living in poverty while being denied their basic rights. On the other hand, other slave owners justified murder. Also, were others like Sophia Auld who negatively transformed, just like other slaveholders who thought that the unequal relationship between master and slaves should be maintained. Therefore, while slaves faced both physical and psychological torture, their masters suffered mental torture too.

Did you like this example?

Cite this page

The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery: A Narrative of Frederick Douglas. (2023, Mar 16). Retrieved May 19, 2024 , from

This paper was written and submitted by a fellow student

Our verified experts write
your 100% original paper on any topic

Check Prices

Having doubts about how to write your paper correctly?

Our editors will help you fix any mistakes and get an A+!

Get started
Leave your email and we will send a sample to you.
Go to my inbox