Harriet Ann Jacob and Fredrick Douglas
The martyr of the Christians, The Holocaust, and slavery are testimonies to the magnitude of human cruelty. In their autobiography Douglass and Jacobs use graphic details to accentuate the dehumanized effects of slavery.
Even in this civilized era of America, there are still people who would enjoy practicing enslavement if it were legal. Douglass and Jacobs were born in slavery and they experienced their masters’ disregard to the sanctity of marriage and family Marriages were not acknowledged and often wives and husbands were sold to separate owners. Children were taken from their mothers as soon as it was physically possible, and placed in the care of elderly women who had become useless as field workers. These mothers had very little or no interaction with their children. Some children were even less fortunate; they never knew their mothers; like animals, their mothers would be taken from them and sold. Women’s bodies were not their own; if the master wanted them, he would have them. To hide their own shame and that of their wives they would sell their little mullato offsprings (Douglass, 1845, p.1,2) . Jacobs relate the plight of her freed grandmother and her children who were captured and sold back into slavery; and her children were sold to different owners. Jacobs says her grandmother served her mistress faithfully and although she was kind to them, in the end they were still slaves and “These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend” (1861, p.18). Since slaves are not recognized as people there is no need to keep their families intact.
Although slaves were treated as work horses they were never fed well; and it was not because their masters could not afford to feed them well. Their masters had become hardened and indifferent to their needs and any gesture of kindness would be an acknowledgement that they are humans; it would also mean that the slave owners’ frozen hearts are melting; and most slave owners lost their hearts in the winter and they rot in spring. The slave owners only concern was to make their plantation profitable; and spending extra money to give them adequate food is not a necessary expenditure. Jacob says that the mistresses can be just as cruel as the masters. If dinner was not served at the same time on Sunday, the mistress would go into the kitchen and wait until all the food is dished out and then she would spit into every pat and pan that was utilized to prepare the dinner, this way the cook could not get even the scraping or the gravy. She measured and weighted everything she knew the exact number and size biscuits that a quart of flower could make. The cook could eat only the scrapings that she gave her (1861, There is no need to feed the slaves well because if they become too hungry to work, they would be beaten and that will definitely make them work; not even the cattle that plough the fields were treated as badly as these slaves. Douglass describes a slave’s food allowance for the month: “eight pounds of pork or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal.” They would have to supplement this with whatever food they could find during their spare time on Sundays. While at work they were fed by the masters and even if there was enough food, they would still be hungry because they could not eat much with the little time they have to eat (1845, p.8). The only reason these slave owners can perpetuate such cruelty is by telling themselves that slaves are not human and their continuous brutality is proof of that fact.
Slavery and greed work together and greed can easily fester into exploitation; and each time a slave owner treats a slave with brutality he builds up a tolerance for cruelty. These slaves must have drawn their strength form spiritual sources; one needs an “outer body” experience to endure such ruthlessness. Douglass relates the story of his aunt Hester, who his master wanted for himself despite the fact that he had a wife. Unfortunately for Hester, the very evening that she went out with Ned Roberts, whom her master forbade her not to see, is the very evening her master needed her service. Realizing the reason for her absence he decided to teach her a lesson. He made her undress to her waist, crossed her hands and tied them to a hoop in the joist high enough so that she is standing on tip toes. He whipped her so hard and so long her blood dripped on the floor (1845, p.6). Jacob has a similar story; she watched the beating of a man who accused his wife that their child was Dr. Flint’s, like Hester he was tied up:
Never before, in my life, had I heard hundreds of blows fall, in succession, on a human being. His piteous groans, and his ‘O, pray don't, massa,’ rang in my ear for months afterwards. There were many conjectures as to the cause of this terrible punishment. Some said master accused him of stealing corn; others said the slave had [sic]quarrelled with his wife, in presence of the overseer, and had accused his master of being the father of her child. They were both black, and the child was very fair (1861, p.13).
It seems that the only time slave women are treated like human beings are when their masters needed to satisfy their insatiable lust; or it could be that they recognized themselves as animals too. Of course, they tell themselves that they are not beating these women out of jealously but they are exerting their rights; they will decide how and when to enjoy that property. More importantly, if they show any form of jealousy they would be humanizing themselves as well as the slaves.
Human beings have the propensity to behave like wild animals, and placed in the right environment some of us will find it easy to dehumanize ourselves. Slavery has impacted the slaves by stripping them of their self-worth; and it has transformed men who would probably be serial killers into barbarians with frozen sensitivity.
Douglass, Fredrick. (1845). Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. Boston, Published at the Anti-slavery Office. 1845. Print
Jacobs, Harriet. (1861). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston, Print.