Essay Example: Douglas's Autobiography and Experience in Slavery

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Sewanee University of the South
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The slaveholders kept the slaves ignorant and made them illiterate. The salves were not aware about the basic facts about themselves, such as their date of birth of paternity, hence denying them their natural sense of individual identity. The slave children were denied opportunity to learn, how to read and write, since they believed that if they become literate, they will have a sense of capability and self-sufficiency. The fear of the slaveholders was that, if the slaves will become literate, they would be able to challenge their authority and start questioning the rights of whites to keep the slaves. Since slaves are not literate, then, their side of story will remain untold.


Douglass was a mixed race, his father was a white, his master (slaveholder) and the mother was a black, slave. The slaveholder had the privilege of raping the black women to impregnate them in order to give birth to the mixed-race out springs. However, the half-race kids were subjected into slavery just like their mothers, neither were they told their date of birth or given any exceptions as slaves. This practice was common among many slave owners in order to increase the number of slaves that they own.

Violence and punishment

Douglass asserts that the slaveholders used to inflict fear among the slaves, which was created through violence and punishment. He describes series of punishments to demonstrate this idea, and gave an overall argument on irrational punishment, stating that slavery is unnecessary, irrational and cruel. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass (20). This extract applies metaphors to compare slavery to hell, the comparison given describes the awful slavery is right from the start of the narrative. As Douglass passes through the blood-stained gate, the readers do the same as well. The reader gets prepared of the shock that will encounter in the land of slavery that is characterized with torture, violence and punishments.

In the chapters 2 and 3, Douglas accounts how slaves were constantly whipped for no reasons while working at the plantation, consequently leading to fear towards punishment as well as the slaveholders. Therefore, they went as far as lying that to say that their master was kind. The slaveholders were able to possess too much power, through the use of punishment and torture. The clear description given by Douglas is that, the behavior of the masters towards the salves is inhumane.

Douglas states that, the slavery was subjected to psychological punishment, whereby they prohibited the slaves from learning and instead work on the plantation under hostile condition. The chapters further show that the masters used punishment due to the fear that they had on the slaves, which was different from maintaining their power over them. The fear that the masters had was due to what will occur if this balance of power transformed. Douglas was lucky to be taught alphabets and how to spell before his lesson were shortly stopped. In the chapter 8 of the book, Douglas returns to the plantation, and he was able to distinguish the wide difference in treatment of slaves with regards to the two sides he lived. On the plantation, the slaveholders were violent and used punishment even to the most dedicated slaves until they die.


In his autobiography, Douglas was like other male slaves who quest for education and manliness, showing that mens focus was mostly on the informative speech. The writing style throughout his work illustrates the variance between the sexes and further gives examples of how men considers to focus in intellectual topics. The slavery fears were shared by both genders, though the specific experience that each gender encountered differed with their sexes. Mens desire was to attain manliness in society, while women encountered weighty sexual harassment and abuse. Douglas mother was raped by her master which led to his birth, this kind of abuse was common during that slavery period. Black men who were considered to be strong and powerful was viewed to be week and powerless due to the fear they had during slavery as well as the abuse and oppression they went through. The white mistress was kind compared to the masters, when Douglas was taken away from the plantation where he met another mistress who taught him some literacy, but the master was seen as cruel by cutting short his lesson and stated that, If you teach that nigger to read, there will be no keeping him. He will forever be unfit to be a slave (Douglass, 33).

2. After reading Douglass autobiography, what aspects of slavery were you most surprised to learn about based upon what you knew of the institution before reading the work?

When I hear f the word slavery, what comes in to my mind is oppression and hard work, even to some extend death. I know that, slaves had to right, and their masters had the authority over them and they can even sale them as goods as he wishes. Slaves, were also traded like animals and their value varied depending on their body structure, gender and age. However, in the Douglass autobiography there are some elements about slavery that I saw encountered for the first time, such as women oppression and the role of literacy in slavery revolution.

In his work, I learnt how women were highly oppressed and abused by their masters. Just like Douglass mother, women were raped by their masters in order to give mixed race children who will grow as slaves. This was considered as a way of expanding their slaves population consequently promoting labor availability. Women had no choice on whether to have intimacy with their master or not, because if they resist, they will be punished and tortured by their husbands.

Secondly, slaveholder feared slaves to get literate because they knew that, if they become intellectual they will be clever enough to demand for their rights. Literacy will make slaves enlightened and will start questioning their slaveholders on their rights to hold them as their slaves. Denying them right to literacy is considered to be psychological torture, since it is deprivation of right to knowledge. The role of literacy towards slave revolution is evident when Douglass gets the opportunity to be taught alphabets and reading skills, whereby he used this knowledge to become rebellious against his master and runs away.

Finally, in your opinion, how representative is Douglass experience in slavery?

In my perspective, Douglass experience as a slave is fairy better than the rest, he had the privilege of being taught and become literate. His experience as a slave gave him enough knowledge about the life of the slaves and their encounter with their slaveholders. He was able to question his right and insight the rest of the slaves to revolt against their masters. Most of the slave lacked intelligence, and their slaveholders also feared that they can become literate and later become stuborn.


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