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Are there similiarities between the two sources Solomon Northrup's narrative, Life and...

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jakande | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted July 17, 2013 at 9:13 PM via web

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Are there similiarities between the two sources Solomon Northrup's narrative, Life and Labor on a Cotton Plantation and Frederick Douglass' Whipping Slaves?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 18, 2013 at 12:12 AM (Answer #1)

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One distinct similarity between both works is how they describe the physical being that is a slave.  Both writings do not reflect slavery from a theoretical experience.  Through anecdotal detail, they show the life of a slave as if one is watching it unfold before their eyes.  The effect on the reader is deliberate.  Northrup depicts such a condition at a couple points in his writing.  The description of how the slave is instructed to pick cotton is one such example.  He describes the size of the pouch used, how it is to go around the slave's neck, and how the slave is meant to extract the cotton from the ground:

      The day's work over in the field, the baskets are "toted," or in other words, carried to the gin-house, where the cotton is weighed. No matter how fatigued and weary he may be;no matter how much he longs for sleep and rest;a slave never approaches the gin-house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short in weight;if he has not performed the full task appointed him, he knows that he must suffer. And if he has exceeded it by ten or twenty pounds, in all probability his master will measure the next day's task accordingly. So, whether he has too little or too much, his approach to the gin-house is always with fear and trembling. Most frequently they have too little, and therefore it is they are not anxious to leave the field. After weighing, follow the whippings; and then the baskets are carried to the cotton house, and their contents stored away like hay, all hands being sent in to tramp it down. If the cotton is not dry, instead of taking it to the gin-house at once, it is laid upon platforms, two feet high, and some three times as wide, covered with boards or plank, with narrow walks running between them.

The physical aspect of weighing the cotton, the unknown fear of where there is "too little or too much" as well as how the cotton is laid down, reflective of the suffering today and the continued suffering into tomorrow are physical descriptions used to convey the reality of the slave to the reader. Such details are matched with how Northrup describes slave quarters, meals, and the continual state of hurt that defines the slave consciousness. 

This same description of what constitutes the slave's being is seen in Douglass' articulation of seeing his aunt whipped.  Like Northrup's work, the physical details of enslavement detail horror and misery in the most intense of conditions:

She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, "Now, you d——d b—-h, I'll learn you how to disobey my orders!" and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.

The physical details of slavey abound in this excerpt.  The master degrading the slave through language as well as action resonates in the reader's mind.  The "warm, red blood" "dripping to the floor" is visceral and physical, and enhanced by the "heart rendering shrieks."  In both accounts, slavery is recalled through details of daily life, making it worse than anyone could imagine in enduring on a daily basis.

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