What can be learned about the lives of enslaved African Americans from Solomon Northrup's narrative, Life and Labor on a Cotton Plantation and Frederick Douglass' Whipping Slaves?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both sources are uncompromising in how they describe the reality of enslavement in the American South.  They both detail the fundamental horror in being a slave.  Northrup's account depicts how there is absolute fear in the condition of being a slave.  The fear lies in the constant presence of abuse and punishment.  There is no real rational explanation why abuse will happen.  The only certainty is that it will:

Then the fears and labors of another day begin; and until its close there is no such thing as rest. He fears he will be caught lagging through the day; he fears to approach the gin-house with his basket-load of cotton at night; he fears, when he lies down, that he will oversleep himself in the morning. Such is a true, faithful, unexaggerated picture and description of the slave's daily life, during the time of cotton-picking, on the shores of Bayou Boeuf.

This constant state of fear is matched with Douglass' depiction of what the whipping actually entails.  One understands Northrup's fear when matched with Douglass' vision of the whipping.  Douglass describes what it was life for him as a child to see his aunt whipped.  The whipping of slaves is something established as one of the cruelties of slavery.  Yet, when Douglass describes it, the vision that is rendered for the viewer is nothing short of horror, meaning that it is almost unthinkable as to what the slave being whipped was enduring:

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. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over. I expected it would be my turn next.

The physical description made complete by "warm, red blood" and "heart rendering shrieks from her" help to complete a vision where the lives of enslaved African- Americans was filled with degradation, dehumanization, and the purest form of oppression.

Both works intend to generate a response from the reader.  The response exists on both emotional and political terms.  The political reaction from the works is that no nation predicated upon freedom of the individual can allow the condition of slavery to exist. This reaction was the desired one from abolitionists who wanted to ensure that the power of words lingered in one's heart and mind against the notion of slavery.  This political construction is rooted on the emotional level of sadness and horror.  The reader is rendered helpless to the suffering of many, compelling the political reaction to take flight.