Frederick Douglass

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What can we learn about slavery from the life of Frederick Douglass?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One of the points that Douglass makes forcefully about slavery is that it is an institution that harms all of the participants, not just the slave. He argues that the slaves take the brunt of the punishment but that, nevertheless, the white slaveowners are also dehumanized.

A prime example of this dehumanization is Mrs. Auld. When Douglass is sent to serve her in Baltimore, she is at first kind to him because she has had little prior contact with slavery. She treats him as a human being, allows him to look her in the face, and even goes so far as to start to teach him to read. He learns the alphabet and short words before her husband intervenes.

When Mrs. Auld, however, becomes more conversant with the system of slavery, her kind heart is hardened, and she begins to treat slaves harshly and as if they are not truly human.

Douglass also notes the way the violent beatings perpetrated by some of the slaveowners merely whet their appetite for more violence—a violence they then can indulge. This is a situation made possible because of the almost unlimited power the slaveowners have. Douglass wants to emphasize that the institution brings out the brutal and sadistic, rather than the benignly paternalistic, aspects of a slave owner.

Finally, Douglass teaches his audience that no matter how much slaves might sing or say they are happy when asked, no slave is happy to be owned. Douglass is unequivocal in this assertion.

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Frederick Douglass provides an in-depth look at the horrors of institutionalized slavery as he recounts his experiences as a slave in Maryland. Frederick Douglass illustrates the numerous ways that white slaveowners manipulate, oppress, and punish their slaves by forcing them to work arduous hours, severely beating them, and providing them with minimal rations of food. Douglass also depicts the hypocrisy of white Christian slaveowners, who profess to be Christians even as they brutally oppress their slaves. Douglass poignantly describes several personal experiences when slaveowners murdered their slaves and highlights the various techniques slaveowners use to control their slaves. Frederick Douglass also describes the emotional toll of slavery and recounts how he secretly educated himself. Readers also learn how institutionalized slavery negatively affects the slaveowners by turning them into callous, hateful individuals and read about the various ways slaves manipulate their masters in order to survive and undermine the system. Overall, Frederick Douglass's personal account of his life as a slave emphasizes the horrors of institutionalized slavery while highlighting the strength of the human will to survive.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think that one of the most profound elements that can be learned from slavery in Douglass' life is that there is much in way of cruelty that exists as part of American History.  Douglass speaks of the idea that there is an undeniable level of cruelty within slavery.  It helps to repudiate the idea that people engaged in slavery "did not know" the full implications of what they were doing.  Rather, Douglass' life speaks to the notion that people who owned slaves were quite deliberate in their cruelty.  One of the most powerful lessons that one can learn about slavery is that it represents the essence of cruelty.  The only formidable response to such a condition is direct confrontation.  Douglass' life is a testament to the idea that one cannot let injustice stand.  Active and direct confrontation to such reality is the only possible way in which there can be true and full resolution and change.  This becomes one of the lessons of Douglass' life.  It is a reminder that if direct confrontation to the deliberate cruelty of slavery is something that Douglass embodies, it becomes something that all of us can represent in the battles that dominate in our own lives.

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