What does Doulass' Narrative reveal about  psychological struggles of American slaves?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most compelling elements of Douglass' narrative is that it delves into how the configuration of slave society really did much to alter the psychological understanding of slaves.  This helps to feed Douglass' argument that slavery is a moral and political stain on America.  For example, Douglass' discussion of "false" and "true" Christianity reveals not only the hypocrisy that depicts religion's use, but also how for a slave, religion can be seen in such a negative light.  An entity that is predicated on spiritual salvation was used to justify the most horrible of actions.  This creates a psychological void in slaves for it causes them to doubt the sincerity of religious fervor.  When the "auctioneer's bell" and the "church bell" come to mean the same thing for a slave, the psychological doubt becomes intense.  The brutality and emotional cruelty involved in slavery left lasting impressions on slaves like Douglass.  The psychological scars of seeing whippings and being whipped, witnessing the death of human beings at an alarming pace, the forced separation of mothers and children are all elements that create a psychological scar on Douglass, and is broadened to include all slaves.  Finally, I think that the fundamental mistrust of slaves as well as the denial to basic amenities such as reading and writing leave a psychological impact on slaves.  Douglass makes the argument that in order for slaves to be free, a form of mental or subjective emancipation must be a part of the process.  This internal liberation is one in which the slave fully recognizes the unjust nature of slavery and seeks to be free from it.  In order for this to happen, slaves have to realize that elements that seek to take away the basic rights entitled to human beings must be demanded.  The ability to read and write is part of this process.  As slaves are denied this, they are kept in bondage psychologically and physically, which becomes one of the most powerful reasons behind Douglass' writing of his narrative in the first place.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Douglass's narrative reveals that slaves must struggle to free their minds as they are struggling to free their bodies. Douglass himself long struggles to believe he is capable of living a free life, and he must ready himself for the psychological demands of freedom as much as the physical demands. 

To prepare himself psychologically for freedom, Douglass takes two main actions. First, he learns to read. Literacy gives him not only the practical ability to acquire a job in the North after he escapes from slavery, but it also equips him with the arguments to defend his abolitionist perspective. Literacy also gives him a psychological edge against his oppressor, as he can counter their claims in support of slavery.

Second, Douglass engages in active resistance against his overseer, Mr. Covey. Holding a root, which another slave gave him in an act of brotherhood, Douglass fights against Covey, making it clear that he will no longer stand for inhumane treatment. This action is a vital turning point for Douglass, as he realizes that he can one day be free, psychologically and physically, of the bonds of slavery. Slaves struggled psychologically, as slavery made them afraid to resist, but Douglass reveals how he acquired the mental and practical skills he needed to escape north to freedom. 

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