Once upon a time it was thought that slavery was just a normal developed part of life. It didn’t matter if you owned a slave or if you were a slave, this was just how things were. The slave narratives in the book were first-hand narratives of former black slaves in the South; and the first expression of humanity from a group of people in a society where antediluvian pseudo-science considered them to be minimal animals. These former slaves were not allowed to be educated so their accuracy and their intelligence were always called into question by a system that had placed economic and social interests in maintaining slavery. Slaves saw themselves as human beings first, but their slave masters did not see them that way. They were constantly abused by their slave masters. Sometimes slavery rechanges murder into love.
The events of the Middle Passage took the enslaved Africans away from what they were accustomed to and their homeland, bringing them to the Americas. During this time period these enslaved people experienced countless incidents that consisted of physical violence and mental violence. They were constantly dehumanized and objectified, as well as being brutally whipped, and raped. The women were separated from their children. Of course, no parent wants to be separated from their child but especially a mother who has carried the kid for 9 months. It was very evident in the slave narratives and some of the videos we watched that the mothers will do anything just to prevent their child from having to experience what they must experience. For example, in the video “Life Aboard a Slave Ship” the mother held her baby close to her chest and then she decided that they both fall overboard, she made this decision for a few reasons. She did not want to be physically and mentally abused and dehumanized, she did not want her body to be objectified and used as a sex toy, and she did not want to be separated from her child. In a sense, she basically committed murder, because she killed herself and her child. However, she did this because she loved her child much more than anything else, so she felt that this was the better decision instead of having her child become enslaved. I think this example gives grounds for my thesis that sometimes slavery rechanges murder into love.
Slave mothers weren’t allowed to speak about who the father of their child was. If they did, they would be punished for it. In Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl a young slave girl had given birth to a child that was almost white, and she was slowly dying afterwards. The mother of the girl said, “The baby is dead, thank God; and I hope my poor child will soon be in heaven, too” (Jacobs, 422). While the child’s eyes were closing in death, “she thanked God for taking her away from the greater bitterness of life” (Jacobs, 422). No parent wants their child and grandchild to die, but the grandmother’s love for her child and grandchild was so evident that she would rather they both die and be in heaven as opposed to going through slavery. The child distinctly told her mother not to grieve because God knows all about it and he will have mercy upon her.
In the same narrative Jacob’s body was constantly being a target for sex at such a young age of 16 by her mistress’s father Dr. Flint. He repeatedly subjected her to aggressive and harsh sexual harassment because he saw her as an object and wanted to use her for his sexual pleasures without considering her feelings. Dr. Flint went as far as to build a little house for her to stay in just so that he can have access to her whenever he wanted. Forced her to become pregnant adding to his number of slaves, something she did not want. She wanted to have the freedom of choosing whom she wanted to be intimate with and she chose Mr. Sands. He got pregnant for him and then told Dr. Flint that she is “carrying another man’s child”. Once a woman is a child bearer it allows them pardon to death. Jacob’s was smart enough to know that and her fear of death or murder is now taken away and changed into a love that she will now have for her child she is pregnant with.
In Fredrick Douglass’s narrative his mother was a former slave and she was excluded from the cult of true womanhood. The cult of true womanhood is believed that the woman’s proper place was in the home taking care of the children, making beds, cooking, and needlework, they were supposed to be submissive and remain virgins until marriage and value their religion. However, Douglass’s mother was deprived of this privilege her role of motherhood was broken and she couldn’t be with her child; bodies being used for slavery. Instead she had to work on a farm, and she was separated from her son when he was very young. “Before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for the field labor” (Douglass, 316). Douglass being able to see his mother only a few times in his life “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times” (Douglass, 316) demonstrates the institutional rape being done to black slave mothers. Hence why many of the mothers in these narratives rather undergo murder, death, or harsh treatments in exchange for the love of their children, they value that way more than anything else.
Douglass was so determined that he did not want to be a product of slavery after knowing of the struggles that his mother went through, he was committed to learning to read and write. His Mistress was unlike any other and was teaching him the A, B, Cs, until her husband out. She was given strict orders by her husband to not teach him anything else. “It was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read, if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him” (Douglass, 338). What the master told his wife was true and after hearing that Douglass decided that he would do whatever it took to learn so that he could escape slavery. He learned from other white children in the neighborhood and that is how his opposition to slavery came about.
Fredrick Douglass is an anti-racist and anti-essentialist, he believed that systems are what create behaviors. The poor white children in the narrative are an outside system, they have not been put into the slavery but because they are surrounded by the system of slavery it is what causes them to be racist. In the narrative the poor white children were always starving and not being fed. Douglass mentioned that he was better off than much of the white children. He portrays that white children weren’t intentionally racist by explaining how they were the ones who taught him and gave him the knowledge that he had to read and write. “This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge” (Douglass, 342). He would feed them bread and they would give him knowledge in return. He had so much gratitude and affection for them. Again, this gives ground for my thesis because since it is against the customs of slavery to teach a slave how to read and write, he could’ve been killed or murdered by his master if they had found out that he was being taught. But if this was to happen Douglass would’ve just been quite content that he was able to learn to read and write before he was killed/murdered, and he would’ve loved the white children for what they had done for him.
Similarly, in the Phyllis Wheatley reading she played with the images of light and dark. She believed in the racist theology of the time and that was because she was surrounded by a system of slavery and racism. Wheatley was mentally enslaved and thought that black people were “under the white”. In Africa her life was wrong because she did not know Jesus and her soul was filled with darkness. “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land; Taught my benighted soul to understand that there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too… Their colour is a diabolic die” (Wheatley, 219).
In closing, the institution of slavery was an inconceivable, physical, emotional, and spiritual cruel system supported by racism and greediness. These slave narratives are so important because they mark the beginning of written self-expressions from the enslaved people in America. What is especially important to me is that I noticed in each of the narratives, the opening sentence is “I was born” which shows the slave existed as a human. The sad part about it is that throughout the narratives we see how the system of slavery continuously denied them of that humanity and instead treat them like animals. Like denying Douglass the right of knowing his birthdate and separating him from his mother. I personally, cherish these slave narratives because they are the first-hand accounts, real stories and experiences from former slaves. Also, because helps me to expand my own moral imagination in terms of being able to better identify and understand other people’s experiences.