Dehumanizing Effect of Slavery

Slavery was abolished 153 short years ago, but the inhumane treatment of slaves is still present through literature. In his narrative about slavery, Frederick Douglass vividly describes his experience as a slave to demonstrate how slavery dehumanizes slaves and slaveowners. In his narrative, Frederick Douglass illustrates the brutalizing effects of slavery on slaves by recalling meaningful episodes of his personal experiences as a slave. Douglass uses an antimetabole while reflecting upon how the slaves around him sung when traveling to the Great House Farm: “They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone” (13).

Douglass uses an antimetabole to disprove the claim of slaves being so elated that they sing. The reversal of his words, through this device, demonstrates that the opposite is true.

The slaves were in fact deeply saddened by their miserable lives and singing was their way of coping. Douglass supports this claim by using a metaphor in parallel structure: “Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery” (15).

The parallel structure of this line shows how truly sad the slaves were — what should have been gleeful singing was full of somber and anguish. The slaves were singing to forget about their hardships, and not out of joy, proving the inhumane treatment they received. Douglass goes on to recollect his experiences on the plantation, discussing the countless hours of hard work that the slaves put in, while providing powerful imagery through a personal anecdote.

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After their long days of work, the slaves never get a true rest: “…and when this is done, old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed, — the cold, damp floor, — each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets” (10). This personal anecdote shows the inhumane conditions the slaves had to endure, and by using sharp details, Douglass reveals how brutally the slaves were treated.

The slaves were never able to rest and their “rest time” was spent aching on the hard ground. They were truly treated like livestock, except the slaves had the privilege of “blankets” to sleep with. In his narrative, Douglass shares his experience of wanting to put a stop to the cruelty he faced by ending his life. He conveys this through a personal anecdote while establishing pathos: “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed” (41). Douglass appeals to pathos her to have the reader feel for him. All humans know the importance of life and for one to contemplate it proves the appalling conditions that the slaves experienced. Douglass would rather be dead than live the treacherous life of a slave, which once more shows how brutally the slaves were treated.

Douglass was degraded day in and day out and consequently contemplated taking his own life as an outlet to save him from the total torture and humiliation that he faced. Douglass proceeds to use antithesis when discussing Master Hugh and his unfair treatment of Frederick Douglass: “He received all the benefits of slaveholding without its evils; while I endured all the evils of a slave, and suffered all the care and anxiety of a freedman” (104). Douglass uses antithesis to demonstrate the stark differences between himself and Master Hugh. Master Hugh received money for the work that Douglass completed each and every week. This dehumanizes Douglass as it conditions him to think that freedom is worse than life imprisoned. Douglass didn’t know any better as he was a slave his whole life, which proves that the slave holders manipulated the slaves into thinking they had it easy.

In addition to dehumanizing the slaves, slavery also dehumanizes the slaveholders themselves. Frederick Douglass shows the demoralizing effect of slavery on slave owners through depictions of his experiences as a slave. Douglass appeals to pathos while speaking of a personal anecdote about Mr. Severe that is filled with vivid imagery: “I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release. He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity” (11). The powerful imagery of the blood of this woman shows the intense insensitivity of Mr. Severe. Even more so, with the appeal to pathos of her crying children, Douglass shows the inhumane characteristics of the slave owner, and how slavery blinds Mr. Severe to human decency.

Douglass continues to illustrate the dehumanizing effect of slavery with additional references to whipping later on in the narrative. He uses two tricolons to tell about the ease with which slaveholders find reasons to whip a slave: “A mere look, word, or motion, — a mistake, accident, or want of power, — are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time” (79). Douglass employs tricolons here to ensure that the reader takes note of the groupings, and remembers them. These groupings show that the slave owners could whip anyone they wished to, at any time. Their “power-hungry” egos directly correlate to the dehumanizing aspects of slavery. For slave owners there is always a need to be on top, and to achieve that, they whip their slaves and eventually find joy in making others suffer. Later on, Douglass uses sarcasm to judge the character of Mr. Covey: “Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion — a pious soul — a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church … this added weight to his reputation as a ‘nigger-breaker’” (57).

The emphatic use of sarcasm helps to demonstrate the complete hypocrisy of slave owners. They claimed to be holy and devout Christians while they demoralized and dehumanized numerous souls. This, in turn, creates a false sense of reality for the slaveholders, causing them to think they are divine humans, when in actuality they are the opposite. Not only does slavery dehumanize both slave and slave owner alike, it goes even further by providing comparisons to animals. Douglass first uses an analogy to compare the feeding of the slaves to that of pigs. The slaves ate hard cornmeal called “mush”, and Douglass describes how the “mush” was eaten: “The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oystershells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons” (27). Douglass uses this analogy to show how slaves were treated like animals, and how the slave holders demoralized them into thinking that they weren’t even deserving of spoons, a simple human utensil.

Douglass goes on to use parallelism to describe how the slaves and animals were ranked: “There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being…At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder” (45). This parallelism shows how the human slaves were ranked below animals as the structure of this quote highlights its true meaning. Animal first, then slave, that’s how unworthy slaves were considered by their owners. The slaveholders completely took away the humanity of the slaves, turning them into less than beasts. Douglass then compares slave owners to animals by using a simile: “I suppose I looked like a man who had escaped a den of wild beasts, and barely escaped them” (68). Douglass uses this simile to emphasize the beastly nature of slave owners, once again demonstrating the profound effect slavery has on both slave owners and slaves. By using vivid descriptions of his own experience as a slave, Frederick Douglass demonstrates how slavery dehumanizes both slaves and slaveowners. Thanks to abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, the 13th amendment was created to abolish the inhumane act of slavery altogether, eradicating the demoralizing cruelties that persisted for almost two and a half centuries.

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Dehumanizing Effect of Slavery. (2022, Apr 28). Retrieved from

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