Slavery was a dehumanizing system that undoubtedly helped shape the US and the world into what it is today. Although it has been centuries since the abolition of slavery in 1865, it still indirectly influences modern society. It is vital to study and understand the lives of the people that lived through the years of slavery, such as Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, and Solomon Northup. Through the accounts of former slaves, which have now made it into the popular media, such as Northup’s story unraveled in 12 Years a Slave, people are able to learn about the experiences of slaves. Furthermore, there was clearly a difference in the way that the men and the women were oppressed.
Review of Slavery
From the first establishments of the American colonies, slavery has been a part of life in what is now called the United States. However, the practice of using other people, who were often regarded as inferior, for particular needs as if they were objects flourished after the introduction of mono agriculture. The treatment of the slaves varied from master to master, but the general patterns of dehumanization and condescendence from the latter remained for the majority of cases.
Summary of Douglas
Frederick Douglas was an American who rose to fame from slavery through his extraordinary life. Despite the challenges that he faced as an African American in the 19th Century US, he is known for several impressive accomplishments. Douglas taught himself how to read and write, eventually writing his own autobiography, as well as teaching his fellow slaves, among other things. However, although Frederick eventually escaped slavery using disguise for years, he had to deal with oppression.
Summary of Jacobs
Harriet Jacobs poses another example of living during the slavery institution’s existence. Born a slave, she grew up in a relatively happy home, but her situation changed when her master did. Eventually, Harriet ended up escaping from him, finding a new life in the North, and later publishing an autobiography. While the girl enjoyed some years of a happy childhood, she had to face both being a slave and a woman in an incredibly sexist and racist society.
Gender and Oppression
Methods of Oppression
The oppression, although often taking different forms, was both physical and psychological. Since the institution was designed to dehumanize the slaves, who were regarded as inferior, the law permitted the masters to act on their own accord. The latter was in charge of the slaves’ daily routines, corporal punishments, and daily movement. Furthermore, they were oppressed mentally by having their education, political and social power, and being constantly manipulated. From the autobiography of Harriet, it is clear that some, if not many, of the women were raped by their masters, who claimed the women’s bodies and lives. Because of the accounts left by former slaves, it is possible today to have an idea of the punishments they endured and the daily lives they led. The lives of African American men and women were not equal at the time, especially after the limitations of the slave trade that made the masters treat slaves like cattle they were breeding.
Both men and women were stripped of their independence, self-worth, and rights, and yet they changed different challenges. Sometimes, the women were made to work the same sorts of jobs as the men, but often they were employed in more traditionally feminine tasks, such as babysitting, cooking, or cleaning the house. The working conditions for all slaves were often cruel, and any disobedience was punished, often with a whip or by starvation.
Gender and the Exercise of Power
Although it was difficult to stand up to the power that the masters and the system had over the slaves, there were, fortunately, many examples of the fighting. For example, both Douglas and Jacobs escaped captivity before the nationwide abolition of slavery. The courage to fight oppression was not always shown in direct conflict but sometimes in being smarter than the system. Frederick even escaped to Britain in order to avoid further re-enslavement after becoming an anti-slavery lecturer. And after the official abolition of slavery, he was even nominated to be Vice-President. For women, it was just as necessary to fight the oppressive system. Douglas, an anti-slavery activist, also advocated for women’s rights since women of the time were considered their husbands’ property.
In conclusion, it is obvious that both the men and the women that were either born or sold into slavery in Colonial America and elsewhere at the time had a hard time. However, the experiences varied from household to household, from man to woman. And a lot of the time, there were people that stood up to their oppressors, with varying results. Often, it was with the help of outside activists or protesters, such as in the film 12 Years a Slave, in which Solomon Northup was helped by a Canadian abolitionist. However, the inspiring stories of fighting oppression do not take away from the horrible experiences that are described by the same people.
Douglas, Frederick. 1845. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Myself. The John Harvard Library.
Foner, Eric. 2004. Give Me Liberty! An American History. Seagull. Web.
Jacobs, Harriet A. 1860. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself. Boston: Published for the Author. Web.
12 Years a Slave. Directed by Steve McQueen. 2014.