LITR 4232: American Renaissance

Sample Student Research Project, fall 2004

Tina Pequeno

16 November 2004

The Dehumanization of Slaves and Slave Holders

            Throughout American history, minority groups were victims of American governmental policies, and these policies made them vulnerable to barbaric and inhumane treatment at the hands of white Americans.   American slavery is a telling example of a government sanctioned institution that victimized and oppressed a race of people by indoctrinating and encouraging enslavement, racism and abuse.  This institution is injurious to slaves and slave holders alike because American society, especially in the south, underwent a dehumanization process in order to implement the harsh and inhumane doctrine.  In the episodic autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Frederick Douglass illustrates, through personal experience, the brutality and violence of slave life.  As a young boy, Douglass is sent to Baltimore, an event that gives him temporary relief from the harsh conditions on the plantation.  In Baltimore, he teaches himself to read and write and begins a journey to mental freedom that eventually paves the way to his successful escape to the North.  Despite the hardships he endures, “most amazing is the indestructible total humanity of [Douglass] whom society called a thing, a chattel to be bought and sold” (Rexroth 134).  Amazingly, Douglass realizes at a young age that the institution of slavery poisons people who might otherwise act in good and decent ways.  His autobiography focuses primarily on the ill effects slavery has on slaves; however, he also acknowledges the damage that enforcing the laws of slavery has on slave holders.  Through the use of imagery, Douglass masterfully illustrates the dehumanizing effects the institution of slavery imposes on slaves and slave holders.

The dehumanization process of slaves results from a deliberate attempt among slave holders to deny slaves familial bonds, education, and fundamental liberties in an effort to keep them content and in “mental darkness” (Douglass 1860).  Starting from a slave’s birth, this cruel process leads to a continuous cycle of abuse, neglect, and inhumane treatment.  To some extent, slave holders succeed because they keep  most slaves so concerned with survival that they have no time or energy to consider freedom.  This is particularly true for plantation slaves where the conditions of slave life are the most difficult and challenging.  However, slave holders fail to realize the damage they inadvertently inflict on themselves by upholding slavery and enforcing these austere laws and attitudes.

To begin, Douglass uses imagery to describe the heart wrenching experience of a slave child on a plantation.  Without adequate food or clothing, slave children begin the process of dehumanization.  Denied blankets or beds, the children slept on the cold and damp floor and Douglass describes with horrid detail his “feet [being] so cracked with the frost, that the pen which [he is] writing might be laid in the gashes”(1836).  This painful description creates empathy for a mistreated child whose only “crime” results from his birth to a black mother.  In the most dehumanizing comparison, Douglass uses animal imagery to reveal the conditions and manner in which the children are fed.  Douglass writes:

Our food was coarse cornmeal boiled.  This was called mush.  It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. (1836)

Essentially, the slave children are fed in the same manner and regarded in the same respect as animals.  These descriptions create a universal and tangible picture of the inhumane treatment of slave children and raises awareness of the animal-like behaviors they must acquire to survive plantation life.

Douglass uses  animal imagery to illustrate the dehumanization that must occur for slave holders to create “a contented slave” in adulthood (1868).  He asserts that plantation slaves are reduced to brutes because a good slave is essentially “a thoughtless one” (1868).   While living on Mr. Covey’s farm, Douglass realizes the nature of the slave holders depravity.  His time with Mr. Covey proves a difficult transition from city to plantation life, and he “learn[s] that through unending work a person can be transformed into a beast” (Franklin 37).  As Douglass begins to adjust to his “brute”status, he sadly becomes aware that “the dark night of slavery [has] closed in upon [him]” (1032).  Reduced to this animal-like being, Douglass begins to lose his desire for freedom as he becomes overwhelmed by the realities and hardships of slave life.  Douglass believes that reducing humans to beast is an essential part of successfully implementing and upholding slavery.  Perceptively, he writes “[slaves] must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man” (1868).  Douglass’s experiences enlighten him because he has had the opportunity to live in the city where “he [was] almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation” and through his city experiences he gains an intuitive understanding into the psychological and intellectual abuse that is an egregious component of slavery (Franklin 34).Douglass uses imagery to illustrate the most  dehumanizing and heartbreaking aspect of the slavery system.  Upon the death of his legal master, Douglass is sent to the place of his birth for the valuation and division of property and slaves.  This disturbing practice commonly occurred within the institution of slavery and “displayed most dramatically the essence of chattel slavery” (Franklin 36).  Using animal imagery, Douglass describes this event as follows: “There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being” (1844).   His parallels of beasts to humans vividly illustrate the dehumanization of slaves based on their value, which equals that of livestock, and clearly shows slaves as merely property of another person.  Furthermore, the slave owner does not acknowledge the natural human bonds that form among slave families and friends.  To illustrate, owners decide a slave’s fate without regard to those bonds, and slaves must “sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and the strongest ties known to human beings” (1844).   Douglass reiterates this animal imagery by writing that the slaves helplessness at this devastating event was “like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word” (1845).    Although it takes a dehumanized person to partake in such an act of separating families without regard for familial bonds, the unfortunate reality is that the government sanctioned institution of slavery, the slave holders, and the southern religious ideology justifies and condones these actions as an acceptable and necessary part of southern culture.

When Douglass goes to Baltimore to live with the Aulds, he  witnesses first hand the dehumanization process the slaveholder undergoes.  Using imagery, he emphasizes Mrs.  Auld’s transition from a woman with a “lamb-like disposition” to one of “tiger-like fierceness” (1840).  Having never owned a slave, she lacks awareness of the cruelty deemed necessary by the institution of slavery to keep a slave happy and content.  Upon Douglass’s arrival, Mrs. Auld treats him with extreme kindness and begins to teach him the alphabet.  However, when Mr.  Auld finds out, he becomes enraged and demands that she top immediately because society has deemed it “unlawful” and “learning would spoil the best nigger in the world” (1840).  As a result of Mr. Auld’s power, Mrs. Auld stops teaching Douglass and starts treating him like a slave.  Douglass realizes that it became “necessary for [Mrs. Auld] to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her equal to the task of treating him like a brute” (1840).  By comparing Mrs. Auld’s change in disposition from a lamb to a tiger, Douglass effectively aids in emphasizing the degree and impact of her personality change.  Moreover, he places most of the blame on the institution of slavery because he recognizes the significant role it plays in her loss of humanity.

Douglass uses imagery to depict the heartless and cruel Mr. Covey, a slave breaker whose livelihood depends upon his ability to harm and dehumanize other human beings.  The slaves often refer to Mr. Covey as “the snake” because of his “power to deceive” (1851). Douglass further describes Covey’s snake-like traits when he writes “you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves” (1851).  This comparison illustrates Mr. Covey as a sneaky and evil character that will, like a snake, painfully attack without warning.  To reinforce this elusive image, Douglass later refers to Mr. Covey as a “thief in the night” (1851).  Mr. Covey’s ability to dehumanize and “break” slaves is directly linked to his livelihood and  subsistence because his reputation as a slave breaker is vital to attracting slave holder’s business.  Obviously, Mr. Covey’s heartless behavior harms the slaves; however, Douglass acknowledges that the institution of slavery also has a dehumanizing effect on Mr. Covey.  Mr. Covey’s capacity for cruelty and inhumanity directly results from the power given to him by law that enables him to make a living from enslaving and abusing his fellow man.

Douglass illustrates the way white Americans who directly or indirectly participate in slavery are ultimately dehumanized.  He accomplishes this through the use of animal imagery, and  Douglass portrays these participants by comparing them to predatory animals.  The common theme expressed throughout his narrative is the comparison of slave holders to lions.  For example, Douglass expresses his relief when at the valuation he “fell to the portion of Mrs. Lucretia” and is sent back to Baltimore (1844 ).   He writes that “I escaped a [fate] worse than lion’s jaws” (1844).  The lion’s jaws represent the painful and life draining experience of a slave living on a plantation at the mercy of their owners.  Moreover, following his escape to the North, Douglass recalls that he felt like “one who had escaped a den of hungry lions” (1871).  Furthermore, Douglass compares the work of the slave kidnappers to crocodiles.  After his escape to New York, he fears “being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey” (1872).  This comparison vividly illustrates the immense fear and vulnerability felt by Douglass in a city where he is alone and constantly faces the threat of being captured and sold back into slavery.  However, it is important to acknowledge that Douglass “makes it abundantly clear that not all white people, even in the slave states, partook of the collective guilt of mastership” (Rexroth 134).

In conclusion, Douglass’ use of imagery effectively illustrates the painful and disturbing realities of slavery.  He gives validity to the argument that slavery is harmful to all who directly or indirectly participate.  He stresses how denying education and basic liberties can cause a race of oppressed people to helplessly accept slavery as their fate.  In fact Douglass believes that the only way to survive plantation life is to abandon human qualities and assume a “brute -like” status.  He illustrates this point by comparing slaves to domesticated farm  animals whose fate and livelihood are at the sole discretion of their owners.  In opposition, he compares whites associated with slavery to predatory and dangerous animals that have the strength and power to devour and kill their prey at will and must in order to survive.  This comparison is crucial to Douglass’ point.  He theorizes that slavery transforms the souls of  slave holders into animal-like beings, abandoning qualities that are uniquely human such as compassion and empathy.  

Moreover, Douglass recognizes that dehumanization of both slaves and slave owners must occur for slavery to exist, and he masterfully illustrates the dehumanization process through the use of imagery.  Perceptively, he sees that slavery harms everyone involved, including the slave owners who superficially appear to benefit from the arrangement.  Douglass’s narrative acknowledges the damage inflicted on both sides of the institution of slavery, emphasizing that a human being’s personality and disposition form according to the laws and socially acceptable practices exhibited within the society.   Ultimately, Douglass understands that slavery can exist only when society reduces human beings to animal-like brutes, and cruel slave owners exist only when society condones and legalizes enslaving another human being.  Those themes give this work modern day relevance by illustrating the hardships and brutality involved in slavery.  Furthermore, Douglass’s universal themes can apply to the hardships and prejudices any race, religion or gender experiences from oppression due to the lack of liberty, education, humanity, or justice.

Works Cited


Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.  The Heath Anthology of American Literature.  Ed. Paul Lauter.  Vol 1. 4th ed.  Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 2002.  1817-1880.

Franklin, Bruce. “Animal Farm Unbound.” Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  Ed. Harold Bloom.  New York: Chelsea House, 1988. 29-43.

Houston PBS Online.  Resource Book: People and Events Frederick Douglass 1818-1895.

Rexroth, Kenneth.  “Frederick Douglass.” The Elastic Retort: Essays in Literature and Ideas. The Continuum, 1973: 108-11.  Rpt. in Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism.  Eds.  Laura Lanzen  Harris and Sheila Fitzgerald.  Vol. 7.  Detroit: Gale, 1984.  133-34.