Examination of the Slave Experience
Most African Americans of the early to mid-nineteenth century experienced slavery on plantations similar to the experiences described by Frederick Douglass; the majority of slaves lived on units owned by planters who had twenty or more slaves. The planters and the white masters of these agrarian communities sought to ensure their personal safety and the profitability of their enterprises by using all the tactics-physical and psychological-at their command to make slaves obedient. Even Christianity was manipulated in a way that masters communicated to their slaves that God had commanded them to obey their masters. Hence, by word and deed whites tried to convince blacks that they had been ordained superior thus affording them the right to rule over blacks. However, it is a great tribute to the extraordinary resourcefulness and spirit of African Americans that most of them resisted these pressures and managed to retain an inner sense of their own individuality and worth. Still, the reason why African Americans were able to maintain a sense of individuality and worth remains disputed.
Only a tiny fraction of all slaves ever took part in organized acts of violent resistance against white power. Most realized as Frederick Douglass did that the odds against a successful revolt were very high, and bitter experience had shown them that the usual outcome was death to the rebels. Consequently, they devised sublime, safer and more ingenious ways to resist white dominance. For Frederick Douglass, it was clear that his way of fighting the power was to become educated so that he may better understand his predicament and the wrongfulness of slavery. However, he described that knowing that: "wit…[was] the pathway from slavery to freedom." (pg. 58) "…Reading… enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while [it] relieved me of one difficulty, [it] brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers." (pg. 61) The knowledge which Frederick Douglass gained, did not free him from his horrible situation, but rather compounded his discontentment as a slave. It is hard to determine how other slaves were able to maintain a sense of individuality and worth, despite not having the opportunity or possess the resourcefulness to obtain the knowledge of Frederick Douglass.
Nevertheless, most slaves had established and participated in a subculture separate from any other in the United States at that time. One might argue that it was from the realm of this subculture and fundamental beliefs, derived from the horrible experiences of slavery, that provided African Americans the strength necessary to hold their heads high and look beyond their immediate condition. Religion was the essence of the newly emerging African American subculture. Borrowed from the fiery revivalism of...