The Dehumanization Process in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave
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...