'Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglas'

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November 29, 2002

Why was it so important for slave owners that their slaves should remain ignorant and what strategies did they use to achieve this goal?

“If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do”, a sentence said by Mr Auld in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, written by himself (Boston 1845).
Since last year, I have been interested in slave narratives and I read some about them. And each time, or almost, I noticed many common features in those books. As we already know, slaves were generally ill-treated, whipped
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Otherwise, what could justify this condition of slaves? Once more, in order to justify their ownership of other human beings, slave owners must constantly deny the humanity of their slaves. To convince themselves that their slaves are not quite human, slave owners treat them inhumanely. Even if some slaveholders were deeply convinced that black people were white men’s equal, they had to deny it or else slavery would stop. This is what Frederick Douglas called “the evil of slavery” in his narrative when good-natured slave owners had to forget their own feelings and to behave very severely toward them for the continuation of slavery. In treating their slaves like beasts, the masters became one themselves.
Then, slave owners separated young slaves from their family very early so as to avoid strong alliances among the slaves which could be a serious threat to their hold on power. On the contrary, they wanted to develop a sense of individuality and rivalry among slaves, they were trying to divide them. For example, slave owners rewarded slaves for giving information on one another. This is how they partially prevented slaves from forming organized rebellions. There is an example which shows the efficiency of this practice in Frederick Douglas’s narrative since he is betrayed, probably by one of his closest friend on his first attempt to escape
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