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Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano

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Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall…freedom and slavery are mental states.” This simple quote symbolizes the lives of Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano. Both of which were slaves who tried to free themselves. Both Douglass and Equiano have wrote a narrative about their lives, however, each one is different in its own unique way.

From the bonds of slavery on a plantation to the call of freedom from the north, his life was filled with hopes of improvement for both himself as well as his fellow slaves.

Frederick Douglass was an unusual character. Even in the bonds of slavery, he didn’t consider himself to be owned by anyone else. His mind and soul were his own and his masters were never able to crush his spirit for long.

Their masters very harshly put upon slaves of the United States. Most of the slaves lived on plantations and farms where they worked in the fields. They worked from sun-up to sunset in all kinds of weather. Slaves in the fields seldom got enough food, clothes, or supplies to last them throughout the entire year. According to Fredrick Douglass, the slaves received eight pounds of pork or fish, and one bushel of corn meal as their monthly allowance of food. Every year, the slaves also got new clothes because the ones from the year before were falling apart. They received two linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, one jacket, one pair of winter trousers, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes. The children of the slaves had it even worse for they received only two shirts per year. The adults were also given one coarse blanket a year while the children had none. The lack of beds didn’t affect anybody’s sleep though because they were worked so hard in the fields, they didn’t have enough time to sleep. As if being deprived of sleep and food weren’t enough, slaves were often beaten for the smallest offenses. The worst crime the slaves’ masters were guilty of was the breaking of families and friends.

Fredrick Douglass was convinced that slavery changes the masters as well as the slaves. What type of person would be able to take a son away from his mother? What type of person would be able to whip someone within an inch of his or her life simply because of a mistake or accident? The answers to these questions are not simple ones. For the most part, the overseers and masters weren’t considered to be cruel or mean by their peers. These masters didn’t feel like they were doing anything wrong. The slaves were considered property and many times were treated worse than the animals they worked with. Maybe it was a way to keep the slaves ignorant of the fact that they were men. As long as the slaves considered themselves property, they wouldn’t try to better themselves and would accept their lot in life.

The life of the slaves was hard but their masters tried to counterbalance the negativity by letting the slaves have their own lives. Fredrick Douglass’ mother was allowed to come and see him during the night. It really didn’t matter that she went to see him as long as she was back before morning. Slaves were also allowed to have their Sundays free where they could do as they pleased. Many of them spent the day resting and going to church. One of the most amazing aspects of the slave’s freedom is when Fredrick Douglass talked of the slave who had a free wife whom he visited every Sunday. This slave was given the freedom to choose as long as it didn’t interfere with their work. Slaves were also given some time off around the Christmas holiday where the only chores that needed to be done was to take care of the livestock. Slaves were often allowed during these holidays to go and visit relatives even though they lived far away from the plantation.

The life of Fredrick Douglass differs greatly from the lives of most slaves in the Antebellum Period. One great difference was that he learned to read as a slave. When Fredrick went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, his mistress decided to teach him some things. She started with the ABC’s. Unfortunately, her husband found out what she was doing and put a stop to it. Mr. Auld told his wife that teaching a slave to read “would make him discontented and unhappy.” This statement only further whetted Fredrick’s ambition to learn to read and write. His plan to get the local children to teach him was quite ingenious. Fredrick was also very dedicated to learning to write. The fact that he would practice with his young master’s schoolbooks was very risky and daring. If he had been found out, he would have been severely punished for the crime of learning. Mr. Auld was right; Fredrick did become discontented and dreamed of a way to improve his standing in life. Fredrick also didn’t keep his dream to himself. He taught other slaves how to read and even tried to form an escape party with his fellow slaves. Being able to read clearly changed Fredrick Douglass’ life and gave him the courage to escape his bonds of slavery.

Fredrick was also lucky in the fact that he was able to work in the city most of his time as a slave. Fredrick once compared a city slave to a freeman. City slaves almost always had enough to eat and looked respectable at all times because their masters wouldn’t want to lose face in their society. The work also wasn’t as hard for a city slave as a slave out on the plantations. The city slaves weren’t worked from sun-up to sunset and were given decent quarters to sleep in. Some of the city slaves even developed a trade. Fredrick learned to work in shipyards as a caulker. For some of the time, Fredrick was even allowed to find his own employment. The only thing that marked Fredrick as a slave at this point in his life was the fact that he had to give all of his money to his master, Mr. Auld.

Fredrick wasn’t a typical slave. Many of Fredrick’s masters tried to break his spirit and make him like all the other slaves. They wanted him to be happy with his lot in life and not make any trouble for them. But Fredrick wouldn’t stand for the injustice of the slavery system and soon found a way to make his escape. For the remainder of his life, Fredrick Douglass fought for the freedom of both the white masters and black slaves from slavery.

The narrative piece written by Frederick Douglass is very descriptive and, through the use of rhetorical language, effective in describing his view of a slave’s life once freed. The opening line creates a clear introduction for what is to come, as he state, ” the wretchedness of slavery and the blessedness of freedom were perpetually before me.” Parallel structure is present here, to emphasize the sanctity he has, at this point in his life, associated with freedom and the life-long misery he has associated with slavery. This justifies what he chooses to do next, as he leaves his chains and successfully reaches New York, a free state. The metaphor used within this description is also effective, as chains give the reader a sense of prison, captivity, and a lack of freedom; this is exactly how Douglass felt as a slave. One simile used when describing how he feels when at last free, as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate.

This simile demonstrates the fear and anxiety each present within him as he enters this free state; as an unarmed mariner approaches a man-of-war, an armed battle ship, fear would undoubtedly be present, and as he is rescued by this armed battle ship the unarmed mariner would be likely to sense relief, however one would still not know what to expect on this armed battle-ship; had he escaped his evil pirate, or merely entered into a worse danger? It is in this way that Douglass felt while crossing the border into New York; had he been freed from the evils of slavery, or had he simply entered into a different society of which the pro-slavery population was not so obvious, causing him to fear his entire surroundings? He also states that he feels “like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions,” implying that he had been given an incredible sense of relief. This near-bliss feeling is shortly subsided as he realizes he is a stranger in this new land, for fear of falling into the wrong hands once again. Douglass describes the slave-owners as, “money-loving kidnappers,” and himself as the “panting fugitive slave;” while making another comparison yet, “as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey.”

Each of these images demonstrates the intense fear and inferiority Douglass feels toward slave-owners, even in his new state of freedom. He no longer views this as a free land, but “a land given up to be the hunting-ground for slave holders.” He fears everyone is against him, and he is forever being hunted, “as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey,” the slave owners feel no mercy, and would, if provided the opportunity, seize his life in an instant with no regrets, as the crocodile devours their prey. He continues with this trend of metaphors and similes to compare slave-owners to “merciless men-hunters,” “wild beasts,” and “monsters of the deep,” while describing himself as, “perfectly helpless,” a “half-famished fugitive,” a “helpless fish,” and “the toil-worn, whip-scarred fugitive.

“I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity. . . People generally think those memoirs only worthy to be read or remembered which abound in great striking events, those, in short, which in a high degree excite either admiration or pity; all others they consign to contempt or oblivion. It is therefore, I confess, not a little hazardous in a private and obscure individual, and a stranger too, thus to solicit the indulgent attention of the public, especially when I own I offer here the history of neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant. I believe there are few events in my life which have not happened to many; it is true the incidents of it are numerous, and, did I consider myself an European, I might say my sufferings were great; but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favorite of heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life. If, then, the following narrative does not appear sufficiently interesting to engage general attention, let my motive be some excuse for its publication.”

So Equiano begins his narrative in the unassuming, yet ardent voice that carries the reader throughout his life story. He makes his plans entirely clear: he intends his narrative to open the world’s eyes to the degradation and inhumanity of slavery. Yet he knows, too, that merely preaching of goodwill towards Africans would not turn any heads. He must show directly the irony that those naming others “barbarians” were the barbaric ones themselves. His intensely personal story, with detailed descriptions of what he saw — cruel or ordinary — and of how one African dealt with forced encounters with different lands and cultures, was what it would take for Englishmen to relate and thus to understand.

Despite his words in this first paragraph, Equiano did lead an extraordinary life. For one, he was not subject to the extent of horrors of some of his kinsmen — lifelong bondage to grueling work with no chance of freedom. The modesty with which he views his experiences, triumphant or degrading, will sometimes contrast with the interpretation the reader makes — furthering Equiano’s message. His experiences had “happened to many” and to a far greater intensity. The reader then can imply the absolute horrors of slavery for the rest of the African population.

Second, Equiano’s life was extraordinary for he found a means to aid his brethren. He was extremely fortunate to acquire learning and literacy, and only through them did he touch the powerful with his words. As a angry slave, Equiano would have had trouble furthering his cause. As an ex-slave, a newly-connected member of British society with powerful ties to wealthy merchants and humanitarians, humble ties to sea men and servants, and moral and spiritual ties to clergymen, Equiano — “neither saint, hero, nor tyrant” — related to all. His narrative found immense popularity throughout the world.

A number of themes pervade Equiano’s narrative. Editor Robert Allison says the text revolves around “freedom and salvation.” Power and identity struggles are also important problems Equiano faces. Some of the most telling passages involve Equiano’s discussion of his various names. In his Ibo native land, he was named “Olaudah,” which signified “one favored, and having a loud voice and well spoken.” His name was thus symbolic of his strong anti-slavery voice. His name, and both of the above paragraphs which testified to his extraordinary life also suggest his relative fortune, or perhaps God’s Providence. Similarly, his first remembrance of this was in Isseke, when poisonous snakes would ignore only him. Luck and grace would play a large role in his life and narrative.

Yet in Virginia Equiano was called Jacob and then Michael — he no longer had control over his own identity. The passage where he is given the name Gustavus Vassa describes clearly the struggle for self-empowerment versus outside control: “While I was on board this ship, my captain and master named me Gustavus Vassa. I at that time began to understand him a little, and refused to be called so, and told him as well as I could that I would be called Jacob; but he said I should not, and still called me Gustavus: and when I refused to answer to my new name, which I at first did, it gained me many a cuff; so at length I submitted, and by which I have been known ever since.”

It is more than a autobiography of protests against brutality or a record of survival. In my opinion the reason Olaudah Equiano wrote this interesting narrative of his life endeavors was to show and tell not only the good/bad Englishmen what it is meant to honor and treat African American slaves with humanity and dignity although they were slaves, they are humans too.

Olaudah sums it up best when he ask; that his readers indulgence and conclude, “I am far from the vanity of thinking there is any merit in the narrative, I hope censure will be suspended, when it is considered that it was written by one who was as unwilling as unable to adorn the plainness of truth by the coloring of imagination.”

In closing Olaudah Equiano’s account of his sometime uncivilized treatment of his life story stresses the experiences of the voiceless millions who also made the journey from Africa to America. The importance that still holds true today that is so near and dear to the majority of the African American, society that through hard work and our faith in God, we will over come our agonies and press on with triumph!

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