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Slavery and the Definition of Humanity
An Object of Humanity
The definition of humanity is one that can be interpreted in many different ways. People all over the world have diverse values, which is probably the main reason why world peace has never been (and most likely never will be) achieved. Perhaps humanity is as simple as the philosophy: "Do unto others as you would want done to you." This is a profound statement, and has the power to make a true impact on the way people treat one another. Unfortunately, too many people do not integrate this motto into their everyday lives. This is especially true of the numerous people who lived during the age of slavery in the United States. Slavery was in fact the exact antithesis of humanity, for what is humane about treating another human being as an object?
Both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass have revealed to the world the true evils of slavery; however, they do so in different ways. In Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is not her voice that tells the reader just how evil slavery is; rather, she allows the reader to deduce this on his or her own through the stories of slaves in Kentucky. Stowe uses the characters in her novel to express her opinions on slavery. For instance, in Chapter XII, Stowe describes a scene on a boat on which the trader Haley is transporting his slaves (or as he refers to them, his "merchandise") (1822). In the cabin above, a young boy remarks about the "negro trader on board" and his "four or five slaves" who have "got chains on" (1822). A lady then comments: "What a shame to our country that such sights are to be seen!" (1822). Stowe expresses this sentiment through the voice of a white woman, perhaps because she believes that is the only way she will be heard.
On the other hand, Douglass exposes the inhumanity of slavery through personal stories in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In his own voice, he comes right out and tells his reader about the "gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery" (Chapter X, par 17). In Chapter VI, Douglass recalls the time when he first met his mistress Mrs. Auld, "a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings" (Chapter VI, par 1). He then goes on to describe how, because she had previously never been a slave owner, "she had been in a good degree preserved from the blighting and dehumanizing effects of slavery" (Chapter VI, par 1). Unlike Stowe, who uses characters to express her feelings about slavery, Douglass adds in his own commentary with words such as "gross fraud," "inhumanity," and "dehumanizing."
Both authors further depict the inhumanity of slavery by showing how slaves were compared to the likes of animals or objects. In Chapter XII of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe describes a scene at a slave auction in which Haley purchases three Negroes. After this purchase, Haley must transport these slaves on a boat. Stowe writes: "A few days saw Haley, with his possessions, safely deposited on one of the Ohio boats. It was the commencement of his gang, to be augmented...by various other merchandise of the same kind" (1821). The "possessions" and "merchandise" Stowe write of are, of course, the slaves. For this is how slaves were regarded during that time, especially by the traders. To the traders, a slave was merely another product that needed to be bought and then sold for a profit, just as a piece of cargo or freight. And just as a piece of cargo is an inanimate object with no emotions, a slave was treated as such.
At the end of the day, it didn't matter to a trader how many children were ripped out of their mothers arms. When Haley sold the child of a newly acquired slave, he remained unaffected by "the wild look of anguish and utter despair that the woman cast on him [that] might have disturbed one less practiced" (1827). He was used to such looks, which he had seen over and over again, and merely regarded them as "necessary incidents of the trade," or, in other words, a duty that came with his job (1827). To take matters further, when that despaired mother took her own life because she could not bear to live without her child, Haley's only concern was what this lost piece of merchandise would cost him at them end of the day. Stowe writes: "He only swore that the gal was a baggage, and that he was a devilish unlucky, and that, if things went on in this way, he should not make a cent on the trip" (1829). Haley believed that this woman's death was a result of his bad luck; never once did he give this woman a second thought, because in his mind, she was not a human being, but rather a measly piece of "baggage." And just as if one were to lose a piece of baggage at the airport, one would regard this as bad luck and a loss of money, but one would continue on and soon replace that baggage.
While Stowe compares slaves to freights and baggage, Douglass compares slaves to animals. In Chapter I, Douglass opens his narrative by explaining that he has no precise knowledge of his age. He writes: "By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant" (Chapter I, par 1). Douglass implies that most slave owners treat their slaves as they would pet horses; one would have no reason to tell a horse his age, for what good would this do the horse? Similarly, why should a slave know his birthday? Since he or she is on the same level of an animal, and not a human, why would a master have any good reason to give a slave this knowledge? Douglass believes that masters want to keep their slaves as ignorant as animals, because the less they know about their lives, the better.
Stowe and Douglass also shed light on the brutal inhumanity of separating mother and child. Because a slave was treated as nothing more than an object or animal, what did it matter if a child was taken from his or her mother? Since slaves were simply pieces of property that belonged to their owners, those owners had a "right" to do as they pleased. If that meant selling a slave's child, then so be it. In Chapter VII, Stowe tells the story of Eliza, a slave who ran away from her master's home in order to avoid losing her son in the slave trade. Stowe questions all mothers as Eliza makes her escape: "If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, to-morrow morning, -- if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered...how fast could you walk?" (1771). Stowe attempts to bring the reality of slavery to the page by asking the reader to place herself in Eliza's shoes. She wants to know if any other human being wouldn't try to save his or her child just as Eliza did. By asking this question, she forces the reader to relate to the situation, and to see just how cruel and inhumane slavery was.
Douglass also speaks of separating mother from child; in particular, the separating of himself from his mother. Douglass explains that in the area of Maryland where he was born, it was custom to divide mothers and children, usually before the children were even one-year-old.…[continue]
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