Life as a Slave

Life as a slave was very difficult. However, the most difficult fact for a slave was the ideas that he or she could be sold at any time without explanation. Some masters sold their slaves because they needed the money or as a form of punishment for a rule they had broken. If the master was experiencing financial difficulty, he would sell a few slaves to make ends meet. Because of this fear of being sold, many slaves were afraid to attempt to run away. For if a slave was caught after attempting to escape, he/she would definitely be sold to masters known for horrific treatment of their slaves. The legacy of slavery forever scarred the family roots of African American. Many families were separated never to see mothers, fathers, children, and other members again. Most degrading of the selling process was the auction block. They were brought to the auction in groups like cattle, and then one after the other they had to stand on the auction block. The buyers would look them over thoroughly. They made them open their mouths so they could examine their teeth. They even looked in their ears. After examining them, they would talk to fellow buyers about the pros and cons of buying a said slave. Men and women who were child rearing age cost more money than young or older slaves. Nonetheless, young healthy children were expensive too because the masters knew they would grow up to be profitable slaves someday. The old and sickly slaves were very cheap. After being purchased, the slave was taken to a new plantation where he/she didn’t know anyone. Many slaves feared making friends and starting lives because of the looming fear of being sold again. All aspects of slave life were difficult, but three areas were exceedingly horrendous: field work, fear of being raped for females slaves, and punishment for disobeying.

In the South, nearly all plantations grew cotton as their main crop. A field slave’s job was to plant and harvest large crops of cotton. Both men and women worked from day break to day’s end. Cotton bushes are very thorny and slaves’ hands would bleed from being pricked, but they had to continue working. Slaves were watched by overseers who were most likely mean and would beat them if they did not work hard or fast enough.  Slaves were daintily dressed and most likely only received one set of clothes for the summer and winter months. Douglass even mentions in chapter three of his biography that children from ages seven to ten were nearly naked. This rule applied to both boys and girls all seasons of the year. For them, this meant they were almost certainly cold during the winter months. Coupled with the fact that they were poorly dressed, they were almost always hungry due to inadequate food and tired from lack of rest.   Douglass mentions in chapter three that no slaves had beds and only a few had blankets. The result of this was inadequate sleep. Consequently, slaves worked fifteen hour days with inadequate clothing, lack of sleep, and constant hunger. One known dish that slaves ate was cornmeal and cotton seed cakes. This dish was prepared by boiling cotton seeds until they became mush. Next, they would mix the two ingredients and bake them.

The relationship between the slave master and female slaves had various ranges. Some masters brutally raped their young slave girls using violence. Others coerced them by promising their freedom and the freedom of their families in return. So, the master’s approach ranged from threats, violence, coercion, added chores, and the outright promise of freedom. Nonetheless, there were some cases of love involved between the master and a slave girl. In the first chapter Douglass’ Narrative he opens by giving some information about his parents. He knows that his father was a slave owner.  Douglas conveys his belief that slave masters used many tactics explain why they raped their slaves. He believed this practice was done to both satisfy sexual desires and to multiply their slave population. He also discusses the hypocrisy of slave masters who used religious teachings to justify their treatment of slaves. He goes on to discuss the brutality of his former slave master Mr. Plummer. The most memorable incident from this chapter is the story of Aunt Hester. Douglas goes into vivid detail about how gruesomely she was beaten by the master for being in love with another slave.

There were various ways to punish a slave. They could be put in shackles, chained to the ground, hung by the body and left to die, whipped, or even be forced to walk a treadmill for hours. Likewise, they could receive punishment for various reasons. For example, stealing from the master, not working hard enough, talking in their native tongue or talking when told not to, trying to run away or resist slavery are all punishable deeds. There were no laws that protected slaves. Masters were free to use whatever method of punishment they deemed necessary. In chapter four of his biography, Douglass recounts an incident where a slave was beaten severely and then killed for trying to soothe his wounds. The slave, Demby was beaten so severely that he jumped in a creek trying to cool the burns. When he was commanded to come out he ignored the master. For his failure to comply he was killed. The master gave him until the count of three to approach the sure. Demby did not comply, so the master shot him dead. Being sold was also a form of punishment.  The most common form of punishment was flogging or whipping. This practice left slaves scarred permanently. Later this practice was done away with because a scarred slave value went down. The practice of beating slaves with paddles was then adopted. They also used the thumb screw. This was a type of wrist band placed on the slave that would pull his or her thumb back. Sometimes this would break the slave’s finger. The bell was used more often for slaves that were a run-away risk. An iron bell would be placed around the slave’s neck. Every time the slave moved, it would ring. A punishment for slaves who often talked back was the gag. An iron bar would be placed between the slave’s teeth and a tie would be looped around the head.

In conclusion, slavery has had a lasting effect on African American Families. Blacks became slaves in the American Colonies around 1600 and slavery wasn’t legally abolished until 1865. Nearly three hundred years is a very long time to endure such horrendous conditions.  In today’s society with all the freedoms we take for granted, it is very difficult to imagine a time when slavery was not only acceptable, but the law.  The practice of slavery completely dislocated the idea of the Black family. Infants were snatched away from mothers and wives whisked away from husbands. The practice of slavery turned blacks into nothing more than beast of burden who worked all their lives. Often blacks were selected to “breed” with other blacks to try to produce strong future slaves. This practice is usually done to produce thorough bred animals today. The psychological and emotional trauma caused by slavery is still evident in many families today. Whites taught blacks self-hatred. The concept made blacks feel that anything dealing with black was bad and anything dealing with white was good. This produced hatred of their skin color, physical features, and even hair texture. Nearly three hundred years of being told that one is ugly and worthless will certainly become a part of one’s being. Slaves began to view any non-European feature as ugly. Likewise, slavery kept blacks from being educated because masters knew if they gained knowledge they would rebel against slavery. Through education they could find ways to organize themselves and revolt against the practice of slavery. The legacy of slavery has forever scarred the image of the United States, especially the Deep South. Southern slaves lived in fear daily of being whipped, raped if they were female, and dying from starvation or exposure to the elements of nature. Because the majority of slaves were unable to read and write, many of the horrors of slavery are forever lost. Fortunately, Frederick Douglass, and others were able to record some of the many hardships slaves faced. These accounts only give us a glimpse into the devastation, degradation, and isolation African Americans faced living through the slave legacy.

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