Let’s face it, slavery is a rather depressing subject to be researching. Therefore, I thought I would open this post with something on the lighter side. Nevertheless, it is an informative video; it takes intelligence to satirize history accurately and proficiently.
I would like to preface this post by arguing that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs gained cultural capital by virtue of having their biographies published and distributed. Their use of language and their acquisition of knowledge became powerful tools in their fight against slavery and oppression. Their works succinctly illustrate the prominent contemporary American ideology that wealth equated power, intelligence, and freedom. In the case of Jacobs, she manipulates the system by producing a sentimentalized account of her journey from enslaved possessing no capital, to free, which gains her a sense of entitlement and investment.
In this post, I will discuss the commodification of African and black identity by using select references from the Narrative of Frederick Douglass an American Slave and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Furthermore, I argue that slavery embodies the idea that, those who are not equal will always ask for more, and those who are equal will never see fault in the system.
Slavery functioned in two ways. Firstly, it was considered in racial terms. American slavery was inherently linked to racism and social degradation. Secondly, it was economic. Slavery operated as a form of cheap and readily accessible labour. However, the dehumanizing element was established when black people were perceived as ‘other’, ‘less than’, ‘not human’, and therefore, unprivileged. Douglass and Jacobs wrote their respective biographies to repossess identity.
The importation of slaves from Africa began to decline in the early half of the 19th century. As I mentioned in a previous post, the United States received 5% of total slave imports crossing the Atlantic on the Middle Passage during the 400 years of Atlantic slavery. In comparison to regions like Brazil- where life expectancy was 23, that of American slaves was much longer. Plantation owners recognized that ‘adequate’ treatment of their slaves was beneficial and an asset. This was a twofold argument. Firstly, the longer a slave lived, the longer they would be able to tend to the fields, which resulted in greater retention. Secondly, and most importantly, slaveholders were using their female slaves to produce children that they could keep and use, or sell. This differentiated American slavery from slavery in other areas.
The following clip is from the 1977 TV mini-series, Roots. It demonstrates the spectacle that was the slave auction. It exemplifies the commodification to which Douglass and Jacobs refer. Listen to the language, the auctioneer says, “he is the pick of the herd, gentlemen.” Those at the auction use the term, “property” and the slavers discuss changing the names of their purchased slaves.
Jacobs alludes to the implications of the slave auction in her writing. She likens women to animals and interprets her value as only monetarily. She states, “Women are considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owner’s stock. They are put on par with animals” (Jacobs 175). To which she adds, “But if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market. If they are girls, I have indicated plainly enough what will be their inevitable destiny” (Jacobs).
The slaveholder-slave relationship was one founded on power, control, and knowledge. Douglass references his childhood as he opens his biography. He states, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it” (Douglass 17). He lacks any substantiated record of existence and is not privileged enough to know.
He furthers with, “The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (Douglass 17). From birth, slaves are branded as the proverbial other. Children are not born into happy existence; they enter a morally devoid world where they are denied a fundamental right to possess individuality and identity.
Douglass explains that slaves use planting times to gauge their age. He says, “They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time” (Douglass 17). They are defined by work. From an early age, they are an economic commodity that will be raised to better serve the master of the plantation. Furthermore, they are interpolated as workers, destined for a life defined by labour.
Douglass’ harshest criticism of chattel slavery came in England when he gave a speech before a group of citizens in Moorfield in 1846. He argued, “Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of property in the body and soul of another…He is a piece of property- a marketable commodity in the language of the law, to be bought or sold at the will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property…He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property”” (Moorfields 7).
Jacobs’ narrative speaks for the lives of female slaves. She endured the hardships of being both a slave and a woman. She sentimentalized her circumstances as a way to gain the attention of the powerful, privileged women of the North. She is cunning in her approach as she empowers herself by contrasting herself against the other slaves.
“I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise” (Jacobs 125).
The idea of property and ownership were important themes during the antebellum period. To possess property and have ownership meant that you had capital and privilege, thus, it signified your worth. Jacobs writes, “The reader probably knows that no promise or writing given to a slave is legally binding; for, according to Southern laws, a slave, being property, can hold no property” (Jacobs 127). To be privleged meant one could buy and sell property. The rise of consumer culture meant that possessions were transformed into signifiers of superiority. White culture withheld specific rights in order to assert their belief that they were inherently better.
Her most disturbing recollection is of her master sexually abusing her. He uses his power and control to gratify his own urges, while relegating Jacobs to an item of mere pleasure. For instance, she says, “He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of…where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things” (Jacobs 151). As property slaves were subjected to inhumane and disgusting acts of violence.
Moorfields, England. Citizens. American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting Held at Finsbury Chapel, Moorfields, to Receive the American Slave Frederick Douglass, on Friday May 22, 1846. (C.B. Christian and Co., 1846): 1-24.
Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: The Modern Library Classics, 2000. 115-353. Print
Douglass, Frederick. “ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: The Modern Library Classics, 2000. 17-113.