Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs: Race, Economics, and Human Commodification

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.

Artists rendition of a 19th century slave auction.

Artists rendition of a 19th century slave auction.

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.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass







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).

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs

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.

Works Cited

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.

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I really enjoyed this post. I like how historical issues of race concerning Frederick Douglass and contemporary issues of race regarding Malcom X are woven together, it creates a very compelling read. Furthermore, I really enjoy the way identity is established, and how well the post is structured around this concept

A Time to Rise up

So far we have discussed the changing identity of African American slaves. How they have reached freedom in the North and become abolitionists, leaders of freedom, reformers, and inspiring published narratives. Today I will be continuing the African American Identity during the 20th century and in relation to Frederick Douglass.

In this video trailer, the ‘coloured’ help are segregated from the white American families. They are not even allowed to use the same facilities because the African race was thought to carry diseases that were easily spread to the Americans. This film is significant in the portrayal of the ‘coloured’ community in the 1960’s. Most of the women are too scared to open up about their experiences as maids to the white family, but Skeeter, an intelligent woman and college graduate is determined to get their story out. Though she fights many battles on the way, she ends up publishing…

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An American Literary Institution: The Slave Narrative and Rearranging the Power Structure of Race Relations in the United States

The slave narrative is an immensely important American literary genre because it writes back into existence those who were enslaved. Slavery opperated under the guise of economic justification. To be black was to be classified as other; as a mere tool for white men and women to exploit. My previous posts have outlined Americas early settlement, however, within 10 years slaves were being used to shape and cultivate the land. America’s foundation rests upon the backs of millions of slaves. Millions of voices were silenced through oppressive legislation and inflamatory rhetoric. The rights and civil liberties that America fought for early on were not universal and encompassing. These narratives work to reconstuct the African idntity as whole, human, and dignified.

Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl are two such examples. Douglass and Jacobs approach their writing from fundamentally different directions. However, in doing so, they articulately convey their story with conviction and authorial power. For instance, Jacobs employs a sentimental overtone that plays on her existence as a woman. She is calculated in doing so as she writes to a specific audience; the privileged white women of the North.

They are powerful works that make the struggle for freedom real and comprehensible. They convey the pain, the suffering, and the dehumanizing circumstances under which they lived. They are not meant to be read arbitrarily, they evoke a response of passion from the reader.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Kimberly Rae Connor discusses the conventions of the slave narrative in an article entitled, To Disembark: The Slave Narrative. In it, she argues that, “Slave narratives are now seen as having transcended the circumstances of their making and their expression, and are considered profound artistic achievements because they continue to provide a source for ongoing moral reflection on the human condition and for aesthetic analysis of how we image humanity and construct identities” (Connor 36). Slave narratives were written with the intent of reshaping the balance of power by reasserting the enslaved as possessing identity and capital. By demonstrating a mastery of the English language through writing, the enslaved proves that they possess ethos.

Authentic narratives, written by the enslaved, are rare. However, those that exist follow in the Puritan form of biography. This was an attractive notion because they were a celebration of the individual and their achievements.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Connor believes that slave narratives are woven together, not merely through a shared story of slavery, but through specific and calculated conventions. For instance, she states, “…slave narratives often began with “I was born a slave,” and went on to show how the author achieved a new identity through fuller participation in a larger social context (rather than by some internal change in her or his essential being)” (38).

Contemporary understanding of slave narratives reshape societies fundamental outlook on slavery. These works act as primary sources that encapsulate the harsh realities of a dark period in American history. They appeal emotionally to their reader with the intention of refocusing their understanding of the brutality of slavery.  For instance, Connor writes, “Imagination is also the faculty the narratives elicit from and encourage readers to exercise in order to understand what is presented. In this context, imagination is a link created by metaphor-to see the self as the other or to experience an idea of humanity through a particular image of humanity” (38). Historian James O. Horton furthers this claim by arguing that slave narratives make the reader question, “what would I do? how would I feel?

“You have seen how a man was made a slave, now you shall see how a slave was made a man” – Frederick Douglass

Works Cited

Connor, Kimberly Rae. “To Disembark: The Narrative Tradition” African American Review 30.1 (1996): 35-47.

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A Foundational Approach to the Early American Salve Trade, Part 2: African Slavery, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and Triangular Trade


An example of a 19th century slave ship. This ship, The Wanderer, is considered the last slave ship to deposit a cargo of slaves in the United States.

The slave trade is thought of in strict racial binaries; white men enslave black men, women, and children. However, one cannot neglect the economic implications of slavery. In this post, I will explore the establishment of slavery in the United States with the arrival of the first slaves to Jamestown in 1619, and the economic principles related to the triangular trade.

African Slavery Arrives in the Colonial United States

It is difficult to fathom the sheer toll that human commodification had on the African peoples. The Atlantic slave trade existed long before the first slaves arrived on the shores of the Jamestown colony in 1619. The Spanish, French, British, and Dutch were actively engaged in the trade of human commodities. Between 1501 and 1866, nearly 13 million people were enslaved off the west coast of Africa and brought across the Atlantic to be sold at auction. Consequently, these voyages resulted in high mortality rates. It is believed that 1 in 6, or 15% of all slaves perished (Slave Voyages Website). Furthermore, the complete neglect and disregard for human life meant that bodies were thrown in the Atlantic once they were no longer useable.

Many of these deaths were attributed to illnesses, which were caused by inhumane conditions. Furthermore, the volume of slaves aboard slaver ships contributed greatly to illness and death.  Slave ships could carry upwards of 400 slaves at a time. Driven to maximize economic gain, captains would cram as many on to one ship as possible. Slaves tended to have 4 square feet of space, and journeys across the Atlantic on the Middle Passage lasted anywhere between 6 weeks and 2 months.

African slaves below deck during the Middle Passage

African slaves below deck during the Middle Passage

The first African slaves arrived at Jamestown in 1619. A Dutch warship, whose crew was in desperate need of food and supplies, having just been involved in an engagement in the Caribbean, stopped in Jamestown where they traded, “20 Negroes”, for food. As Horton and Horton argue, “…this was the beginning of the African presence in British colonial North America” (Horton 27).


The transaction proved economically beneficial for the settlers of Jamestown. The labour intensity of tobacco farming required an abundant supply of workers. Slavery quelled these needs and the perceived economic stability brought security to the area (National Park Services Website).

Slaves package tobacco for export to England

Slaves package tobacco for export to England

During the early part of the 17th century, slavery existed distinctly separate from the race-based problem it was in the 18th century. The supply and demand, agrarian-based economy necessitated a large labour force to ensure adequate crop yields on a year-by-year basis. The system dictated that cheap labour produced the greatest profit. Economic historians, Stanley L. Engerman, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright, explain that slave labour amongst African populations constituted a very small percentage of the actual labour force. For example, “As of 1690, blacks constituted less than 15 percent of the population in Virginia and Maryland, reflecting the fact that for the first two generations of Chesapeake tobacco, labor was primarily supplied by white indentured servants” (Engerman, Sutch, and Wright 3).

By the start of the 18th century, this trend changed significantly. The combination of rising production costs and a boom in demand for tobacco in Europe necessitated a cheaper and more abundant labour force. Indentured slavery (which I discussed in my previous post) was no longer a maintainable or reasonable means of labour.

By the start of the 18th century, the tobacco production process was entirely based on slave labour (Horton and Horton 28). This resulted in a significant increase in black populations by 1720. For example, between 1680 and 1720 the black population in Virginia rose from 7% to 30%. This increase can be attributed to, “rising scarcity in the supply of servants; improved life expectancy among African-Americans, enhancing their value as slaves for life; and booming demand for Chesapeake tobacco after 1700 (Engerman, Sutch, and Wright 6).

The Economics of Slavery

This video discusses several ideas related to the formation of the Atlantic slave trade.

The United States had a large slave population, however, they only accounted for 5% of total slave imports during the 18th and 19th centuries. In other places such as Brazil, where the average life expectancy of a slave was 23, a constant demand for fresh slaves existed. However, American style slavery was much different. Slave populations began rising at a national rate. This implied that slave owners were cognisant of the fact that if they kept their slaves healthy enough they could reproduce and then sell them off and
make more profit.


This significantly reshaped and altered the slave industry. Initially, slavery was a form of cheap and abundant labour used to harvest plantation crops. However, the realization that slaves could bring more money if they reproduced differentiated American slavery from slavery in other parts of the Atlantic region. As is argued in the video clip, slavery became a by-product of a consumer culture that revolved around the purchase of items that brought pleasure not sustenance. For example, tobacco, sugar, and cotton are not neccessary for human existence, yet, the products they are turned into demonstrated the societal tendency to see ‘things’ as a commodity. This reflected the readily accepted practice of slavery.

The Triangular Trade

The triangular trade consisted of three distinct phases. The first involved Europeans sailing to Africa to establish trade ties with local tribes and communities. After agreements were reached, the Europeans traded manufactured goods such as liquor, weaponry, and textiles. In return, they received slaves, which would be transported across the Atlantic, in what became known as the Middle Passage. The second phase resulted in the African slaves being sold to plantation and slave owners, who would then give tobacco, sugar, cotton, and other agricultural goods to be brought back to Europe. The final phase was the transport of the unrefined goods from American back to Europe where they would be produced.

The triangular trade during the 18th century.

The triangular trade during the 18th century.

In principle, for its time, it worked. It provided economic stability to each of the regions it affected. Americans received an abundant labour force, Europeans received their desired tobacco and sugar, and Africans gained European made tools and supplies. However, the complete disregard for human life overshadowed any economic gains.

Works Cited

“The Royal African Company – Supplying Slaves to Jamestown”     <       to-jamestown.html> Nov. 19, 2012.

Engerman, Stanley L., Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright. “Slavery.” Historical Statistics of the United States Millenial Edition (2003):1-15.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

“Estimates.” The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Voyages.             <> November 28, 2012

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A Foundational Approach to the Early American Salve Trade, Part 1: Jamestown, Economic Growth and Indentured Slavery

The blog I am undertaking is my second such assignment. The sheer breadth and depth of a topic such as slavery has led me to this format. The topic is daunting, and to be honest, overwhelming. Slavery is a BIG subject. The gathering of, and sifting through research proved a much longer process than I had assumed. Nevertheless, the subsequent posts will do well in examining the intersection of slavery, economics, and American literature.

It is difficult to begin a discussion concerning slavery without first considering its historical antecedents. Human captivity was not a new idea, nor was it an American invention. However, slavery did work in shaping the United States, and aided in its economic and industrial growth during the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, it played an immensely significant role by influencing the formation of the early colonies. This post will undertake a brief, yet comprehensive evaluation of the historical foundations of slavery by discussing the settlement of Jamestown, the production of tobacco, the subsequent need for labour, and the growth of slavery. I believe the early colonial settlement of Jamestown provides a good case study that highlights the economic conditions leading to slavery.

The Jamestown Settlement: A Troubled Beginning

The contrast between the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 is stark. As Karen Ordahl Kupperman suggests, Americans prefer to think of the Plymouth colony in New England as our true foundation” (Kupperman 2). If the settlers at Plymouth are characterized by their tranquility, humility, and hard work, those at Jamestown were savage, barbarous, and immoral.

Nevertheless, Jamestown, essentially considered a disaster over its first decade of existence, is the first permanent English colony. It is fitting that the first colony in the New World be home to the first ‘shipment’ of human cargo.

Following the long-standing success of France and Spain, England desired a permanent settlement in the Americas. By the time they established the Virginia Company in 1606, the French and Spanish had thriving colonies throughout the Americas (Kupperman 11). England had developed temporary settlements in Newfoundland, but nothing substantial. However, after Spain discovered gold deposits in Mexico, England realized the opportunity that lay before them (Horton and Horton 27).

The creation of the Virginia Company in 1606 laid the foundation for England’s arrival in the Americas. The intention was to create a permanent outpost that would facilitate trans-Atlantic trade between the colony and England. The first settlers had idyllic visions. Edmund S. Morgan suggests, “America was supposed to be the land of abundance, peopled by natives who would not only share that abundance with the English but increase it under English direction” (Morgan 600). This prophecy quickly materialized as a fallacy. Virginia offered no gold. Instead, settlers were faced with uncertainty and the need for self-sufficiency. They had to formulate maintainable ways to cultivate the land, grow their own crops, and develop economic stability. However, the first crew consisted of men who had never worked in their life. Initially, there existed a strong belief that they could channel Native labour for their own benefit. This would prove disadvantageous.

Map of Virginia, 1606

Map of Virginia, 1606

The first colonists lacked foresight, proper planning, and adaptability. In 1609, only two years after they first arrived, the colony faced complete elimination due to starvation, shortage of supplies, internal strife, and constant threat of violence and attack from the Natives (Morgan 595).Their difficulty in acquiring nourishment resulted in numerous stories of cannibalism. Rachel B. Herrmann suggests that historians no longer consider accounts of cannibalism as verifiable fact, as its historiographical providence is questionable. However, the mere suggestion adds to the barbarism of the early settlement. For instance, she discusses one incident where a husband is said to have, “chopp[ed] up his wife and salts down the pieces” (Herrmann 48). She provides another example where, “Others dig up graves to eat corpses. By spring only sixty are left alive” (Herrmann 48).

Johnny “Tobacco Seed” to the Rescue

Out of sheer survival, the colonists had to turn to a form of agricultural production. Initial concern stemmed from the need to produce food. As the settlement established a strong leadership contingent, the focus shifted from subsistence to commercial cultivation. The prospect of exporting commodities satiated the colonists. Tobacco farming would prove Virginia’s most lucrative and most infamous contribution to the development of the early colonies.

200px-Pocahontas_Rolfe_cropUpon his arrival to Jamestown in 1610, John Rolfe found that the Virginian soil was fertile and could sustain tobacco farming. However, the emergence of tensions with unfriendly Natives hindered the purchase of tobacco seeds (Herndon 4). Rolfe resolved to begin production of his own crop, which influenced other settlers. He is credited as the first person to successfully grow and export tobacco. Mass production began, albeit slowly, in 1612.  By 1617, Rolfe and other tobacco farmers were exporting nearly 20 000 pounds to England (Herndon 4).

Rolfe and the impending success of tobacco farming saved the colony. However, the volume at which they were yielding crops resulted in a dearth in labour.

The Indentured Slavery Solution

As the colonialists began establishing towns, plantations, and businesses, the need for labour existed. Indentured slavery was first considered a viable solution to their problem. It provided able-bodied men to tend the fields, and cost the plantation owners minimally. Initially, white Europeans went to the colonies. These individuals were unpaid; instead they were provided with food, shelter, and clothing. A contract was signed that determined the length of their engagement (Gallenson 1).

High transportation costs during the 17th century contributed to a labour shortage within the colonies. To curb this trend, The Virginia Company paid for the transport of Europeans, who would then sign a contract agreeing to work off their debt. After which time they would be granted their freedom (Gallenson 3).  However, as production methods improved and transportation costs increased the need for indentures declined. Thus, Virginians were again left wondering how they would maintain their colony.

The solution would come by way of African slavery…

Works Cited

Herndon, Melvin. “Tobacco in Colonial Virginia.” Jamestown 350t Anniversary Historical Booklet 20 (1957): 3-23.

Herrmann, Rachel. “The Tragical Historie: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown” The William and Mary Quartlery 68.1 (2011): 47-74.

Morgan, Edmund Sears. American Slavery, American Freedom. (W.W. Norton and Co.) 2003.

Kapperman, Karen Ordahl. The Jamestown Project. (Boston: Harvard University Press) 2008.



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Setting the Scene: A YouTube Introduction to Slavery

This is a fantastic 3 part documentary I came across on YouTube through the course of my preliminary research.

This post will act as a guide as it provides a comprehensive overview of many of the concepts, ideologies, and individuals that I will be citing in my corresponding posts.

Part 1 does an excellent job explaining the early slavery movement. It includes issues such as the Black Atlantic and the Middle Passage. Furthermore, it explores European and African trade agreements that facilitated the trade in slaves. Additionally, it discusses the arrival of the first slaves to Jamestown, Virginia (a topic that I will be discussing more extensively in the next post)

Part 2 concerns itself with a discussion that includes the function of slaves on plantations in the Southern United States. It lends itself well to introducing the Underground Railroad, and Harriet Tubman. She familiarized herself with escape routes, and concerned herself with working with people of all races to aid in the escape of slaves in the South.

Part 3 of the documentary details several topics that I will be discussing in my coming posts. Most improtantly, Frederick Douglass, as he is discussed extensively throughout, as his accounts are widely cited as some of the most important in narrative of slavery.

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