One cannot study the slave trade in America without going through the layers of systems that perpetrated this way of life. These systems included male centered laws that was at times confirmed and upheld by the hypocritical religious habits of those involved. The laws could be seen in both the northern and southern states, but there was a unique environment of the southern states which bred hatred and promoted dehumanizing techniques which continued the slave industry for hundreds of years. This environment was nourished by the misrepresentation of scriptures to justify inhumane actions by those participating with slavery. This paradigm was seen in all of its contradiction within the autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Douglass himself. This essay will chronicle this system through the narrative, which facilitated the atrocities being performed under the guise of Christianity in the US. It will highlight the need for personal accountability for each and every participant of such atrocities, even today, without the blanket blame on the institution of religion.
Let’s begin by stating that a person does not have to be a Christian in order to treat others right. But, a defining quality of a true Christian is someone who strives to love their neighbor and live a decent life without harming others, intentionally or otherwise. With slavery, this quality becomes non-existing. This contradicting trait was brought out eloquently in the way Douglass described his mistress in Boston. Before having known anything about the ways or life of slave-owners, his mistress, Mrs. Auld, did the abominable sin in slavery 101, she started teaching her subordinate. At first meeting her via paper, the reader sees her as an apparition of the purest creature that the author had ever seen. He states that he was “utterly astonished at her goodness. ” Douglass continues to praise her by saying that he has never experienced a ‘white’ woman who was so deserving of respect. This is very telling of his perception of whites, especially women up to this point. They didn’t act any better than their male counterparts, which is totally vast from the stereotypical roles portrayed of the day. When he tried to bow down to her as was the fashion at the time, she felt more insult than esteem. He continued to praise her lavishly to point out when her respectable nature became polluted by the institution of slavery.
In order to treat someone worse than an animal, one has to create a delusion that promotes looking at another human as a wild thing. This has to simultaneously correspond with the true knowledge of the person being just as equal in presence, biology, and anatomy. The only defining difference in some cases being skin color. It takes a lot to create that mindset, but slavery, if practiced religiously, will pervert the mind to believe anything. The beautiful nature of Mrs. Auld went from having a serene demeanor into what Douglas said “under the influence of slavery, soon (becoming) red with rage; that voice, made all sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and the angelic face gave place to that of a demon” (Douglass 351) Could this just be the vivid imagination of a child who didn’t realize the personality of his mistress, or is this a true tale of the horrific transformation that people go through when they participate in enslaving another human being? Maybe the bitterness comes from the psychological effects of such trickery on the mind. There is not much research into the mindset of the whites who chose to participate in this atrocity, but it has survived centuries as evident by the KKK and other organizations like it, and serves as a reminder of how emotionally scarred both races became.
Douglass’ narration in his appendix sums up nicely the whole viewpoint that is trying to be made. When one has a personal experience with a belief system that comes from a genuine place, it becomes innate to decipher between another true person of that same system. Not because of judgement, as is usually used when another group looks upon the actions of a unit of people as a whole, but because the person who has experienced a change can tell if fruit is being generated from another. Douglass states ” To be a friend of one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.”(Douglass 389) He further goes on to proclaim ” I love the pure, peacable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. (Douglass 389)
This is the most refreshing of statements which comes from none other than an intelligently thinking soul, a slave. If this doesn’t put a damper in the notion that slaves were thus lower than others because of a situation forced upon them due to greed and corruption, then nothing will. It was believed that Africans were descendants of Hamm, thus cursed to serve others. If that were true then Jesus himself had to be cursed because he put serving others over himself. That characteristic should not be a punishment of a curse. Jesus himself washed the feet of those who others and were in the company of many whores, thieves, and sickened persons. Also, a true Christian would not be able to live comfortably while owning slaves. They would eventually feel conviction on mistreating another so habitually. If one can live their lives chaining up a human, beating them, raping them, and then proclaiming in another breath to be a person of faith because they attend a service regularly and use devotional time in excess, then they are creating a delusion for themselves. Douglas even stated that religious slaveholders were the most evil acting beings. He and others preferred those slave-breakers like Mr. Freeman, a man who did not profess religious etiquette, but seemed to have an honor code for humanity.
It takes a conscious effort to separate a man’s actions from what he professes, if not the institution of religion will get a tarnished name. Douglass states in his autobiography that he believes his ability to get out of slavery was in direct relation to the hand that God had placed in his life. His earliest recollection of the first intervention was when he was chosen to go to Baltimore ahead of others who seemed more fit. He stated ” I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than be false, and incur my own abhorrence.” (Douglass 350) This is a true statement for any person, whether religious or not, who stands for something. If you have the inner workings of a new mindset working within yourself, eventually it will burst from the seams and pour out into your daily living. Therefore, the hypocrisy of those around him didn’t diminish his own personal relationship with a higher power. His eye was keen enough to see the difference. This same difference that is being brought out in this essay. It is not to take away from a person’s rituals or habits that create comfort in their lives, but on a bigger scale, it is to differentiate the habit of creating a generalized statement about the actions of people by blaming it on an institution. It is not religion that causes a person to be perverted in their actions, it is the person’s desire and environment which promotes this attitude.
For someone who just group individuals together and have no personal experience invested in the faith, it becomes a testament to the faith as a whole to consider how for centuries those killed and plummeted in the name of a god. But for others who can dissect the action with personal choice it becomes a necessity to judge the issues that arise on human nature. This topic is brought up eloquently by the Iranian religious scholar Reza Aslan in a commentary on the topic of ‘Does Islam Promote Violence’ (CNN). He stated that no religion should justify aggressive actions or peaceful ones for that matter by the participant. The aggression and violent nature comes from the individual. He was mainly discussing the perceived blanket problems of the Islamic faith, but he touched upon other religions such as Buddhism, which in general, is a very peaceful practice, but pointed out that there were monks in Myanmar killing innocent victims. This same thought process can be said by the Americans during slavery who chose to claim the righteous actions of Christian followers but who in their life didn’t embrace those practices.
It was a male benefited system which allowed for the rape of women and men, infidelities, and other atrocities that would have no place in a true household of faith, which effects trickled down to the women who found shelter and direction from these men. It also promoted habits of separating a child from his mother within the first year as Douglass had done to him implies that the person doing this doesn’t value family or bonds. In order to do this so easily takes a detachment from one’s own humanity. This detachment also can be the leading factor in the fallacy of living so vastly different a life and being okay with it. The purpose of this essay was to highlight these areas for a more objective look at separating slavery practices and religion in the slaveholding states of the US.
CNN. “Reza Aslan’s Interview on CNN ‘Does Islam Promote Violence? Ft Bill Maher’.” Youtube, uploaded by green4arrow, 24 November, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-W-7ozJXLw
Douglas, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Third Edition. Volume 1, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Valerie Smith, WW. Norton and Company, 2014, pp. 330-393