February 2, 2004Position PaperEXP101.H01The relationships formed by young slaves and white children have aneffect on both parties that influences their attitudes as adults. In bothFrederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’s autobiographies, they expressedtheir bonds with white children in their youth.
Even though therelationships differ, the end still results in ambivalence on both sidestowards the nature of human character. The opposing feelings of love andinherent prejudice make for a difficult situation when the children who allplay together as equals grow up into adults with very different roles asindividuals.As children it was not uncommon to find whites and blacks playingtogether on the plantation or in the house. Sometimes this relationship wasbetween a black slave and a white slave owner’s child, other times therelationship was between a black child and a poor white child on thestreet. Regardless of the nature of the bond, friendships were made. Beforeblack children realized that they are slaves and before white children arecorrupted with the power they have over their black friends, they onceplayed together as equals.Frederick Douglass valued these friendships with the young whitechildren.
He used them as teachers in his quest to learn to read. The onething that as a slave Douglass was more fortunate than the poor white boyswas the amount of food he was supplied with. He always would exchange breadfor knowledge and the hungry white children were glad to help. Thiscomplicated friendship was rather daunting psychologically. Douglass wouldgrow up to see these men become free and choose to make whatever theywanted of themselves.
“You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, butI am a slave for life!”1 The boys could say nothing in return but expressthe hopes that one day Douglass would also be free. That the color of one’sskin could determine their course on the path of life was too profound athought to be realized of children at such a tender, innocent age. For nowthese boys are his friends, but in the future they may grow to become slaveowners of their own. The fact that these boys allowed Douglass into theirlives and were willing to help out a slave boy, even if it was in exchangefor food, shows the purity of children. Even though it is clear thatintellectually Douglass surpasses the white children, he will never be ableto reach any of the opportunities given to these boys based on his race. Itis unfortunate that this form of human contact cannot occur between adults,unless in secrecy, for fear of between ostracized by the fellow whitepopulation.Harriet Jacob’s, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, alsodemonstrates the power of a relationship between a black slave and a whitechild.
Jacob’s mother was born at the same time as her master’s daughter.Thus, they were referred to as foster sisters and were even nursed by thesame breast. “They played together as children; and, when they becamewomen, my mother was a most faithful servant to her whiter foster sister.
“2For a black Slave to want to be a loyal servant to their mistress becauseof their dear friendship was a poignant notion. Also, for the mistress itwould seem heartless to treat her friend in any way that would bedemeaning. This can cause a great confusion on both sides on how to act.
Jacob’s mother still must regard her friend as her mistress and can nevertalk back or treat her with any disrespect even in the worst situations.Everyone spoke kindly of her mother “who had been a slave merely in name,but in nature was noble and womanly.”2 The mistress promised her that herchildren would be treated well. As a result of this, Jacob’s never realizedshe was a slave until the age of six when her mother passed.
During thattime it was considered unfavorable to treat slaves so well. However, whenthe slave was a childhood friend, is there really any other way? Thiscoexisting of such strong opposing feelings on the situation is difficultfor both the white master/mistress and the black slave.It is hard to know how to act when a foreign situation arises. In theSouth, whites are mistreating and abusing the black people, regardless ifthey own the person or not. If a white and black child are raised togetherand grow to become friends, how are they expected to act towards oneanother? A friendship is a very complicated relationship, especially in atime where it was unheard of to befriend a slave. The white people havestrong feelings of affection for their black friends; however they want toact in a way that is socially acceptable.
They become more forgiving of theSlave and will favor them. A Slave is owned by the master and when themaster involves their feelings, they will get less out of this slave thenthey would of a different one. The same goes for the slaves; it must bevery difficult to go from being friends as equals to becoming another’sslave. Douglass as well as many other slaves never understood that if therewere so many “abolitionists” and if so many friends of theirs in the pastwere white, why they didn’t bother to help with emancipation? Why didn’tthe white people use their power?The intricate relationships formed between young black and whitechildren caused them to have uncertainty as to how to behave as adults.
Itwas a painful process for both parties and the cruelties of slavery tendedto corrupt the white people and betray the blacks. An inherently goodperson with only the best intentions can become immoral after given thepower to control someone else’s life and actions. Even though many peoplewant to do what is best, society and obligations can supersede that desire.1 Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Nellie Y. McKay. African American Literature.
New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. p.
327.2 Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Nellie Y. McKay. African American Literature.New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.