Most African Americans of the early to mid-nineteenth century experienced slavery on plantations similar to the experiences described by Frederick Douglass; the majority of slaves lived on units owned by planters who had twenty or more slaves. The planters and the white masters of these agrarian communities sought to ensure their personal safety and the profitability of their enterprises by using all the tactics-physical and psychological-at their command to make slaves obedient. Even Christianity was manipulated in a way that masters communicated to their slaves that God had commanded them to obey their masters. Hence, by word and deed whites tried to convince blacks that they had been ordained superior thus affording them the right to rule over blacks. However, it is a great tribute to the extraordinary resourcefulness and spirit of African Americans that most of them resisted these pressures and managed to retain an inner sense of their own individuality and worth. Still, the reason why African Americans were able to maintain a sense of individuality and worth remains disputed.
Only a tiny fraction of all slaves ever took part in organized acts of violent resistance against white power. Most realized as Frederick Douglass did that the odds against a successful revolt were very high, and bitter experience had shown them that the usual outcome was death to the rebels. Consequently, they devised sublime, safer and more ingenious ways to resist white dominance. For Frederick Douglass, it was clear that his way of fighting the power was to become educated so that he may better understand his predicament and the wrongfulness of slavery. However, he described that knowing that: “witwas the pathway from slavery to freedom.” (pg. 58) “Reading enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while it relieved me of one difficulty, it brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers.” (pg. 61) The knowledge which Frederick Douglass gained, did not free him from his horrible situation, but rather compounded his discontentment as a slave. It is hard to determine how other slaves were able to maintain a sense of individuality and worth, despite not having the opportunity or possess the resourcefulness to obtain the knowledge of Frederick Douglass.
Nevertheless, most slaves had established and participated in a subculture separate from any other in the United States at that time. One might argue that it was from the realm of this subculture and fundamental beliefs, derived from the horrible experiences of slavery, that provided African Americans the strength necessary to hold their heads high and look beyond their immediate condition. Religion was the essence of the newly emerging African American subculture. Borrowed from the fiery revivalism of white participants of the first Great Awakening and their own African religions, slaves created their own version of Christianity. Miraculously, they broke away from the teachings that their white masters had bestowed upon them, which taught them that blacks were commanded by God to obey their superior white masters. Instead they developed beliefs that they were not inferior, but were created equally in the eyes of God, and thus deserved equality. Their new religion stressed fellowship, brotherly love, equality, and salvation from slavery. Frederick Douglass’ observations of some of the songs sung at church and in the fields are as follows:
“They the songs told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” (pg. 47)
The true religion was practiced at night, often secretly, and was led by black preachers. The underground slave religion was a highly emotional affair that consisted of singing, shouting, and dancing. For Frederick Douglass and all other slaves, the singing of songs and religion were more of an affirmation of the joy in life rather than a rejection of worldly pleasures and temptations. They spoke out against the perils of bondage and asserted their right to be free.
Despite the success of African Americans to develop a subculture, which afforded them an escape from their hardcore reality, pain and struggle persisted. There are many similarities, which can be drawn from the experiences of slavery as described by Frederick Douglass and the analogy to a Nazi prison camp included in the Stanley Elkins Thesis. Elkins asserted that slavery in the United States was similar to the conditions of a Nazi concentration camp because both exerted total physical and psychological control over its subordinates. In both cases, the subordinates were not allowed any personal freedoms, which included education, leisure, or any other personal allowance. Thomas Auld, the master of Frederick Douglass in Baltimore, said “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do.” (pg. 57) He was referring to the wrongfulness of his wife’s attempt to educate Frederick Douglass. Implicitly, this was the view held by most whites toward African Americans. Consequently, other adjectives such as: lazy, irresponsible, childlike, and simple-minded, were used by whites to describe the African American character. These reports coincide with observations made by Frederick Douglass referring to the attitude whites possessed toward African Americans. Of course the main goal, as seen by Elkins, and Douglass, of the whites was to suppress any notion of African American individuality. Furthermore, it stole the African American sense of independence and created the false image of black childlike dependence on their white masters. That combined with the fact that most African Americans were born into slavery disallowed them any experience of freedom or of Africa by which they may make comparisons to their situation of total bondage.
Again, this takes us back to the problem to what extent African Americans were able to retain a sense of individuality and worth. If Elkins’ postulation is correct, it would be hard to believe that any identity at all could be retained under such harsh conditions. However, in the accounts of Frederick Douglass and other slaves it is obvious that there was indeed evidence of individuality, which included the religious subculture developed by African Americans, and the fact that Frederick Douglass as well as other slaves had escaped or aspired to escape the perils of slavery. Therefore, I would assert that it was merely the fact that whites so desperately tried to keep blacks from achieving the freedom enjoyed by whites, which served as the example by which blacks were able to derive their notion of equality. After all, it was written in the Declaration of Independence and the Bible that humans were created equally and had the right to pursue happiness. The notion of human equality existed in theory but not in practice; whites had it, slaves wanted it. I would also argue that African Americans knew this and that is how an African American subculture and any other evidence of individuality developed and afforded them the notion of equality. Hence, these developments arose out of the African American’s need to survive psychologically. By the time of the movement toward abolition had developed, there was an obvious schism of opinion about slavery, which had developed between abolitionist whites, slaves and white slaveholders. People like Frederick Douglass who preached abolition of slavery, only had to nurture the already existing spirit within slaves to strive for freedom.