Initiated into Slavery in My Bondage and My Freedom

 

“They had already been initiated into the mysteries of old master’s domicile, and they seemed to look upon me with a certain degree of compassion…”

Chapter 2, “Removed from My First Home”

 

In class we discussed how Frederick Douglass seeks to define slavery as a system with its own complex social rules and practices in his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. Interestingly, Douglass utilizes ritualistic imagery to convey to the reader his own abrupt transition from the carefree boyhood he spent with his grandmother to his existence as a slave. As he relates his experiences as an extremely afraid boy who enters the brutal society of slavery, he also familiarizes readers with a sort of custom or practice of the institution of slavery: the ‘initiation’ of black children into the cult-like system of chattel slavery.

In the second chapter entitled, “Removed from My First Home,” Douglass describes the roles slavery assigns to himself, his grandmother, and his master with religious undertones. As his grandmother is leading him to “old master’s” house, Douglass states, “Born for another’s benefit, as the firstling of the cabin flock I was soon to be selected as a meet offering to the fearful and inexorable demigod…” (Douglass II). The label “firstling of the cabin flock” evokes the image not of a boy being stripped of his humanity, but of a sacrificial lamb –merely an animal– offered for slaughter to appease a half-god (Douglass II). Though this stark dehumanizing imagery, it seems that Douglass is attempting to help readers understand the chattel aspect of slavery. His master, as did all plantation masters, assumed a god-like role in their domain; although they were merely human, they ruled with a demanding fist like that of a god. And, as a god demands animal sacrifices, a master demands boys to start working as slaves at a certain age. The master owns his many slaves as he would own a “cabin flock,” and he views his slaves as animals, or simply as pieces of living property he can freely exploit (Douglass II). Douglass reminds readers as well that, sadly, his grandmother is forced into this institution of slavery by being forced to surrender her children and grandchildren to her white master.  He suggests to readers that she unwillingly assumes the role of the messenger of supplications when he states, “she…led me along by the hand, resisting, with the reserve and solemnity of a priestess, all my inquiring looks to the last” (Douglass II).

Although the god-like masters can use their animal-like slaves any which way they want, Douglass reminds readers that their ‘sinful’ actions produce even more brutal conditions in the society of slavery. In the perverse institution of chattel slavery, masters often sexually violated their female slaves and fathered ‘mulatto’ children, which then became objects of hatred for both the masters and their wives. In reference to this horrendous familial situation Douglass states, “Men do not love those who remind them of their sins…” (Douglass III). Douglass’ description of southern white women as “idols” further underscores how slaves, especially slave women, were seen as exploitable animals far inferior to the white slaveholders, particularly the masters’ wives.

In the first few chapters, it seems, Douglass seeks to establish slavery as an intellectually tangible system, which was constantly maintained by the repetition of socially perverse processes. His ritualistic undertones reinforce the idea that slavery as an institution constantly degraded the very human slaves to mere chattels.