“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.”
Frederick Douglass. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.”
To many of us, a birthday is a cause of celebration, full of cake and presents. It’s one of the first things we learn about ourselves and is a constant reminder of one simple fact: you were born. But, what happens when you are denied this simple fact? As shown by Frederick Douglass, he viewed this knowledge as a privilege, and was frustrated that this was denied him. I am not sure if he was ever able to learn his birthday, but it was just the beginning of a list of basic privileges that was denied to the slaves.
But, this made me wonder, why did slave holders deny slaves this knowledge? Was it a fear that this would bring the slaves some form of power? Or did they view it as something trivial that they decided not to keep track of? Instead I believe that it was simply another ploy to show the slaves that not only were they separate for anyone else, but also viewed as less then human. By denying them the simple fact of knowing when they were born, the slave owners may have been hoping to further degrade the slaves and make them feel even more so as property. This was because the only living things that did not know their birthday, were the pets and other livestock and it was the hope of the slave owners that the slaves would begin to view themselves as that, as they were easier to manage that way.
Part of what I believe to be one of the worst aspects of slavery, is the psychological effects that it had on those involved and it is because of these effects that made slavery possible. When you have one one slaver holder who owns over 70 slaves, why didn’t the slaves revolt and escape to the north? Part of this was because of the effect that slavery had on the slaves. Degraded and beaten to the point that they themselves believed they couldn’t fight back and were less then property. Though many, like Douglass, fought these thoughts, from the beginning slaves are stripped of anything that makes them unique and then treated as less then the livestock. And that was, I believe, the point of denying the slaves the simple knowledge of their birthday. It was the beginning of a lifelong process of constantly pushing slaves to believe they were less then human.
And it all started with a birthday.