What is a birthday to a slave?

“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.

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4 Responses to What is a birthday to a slave?

  1. nicksalute says:

    You present a very captivating point in this post. While reading the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” I was just as shocked as you were at the slave owners’ denial of knowledge distribution to their slaves, but after examining Douglass’ story, I feel that the slave owners’ rationale became evident. It is an inarguable fact that Frederick Douglass was a unique man, but what exactly separated him from his slave counterparts? Knowledge. Douglass took a small opportunity (learning how to read) and used it as the base for his entire life-mission. Without this small (and accidental) piece of knowledge, who knows what Frederick Douglass would have been able to accomplish. Perhaps this is why the slave owners avoided providing information to their slaves – out of fear that they might truly understand the atrocities taking place.
    In terms of the psychological effects of slavery, it is true that they acted as a massively significant component in the slave owners’ ability to rule. The tactics utilized by these slave owners reminded me of the tactics used by the Nazi soldiers during the Holocaust; even though the Jewish prisoners greatly outnumbered the Nazi guards, they were brainwashed to believe that the incidents weren’t as dreadful as they perceived them to be, and therefore any chance of a revolt was stifled.
    I must admit that I still have trouble understanding the mindsets of slave owners during this time period. Even though slavery was a “socially accepted norm” at the time, the idea of one human owning another will never cease to amaze me.
    Great job!

    • alphaomegawords says:

      The psychology of the entire American slavery system intrigues me, in part because I find it so deplorable, but also because I, too, find it so difficult to wrap my head around the idea of one person actually owning another. The parallels of the Nazi’s handing of what they termed, ‘the Jewish problem’ and the development first of work and concentration camps to the eventual onslaught of the death camps and American slavery interesting. While the outcome of slavery tended to be economic advantage for the slave owner, ultimately what both demonstrate is the desire to control others for an individual’s and/or a group’s determined outcome. The psychology of control in the slave narratives, while fought in different ways by Douglas and Jacobs, still reveled residual effects on both.

      You comment spurred a thought for me: we will obviously never understand the extent of the psychological damage wrought on people that experience things that differ from us, but recognizing that each event is part of their life story is important.

      It helps me to remember that these people are speaking of their experience and it can greatly impact how I engage my own experience and the unfolding of the story that is my life as well. It also challenges each of us to remember that our individual stories intersect with others, including those living concurrently with us, but also those who left behind accounts for us to read and consider. Some accounts are technical productions and demonstrate great effort and critical engagement, while others, like Douglas and Jacobs, are narratives that invite us to consider their recounting of their lived experience. In the end, all of these should challenge us to be self-reflexive about our experience and remember the connections we share and the ways in which our lives get interwoven, even if only for brief episodes in our story.

  2. gchanneyla says:

    What a fascinating post because it is simple yet poses a great question. Last I recall reading Frederick Douglass’ narrative was sophomore year in high school, but even now I can recognize the great power and knowledge of this man. I will admit I never really put thought into the significance of a birthday and recognized it as a celebration of someone’s life I never made the connection that it could signify the power of knowledge. I agree with you in the fact that slave owners probably kept such information from the slaves in order to keep them in a constant state of oppression, a state so strong they would not even know simple facts about themselves. The power of oppression is quite strong and although I will never understand slavery and how someone could feel like they could “own” or suppress a group of living, breathing, human beings I can now see the connection your post makes with Douglass’ thoughts on the power of knowledge.

  3. mbstanton says:

    What Is a Birthday to a Slave?
    Of the many pieces we have been guided to read over the semester, this work by Franklin Douglas has been both the most depressing and the most insightful. It was indeed quite difficult to imagine not knowing information about ourselves. I particularly appreciate the attention you paid to the control white plantation owners had over not providing their slaves knowledge of their own birth parents and birth dates. It is easy to see how not knowing these facts that do validate our existence harm us. The psychological effects of the control are easy to justify. Interesting analysis of the material.

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