When individuals hear the words ‘slavery,’ they think of the darkest times in American History. However, it can also be stated that the abolitionist movement resulted in some of the greatest contributions to American culture by way of numerous poems, essays and forms of writing. To put things in perspective, slavery from the 1850s to the mid-1860s was a challenging time for America because many citizens wanted to abolish slavery while other people wanted to retain slavery for their own personal gain.
This essay will examine the primary sources of different abolitionists, which is significant because they often used the same motif in their writing. William W. Brown’s, The Anti-Slavery Harp, uses many concepts of nature and weather in collections of songs and poems to essentially persuade people that they should be against slavery. Frederick Douglass wrote a letter to his old master, Thomas Auld, about how wickedly he treated him by using the metaphors of sun and darkness to describe his life’s experience as a slave. Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, exemplifies the cruel and traumatizing life of a young slave girl in Boston. In Solomon Northup’s narrative, Twelve Years A Slave, he often writes about the heartbroken children being separated from their families by creating a picture of absolute sorrow with the elements of nature, through a comparison of tears with raindrops. Abolitionists used many emotional appeals to convey that they were against slavery.
One of the ways they used emotional appeal was through literally devices concerning nature and weather phenomenon to describe the emotional toll of slaves running away from their masters and the sufferings of young slave children. The abolitionists first used nature in poems to describe how they escaped from the South after they learned the North had banned slavery. For example, in Freedom’s Star, a poem from William W. Brown’s The Anti-Slavery Harp, a slave talks about his journey from the South to the North by saying to the night sky “Shine on, northern star, thou’rt beautiful and bright/To the slave on his journey afar/For he speeds from his foes in the darkness of night/Guided on by thy light, freedom’s star.” He hopes the northern star will guide him safely to the North even though “the bloodhounds have hunted him back/Thou leadest him on over mountains and floods.” Nature was literally used in this poem because the slave relied on the northern star.
The author of the poem used a contrast to compare how the slave survived nature’s obstacles while still using nature to reach freedom. For many early abolitionist writings, the North Star was both a figurative and literal symbol of freedom, and a constant motif of said writings. Not only does nature capture the emotion of the slave’s escape in Freedom’s Star, it is also in the poem called The Chase. As soon as the reader begins to read the first stanza of the poem, one can learn that it is about a slave trying to escape to the North while being chased by “the bloodhounds are baying o’er mountain and glen.” Through the use of animals, a part of nature, the author uses bloodhounds to describe the master’s desire to chase after the slave. This breed of dog is often referred to in such poetry because the name conjures the images the author best wishes to create. Later in the poem, the slave describes his escape “Like the hurricane’s rage, gather thick round thy path/And the deep muttered curses grow loud and more loud/As horse after horse swells the thundering crowd.”
Also in the first stanza, the author of the poem wanted to express how it felt escaping by using a hurricane as a simile to describe the loud noise that they were making when chasing after him. As one can see by reading the poems, the abolitionists used nature to impose upon the readers, the great sense of extremity in force and in passion that only such elements of nature can generate. He also takes great care to ensure that slavery is not parallel to society or anything civilized, by constantly referring to only those dark forces which are not created by the human and thinking mind, and leads the reader to understand the nature of slavery through the turmoil and random characteristics of disharmonized nature. Elements of nature and patterns of weather were not only used in poems, but they were also in many letters, such as Frederick Douglass’ To My Former Master. He wrote to the owner from whom he escaped, Thomas Auld, about the day he escaped his master’s lodgings. In his letter, Douglass told Auld why he escaped him that “September morning, yon bright sun beheld me a slave—a poor degraded chattel—trembling at the sound of your voice, lamenting that I was a man, and wishing myself a brute.” He uses the sun as a symbol of weather by saying it was the right time to escape Auld. Later in this letter, Douglass realized that God did not create slaves and just like Auld, he is human also.
Upon recognizing this, it became a factor that determined his decision to escape from Auld’s cruel control. He continued in his writing to describe how he had “no words to describe to you [Auld] the deep agony of soul which I experienced on that never to be forgotten morning—(for I left by daylight). I was making a leap in the dark.” Through the use of darkness, Douglass is illustrating the day he escaped by remembering how dreadful it was running throughout the wilderness. He also uses darkness as a metaphor to convey the mood of helplessness and fear that he felt as Auld’s slave for so many years. He had a challenging journey to the North with elements of weather surrounding him. Abolitionists not only utilized elements of nature and patterns of weather to understand why slaves were escaping to the North, they used nature and weather metaphors as well to evoke the sense of suffering children felt as slaves, with particular reference to those who were being separated from their families. Life as a child slave was very difficult from the 1850s to 1860s, especially for young slave girls. For example, in Solomon Northup’s, Twelve Years A Slave, he frequently writes about the barbarism of slave traders and slave owners. In chapter six, Northup is writing about the time when a mother named Eliza, and her children Emily and Randall suffered as a family. After Randall was sold to a planter from Baton Rouge, Eliza was heartbroken, as she “ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her— all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.” The author uses rain as a simile to express how hard she was crying when her son was being sold since her tears were dripping on him. It was challenging enough for Eliza to let go of Randall since “her eyes flashing with anger as she was led away.”
Northup describes how furious Eliza was with this whole situation since you can see the anger flashing in her eyes, just like how lightning flashes in the night sky. This a great example of why abolitionists were against slavery since children were being separated from their families by being sold to another master. Similar to Solomon Northup’s narrative, Harriet Jacobs also uses nature and weather to describe how she suffered as a slave child in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In chapter five, The Trials Of Girlhood, she discusses how she suffers from her sexually abusive master. It is very difficult for Jacobs to be a young slave since she is not protected from cruelty while she “entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl.” Her slave master was extremely wicked to the other slaves as well and no one would have the courage to stand up to him, especially Jacobs, since “Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue.
Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling.” Jacobs uses the metaphor ‘stormy’ as a way to describe how her master treated her every day since storms are imagery of chaos, disharmony and helplessness. Nature and weather are used to capture the concept of suffering in the poem, O, Pity the Slave Mother, which is from William W. Brown’s, The Anti-Slavery Harp. It uses nature to show how children are suffering since by separating from their families due to slavery. In the first stanza, the narrator is watching a mother crying for her child. The speaker is describing the feeling of pity about the mother’s children being sold by saying “You may picture the bounds of the rock-girdled ocean/But the grief of that mother can never be known.” The author uses the ocean as a metaphor to convey the mother’s deep and vast emotion of sadness caused by the loss of her children. Later in the poem, the author is describing how slavery is destroying families since “The mildew of slavery has blighted each blossom/That ever has bloomed in her path-way below/It has froze every fountain that gushed in her bosom/And chilled her heart’s verdure with pitiless woe.” Through the use of the imagery of mildew, the author reflects that slavery has rotted the mother’s path to cheerfulness.
The author uses the metaphor of a fountain to describe how the mother’s heart has frozen with pitiful feelings. Abolitionists wished to convey the fact that slavery is ruining the relationship between a mother and a daughter, and used imagery of nature defeated to draw comparisons to this horrible act. Overall, it may be said that abolitionists used many ideas to explain their reasonings against slavery. Metaphors used were elements of nature and patterns of weather to exemplify the lives of slaves. Abolitionists used nature and weather to evoke the emotions of slaves running away from their masters, as well as the emotions of child slaves being separated from their families at a young age. By reading these primary sources, one can see that abolitionists wanted to educate people that slavery should not exist, using tools of nature and weather to accomplish this goal.