February 2, 2004
The relationships formed by young slaves and white children have an
effect on both parties that influences their attitudes as adults. In both
Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’s autobiographies, they expressed
their bonds with white children in their youth. Even though the
relationships differ, the end still results in ambivalence on both sides
towards the nature of human character. The opposing feelings of love and
inherent prejudice make for a difficult situation when the children who all
play together as equals grow up into adults with very different roles as
As children it was not uncommon to find whites and blacks playing
together on the plantation or in the house. Sometimes this relationship was
between a black slave and a white slave owner’s child, other times the
relationship was between a black child and a poor white child on the
street. Regardless of the nature of the bond, friendships were made. Before
black children realized that they are slaves and before white children are
corrupted with the power they have over their black friends, they once
played together as equals.
Frederick Douglass valued these friendships with the young white
children. He used them as teachers in his quest to learn to read. The one
thing that as a slave Douglass was more fortunate than the poor white boys
was the amount of food he was supplied with. He always would exchange bread
for knowledge and the hungry white children were glad to help. This
complicated friendship was rather daunting psychologically. Douglass would
grow up to see these men become free and choose to make whatever they
wanted of themselves. “You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but
I am a slave for life!”1 The boys could say nothing in return but express
the hopes that one day Douglass would also be free. That the color of one’s
skin could determine their course on the path of life was too profound a
thought to be realized of children at such a tender, innocent age. For now
these boys are his friends, but in the future they may grow to become slave
owners of their own. The fact that these boys allowed Douglass into their
lives and were willing to help out a slave boy, even if it was in exchange
for food, shows the purity of children. Even though it is clear that
intellectually Douglass surpasses the white children, he will never be able
to reach any of the opportunities given to these boys based on his race. It
is unfortunate that this form of human contact cannot occur between adults,
unless in secrecy, for fear of between ostracized by the fellow white
Harriet Jacob’s, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, also
demonstrates the power of a relationship between a black slave and a white
child. Jacob’s mother was born at the same time as her master’s daughter.
Thus, they were referred to as foster sisters and were even nursed by the
same breast. “They played together as children; and, when they became
women, my mother was a most faithful servant to her whiter foster sister.”2
For a black Slave to want to be a loyal servant to their mistress because
of their dear friendship was a poignant notion. Also, for the mistress it
would seem heartless to treat her friend in any way that would be
demeaning. This can cause a great confusion on both sides on how to act.
Jacob’s mother still must regard her friend as her mistress and can never
talk back or treat her with any disrespect even in the worst situations.
Everyone spoke kindly of her mother “who had been a slave merely in name,
but in nature was noble and womanly.”2 The mistress promised her that her
children would be treated well. As a result of this, Jacob’s never realized
she was a slave until the age of six when her mother passed. During that
time it was considered unfavorable to treat slaves so well. However, when
the slave was a childhood friend, is there really any other way? This
coexisting of such strong opposing feelings on the situation is difficult
for both the white master/mistress and the black slave.
It is hard to know how to act when a foreign situation arises. In the
South, whites are mistreating and abusing the black people, regardless if
they own the person or not. If a white and black child are raised together
and grow to become friends, how are they expected to act towards one
another? A friendship is a very complicated relationship, especially in a
time where it was unheard of to befriend a slave. The white people have
strong feelings of affection for their black friends; however they want to
act in a way that is socially acceptable. They become more forgiving of the
Slave and will favor them. A Slave is owned by the master and when the
master involves their feelings, they will get less out of this slave then
they would of a different one. The same goes for the slaves; it must be
very difficult to go from being friends as equals to becoming another’s
slave. Douglass as well as many other slaves never understood that if there
were so many “abolitionists” and if so many friends of theirs in the past
were white, why they didn’t bother to help with emancipation? Why didn’t
the white people use their power?
The intricate relationships formed between young black and white
children caused them to have uncertainty as to how to behave as adults. It
was a painful process for both parties and the cruelties of slavery tended
to corrupt the white people and betray the blacks. An inherently good
person with only the best intentions can become immoral after given the
power to control someone else’s life and actions. Even though many people
want to do what is best, society and obligations can supersede that desire.
1 Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Nellie Y. McKay. African American Literature.
New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. p. 327.
2 Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Nellie Y. McKay. African American Literature.
New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. p. 211.