Sighs of despair: Slave life in the colonial South

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Editor’s note: The following is the second in a three-part series examining the social creation of race in the United States. Part one, “Preserving patriarchal ‘whiteness’,” was published in the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue of The Rock River Times.

The series was originally written as part of a history course at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. It is adapted here in recognition of Black History Month to remind readers of the roots of racism and the ongoing struggle of civil rights.

“I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be turned to sighs.”—Harriet Jacobs, 1861 (quoted in Major Problems in the History of the American South: The Old South: Documents and Essays)

At the start of the 21st century, some wonder why others just haven’t gotten over slavery. “It happened nearly a century and a half ago, so why can’t people just forget about it?” some ask.

Statements such as these can show a lack of understanding of the entire institution of slavery that dictated the society of the colonial South.

And even today, according to Dr. Kevin Bales, the world’s leading expert on modern slavery and author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, “there are between 100,000 and 150,000 slaves in the U.S.”

Slavery affected the lives of nearly all early settlers, led to America’s bloodiest war and continues to have repercussions today. Although slavery may well be one of America’s most embarrassing pasts, it is necessary to recognize its existence and its significance.

In 1976, historian Stanley Elkins compared slavery with Nazi concentration camps: “Both were closed systems from which all standards based on prior connections had been effectively detached. A working adjustment to either system required a childlike conformity, a limited choice of ‘significant others.’ Cruelty per se cannot be considered the primary key to this; of far greater importance was the simple ‘closedness’ of the system, in which all lines of authority descended from the master and in which alternative social bases that might have supported alternative standards were systematically suppressed.”

There are generally two schools of thought regarding the institution of slavery. One suggests that slave life was horrible and that slaves were oppressed in every sense of the word. The second claims slaves actually enjoyed the system of slavery and that its “paternalism” provided safety and security in an otherwise unsure world. Reality may lie somewhere between these two schools, although evidence points to the former rather than the latter.

Horrors of slavery

Much of what is known about slavery comes primarily from white accounts because many black slaves could not write or were not allowed to write. Still, some black accounts of slavery did appear after the Civil War. It is somewhat surprising how the horrors of the institution of slavery still shine through, even when told from the eyes of the “privileged” white.

As discussed by Nell Irvin Painter in her essay, “Slavery and Soul Murder,” as it appeared in David R. Roediger’s book Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, white children and women were particularly sympathetic toward the poor treatment of slaves. Painter uses the example of abolitionist Angelina Grimké, who described scenes from her life as a privileged white child in Charleston, S.C. One such scene was that of a black slave in her class whose face was so severely beaten it made Grimké faint.

Additionally, as Painter wrote: “Her school was located near the workhouse where slaves were sent to be reprimanded. One of her friends who lived near it complained to Grimké that the screams of the slaves being whipped often reached her house. These awful cries from the workhouse terrified Grimké whenever she had to walk nearby.”

These accounts show how the horrors of slavery haunted both black slaves and some whites, namely white women and children.

A striking depiction of slave life comes from an interview conducted in 1863 of former slave Harry McMillan. McMillan paints a terrifying picture of slave life that further accentuates many of the sentiments expressed by Elkins.

McMillan claimed slaves worked from dawn until 5 or 6 p.m. (roughly 10-14 hours per day) and had to eat on the job. Additionally, pregnant slave women were not provided with a doctor and worked in the field right up until they had their babies. What is most horrifying, however, is McMillan’s description of the punishments slaves faced.

As quoted in Major Problems in the History of the American South: The Old South: Documents and Essays, by Paul D. Escott, David R. Goldfield, Sally McMillen, Elizabeth Hayes Turner and Thomas G. Paterson, McMillan described: “The punishments were whipping, putting you in the stocks and making you wear irons and a chain at work. Then they had a collar to put ’round your neck with two horns, like a cows’ horn, so that you could not lie down on your back or belly. … Sometimes, they dug a hole like a well with a door on top. This they called a dungeon keeping you in it two or three weeks or a month, and sometimes till you died in there. This hole was just big enough to receive the body.” When asked whether the slaves cried out when whipped, McMillan responded: “He would halloa out and beg, but not cry for pain but for vexation.”

McMillan’s statements certainly reflect the true horrors of slavery, and reaffirm the conformable, authoritarian, and cruel characterizations put forth by Elkins.

Many other slaves echo McMillan’s sentiments. They talk of being sent to white churches, being banned from any form of education and not being able to read (and if they could read, not being able to tell their masters about it). Female slaves are forced to have sex with white men, to work right up until the day they give birth, and to give birth as many times as once every year.

On top of this, slaves lived in a world of poor nutrition, horrible punishment, little medical attention, and terrible living and working conditions. Marriages were often arranged by slave owners, and husbands, wives and children were often sold off to other plantations, separating families. All this was done to help preserve the social and economic status of whites in the early colonial South.

Preserving the white patriarchy

Plantation owners could make quite a profit by selling experienced slaves they maybe even didn’t pay for to begin with. Many slaves were born to a slave mother owned by a particular master, who would then sell the children after they had grown into strong workers. Such management disrupted the lives of slaves and their families.

As Brenda Stevenson explained in her essay, “Distress and Discord in Slave Families,” in Major Problems: “As members of a numerical minority defined by racial difference, they were the targets of profound sociocultural, political, and economic oppression that was meant to create and maintain the financial success and social prestige of elite whites in antebellum society.” Stevenson also explained how harsh family division was on slaves.

The lives of slaves were dictated solely by the needs and the demands of white slave owners. This included the sexuality of female slaves: “My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him,” explained former slave Harriet Jacobs in 1861, as quoted in Major Problems.

Relationships between female slaves and their master’s mistresses were often quite tense, because of the master’s control over the female slave’s sexuality. This exploitation often angered and frustrated mistresses.

As Harriet Jacobs described in “

The Jealous Mistress,” as it appeared in Black on White: “I was an object of her jealousy, and, consequently, of her hatred; and I knew I could not expect kindness or confidence from her under the circumstances in which I was placed. I could not blame her. Slaveholders’ wives feel as other women would under similar circumstances.”

The master’s control over the female slave’s sexuality and his own mistress’ sexuality gave him complete and total control over female sexuality in a patriarchal society. Additionally, the friction caused between black female slaves and mistresses ensured the two factions of women would not join forces to conspire against the patriarchy.

Another account of slave-mistress relations comes from Frederick Douglass’ “Mrs. Auld” in Black on White: “Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music. But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work.”

Relationships between female slaves and mistresses were intense, thus further ensuring the preservation of the white male patriarch.

Christianity links slaves, free whites

Another issue central to slave life was religion. Religion gave slaves hope in an often hopeless world, and actually served as one of the only beliefs—if not the only belief—that whites and slaves shared.

As Peter Kolchin explained in Major Problems, much of slave religion “transcended the master-slave relationship and thrust blacks and whites together as believers in an environment that at least temporarily subverted consciousness of slave owners.”

The true link between slaves and free whites was Christianity. Still, there was a strong distinction between “slave Christianity” and “white Christianity.”

As Kolchin added, “[T]he slaves’ Christianity was a religion of the heart in which they could lose themselves in ecstatic joy, their God a redeemer and friend with whom they could communicate on a personal basis.”

Slaves often took Christianity and molded it into something they could better relate to—a process Kolchin referred to as the “invisible church.” Certain parts of the Bible were stressed more than others, and some of the passages even took on new meaning. Still, as Kolchin concluded, the differences between white and slave Christianity simply stood testament to the slaves’ ability to create and delineate on their own.

One issue that plagued both slaves and whites, however, was the question of whether both blacks and whites went to the same heaven. As Mia Bay explained in “The Color of Heaven” in Black on White: “[The] Bible told them that all souls would meet as equals in heaven, but masters and slaves alike found that prospect hard to imagine.” Further, not all slaves and whites wanted to end up in the same heaven, and both racial groups sometimes believed the other to be unworthy of heaven. “The Good Shepard will give the best white man a heaben that is hotter than the worst nigger’s hell,” said Texas freedwoman Millie Manuel in Black on White.

Despite all of their differences, it seems slaves and their owners managed to create curiously strong bonds. As Nancy Boudry, an ex-slave quoted in Major Problems, recalled after being set free in 1863: “‘No’m, white folks didn’ ’pear to be mad. My master dus’ tole us we was free. Us moved right off, but not so far I couldn’ go backwards and forwards to see ’um’.”

Such sentiments and the notion of paternalism led some to believe slavery was just the result of an early capitalistic tendency.

Argument for slavery

In 1837, John C. Calhoun argued slavery was good for both African slaves and European settlers.

“Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually,” Calhoun said, as quoted in Major Problems.

Slave masters took good care of their slaves, Calhoun contended, providing them with work, food, clothing, education and religion. In return, he said, the African slaves provided the manpower necessary for slave owners to sustain a strong economic stature in the colonial South. “[T]here never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other,” Calhoun added.

Eugene D. Genovese argued along these same lines nearly a century after Calhoun. Genovese, however, claimed slavery was about much more than just turning a profit: “Slavery established the planter’s position and power. It measured his affluence, marked his status, and supplied leisure for social graces and aristocratic duties,” Genovese was quoted in Major Problems.

In short, slavery was a means for plantation owners to ascend to the aristocracy.

Genovese did not believe taking care of slaves was easy. He saw slavery as being much more paternalistic, with the slave owners having to take care of the slaves and watch out for their well-being. In return, he claims, slaves used paternalism to their own benefit by learning about Christianity and learning how to read, write, sing, cook, farm and play musical instruments, among other things.

The hope for a brighter future

Both the argument for paternalism and the argument for oppression appear to have merit. Slavery is clearly a terrifying past many would like to forget but that has, nevertheless, left a permanent scar on the American spirit. It serves as a constant reminder of the true horrors of an oppressed society and the beginnings of a capitalistic economy.

Many slaves developed strong bonds with slave owners and their families, lending a paternalistic spin to the institution. Still, Elkins was correct when he stated slavery was a cruel, authoritative, conformable institution that worked within a very closed society. Slaves were suppressed and their freedom denied in every aspect of their lives simply because they were owned by another human being. Thus, their lives were truly closed, as he described.

Documented accounts from slaves and whites of the time show an extremely brutal society comparable to that of Nazi concentration camps. In the end, slaves were left with little more than the hope that the future would be brighter than the past.

From the Feb. 21-27, 2007, issue

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