The Social World of the Slaves
The Social World of the Slaves
Family Life. Despite the facts that marriages between slaves were not recognized by law and family members could be sold away at any time, most slaves married, maintained monogamous relationships throughout their lives, and lived in households headed by mothers and fathers. Indeed, slaveholders often encouraged their slaves to marry (in part to increase the number of slaves they owned), but the threat of separation remained an everpresent barrier to stability. Precise numbers are impossible to determine, but some historians believe that approximately one-third of all slave marriages were broken by the sale of the husband or wife. In the face of this instability slaves established strong communities based on extended family members and nonrelatives, who were often called “aunt” or “uncle.” Young children often were not raised solely by their mothers—who had to return to their labor in the big house or in the fields as soon as possible after they had given birth—but were cared for by a network of older, slave women. In his Narrative Frederick Douglass explained, “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life” because her master had hired her out to another planter. Douglass’s experience reveals most vividly what abolitionists claimed to be one of the most virulent evils of slavery: that slaves were deprived of one of the most basic comforts of life, a family. Even for those who did grow up with their families one of the first lessons they learned about their fate as slaves was that their parents were not the ultimate authority—the master or mistress was. Parents could not protect their children from punishment or abuse but could only help their children develop ways to cope with their master’s or mistress’s maltreatment.
Field and House. Slaves who lived on small farms performed a wide variety of tasks alongside their owners, men and women following the gendered divisions of labor their masters and mistresses performed. On large plantations most slaves were field hands who generally worked from sunrise until sunset every day but Sunday. Those who were skilled artisans, such as blacksmiths, carpenters, or shoemakers, were not only relieved from the drudgery of field work but were likely to be hired out to ironworks, laundries, textile mills, shipyards, sawmills, or even white artisans’ homes, where they would earn wages, a portion of which each might be allowed to keep. The most coveted work on the plantation, though, was in the big house. The household servants, most of whom were women, were viewed as the master’s and mistress’s pets, and often slept in the same house, ate the same food, and wore the same clothes as the master’s family. While their living conditions were thus better, household servants were just as overworked as field hands and often received equally brutal punishments. Female household servants not only worked all day but might be required to be available at all hours of the night as well, sleeping outside the doors of the children’s rooms. Harriet Jacobs told how her aunt, the “nightnurse” to her mistress’s children, “was compelled to lie at her door, until one midnight she was forced to leave, to give premature birth to a child. In a fortnight she was required to resume her place on the entry floor,” treatment which eventually ruined her health. Although household servants were often overworked and abused, they were still viewed as privileged; mistresses used the threat of sending them to the fields to control their behavior. In
fact many household servants were sent to the fields, permanently or during harvest time, and many had families in the quarters, indicating that house and field slaves were not as socially separate as historians once believed.
Enslaved Women. Harriet Jacobs, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), one of the few slave narratives written by a woman, wrote, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.” They worked in the fields just like men, but then they had to perform their womanly duties at home, doing the cooking, cleaning, and washing even though they had worked as long and as hard as men all day. Inheriting a social system of male dominance from their African ancestors, slave women were expected to be subservient to their husbands. Although they appeared to live under the same gender codes as white women, slave women were not accorded the same respect or allowed the same kind of modesty. Most were provided with only scanty clothing and often had to strip on the auction block for the inspection of prospective buyers. One slave woman recalled, “We was all chained and dey strips all our clothes off and de folks what gwine buys us comes and feels us all over. Iffen any de niggers don’t want to take dere clothes off, de man gets a long, black whip and cuts dem up hard.” And much as slave parents could not protect their children from their masters, neither could slave husbands protect their wives or daughters from the sexual advances of their masters, masters’ sons, or overseers. Stories of sexual exploitation and abuse by slave owners abounded, suggesting that many of them took slave women as concubines. Any children born of the union only increased the master’s stock of slaves, as the law dictated that the mother’s status determined that of her children. This rule increased the emotional toll of childbirth for slave women, as they contemplated the fate of their children in slavery. And a slave woman who bore her master’s child had to endure the additional burden of the wrath of the mistress, who could not ignore the lighter shade of the baby’s skin or the resemblance to its father. The jealousy of mistresses often led to the sale of the mother and child and sometimes to violence. According to one anonymous account a mistress in Georgia “slipped in a colored gal’s room and cut her baby’s head clean off ’cause it belonged to her husband.” Only a very small minority of slave women were able to escape the sexual abuse and violence they suffered because the flight to the North was a difficult one that few women attempted.
Moments of Leisure. Although house servants lived under the constant supervision of their masters, field hands on large plantations and the slaves on smaller farms did have some time on Sundays and late at night to themselves. They then could gather in the slave quarters, the center of their social life, and share stories, dance, play music, sing, and perform “shouts,” descendants of African tradition in which dancers formed a circle and chanted. Despite the myth propagated by slaveholders that the singing of slaves was evidence of their contentment, many slave songs were full of protest and lamentation. The spirituals sung in the fields and at religious meetings were an especially important outlet for feelings, such as the desire for freedom, that could not be expressed directly in the presence of whites. Likewise, folktales featured trickster figures such as Br’er Rabbit, who learned to outwit stronger but less intelligent animals. These tales taught lessons of survival and were adapted from African folklore into a unique African American oral tradition. As evangelical religion became increasingly influential among slaves, so did the injunctions to abandon dancing, which many did. But the religious meetings of slaves incorporated the emotional and spiritual expression of both joy and pain through handclapping, singing, and a rocking back and forth of bodies and heads, an important substitute for the expression afforded by dancing.
Resistance and Revolt. Many slaves found subtle and not-so-subtle ways to resist the absolute control their masters had over them. Some sabotaged crops or withheld their labor by claiming to be sick. Others stole from their masters to supplement their meager rations or inadequate clothing, and some even committed arson or murder. Many hoped simply to run off, but the prospect of escaping was daunting. Men were loathe to leave children, wives, and mothers, few of whom were capable of such a dangerous journey on foot to the North. The Underground Railroad, a secret network of people in the North and South who helped runaway slaves reach freedom, operated from 1820 until the Civil War, aiding about one thousand slaves each year. Some tried desperate expedients: Henry “Box” Brown had himself shipped to Philadelphia in a box that was three feet long, two and one-half feet wide, and four and one-half feet high, while Harriet Jacobs hid herself in a crawl space in her grandmother’s attic for seven years. The most desperate expedient of all, insurrection, was also tried. In 1822 a freedman named Denmark Vesey began secretly organizing slaves and free blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, to take over the city. In 1822, just before he planned to act, a few slaves revealed the plan to their masters, preventing what could have been the bloodiest slave revolt in America’s history. One hundred thirty-one African Americans were arrested and thirty-seven hanged, including Vesey. Nine years later in Virginia slaves under the charismatic leadership of Nat Turner started a bloody uprising in which they killed sixty white men, women, and children. Within forty-eight hours most of the rebels were killed or arrested, but Turner himself remained at large for more than two months before he was captured and executed. In the meantime hysteria had spread among whites all over the South. Black people were terrorized, their houses searched for evidence of plots, and many were killed at the whim of white patrols. State legislatures called emergency sessions to pass laws restricting the rights of free blacks and making manumission more difficult. All across the South whites tightened their hold over African Americans, both free and slave.
Philip S. Foner, History of Black Americans: From the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom to the Eve of the Compromise of 1850 (Westport, Conn..: Greenwood Press, 1983);
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988);