Slave Bodies

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Slave Bodies

For slavery to function as an effective system of compelled labor and social control, it had to inflict itself upon black bodies and transform them to its needs. This process demeaned the humanity of African "chattels"; debased their bodies as brutish, ugly, and inherently servile; divided and segregated them one from another to maximize profits and productivity; terrorized, violated, and disciplined them to the crucial tasks of labor and reproduction; and bought, sold, swapped, rented, and gifted them to serve the economic and cultural interests of the master class. Millions of Africans and African Americans were victims of this process of corporeal enslavement, yet they were implicated in it as well, as were the abolitionists who sought their emancipation. That terrible contradiction is a story historians are only beginning to explore. More positive are the ways blacks in bondage used their bodies to reject slavery and affirm their own humanity. As with most flesh-and-blood choices, however, such victories seldom came without grievous costs.

As the historian Winthrop Jordan has shown, Europeans since at least the sixteenth century viewed African bodies as naturally suited to slavery. The double debasement of Plato's equation of the body with the slave, the soul with the master seemed fully realized here: the dark skin, the supposedly coarse and animalistic features, the limbs and trunk that departed from the proportions of Renaissance perfection, all provided corporeal justification for the decision to enslave. To those blacks who tumbled down gangways in Charleston, Savannah, or the Chesapeake at the end of the Middle Passage, near-naked, weakened, sickly, and reeking, it was easier still to ascribe servile status. Africans became slaves at least partly because their bodies, to European senses, looked and smelled slavish.

Conversely, from the moment black captives arrived on the African coast to be sold, their bodies showed signs of ethnicity and lineage that were important in determining potential market value. Traders on both sides of the Atlantic carefully considered skin color, facial features, stature, and body structure to reckon whether captives were Coromantee or Ibo, Ashanti or Yoruba, and well-suited to labor in malarial rice swamps, to minding cattle, to corn and tobacco tillage, or to some other culturally familiar task. More than this—and more dubious—white buyers viewed physical characteristics as indications of cultural or tribal character. The planter looking to purchase a stoic, brawny plow hand or a prompt and submissive house slave came to auction armed with prejudices about the supposedly inherent traits each African ethnic group possessed. As well, buyers and sellers ascribed to particular ethnicities reputations for fractiousness or docility, intelligence, rectitude or duplicity, all of which were supposedly reflected in a slave's form and features.

Upon arrival in the New World, black bodies underwent a complex process of transformation intended to fit them to their new lives in bondage. Some had already been branded, scarred, or tattooed with the marks of their purchasers. Nearly all had been denuded of clothing and ornamentation that identified their previous social status and cultural origins. In their place were shackles, rags, and little more. Following sale, blacks were marked as no longer African by the new clothes they were forced to wear and the hairstyles they were compelled to adopt, and their particular cultural practices came to precipitous ends. How and why ritual behaviors such as female circumcision and facial scarification failed to persist under slavery remains obscure, but their passing was an important step in the destruction of cultural particularism among the enslaved and the creation of a racial slave identity. Though enslaved Africans in colonial America preserved cultural ties first by "reading" common tribal identities in other black bodies, ethnic intermarriage blurred stark lines with the passage of generations. With the closing of the transatlantic slave trade to America in 1808 and the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of blacks after 1820 from coastal farms and plantations to the riches of the Mississippi Valley and beyond, memories faded and physical distinctions grew less clear. By 1860, when blacks in bondage looked around them they saw, first and last, other slaves. That common identity provides an especially monstrous measure of slavery's success.

Slave bodies in the Old South were continually disciplined by violent punishment—real, threatened, and imagined. For the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, it took four years of brooding "over the scars which slavery and semi-slavery had inflicted upon his body and soul" before he rose up against bondage (1855, p. xxi). Most bondpeople passed all their lives without taking that vital step. The odds were too long, the physical pain resistance risked too great. This was the source of the master's power, far into the antebellum period: the willingness and ability to scourge and mutilate, to cut and burn, to beat and kill. In the colonial and Revolutionary eras in particular, slaves were subject to a range of horrific punishments limited only by the sadistic imagination of the planter class. Troublemakers were broken on the wheel, burned alive, drawn and quartered, emasculated, maimed, and crippled. With the spread of paternalist ideology after 1820, such vicious modes of retribution grew rarer, replaced by the near universal use of the whip as a measured, rational, and educative means of punishment. Of course it never achieved those ends, but whipping offered a superb means of marking slaves' bodies with signs of masters' power. In this sense, it violently and indelibly forced political relations upon the public gaze, inflicting wounds that could never be completely erased.

In the hegemonic conflict between masters and slaves, black female bodies became a crucial site of struggle. The construction of slave families and communities represented a hard-fought political compromise between planters and their human property, accomplished over the course of generations. This achievement depended on the presence of fertile female black bodies, ready both to work and to reproduce. In many cases, masters employed the right to marry as a reward for faithful work, exacting a steep economic price in return for legitimating sexual access to female bodies. Though abolitionists sometimes claimed too much, arguing that upper South owners "bred" their slaves like horse or mules, with an eye to selling their progeny away at steep prices, it was true that masters implicitly controlled slave sexuality, sundering black marriages at will through sale or gift, and not infrequently creating them as well, in hopes of promoting profitable reproduction. Such strategies, to be sure, did nothing to deny white men sexual access to black bodies, and by 1860 perhaps one-quarter of American slaves had mixed-race ancestry. "Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines," South Carolina's Mary Chesnut complained, "and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children." Every white woman knew the paternity of light-skinned slave children in neighboring households, she sniffed, "but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think" (Woodward 1981, p. 29).

As corrosive as miscegenation was to paternalist ideology, it exacted a greater toll still on black families. The untold millions of rapes the mulatto presence symbolized indicate the centrality of white violence against black women in establishing slaveholders' hegemony. They also signify the existence of relationships of a more complex sort, where female slaves employed their bodies to gain heightened status within the slave community, to exact a material quid pro quo from their overlords, or to pursue the affections of their own hearts across racial lines. Faced with the overwhelming power of the planter class and living with the daily prospect of violence and violation, many women doubtless made the best bargains they could for themselves, yielding their bodies in hopes of meager benefit.

For some, the benefits of this sort of partial identification with the master class were significant, for others they were transitory, hollow, selfish, and destructive. Interracial sexual relations were an important path to voluntary emancipation for slave women and their offspring across the South. They also laid the foundation for a system of status hierarchy based on skin color, both within the slave community and outside it. By 1860, exclusive urban clubs and voluntary associations open only to light-skinned free people of color were establishing a brown elite dedicated to perpetuating the racial prejudices of their white forefather-masters. How far enslaved blacks came to internalizing the atrocious body politics of white society and its zealous brown acolytes is a subject requiring further analysis. Abolitionist slave narratives, interviews with ex-slaves conducted by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, and other sources reveal a range of contradictory and often self-serving biases. More telling, perhaps, is evidence of contemporary black behavior. Antebellum travelers wrote endlessly about slaves who clothed their bodies, as best they could, in fashions emulating the power and status of their white overlords. When they lashed out in violence, too, slaves more commonly struck black bodies, not white ones. This, too, was a behavioral identification with the master class, achieved through violent assault on other slaves. Blacks in bondage fought each other, beat their wives, children, and elders, and killed other slaves no more frequently than working people in other settings have done, but the meaning of this violence was dramatically different. The bondman who lashed out at a fellow slave both reproduced the action of his master and, conversely, struck indirectly at the master's power by damaging his human property. Both aspects of black violence affirmed individual freedom by attacking slave bodies. Historians have done little to date to assess the cost of such ambiguous efforts.

Other slaves made the same political point in different ways, both more and less damaging. From the beginning of the Middle Passage to the last days of the Civil War, some blacks who refused to suffer bondage destroyed the slave bodies that imprisoned them. For every suicide, there were many more blacks who pursued other sorts of self-destructive behavior, particularly alcohol-fueled, or simply retreated inward. Where opportunity presented itself and conditions became intolerable, others attempted a more hopeful tactic of survival, "stealing themselves" through projects of self-emancipation. This group was small in the years before secession, and most fugitives returned voluntarily after several days or weeks, rendering up their bodies to punishment and confirming themselves as slaves. During the Civil War, however, perhaps one slave in eight denied the Confederacy his or her crucial labor power by "stealing themselves."

By 1860, white Americans had become virtually obsessed with the presence of black bodies in their midst. Economically, they were crucial. If cotton was king, as slaveholders boasted, it was the labor of slave bodies that rendered them rich. More than this, slave bodies were employed to secure mortgages, pay debts, and serve as gifts and dowries. In the North, antislavery forces increasingly came to lean upon the pornographic depiction of slave bodies in pain and sexual defilement to prove their arguments about the evils of the peculiar institution. The success of these graphic depictions of slavery's corporeal horrors was ambivalent at best. On one hand, works such as American Slavery As It Is (1839) and Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) made plain the suffering bondage inflicted on black bodies. On the other hand, abolitionist propaganda often portrayed black bodies as ugly and inferior, stirring racist loathing at the same time it won converts to the antislavery cause. Ultimately, it would require the sacrifice of black men in Union blue rendering up their bodies—and their lives—in battle at Fort Wagner, Port Hudson, the Crater, and elsewhere to begin to challenge those stereotypes.


Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855.

Gomez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Reid-Pharr, Robert F. Conjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black American. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage, 1998.

Schroeder, Lars. Slave to the Body: Black Bodies, White No-Bodies, and the Regulative Dualism of Body-Politics in the Old South. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. Boston: J. P. Jewett, 1852.

Weld, Theodore D. American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839.

Woodward, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

                           Lawrence T. McDonnell