Social life and social activity played a vital role in the lives of enslaved African Americans in the United States. Not only were social activities critical to the process of socializing enslaved children to navigate the institution of slavery and the religious practices of the enslaved community, social activities importantly provided slaves the opportunity to find relief from the harsh day-to-day existence of enslavement and life on the plantation. As the political economy of slavery shifted from small-scale agricultural and artisan production, where slave owners had few slaves, who resided in their homes, to large-scale agricultural production of tobacco, and later cotton, where owners had many slaves who resided separately in slave quarters, the enslaved population's opportunity to engage in social activities greatly increased. "African American cultural activities blurred the distinction between work and leisure, by the late antebellum years enslaved blacks claimed a slightly wider margin of off-time activities than before" (Trotter 2001, p. 149). The slave quarter, one of the few areas on the plantation where slaves were not under the immediate control of their owners, became the center of everyday social life.
While social life and activities for enslaved Africans and African Americans provided a critical source of catharsis from the brutality of enslavement, slave owners also worked to employ the dynamics of social life to maintain their tight grip on those they held in captivity. Many planters holding blacks in captivity believed that by allowing their enslaved population time and space for social engagement, the likelihood of slaves resisting and rebelling against their authority would be mitigated. Beyond simply allowing enslaved Africans and African Americans to hold social activities, slave owners also forced slaves to participate in social festivities for their own benefit. Scholars such as Saidiya Hartman argued that slave owners forced the enslaved to participate in social activities to help conceal the harsh reality of life under enslavement. Other scholars, including George Rawick, argued that slave owners forced their slaves to participate in socials for their personal entertainment as they joined the enslaved in the activities.
Rawick, George P. From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1972.
The slave quarter provided a space for slaves to gather in the evenings. Shane and Graham White (2005), in Sounds of Slavery, have discussed the informal gatherings that took place within the slave quarter after the day's grueling work had concluded and before the enslaved retired to sleep. In the words of the formally enslaved Clara Young, "We'd set 'round and sin' an talk." In former slave Green Cumby's Works Progress Administration (WPA) interview, he conveyed that "at night the slaves would gather roun' the cabins in little bunches and talk til' bed time" (White and White 2005, p. xiv). Social activities that took place after hours within the slave quarter usually combined singing, dancing, eating, telling folktales, and gossiping about local affairs.
In addition to less formal social activities that took place when enslaved African Americans were able to scrape time out of their days and nights, slave owners reserved specific times for leisure activities for their slaves. Much of this owner-designated leisure time took place on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger (2006) report that during the Christmas holiday in and around Nashville, Tennessee, the black population moved about freely, gathered for social occasions, and stayed out past curfew. On Andrew Jackson's (1767–1845) Nashville plantation enslaved African Americans gathered to dance, play cards, and stage cockfights. Others would take advantage of the increased mobility afforded by the holiday to visit friends on neighboring plantations and socialize within the slave quarters.
Outside of the major holiday seasons, the ability of the enslaved population to participate in collective social activities was more challenging. On Sundays, however, the enslaved Nashville population did create the space to stage horse races and barbecues where they cooked pigs, chickens, consumed alcohol, and sang. Friday and Saturday evenings were typically reserved for social activities centered on singing, dancing, and drinking. Slave owners often provided the alcohol for their slaves to consume during these events. Slave owners, in the absence of musically inclined slaves on their plantation, often hired quasi-professional bands of enslaved and free musicians to perform during these. Franklin and Schweninger reported that in Nashville
McGowan, a free black, established a music school, gave private lessons, conducted a dance band, and booked engagements on nearby plantations. Rachael Gaines,… recalled how her owner sent for McGowan every two weeks. The Band would arrive early Friday evening, and the plantation hands would dance … late into the evening. (Franklin and Schweninger 2006, p. 90)
Shane and Graham White have described the nature of the dancing and singing at Friday and Saturday night frolics. They have offered that, "many of these dances performed at slave frolics took place within a circle, on the perimeter of which other slaves sang, patted, played musical instruments, and called out encouragement to the participants" (White and White 2005, p. 50). Perhaps the most famous and well-known of these circular shaped frolics are the ring shouts that took place at the Congo Square in New Orleans beginning in the early 1800s and lasting until the eve of the Civil War (1861–1865).
In addition to holiday celebrations and weekend frolics, social activities also took form in festival celebrations. In the decades preceding emancipation one of the most important of these festivals was the corn shucking festival that took place at the close of the season's corn harvest. After the corn was harvested slaves from several area plantations would gather and form teams and compete to see which team could shuck the fastest. At the conclusion of the competition slaves would sing, eat, dance, and drink. Social activities were a key aspect in the lives of enslaved African Americans. Though the ability of slaves to engage in collective social activity fluctuated, the opportunity to create a dynamic social life increased in the final decades of the institution's existence. Ultimately, social activity provided the enslaved momentary tastes of freedom as they attempted to cope with an institution that controlled nearly every aspect of their lives.
Donaldson, Gary. "A Window on Slave Culture: Dances at Congo Square in New Orleans, 1800–1862" Journal of Negro History 69, no. 2 (1984): 63-72.
Trotter, Joe. The African American Experience. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
White, Shane, and Graham White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.