Friday, April 1, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 2: Slave family life

I'll be using quite several quotations from Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became one of the leading Abolitionists leaders.  Douglass' first autobiography was one of the most consequential books of the antebellum (pre-Civil War) period.  "Scientific" theories were being developed at that time to argue the biological superiority of the white race.  When his first autobiography appeared in 1845, it was a shock for his audience to read what it was like to be a human being living in slavery:

As Bruce Franklin wrote in The Victim as Criminal and Artist (1978):

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself is a book created by a being who was once considered an animal, even by himself, to an audience not quite convinced that he is in fact a fellow human being. ...

Frederick Douglass had lived the social reality which [racist] scientific theories were adduced to perpetuate. He had begun life as a farm animal. Looking back, he traces the course of his development into a conscious human being, threatened all along the way by the danger of being reduced once again to a beast. Brilliantly manipulating his audience's literary conventions, Douglass is able to show what it means to be a human being in an age and society dominated by racist ideology and maintaining its basic productive activities through the use of one class of human beings as work animals by another class of human beings.

Apologists for slavery have contended that the Southern slaves were protected, that family life among them was secure, had their nutritional and medical needs provided by the master, and were cared for in old age.  For today's post, I want to take a glimpse at family life among the slaves.

The quotations below were taken from the very useful and accessible online collection made available by the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South Web site.  The texts appearing there that I've seen contain the following copyright notice:  "This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text."  This is valuable source for online versions of source documents on the subjects covered. 

Frederick Douglass, in the second version of his famous autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), described living as a slave child with his grandmother in a small cabin (Chapter 1):

Whether because she was too old for field service, or because she had so faithfully discharged the duties of her station in early life, I know not, but she enjoyed the high privilege of living in a cabin separate from the quarters, having only the charge of the young children and the burden of her own support imposed upon her. She esteemed it great good fortune to live so, and took much comfort in having the children. The practice of separating mothers from their children and hiring them out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, save at long intervals, was a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system; but it was in harmony with the grand aim of that system, which always and everywhere sought to reduce man to a level with the brute. It had no interest in recognizing or preserving any of the ties that bind families together or to their homes.

My grandmother's five daughters were hired out in this way, and my only recollections of my own mother are of a few hasty visits made in the night on foot, after the daily tasks were over, and when she was under the necessity of returning in time to respond to the driver's call to the field in the early morning. These little glimpses of my mother, obtained under such circumstances and against such odds, meager as they were, are ineffaceably stamped upon my memory. She was tall and finely proportioned, of dark glossy complexion, with regular features, and amongst the slaves was remarkably sedate and dignified.

Douglass believed his father to have been a white man, but he didn't have much information about him:

Of my father I know nothing. Slavery had no recognition of fathers, as none of families. That the mother was a slave was enough for its deadly purpose. By its law the child followed the condition of its mother. The father might be a freeman and the child a slave. The father might be a white man, glorying in the purity of his Anglo-Saxon blood, and his child ranked with the blackest slaves. Father he might be, and not be husband, and could sell his own child without incurring reproach, ifin itsveins coursed one drop of African blood.

When his grandmother took him to his master's plantation as a little boy, where he would have to stay, he met his siblings for the first time:

She pointed out to me my brother Perry, my sisters, Sarah and Eliza. I had never seen them before, and though I had sometimes heard of them and felt a curious interest in them, I really did not understand what they were to me or I to them. Brothers and sisters we were by blood, but slavery had made us strangers. They were already initiated into the mysteries of old master's domicile, and they seemed to look upon me with a certain degree of compassion.

Apologists of slavery argued then and later that the masters had a strong economic incentive to keep their human property well-fed and healthy.  Like many "free-market" theories, the reality was not so pretty, as the little boy was soon to discover (Chapter 3):

Want of food was my chief trouble during my first summer here. Captain Anthony, instead of allowing a given quantity of food to each slave, committed the allowance for all to Aunt Katy [the slave assigned to tend to the slave children], to be divided by her, after cooking, amongst us. The allowance consisted of coarse corn meal, not very abundant, and which by passing through Aunt Katy's hands, became more slender still for some of us. I have often been so pinched with hunger, as to dispute with old "Nep," the dog, for the crumbs which fell from the kitchen table. Many times have I followed with eager step, the waiting-girl when she shook the table-cloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out for the dogs and cats. It was a great thing to have the privilege of dipping a piece of bread into the water in which meat had been boiled--and the skin taken from the rusty bacon was a positive luxury.

Douglass had little acquaintance with his biological mother, but he treasured the moments they had together:

My mother had walked twelve miles to see me, and had the same distance to travel over again before the morning sunrise. I do not remember ever seeing her again. Her death soon ended thelittle communication that had existed between us, and with it, I believe, a life full of weariness and heartfelt sorrow. To me it has ever been a grief that I knew my mother so little, and have so few of her words treasured in my remembrance. I have since learned that she was the only one of all the colored people of Tuckahoe who could read. How she acquired this knowledge I know not, for Tuckahoe was the last place in the world where she would have been likely to find facilities for learning. I can therefore fondly and proudly ascribe to her, an earnest love of knowledge.

To conclude this post on the slaves' family lives, I'll include the story Douglass tells about the courtship ofthe slaves Esther and Ned:

The reader will have noticed that among the names of slaves, Esther is mentioned. This was a young woman who possessed that which was ever a curse to the slave girl--namely, personal beauty. She was tall, light-colored, well formed, and made a fine appearance. Esther was courted by "Ned Roberts," the son of a favorite slave of Col. Lloyd, who was as fine-looking a young man as Esther was a woman. Some slave-holders would have been glad to have promoted the marriage of two such persons, but for some reason, Captain Anthony disapproved of their courtship. He strictly ordered her to quit the company of young Roberts, telling her that he would punish her severely if he ever found her again in his company. But it was impossible to keep this couple apart. Meet they would, and meet they did. Had Mr. Anthony been himself a man of honor, his motives in this matter might have appeared more favorably. As it was, they appeared as abhorrent as they were contemptible. It was one of the damning characteristics of slavery, that it robbed its victims of every earthly incentive to a holy life. The fear of God and the hope of heaven were sufficient to sustain many slave women amidst the snares and dangers of their strange lot; but they were ever at the mercy of the power, passion, and caprice of their owners. Slavery provided no means for the honorable perpetuation of the race. Yet despite of this destitution there were many men and women among the slaves who were true and faithful to each other through life.

But to the case in hand. Abhorred and circumvented as he was, Captain Anthony, having the power, was determined on revenge. I happened to see its shocking execution, and shall never forget the scene. It was early in the morning, when all was still, and before any of the family in the house or kitchen had risen. I was, in fact, awakened by the heartrending shrieks and piteous cries of poor Esther. My sleeping-place was on the dirt floor of a little rough closet which opened into the kitchen, and through the cracks in its unplaned boards I could distinctly see and hear what was going on, without being seen. Esther's wrists were firmly tied, and the twisted rope was fastened to a strong iron staple in a heavy wooden beam above, near the fire-place. Here she stood on a bench, her arms tightly drawn above her head. Her back and shoulders were perfectly bare. Behind her stood old master, with cowhide in hand, pursuing his barbarous work with all manner of harsh, coarse, and tantalizing epithets. He was cruelly deliberate, and protracted the torture as one who was delighted with the agony of his victim. Again and again he drew the hateful scourge through his hand, adjusting it with a view of dealing the most pain-giving blow his strength and skill could inflict. Poor Esther had never before been severely whipped. Her shoulders were plump and tender. Each blow, vigorously laid on, brought screams from her as well as blood. "Have mercy! Oh, mercy!" she cried. "I wont do so no more." But her piercing cries seemed only to increase his fury. The whole scene, with all its attendants, was revolting and shocking to the last degree, and when the motives for the brutal castigation are known, language has no power to convey a just sense of its dreadful criminality. After laying on I dare not say how many stripes, old master untied his suffering victim. When let down she could scarcely stand. From my heart I pitied her, and child as I was, and new to such scenes, the shock was tremendous. I was terrified, hushed, stunned, and bewildered. The scene here described was often repeated, for Edward and Esther continued to meet, notwithstanding all efforts to prevent their meeting.

Such was the Peculiar Institution that the honorable Christian gentlemen of the Southern Confederacy seceded from the Union to defend and make into an eternal institution.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month posts 2005 for links to allthis year's posts.)

2 comments:

amkpantera said...

In my 8th grade history book there was included a narrative from a slave on daily slave life.  I figured most slavery-supporters would simply reject that as "history being written by the winners or wars," in this case Northern academics.  It's a good thing to have not only Douglass' but also numerous testimonies of the everyday experiences of slaves.  Also interesting was Olaudah Equiano and his autobiography which was included in a passage in the same history book describing his capture in Africa and the subsequent trip on a slave ship to America.

bmiller224 said...

Fortunately, we have a number of slave narratives to compare, as well as extensive supportive testimony and detailed records, including plantation business records.  The first-hand experience of encountering slavery and slaves by Union soldiers during the war pretty much destroyed any lingering sympathy there may have been for slavery in the North.

The actual neo-Confederate crowd can disregard it all, because they're only interesting in the present-day racist ideology, not in the actual history.

But the Lost Cause proslavery viewpoint - and despite denials that slavery was the cause of the war they inevitably wind up defending it - has little in the way of evidence on its side.  Mostly just antebellum proslavery propaganda that was mainly meant to sucker those Yankees who were looking for an excuse not to deal with the slavery problem. - Bruce