As I travel throughout the south, from one plantation or museum to another, the one constant is the way in which the tour guides discuss the topic of slavery. I have found, with the exception, to some degree, of The Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina, the view of slavery is painted as very paternalistic, meaning everyone was supposedly treated fairly and “like family.” For example, there is one plantation in Virginia that I have visited on three different occasions, which dates back to 1619, and does not even use the terms “slave” or “enslaved” during the course of the tour of the home and grounds. The guides, instead, refer to those who worked the plantation during the time of slavery as “servants.” In present day society, the term “servant” has a far less degrading connotation than does the term “slave” in that one could assume that as “servants” they were paid employees of the plantation’s owner. But, in reality, these “servants” were property, in the same way that livestock was property, bought and sold based on varying degrees of value according to age and usefulness. But the use of the far less truthful term “servant,” the guides are, in actuality, deflecting from the reality and harshness of American slavery while working to disassociate the famous plantation owners from the painful scar that persists today as a very dark mark on our national history. I feel that before anyone tours a site, some amount of knowledge concerning the experiences of those who lived or worked on plantations is helpful in discerning the differences in what is historical truth from what is explained by the tour guides. I never argue or interject my own knowledge of slavery when I tour plantations, but I do ask one or two very pointed questions, just to see how the answers will fit historically or paternalistically into the history that the visited site is trying to portray through its tour. One of the main goals of this blog is to provide small amounts of insight about African American history in order to provide readers with general knowledge before they travel to plantations and other historical sites. I hope this blog entry gives a new perspective on the lives of the enslaved.
The Experiences of Enslaved Men, Women and Children
Harriet Jacobs, a freed fugitive slave and activist in the abolitionist movement, argued that, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they [female slaves] have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.” The way in which slaveholders tried to accomplish this was by brutality and violence. Slaves experienced unimaginable cruelty at the hands of their owners. At times, the treatment was so inhumane death occurred. Within the institution of slavery both genders experienced the break-up of their families, both found support in their slave community, and both sought comfort in religion. Enslaved men and women, in some ways however, led different lives. For the female slave, there was the ever-present threat of rape by white men. Additionally, she faced greater obstacles if she tried to runaway. Although the experiences in slavery for African American men and women were more similar than different, the specific differences experienced by women made slavery a much more brutal institution than that experienced by men.
One experience shared by many, if not most slaves was the separation from their family members. In Africa, the family was a main unit of society, but in the United States, slaves were unable to marry legally, some were unable to raise and nurture their own children, and most importantly, some were unable to remain together in the family unit. A semblance of family could occur, such as with marriage ceremonies, sometimes known as “jumping the broom” ceremonies in which the “marrying” slave couple would jump over a broom, making their union official.
Even children understood all too well the cruel treatment of the separation of the family unit. Frederick Douglas, an abolitionist who had been born a slave, explained the impact of slavery on the family unit perfectly when he shared, “There is not, beneath the sky, an enemy to filial affection as destructive as slavery. It had made my brothers and sisters strangers to me; it converted the mother that bore me, into a myth; it shrouded my father in mystery, and left me without an intelligible beginning in the world.” Some slave children, such as Sojourner Truth, a former slave and voice of the abolitionist movement, knew their parents, but eventually found themselves separated from them. Truth did not know the number of siblings or who they were because they were sold away from her parents before she was old enough to know them. Some slaves knew at least one parent, some did not know either, but in the absence of parents, some may have known an extended relation such as a grandparent, aunt, or cousin. Children, often, experienced the devastation of being sold away from everyone they knew to be family, never to see them again. Douglas explained that, “The practice of separating children from their mothers…is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system.”
Because slave owners so devastatingly splintered the family units of those they enslaved, the slave community became the foundation of support, simulating a family. The community gave slaves a sense of unity that the practices of separation within the institution of slavery took away. In Africa, everything revolved around the community in which Africans lived. Individualism was discouraged and the good of the community was the first consideration. Crops were shared within the community and each member of the village was responsible for everyone else within the African community. The same held true within slave communities. Although the system of slavery tried to keep apart those who had formed bonds, the strength of community could not be broken. Support proved crucial within the slave society because there was so much endured by all. The lack of proper clothing and shelter, the starvation, the beatings, and the harsh workload were all part of the daily life for both genders. When the system of slavery tried to break down the spirit of the individual slave, the community helped to restore it.
The death of an owner posed the greatest threat to the slave community. When this occurred, the entire community found themselves living with the threat of their community, the people with whom they felt united, might be divided among the master’s family members and moved apart or sold away to new, unknown owners. Either way, the outcome could be far worse than the situation one had become accustomed. Douglas recalled that, “…the slave has the added danger of changing homes, changing hands, and of having separations unknown to other men.” When the new owner was kinder than the previous master there was some relief, but as Douglas points out, “…the kindness of the slave master only gilds the chain of slavery, and detracts nothing from its weight and power.”
The shared experience by both men and women that proved to be the most powerful within the slave community was the slaves’ faith in God. Religion was also a major factor within the African culture, and slavery did nothing to change that. For the master, Christianity was the center of his world and became a source of social control within slave society. Some masters would take their slaves to church with them while others would hire a slave preacher to minister the message of God. The message to the slaves was always to obey their master and they would receive rewards in Heaven. Sojourner Truth, when dealing with a cruel mistress, prayed often and made promises to “God, that if he would help her out of her difficulties, she would pay him by being very good…” Christianity did not make a better situation for the slave. When discussing the Christian masters and the increased level of cruelty displayed by them, Douglas tells the reader that, “For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst…Religious slaveholders, like religious persecutors, are ever extreme in their malice and violence.”
Within the slave community, African traditions as well as Christian beliefs and acts became fused together and persisted among slaves as a source of strength, comfort, and community. Slaves held prayer meetings and the entire community participated. Meetings were held in secret because slaves would have been punished by severe beatings and possibly death had they been discovered. Slaves spread word of the meetings by singing songs like Steal Away to Jesus while they worked, which acted as a signal, much like drumming in Africa. Out of the prayer meetings and the unity of their community emerged their own preachers. Both men and women could be a preacher within the slave society. The message from within the prayer meeting was that they were the chosen people of God and that they would be delivered. The enslaved believed, completely, that Christ was on their side and was their savior.
The men and women who were religious leaders within the community were the most respected among the slaves especially those who were believed to possess religious power. The conjuror was one such person who held such respect. This respect was given to him, or her, because it was believed they could talk to the afterworld, they could see the future, act as a mediator, and provide charms, among other cures and remedies. Their religion and belief in people such as conjurors proved to be crucial parts of the slaves’ resistance. The slave owner could not control a slave’s faith in God or their belief in the power of the conjurer; he could only control the actions that were visible to him.
Although there were many similarities in the experiences of both genders within slavery, women had to endure the far worst terror–the ever-present threat of rape by white men. A female slave had little to no power to resist the rapes. Douglas reiterated this point when he remarked that, “The slave-woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons, or brothers of her master. The thoughtful know the rest.” Perhaps the female slaves’ resistance of their masters might explain the seemingly more brutal beatings women were forced to endure at the hands of their masters. Enslaved women also had to contend with the wrath of their master’s wife if she suspected or knew of any improper behavior on the part of her husband with the slave. Margaret Washington, editor of Truth’s narrative, makes it clear that, “Their womanness was considered an open sexual invitation to white men, and if white women objected, fault was placed with black women.” The number of white men having either possible consensual, but more likely forced, sexual relations with their slave women becomes illuminated when one considers the number of children born to slaves whose fathers were white.
In addition to the sexual abuse experienced by women, Washington points out that “Female slaves’ economic productivity was measured in terms of reproduction as much as labor output.” Douglas reinforced this with his personal knowledge of Caroline, a female slave purchased for the sole purpose of breeding by Covey, the poor slave breaker with whom Douglas was required to live for one year. Douglas recalled that, “This young woman was virtually compelled by Covey to abandon herself to the object for which he had purchased her.” Covey had locked her and a hired man named Bill Smith up together every night, with the result being a set of twins.
Considering the unrelenting sexual abuse that existed for the female slave one would think that more women would have tried to run away. Running away, however, was not as easy for women as it was for men. Douglas expressed to the reader that, “The daughter is hindered from escaping, by the love she bears her mother…” For those women who were able to raise their own children, the decision to escape slavery must have been even more difficult. Harriet Jacobs found herself in just that situation. After enduring years of sexual harassment and abuse from her master, she continually refused his blatant advances. Jacob’s master threatened to send her children, who lived in town with her, to work in plantation fields if she did not relent. That is when she made the decision to run away. She hoped that if she were not in the picture, so to speak, her children would remain in town, a much more privileged location than the plantation. Jacobs lived for six years and eleven months in the same town as her master and children in an attic above a porch in her grandmother’s home (a free black woman). The attic measured only sixty-three square feet of floor space, with only three feet of height at the highest end. According to Jacobs, she came out of the space only at night to stretch. From her hiding place, she could see her children as they played. Eventually, Jacobs left and went north, where she was reunited with her son and daughter. Then later, an abolitionist friend purchased their freedom. Harriet had risked her life, and then her freedom after escaping, to protect her children. Some women could not bring themselves to take such chances, however, so they remained in unbearable conditions.
Behind every slave experience was the threat of violence and the knowledge that at any moment one could be sold away from those within the community from which they drew strength. As cruel as slavery was for all who suffered it, women had to bear the more difficult plight. As Harriet Jacobs believed, the “wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications…” enslaved women endured did set them apart from the cruelty men experienced.
1. Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, ed. Jean
FaganYellin (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), 77.
2. Frederick Douglas, My Bondage and My Freedom, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003),
3. Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, ed. Margaret Washington (New York:
Vintage Books, 1993), 5.
4. Douglas, My Bondage and My Freedom, 32.
5. Ibid., 128.
6. Ibid., 199.
7. Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 45.
8. Douglas, My Bondage and My Freedom, 188-189.
9. Ibid., 47.
10. Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, xxx.
12. Douglas, My Bondage and My Freedom, 159.
14. Ibid., 243.
15. Jacobs, Life of a Slave Girl, (summary) Harriet’s escape, hiding, and eventual freedom
taken from text.
16. Ibid., 77.
Douglas, Frederick. My Bondage, My Freedom. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written By Herself. Edited by Jean Fagan
Yellin. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Truth, Sojourner. Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Edited by Margaret Washington. New York:
Vintage Books, 1993.