Slavery’s existence has plagued human history for thousands of years. Slavery seems to fill a need to produce things at a vast scale. For the United States, that product was unquestionably cotton. Black Americans – both male and female – were traded as slaves to work the fields on large cotton plantations in the South. Slavery allowed free whites, individually and collectively, to feel power and control at the height of Western colonialism.
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To most of the world, slavery is considered an oppressive institution and a shame in the history of modern United States. There is no denying that horrible atrocities and unspeakable cruelties against humanity have occurred under slavery in the US however, I would argue that perhaps some good actually could have come out of slavery blacks may not only have been the victims, but also the victors. Slavery has seemingly strengthened the institution of family as well as the bonds of the African American people as they struggled for equal and just rights in a land that espouses ideas of freedom and democratic living though in reality America wasn’t staying true to its word. This paper intends to look at the effects of slavery and how it strengthened the Black people instead of weakening them by using several accounts of slavery, in particular, focusing on Herbert Gutman’s argument that slavery has been a boon to Black Americans instead of the curse that it is commonly believed to be.
In Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” is an account of an African-American’s life as a slave in the cotton fields, and his own personal journey and escape to freedom. Douglass’ life-story is presented to his audience as a man’s desire to break away from the forces that would keep him in chains, as well as those things inside him that prevent him from becoming free. To me Douglass’ Narrative is more than just a tale about the desire to be a free man it’s about the quest of one man to empower himself in a country still looking for its sense of identity. In a sense, Douglass’ story is the story of a nation looking for self-determination. He is able to record the changes that the United States was going through in its search for identity even as he searched for personal liberty. Through Douglass, we are given a chance to glimpse at the life of one man in a society completely unfamiliar to us today.
For Douglass, the value of a man’s life lies not in his state in life but in his many pursuits of freedom and the willingness to risk life in order to obtain it. All of these feelings about freedom can be encapsulated when Douglass writes,
“The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.” (p. 45)
This passage captures the universal struggles of man against all the things that keep him in chains. To Douglass, freedom is a prize worth even the sacrifice of life. It is a life and death battle, with freedom granted within the choice to make the struggle. Once a man decides to fight for his freedom and become a martyr for its cause, he is already free because he is no longer held by fear or pain.
There is another view to the struggle against slavery – the perspective of women. This can be seen in the works of Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which captures the essence of the feminine struggle against slavery.
Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” narrates the issues of freedom and slavery with the voice of a woman and explaining some unique experiences as a slave. Jacob’s novel is interesting because it illustrates how slavery affects a family and the woman’s desire to soften the blows of slavery, especially to their children. This is made clear by how Linda’s parents (which are relatively well-off slaves) don’t let her know she’s a slave until she discovers sometime after the age of 6. More than the desire for freedom, women slaves want their children to be free. They will make the necessary sacrifice, not for themselves, but for the love of their children. Linda hides in Aunt Martha’s attic space and sacrifices her potential freedom to watch over the well-being of her children. Jacob’s novel goes beyond issues of slavery to the particular oppression of women. She focused on sexual abuse as the most frightening aspect of slavery. Jacob makes the argument that while the punishment of male slaves are terrible, it does not compare to the dehumanizing cruelty of rape, done to a young girl on the threshold of womanhood. Jacob writes,
I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me. I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man… (p. 84)
In the end, the novels illustrate the importance of voice and the need to be heard, regardless of time and circumstance. Men and women may have different demands from freedom and they seek it for reasons that vary. The woman is acting as a mother, while the man seeks freedom to lead the way for others.
According to Herbert Gutman, African Americans brought with them the deeply set sense of family and community when they were taken as slaves to the new world. Men and women kept their roles in a world turned upside down. Their sense of family did not changeâ€¦ it was perhaps even made stronger as the hardships of slavery made the Black Americans cling to each other for strength, hope, and inspiration to keep fighting for freedom. Therefore families that have been torn apart by being sold to different owners in far-off plantations managed to keep a sense of family even as they were separated by distance. According to Gutman’s findings, men, women, and children of several generations who belonged to various slave-owners managed to feel connected as family.
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The African people perceive children as part of the natural process of life. They have extended family structures, with children growing up being taught how to read nature and the signs of the seasons. In many African tribes that exist today, nomadic ways of life still persist. Young males are taught how to hunt and gather at an early age, and they before they marry, the male must show their prowess as a hunter, which is proof of his ability to feed his would-be family. The women are devoted to their children, and are breastfed until they are old enough to be weaned.
Much of the differences between how we raise children in the United States and how the African tribes do it are a based on the societal and cultural structures that we grew up in. In the modern United States, it is common for the father and mother to work at the same time. The mom may decide to quit working to care for her children as a housewife, or may stop working for only a few years until the children are old enough to take care of themselves. The financial situation of the household dictates if the mother can afford to not work and care for the children full time. However in most cases, the mother must find some means to sustain a living income. The rise in day care centers America is a result of the need for mothers to go work immediately. Children are being sent to school at very young ages so that while the children are at school, the mothers can work. The African tribes have no such dilemma; mothers are very involved in taking care of the children, often carrying the young ones with when women go out to gather nuts and fruits and gather water. When the male children are old enough, they will go with their fathers and uncles to be taught the ways of the hunter-gatherer. The female children learn how to tend the settlement, as well as gather nuts and fruits as their mothers did. They will also be taught how to look for water, which is the sole responsibility of the Bushmen women.
In both American and African Bushmen culture, the male is the one with the responsibility of providing for the family. However, in American society, this tradition is no longer being strictly adhered to. It becomes more of an option if the woman decides to pursue a career or not. The Bushmen mother does not have much of a choice. Their duties have largely remained the same for thousands of years: to tend the household, gather water, take care of the children, and guide them as they grow up. The Bushmen children’s education is primarily provided by the mother, with the other relatives coming into the picture when the male child is of the right age. For the Bushmen, the children must be taught the ways of the nomad as a matter of survival; it is as simple as that. In the United States, the parent is usually the first teacher, but the bulk of education takes place in a formal setting or school. The children spend twenty years of their life preparing for a profession of their own choosing. In the United States, education, especially at the tertiary level, is not an absolute necessity for survival, but the ones with better education often have better fortunes in life because they are able to land gainful employment soon after college. There are no such complications for the Bushmen children; they grow up trained to be hunter-gatherers just like the many generations of Bushmen that came before them. Once an individual reaches adulthood, it is expected that they should be able to find a living for themselves. This is true for both the Bushmen and the Americans. However in the United States, the children are expected to move out of the house when they reach 18 years old or graduate from college. The Bushmen are not required to move out; adults usually live with their elders, hunting and gathering with them until they are no longer able to do so.
All of these values and traditional family structures managed to survive the onslaught of slavery. In fact, it might be said that the Black people found ways to preserve and express them in more creative ways, given the limitations imposed by slavery. It might be argued that the struggles of the African community for independence is more a result of their individual and collective love for family which was expanded to include all African American slaves in the United States. Had the Africans were brought up under a different system, they might not have kept their sense of family and community intact given the polarizing and traumatic effects of slavery.
Every slave kept the hope of a better life for their children and their children’s children. That is why they kept the fight alive and fought at every corner until it was time for their voice to be heard.
Every African American slave was a son, a father, a cousin, a mother, a daughter, an aunt. Every story of a Black slave is a story of a family split apart and shaken to its foundation. However instead of breaking the sense of family, slavery made it stronger until the time came for all of them to be reunited in memory and the common cause of freedom in the Civil Rights era.
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