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Black Colour And Black Consciousness History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Slavery, Henry Clay proclaimed in 1816, “forms an exception to the general liberty prevailing in the United States.” Based on the firm belief that blacks were innately inferior to whites and unsuited for life in any condition other than slavery, slavery was argued by many as essential to human progress. Despite this, many white southerners hypocritically declared themselves to be the true heirs of the American Revolution; inspired by “the same spirit of freedom and independence” that motivated the fathering generations. The proslavery writers began to manipulate the words of the founding documents to change the people’s perception of freedom: the language of the Declaration of Independence – that all men were created equal and entitled to liberty – was “the most false and dangerous of all political errors”, insisted the pro-slavery minister John C. Calhoun.

Slaves never abandoned their desire for freedom or their determination to resist subordination to the whites. The creation of an independent culture centred on the family and church created strength in morality and values which could pass from generation to generation fundamentally at odds with those of their masters. Historians have documented rebellions and revolts by slaves; however these are rare and have led some historians to question the extent and nature of slave resistance. I believe that the more subtle forms of resistance that may have been overlooked by historians still stand as rebellions, or ‘silent sabotage’, such as purposeful negligence in manual work, obstruction, ignorance, illness, and the destruction of property. In the narrative of Linda Brent, a North Carolina slave, we find an interesting account of how the refusal of women slaves to submit to sexual advances of the slaveholder can be seen as resistance to slavery.[1] However other historians such as George Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch have claimed that such acts should not qualify as acts of resistance; they believe resistance should constitute acts that involved the planning of actual or potential violence. These would have included committing crimes such as arson, poisoning and armed assaults against individual whites. Even small instances of violent resistance were sometimes effective; an Arkansas overseer decided to make an example of a slave woman named Lucy “to show the slaves that he was impartial.” Lucy, however, was not to be made an example of. According to her son, “she jumped on him and like to tore him up.” Word got around that Lucy would not be beaten; she was sold by her master soon after, but she was never whipped again.[2]

Considerably more crippling to the stability of the slave system was running away, despite the trying and potentially fatal obstacles in their vulnerable escape methods. As Solomon Northup recalled, “Every white man’s hand is raised against him, the patrollers are watching for him, the hounds are ready to follow in his track.”[3] In Frederick Douglass’s slave memoir, The Life of Frederick Douglass, he tells us of the plan formulated by him and a group of slaves to escape via canoe to escape to the north. Slaves generally had little or no knowledge of geography but many understood that the North Star led to freedom: Douglass himself planned to “follow the guidance of the north star till we got beyond the limits of Maryland.” Douglass knew the dangers of becoming a fugitive, but firmly wrote in his memoir “For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.” Aged twenty at the time of his escape, there was a general trend of the majority of fugitives being young men. Most slave women were unwilling to leave children and taking them along proved arduous and almost impossible to survive. Some freed slaves also engaged in achieving freedom for others, a highly complex and dangerous undertaking. Enslaved blacks and their white sympathizers planned secret flight strategies and escape routes for runaways to make their way to freedom. Although it was neither subterranean nor a mechanized means of travel, this network of routes and hiding places was known as the “underground railroad.” Some free blacks were active “conductors” on the underground railroad while others simply harboured runaways in their homes. No one knows the exact number of slaves that succeeded in reaching the North – the most common rough estimate is about 1,000 per year. Most of those who succeeded lived in the Upper South, like Douglass, who went on to publish his brilliant memoir which inspired the huge abolitionist movement. Harriet Tubman escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and spent ten years risking her life by making some twenty or so trips back to her place of enslavement to lead relatives and other slaves to freedom.

Probably one of the most famous instances of slave resistance was the case of the seizing of the Amistad, a slave ship transporting 53 slaves from one port in Cuba to another. The slaves succeeded in gaining control of the ship, and attempted to force the navigator to steer it to Africa. A slave by the name of The Amistad worked its way up the Atlantic coast till it was seized by an American vessel off the coast of Long Island. While the President Martin Van Buren wished to return the slaves to Cuba, abolitionists brought their case to the Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams argued that since they had been recently brought from Africa in violation of international treaties banning the slave trade, the captives should be freed.[4] The court accepted Adam’s reasoning and most of the captives made their way back to Africa; a huge triumph for the commandeering slaves. This may well have inspired a similar uprising that occurred in 1841 when 135 slaves seized control of the ship they were being carried on, and to the dismay of the administration back home were given refuge by the British.

One of the largest scale rebellions was the revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831. Nat Turner was a slave preacher who believed he was chosen by God to lead an uprising. By the time militia could stop the rebellion it had become eighty slaves strong and had killed some sixty whites in neighbouring farms. Turner was subsequently captured and condemned to die; on being asked before his death whether he felt any remorse, he replied “was not Christ crucified?” Despite Nat Turner’s rebellion being one of the most significant rebellions in southern history, it proved largely ineffective. Instead of moving the south towards emancipation, the Virginia legislature of 1832 increased in severity the laws which bonded slaves. New laws prohibited all blacks, free or enslaved, from acting as preachers; blacks could not own firearms; and it was illegal to teach a slave to read.

Free blacks in the antebellum period – the years from the formation of the Union until the Civil War – were quite outspoken about the injustice of slavery. Their ability to express themselves, however, was determined by whether they lived in the North or the South. Free Southern blacks continued to live under the shadow of slavery, unable to travel or assemble as freely as those in the North; this made it almost impossible for them to organize and sustain churches, schools, or fraternal orders such as the Masons. Although their lives were circumscribed by numerous discriminatory laws even in the colonial period, freed African Americans, especially in the North, were active participants in American society. Black men enlisted as soldiers and fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Some owned land, homes, businesses, and paid taxes. In some Northern cities, for brief periods of time, black property owners voted. A very small number of free blacks owned slaves, and usually these were members of their own family that they had bought off slaveholders to later emancipate. A few free blacks also owned slave holding plantations in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina.

Free African American Christians founded their own churches which became the hub of the economic, social, and intellectual lives of blacks in many areas of the fledgling nation. Blacks were also outspoken in print. Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned newspaper, appeared in 1827. This paper and other early writings by blacks fuelled the attack against slavery and racist conceptions about the intellectual inferiority of African Americans. Free people of colour like Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, and Prince Hall earned national reputations for themselves by writing, speaking, organizing, and agitating on behalf of their enslaved compatriots.

For Frederick Douglass, the most beneficial step for him to the road to freedom was learning to read and recognizing his enslavement was morally wrong. For him, resistance came in the form of giving speeches and writing books about slavery and his experiences, rousing tumultuous crowds and touching the hearts of many. Throughout his Narrative, literacy, education and reason are deemed crucial tools in the fight for emancipation. After reading speeches on behalf of Catholic emancipation in The Columbian Orator Douglass explained that “they gave tongue to interesting thoughts of (his) own soul, which had frequently flashed through (his) mind, and died away for want of utterance.”[5] Douglass noted that slaveholders were right in forbidding their slaves from learning to read because literacy – and therefore access to enlightenment – would undermine the system by strengthening slaves’ recognition of their own humanity and desire to be free. Henry Bibb was born a slave in Kentucky in 1815. He recounts his sufferings, escapes, recaptures, and unsuccessful attempts to free his family. Bibb lectured for the Liberty party in Ohio and Michigan during the 1840s and fled to Canada after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, as did thousands of other fugitives living in the North. His narrative includes many illustrations, including the depiction of the celebration of the Sabbath among the slaves and a slave sale. In the text Bibb mentions that “slaves were not allowed books, pen, ink, nor paper, to improve their minds.” He stated that such circumstances gave him a “longing desire . . . a fire of liberty within my breast which has never yet been quenched.” Bibb believed that he too had “a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In Black Culture and Black Consciousness, historian Lawrence Levine summarizes the important role that slave resistance legends played in the black community: “For an understanding of the post-slave generations, the history of slave resistance is less important than the legends concerning it, though the two by no means contradict each other. Looking back upon the past, ex slaves and their descendants painted a picture not of a cowed and timorous black mass but of a people who, however circumscribed by misfortune and oppression, were never without their means of resistance and never lacked the inner resources to oppose the master class, however extreme the price they had to pay”.[6] These legacies of resistance, which led to the final emancipation after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, marked the generations of change that followed the slave period and have continued to build on the past right up until today.


  • Howard McGary and Bill E. Lawson, Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery, Indiana University Press 1992
  • John Hope Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860, Norton Library 1971
  • Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery, Louisiana State University Press 1966
  • Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, Norton & Company 2009
  • Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, Norton & Company, New York, 1975
  • Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, Norton & Company 1995
  • Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Penguin Classics 1982
  • Lawrence Levine, Black Colour and Black Consciousness, New York 1977
  • K.Sue Jewell, From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images and the Shaping of U.S Social Policy London, Routledge 1993

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