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The African American Struggle From Slavery

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

A long and favored mantra of the African American community has been “that which doesn’t destroy you tends only to makes you stronger”. Using these as bywords, the struggle to survive and prosper in the United States has not always been an easy road traveled by African Americans . From surviving the Middle Passage, to the auction blocks, to life on the plantations, to the Emancipation Proclamation and on to the Great Migration of blacks from the south to northern cities, life has always been one of definite hardships. Religion, faith in a loving and forgiving God and a belief that there had to be a better way helped the African American ever forward moving and strong.

Although the concept of slavery was not new to Africans, there were a number of differences in the enslavement in one’s own country and the enslavement in one so foreign. In Africa, for example, slaves became adopted members of the kinship group that enslaved them. Often, they married into a lineage, even into high ranks of society. Slaves could also move up in society and out of the slave role. Also, the children of slaves were not presumed to be born into slavery.

The beginning of slave trade began as early as the 1500s and was a profitable business to both sides , African and European. As time wore on, Europeans needed more and more slaves. The African tribesmen who had once been in favor of such trade, no longer wished to continue. Thus began the capturing of the needed slaves. Those Africans who resisted dealing in human cargo themselves became the victims of bloody slave trade. (Cayton, 2003)

As it was for all slaves, the Middle Passage was a long, arduous nightmare. The slaves were branded with hot irons and restrained with shackles. Their “living quarters” was often a deck within the ship that had less than five feet of headroom — and throughout a large portion of the deck, sleeping shelves cut this limited amount of headroom in half. Lack of standing headroom was the least of the slaves’ problems, though. With 300 to 400 people packed in a tiny area — an area with little ventilation and, in some cases, not even enough space to place buckets for human waste — disease was prevalent(Africans in America/Part 1/The Middle Passage). Faced with the nightmarish conditions of the voyage and the unknown future that lay beyond, many Africans preferred to die. But even the choice of suicide was taken away from these persons. A slave who tried to starve him or herself was tortured. If torture didn’t work, the slave was force fed (Cayton, 2003).

Despite the captain’s desire to keep as many slaves as possible alive, Middle Passage mortality rates were high. Although it’s difficult to determine how many Africans died en route to the new world, it is now believed that between ten and twenty percent of those transported lost their lives. (www.essortment.com)

Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World. Disease and starvation due to the length of the passage were the main contributors to the death toll with amoebic dysentery and scurvy causing the majority of deaths. Additionally, outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, malaria, measles, and other diseases spread rapidly in the close-quarter compartments. The number of dead increased with the length of voyage, since the incidence of dysentery and of scurvy increased with longer stints at sea as the quality and amount of food and water diminished with every passing day. In addition to physical sickness, many slaves became too depressed to eat or function efficiently because of the loss of freedom, family, security, and their own humanity.(Library think quest) Still, the majority of the captives survived and were soon headed for the auction blocks in America.

Once in the Americas, slaves were sold, by auction, to the person that bid the most money for them. It was here that family members would find themselves split up, as a bidder may not want to buy the whole family, only the strongest, healthiest member.

When the slave ship docked, the slaves would be taken off the ship and placed in a pen like this one. There they would be washed and their skin covered with grease, or sometimes tar, to make them look more healthy. This was done so that they would fetch as much money as possible. They would also be branded with a hot iron to identify them as slaves. The slaves would be brought from the pen, in turn, to stand on a raised platform so that they could be seen by the buyers. Before the bidding began, those that wished to, could come up onto the platform to inspect the slaves closely. The slaves had to endure being poked, prodded and forced to open their mouths for the buyers. The auctioneer would decide a price to start the bidding. This would be higher for fit, young slaves and lower for older, very young or sickly slaves (Davidson, 2008). Potential buyers would then bid against each other. The person who bid the most would then own that slave. The picture below shows a slave being auctioned to the highest bidder. The slave auction was a terrible ordeal for the slaves, they did not understand the language and had no idea what was happening  (historyonthenet.com).

Most owners saw slaves as property that performed labor for their businesses. As the demand for slaves rose, so did their value. After the importation of slaves ended, owners began buying additional slaves from owners in the upper South (Cayton, et al, p288). This development started the breakup of many slave families. The slaves unable to live and work under such harsh and dehumanized conditions, started to “steal away”, and rebel. The institution of slavery had such a stronghold on the economy of America that it would prevail for a number of years.

The most important thing to be said about slavery from the perspective of the enslaved is that millions of African Americans endured slavery by making a world for themselves in the midst of their bondage. At the foundation of this enslaved culture stood the black family. Slaveholders did this for simple economic reasons and to make it easier to control the slaves. Whatever the reasons, slaves took advantage of the opportunity to use the family environment as a refuge and as a source of cultural endurance. Enslaved children learned family history from their parents by the stories told to them while they worked along side their mothers in the fields or at night in the slave cabins. Among the survival skills taught them were proper work habits, respect for elders, reverence for a spiritual world, and how to deal with whites by “putting on the Massa.” In this way, black parents showed their children how to cope with slavery by fooling the master without losing one’s self respect (www.slaveryinamerica.org.).

In addition to relying on the strength of family networks, the enslaved turned to religion as a means of coping with slavery. During the colonial era, most enslaved Africans retained as best they could their indigenous African religions or Islam in the cases of those who had come from Muslim countries. It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that large numbers of Africans began converting to Christianity during the religious revival movement that swept over the English colonies. During this Great Awakening, English Methodists and Baptists (later) preached an evangelical style of Christianity that appealed to the emotions and offered salvation to all who embraced Christ regardless of one’s class or race. This new emotional religion blended nicely with African spiritual beliefs and religious practices. Its emphasis on singing, emotional fervor, spiritual rebirth, and total body immersion in water during baptism was especially attractive to enslaved blacks (http://www.slaveryinamerica.org/history/hs_es_overview). But, the country was not at rest. Religious reforms, the anti-slavery movement and the civil war were all in progress at this time. Although very few chose not understand why the slaves wanted their freedom, several citizens did not understand the separation of the institution based on religion and religious reform(Cayton et al.)

Starting in 1861, states of the North clashed with states of the South in a brutal conflict that Americans called the Civil War. The causes of the Civil War were many and complex. Many white Northerners believed that slavery violated the basic principles of both the United States and the Christian religion, and believed that slavery was an evil that could not be tolerated. The first shots fired in 1861 signaled the start of the nation’s Civil War and lasted for four years. Slaves were used involuntarily for labor by the Confederates. Freed African Americans were employed to build forts, drive wagons and perform noncombat jobs. Black volunteers were not allowed to join the Union army, however in 1862 Congress authorized Lincoln to accept African Americans into the military. Several months later, Lincoln made the announcement in the Emancipation Proclamation. Given this encouragement, nearly 185,000 African Americans had enlisted in the Union Army. For these soldiers, fighting to help free others who were still enslaved had special meaning(Cayton, p.397). From 1861 to 1865 an estimated 620,000 soldiers were killed, of which more than 38,000 were African American. The wounds of war, both physically and psychologically were not easily healed, and carried on into the twentieth century(Goldfarb, S).

Nearly 240 years were to have passed before the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution officially ended slavery in 1865. This means that 12 generations of blacks survived and lived in America as enslaved people-direct descendants of the nearly 500,000 enslaved Africans imported into North America by European traders. Some of the 180,000 African Americans who fought for their freedom as Union soldiers in the American Civil War could trace their families to the time of the Pilgrims. Still this was not enough to be treated as citizen of the United States, or as a human being in general. Discrimination, education, voting rights and civil rights were to be the next items sought in the struggle to survive and prosper. The war for the African American waged on. 

For many African Americans the surge of joy at gaining freedom quickly faded as they realized how many obstacles stood between them and true equality. Defeat in war had not changed the fact that white people still dominated southern society, and the white leaders of those governments quickly passed laws to restrict African American’s new found freedoms. These laws were known as black codes. These laws established again a virtual slavery. Curfews, vagrancy laws, labor contracts and land restrictions all but placed African Americans back into slavery. The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment did little to help. The Fifteenth Amendment insured no person may be denied the right to vote and for the first time in history, African Americans had political power in 1870. More than 600 African Americans were elected to state legislatures. While this was all well and good, it did little for the “little” man not in government. The demand for “a fair chance in the race of life” was echoed by freedmen across the South. This fair chance meant land. “Give us our own land and we can take care of ourselves, but without land, our old masters can hire us or starve us as they please”(Cayton, 2003). Planters had land, but no labor. Freedmen had labor, but no land. Out of these needs came sharecropping, tenant farming, and another way of being entrapped. However, a stronger people prevailed. African Americans have to this point survived the Middle Passage, life on the plantation, civil war, the black codes, sharecropping and tenant farming. They have survived beatings, burnings and even the Ku Klux Klan and World War I only to still be treated as a second class citizen. Down trodden, but not dead, African American moves on. Ever faithful, ever strong, ever seeking a better way or better day, to the land of milk and honey they go. It’s migrating time-The Great Migration.

After the war immigration from Europe virtually stopped, and the armed forces had taken many young men out of the labor pool. Businesses suddenly needed workers. Factory owners who had previously discriminated against African Americans now actively recruited them.

The African American who had left the South to look for work in northern factories added to the steady stream of migrants had turned into a flood. Some 500,000 African Americans joined what came to be called the Great Migration(Davidson, et al, 2008). The dramatic exodus of African Americans from countryside to city and from South to North during World War I and the decade that followed changed forever black America’s economic, political, social, and cultural lives. The Great Migration was, up to that point, the largest voluntary internal movement of black people ever seen. There were several factors that drew African Americans out of the South and into cities throughout the nation. Poverty, the lack of educational facilities for the children, rigid segregation and discrimination, and limited opportunities were all among the reasons that led some to look North. Besides a dire economic situation, Southerners, as they had done during the Great Migration, were also fleeing Jim Crow. With little hope of redress in the justice system, African Americans were at the mercy of abusive employers, landlords, and almost anyone bent on depriving them of their rights. Notwithstanding the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which guaranteed them the right to vote, the vast majority were effectively disenfranchised by restrictive rules that applied only to them. Rigid segregation in public spaces – signaled by the constant presence of “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs on water fountains, restroom doors, hospital wards, transportation, and housing – was a constant humiliation and a reminder that blacks were second-class citizens. Compared to the South, the North, although segregated in practice if not by law, appeared appealing (www.inmotionaame.org).

The journey for equality for the African American citizen in the United States continue, great strides have been made. African Americans are once again in the political arena. We are entitled to fair and equal housing , education and employment. We now have an African American president.

The struggle has been long, arduous, and steeped with many hills to climb. In keeping to the mantra by which many African Americans live it has been proven that which does not destroy us tends to make us stronger prevails.

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