Enslaved people in pre-Civil War America were as varied as any group. Each had distinct personalities and diverse histories reaching back to different regions of Africa. Going forward, I will try not to refer to them as “slaves” because it minimizes their uniqueness and frames them in relation to a system of oppression. It’s why I avoid referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.”
While categories will always be used, let’s be particularly respectful when using them regarding people who are oppressed and stereotyped. Enslaved men, women, and children were insultingly stereotyped in minstrel shows by whites in blackface (a topic for a future blog), but we do have access to the testimony of survivors. Interviews funded by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s helped historians like Eugene Genovese reveal the many unique personalities of, and innovative tactics used by, enslaved people.
It’s true that some slaves were “broken” by the system, stripped of ambition and reduced to numbness. Most slaves, however, retained their sense of purpose and identity while concealing their real thoughts in order to survive. Many slaves intentionally presented the “thankful slave” persona, smiling and flattering their owners to minimize punishments. Reassured about the contentedness of their chattel, owners were less vigilant, so slaves could take food or plan their escape.
enslaved Africans played up the myth of inferiority, feigning confusion about work orders, thus gaining another few minutes reprieve from back-breaking labor as their overseer explained their task over again. Others would “accidentally” break a plow or a wagon wheel, allowing them precious rest while repairs were made. Playing off white paternalism helped many survive.
Others, like Frederick Douglass, enhanced their reputation as surly and rebellious, a riskier strategy. Such “problem slaves” were often sent to “slave-breakers” or sold to the deep south where large plantation life offered a cruel fate. Douglass’s outward resistance did, however, both enhance his self-respect and proved to one cruel farmer named Covey that Douglass would not be “broken.”
Further recommended reading about:
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. This personal window into the world of one of our nation’s most remarkable human beings is enlightening, inspiring, and a pleasure to read. Douglass, a political and cultural leader, is also a uniquely transparent and gifted writer. Feel free to take a look before continuing here.
Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, 1974 Winner of the Bancroft Prize in History. Although Genovese’s Marxist analysis is problematic, few offer such a broad and detailed examination using the WPA’s Federal Writer’s Project interviews of people who were enslaved.
Blassingame, John. The Slave Community. A well-presented description of pre-Civil War family life, culture, tradition, and community strengths and resources.
Dusinberre, William. Strategies for Survival: Recollections of Bondage in Antebellum Virginia
Reveals “the dispiriting realities of the limits of slave resistance and agency” through reference to the slave narratives produced by the WPA.
Next blog: Frederick Douglass and White Fragility
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About this project:
This particular year-long commitment – which I am calling “400 Years” – is aimed mainly at people like me: people who identify as white, accept that racism gives them privileges, and want to confront systemic racism more consistently and constructively. Of course anyone can support the project, but my main hope is to encourage self-identifying whites who want to increase their efforts to confront racism and deconstruct white supremacy. I don’t intend on spending time trying to convince people who resist anti-racism activism. I want to help those who want to practice anti-racism to do it more often and more effectively.
This project will focus mainly on how racism in the United States has hurt Africans and their descendants. While non-whites from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East are often brutal victims of racism, I have been taught most by victims who happen to be black.
So when white people wanting to be more active in anti-racism ask me, “Where do I start?”, I often say, “Start with the history. People of color have already shared their wisdom in countless writings from slave narratives to peer reviewed articles to award winning historical works.” The weight of 400 years of race-based oppression fuels my commitment. Perhaps it will help you with your own efforts to deconstruct white supremacy.