Slavery—A Black-and-White Issue

Annette Gordon-Reed
February 4, 2003
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This is the third in a series of five excerpts from Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library (National Geographic Books,2003).

In Thomas D. Morris's Southern Slavery and the Law 1619-1860 there is a description of a judicially ordered partition of slaves after the death of their "owner," Robert McCausland of Louisiana.

The image is straightforward and devastating. Morris writes, "The slaves were divided into two lots, and the heirs drew the lots from slips of paper marked Lot 1 and Lot 2." Morris then reproduces the names of the people who were placed in each respective group.

The list clearly shows that families were separated—husbands and wives, a mother from her infant—all to satisfy the property interests of the white slave owners who had the power to (and did) treat black slaves as something on the order of cattle.

Whenever I read this passage I am struck by how this episode reveals the rock-hard essence of American slavery: one group of people under the whim and control of another. Families were torn apart—or lived with the constant threat of separation—not because of the vagaries of nature, primitive health care, or dangerous occupations, but in the ordinary course of a social, economic, and legal system that promoted these types of atrocities.

Make no mistake; in a society that treated human beings as property, and that placed the right to private property at the apex of its values, enslaved people could have no sure expectation of maintaining even the deepest, most elemental of their human connections. To the dominant culture, absolutely nothing about black life was sacred.

And yet, I know many things were sacred to enslaved people. They were human beings, and the desire for personal integrity, the impulse to create and maintain a family life, to build and be a part of a community, and to express spirituality in some manner, were as present within the community of slaves as they have been in all human societies.

Although the humanity of slaves is universal—it speaks to all who choose to recognize it—it draws me in a very specific way.

Because I am black, the connection I feel to American slaves is particular in that it is racial. I simply cannot read about slave children, or see photographs or depictions of them, without at some point thinking of my own daughter and son.

This is not to suggest that white observers of that time could not make the same connection, think of their own children and feel empathy and outrage at the very idea of human beings in that condition.

The big difference, of course, is that my family would actually have been eligible for slavery. A doll or cradle that belonged to a slave child could have been my own daughter's toy or cradle had she been born a mere 140 years ago, not even the beginning of a blink of the eye of history.

If one adds the decades after the end of the Civil War, when blacks in the South continued to live lives nearly as blighted as those of slaves, all this was not so long ago.

Truthfully, it is more useful to think of the black experience in America as being along a continuum—from slavery to a gradual move toward citizenship that is still ongoing. Considering it that way, as long as blacks are on the American continent they will be bound to the memories of their forebears who endured the almost unendurable. The chain cannot be broken.

It is significant that it was black people who were treated with such inhumanity. For American slavery was racially based, and sought to stamp an entire race of people with the mark of inferiority.

Slavery nurtured not just "unfreedom," it promoted and sustained a doctrine of white supremacy that has outlasted the peculiar institution itself.

Slavery and racism were inextricably entwined. That is why it is so important for us today to understand that time and be aware of its influences as we struggle to "overcome."

But how do we do this?

There has been some debate about the proper approach to depicting both the operation of and effect of slavery on black culture. In one corner are those who believe that the incessant focus on the power of white slave-owners neglects the story of blacks' efforts to resist the terms of their captivity—through the less common venue of slave rebellions or the more common route of negotiating within the boundaries of their very limited power to seek the best life they could.

In this view the agency of the enslaved must be recognized, lest whites and blacks of today remain seduced by the fantasy of total white omnipotence and total black impotence. There is a legitimate fear that traces of that particular construction of the master-slave relationship will influence attitudes about racial hierarchies today.

Although it won't be said out loud (except by the most racist members of society), the quiet assumption will remain that whites are naturally in power and blacks are naturally out of it. Hasn't it been that way from the beginning?

On the other hand, how much "power" can be given to slaves before slavery comes to resemble just an extremely bad employment situation?

Those who are skeptical of the desire to highlight the agency of slaves wonder whether the focus on the slaves' ability to in some ways transcend their circumstances, however uplifting the stories might be, tends to distort the picture.

The argument is that this minimizes the evil of slavery and obscures the guilt of slave owners who, by the very nature of their society, had the power of life and death over the enslaved.

That slaves managed to make the best of their circumstances is a sidelight to the main point: They were the victims of naked aggression.

Which view is right? Perhaps the unsatisfactory answer is that they are both right. The better course of action, then, is to try to see slavery in all its aspects.

There is simply no way for one book, one view, any one perspective to capture the experiences of a culture that spread itself out over three centuries. We should be sophisticated enough to see that. Slave agency and white power were not mutually exclusive phenomena. They both existed, and it is necessary to write clearly about both in as truthful a manner as possible.

That is why the burgeoning interest in slavery expressed in books, movies, art and museum exhibits, and finally politics and law (with the rise of the reparations movement) is so important.

My own journey into thinking, learning, writing, and teaching about slavery and how it affects us today puts me more in the corner of those who are interested in how blacks survived under slavery.

It is imperative to keep in mind that although white slave owners did have overwhelming power, they were not gods.

That nothing of black life was sacred to whites did not mean that there was nothing sacred to black life. The inner lives of slaves could never have been the total province of the masters. Nothing shows that more clearly than the slaves' construction of their religious lives and their family lives.

As James Baldwin correctly observed, blacks transformed Christianity in America, unleashing it from its more "God-centered" moorings and turning it toward the ideal of Jesus, the Savior.

The poetry of the Negro spirituals is a testament to that transformation, as the story of suffering and redemption in the Holy Land was transported to the fields of Georgia and Texas. Whatever message the masters were taking from the Bible, it is clear that the slaves were taking another.

The substance of the holy text was not the only important lesson learned, however. The creation of a congregation, the establishment of leadership in the form of the preacher of the Gospel, showed black slaves that they were capable of organizing themselves as a community to achieve a stated goal—again, the link between the past, present, and future.

Lessons learned, values adopted were carried from the slave quarter into the new world of freedom and beyond.

Even today, some argue that the church remains the preeminent institution within the black community. The same could be said of family life. That the law provided nothing in the way of protection for slave families did not prevent the notion of family from growing and remaining within the slave community.

One of the most ironic aspects of the modern view of slavery is that some black Americans have been made to feel ashamed of their ancestors' condition, when it is so clear that it is not black people who have anything to be ashamed of. They did the best they could with what they had.

Family connections were maintained and strengthened through naming practices. Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who may have been separated by great distances, were kept a part of the fold by giving children their names.

The practice of taking care of those who were not relatives took hold in slavery as well, forging a broader conception of family that was as much about duty and empathy as blood.

This is the genius of adaptation.

Several years ago I attended a presentation given by Cinder Stanton and Dianne Swanne Wright at the International Center for Jefferson Studies. It was part of their Getting Word Project, which involves interviewing the descendants of people who were enslaved at Monticello. It is a marvelous effort that is yielding much vital information about the family and social life of slaves and free blacks.

Stanton and Wright had put together a slide presentation that contained photographs of family members, some from the late 1840s and 1850s, up until the present. As I sat in the dark listening to their words and studying the slides as they flashed across the screen, there was one moment that brought me near tears. It was the photo of a man named Peter Fossett, whose family had been scattered to the winds upon Thomas Jefferson's death in bankruptcy.

Some members of the Fossett family, who later gained their freedom, worked hard and, with the help of friends, bought Peter Fossett's freedom. He moved to Ohio and became a prosperous caterer and a pillar of his church.

There he was, dressed in his finest suit, looking as dignified as anyone who ever lived—and he was. It was awesome to think that this man started life as a chattel—an item of property—as did the rest of his family.

Yet his face and demeanor told a different story. He was never just that. This was a human being.

After his emancipation Fossett and his family, as did millions of other blacks, picked up their lives and went forward, taking with them the lessons of family loyalty, the importance of self-improvement, and faith.

There is no better lesson that we can learn from the lives of the enslaved. If we want to be worthy of them, we must learn it.

This is the third in a series of excerpts from Jubilee: the Emergence of African-American Culture by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Part One: Celebrating African-American Culture
Part Two: How Slavery Helped Build a World Economy
Part Four: America's Cultural Roots Traced to Enslaved African Ancestors
Part Five: The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice

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