How Slavery Strengthened the Black Family
Slavery has been in existence for thousands of years, for as long as humanity’s collective history. It is common knowledge that some of our monumental works of art like the Great Pyramids of Egypt were erected by slaves. Slavery usually begins when there is a need to produce something at a larger scale. In the case of the United States, that item was primarily cotton. From the 18th up until the 20th century, Black Americans were traded as slaves to work the vast cotton plantations of the Northern Americas. There are many forms of oppression in the world. Because people, individually and collectively, like to feel the position of power and control. This need for power is the reason why the Black people were forced into slavery at the height of Western colonialism and why they have been suffering from double standards in a White dominated society.
To most of the world, slavery is considered as oppressive and a shame in the history of modern United States. However, it is not without its benefits. Along with the many cruelty and evils that slavery has spawned, slavery has also in so many ways, 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 purports to be a haven for freedom and democratic living. This paper will discuss 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 Gutman’s argument that slavery has been a boon to Black Americans instead of the curse that it is commonly believed to be.
Accounts of Slavery
Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is an account of the author’s life as a slave in the cotton fields of the United States of America, and his own personal journey to freedom. While on the surface it may seem like a simple narrative, Douglass’ life-story was presented in the larger context of man’s desire to free himself from the forces that would keep him in chains, as well as those things inside him that prevent his from breaking free from these shackles. More than a tale about the desire to be a free man, Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is about the quest of one man to empower himself amidst a young country seeking for its own sense of self-identity. In a sense, Douglass’ story is the story of a nation seeking for self-determination. As such, he is able to chronicle the changes that his country was going through in its bid for self even as he searched for personal liberty. Through Douglass, we are given a chance to glimpse at the life of one man and a hundred of memories of a way of life long gone by.
Indeed for both Douglass and Melville, 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.” (1999, p. 45)
By these words capture the universal struggles of man against all the things that keep him in chains. However, Douglass takes an overtly masculine view about slavery and freedom. Freedom is directly related to their sense of self and manhood, and such, they also take a masculine approach in their search for freedom. This means that 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.
On the other hand, there is another view to the struggle against slavery and that is the perspective of the woman. And this can be seen in the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Both written by women, they capture the essence of the feminine struggle against slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells the story of slaves about to be sold and their subsequent escape and the hardships and sacrifices they fought along the way. Eliza, upon hearing the plan that they will be sold, hatched the idea to escape in order to protect her son. She was not so much afraid of hardship because she has been used to it all her life. Eliza was deathly afraid of losing her only surviving child, that is why she planned an escape. Eliza says, “I feel it in me, that God is going to bring us out of bondage, this very day.”(1853, p. 235) Stowe’s novel is notable because it illustrates many instance of how slavery affects a family and the woman’s desire to soften the blows of slavery, especially to their children. 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.
Similarly, Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is unique in endowing issues of freedom and slavery with the voice of a woman and telling their unique experiences as a slave. Jacob’s work however goes beyond issues of slavery to the particular oppression of women, slave or otherwise. 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 thus 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… (1862, p. 84)
In the end, these books recount our search for a voice and the need to be heard, regardless of time and circumstance. Indeed man and woman may have different demands from freedom and they seek it for reasons that vary. However such a difference is only a matter of their nature. The woman is acting as a mother, while the man seeks freedom to lead the way for others.
Herbert Gutmann’s argument may be explained by the two previous accounts on slavery and the different effects that it has based on the perspectives of gender. According to Gutman, African Americans brought with them the deeply set sense of family and community when they were taken as slaves to the new world. The male and the female kept their roles in a world turned uprside down. (Gutman, 1977, p. 43) This sense of family did not change, perhaps made even 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 asunder by being sold to different owners in far-off plantations managed to keep a sense of family even as they were separated by distance and circumstance. Men, women, and children of several generations who belonged to various owners managed to feel connected as family (Gutman, 1977, p. 135).
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 the earth and signs of seasons. In most African tribes that exist today, nomadic ways of life still persist. (Thomas, 1956, p. 46) 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 function of 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 mother may decide to quit working to care for her children, or may stop working for 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 not to work and care for the children full time. However in most cases, the mother must find some means to augment the income. (Walker, 1996, p. 143) The increase in the number of day care centers in modern countries such as the United States and England are 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. (Brunner, 1980, p. 93) The African tribes have no such dilemma; mothers are hands-on in taking care of the children, often carrying the young ones when the women go out to gather nuts and fruits, as well as to 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. (Turnbull, 1968, p. 67) The female children will be taught how to tend the settlement, as well as gather nuts, fruits, and edible other foliage. 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, whether due to financial or personal considerations. The Bushmen mother does not have much choice. Their duties have largely remained unchanged for thousands of years: to tend the household, gather water, take care of the children, and guide them in their growing years. 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 manifest them in more creative ways, given the limitations imposed by their 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.
The Civil Rights Movement
Indeed it might be said that the African American movement was a movement that has been a long time in the making. But when it did take place, it did so at the best possible time. The movement came at a time when Americans were becoming aware of the rights of others, and thus American society was only too willing to heed the call of a people who have been in the land long before anyone else did. The 1960’s brought with it a legacy of “assimilation and cultural legitimization” (Benham, 2002, p. 3), and it left on its heels a nation of African Americans who are more aware of their rights and became more assertive in pushing for those rights. The 1960’s saw the African American Movement taking off led by a new generation of well-educated leaders fighting to restore intrinsic human rights that have been taken away from them. All across the United States, these African American leaders disputed violations and successfully negotiated for expanded rights for the American Africans.
Every individual wants to be treated with respect. Their struggles parallel each other because they are denied more or less the same rights. Up until the 20th century, African Americans did not have the right to vote, they are also relegated to certain roles in society, women to keep house and produce children, the Black people to till the cotton fields or other production or industry that requires labor. In a sense, all oppressed groups of the 1960’s such as women and the Black people are all treated as utilitarian entities, good only if they are able to deliver on what is expected of them. Black people who are unable to produce as expected are sold off to another house for another life of slavery. (McLoyd, Hill, ; Dodge, 2005, p. 91) Moreover, the Black people, during the height of their oppression, were not allowed to go to school. They were kept ignorant because it is believed that such knowledge would be wasted on them. As such, many Black people remained unable to read, even until the mid-20th century.
It is no surprise therefore that the sixties saw the peak of the black civil rights movement. After making minor but pioneering breakthroughs in the fifties, African Americans began pursuing more peaceable means to forward their cause. More court decisions and legislation slowly allowed for the integration of black Americans and over the decades, the efforts of the civil rights movement began showing itself as next generation African Americans benefit from the struggle their predecessors made in their behalf.
Freedom from Social Class
All of these movements are buttressed by an underlying need for equality under the law. The imbalance created by social classes is mainly a function of who has access to better opportunities. Social scientists believe that in America, there are three widely accepted social classes: the poor, the middle class and the elite, with the middle class occupying a number bigger than the two combined. This stratification creates an imbalance and where the powers vacillate between the hands of the very few who have the money and the influence and in the hands of the working class, who exert power by virtue of their great numbers.
It is within the greater struggle for social equality did the Black Americans launch their own campaign for basic freedoms. At the root of the civil rights movement is the need for individual and collective self-determination as the well as the need to protect the family. (Dunaway, 2003, p. 68) Much like the Black Americans, the women were seeking respect and equal rights under the law and wanted a society that did not discriminate of the basis of color, religion, gender, or sexuality. Indeed it might be said that the sixties was an era that saw all discontent and unhappiness come to a boiling point. For the United States, the time was perfect for change, having achieved stability and prosperity after decades of war and other upheavals. Having overcome its growing pains and stabilized as a country, it was time for American society to mature. The civil rights movement and all the rest that came under its banner was a movement that has been a long time in the making. And when it did take place, it did so at the best possible time. The movement came at a time when Americans were becoming aware of their rights and the rights of others. Thus American society was only too willing to heed the winds of change.
The search for voice and the need to be heard is universal in every individual, and that is what the civil rights movement is all about. While the Summer Freedom and the people who participated lived in a unique time in history, the civil rights movement is a story is about humanity’s universal need to find our personal voice in a largely oppressive world. Indeed oppression and segregation, and its many forms and variations go against the very nature of humanity. The rules of conformity suppress the need to be able to express one’s self in an individual manner, and thus find expression in other ways. That is why the racial discrimination and slavery is inherently anarchic because the very people that it seeks to enslave are inherently different and free. Eventually, people rise up in arms to fight for their right to self-determination.
Indeed, 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 torn asunder. However instead of breaking the sense of family, slavery made it more stronger until the time came for all of them to be reunited in memory and the common cause of freedom.
Douglass, F. (1999). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: An American Slave. Oxford University Press.
Dunaway, W. (2003). The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. Cambridge University Press.
Gutman, H. (1977). The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. Vintage Books.
Jacob, H. (1862). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Oxford University Press.
McLoyd, V., Hill, N. ; Dodge, K. (2005). African American Family Life: Ecological and Cultural Diversity. Guilford Press.
Stowe, H. (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly. University of Michigan.
Thomas, E. (1959). The Harmless People. Vintage Books.
Turnbull, C. (1968). The Forest People. Simon & Schuster.
Walker, C. (1996). Breaking Strongholds in the African-American Family: Strategies for Spiritual Warfare. Zondervan.