Week 13 – 4/10 19th Century Slave Life

16 thoughts on “Week 13 – 4/10 19th Century Slave Life

  1. taymn April 9, 2013 at 10:01 am Reply

    David Brion Davis pointed out that many slave children did not fully realize that they were slaves until late and the same was true for Frederick Douglass. He also states that, “…coming to terms with a slave identity was then devastating, especially in a country that talked of liberty and equality and took such pride in disavowing hereditary titles and aristocratic status” (Davis 199). As he grew older, he came to terms with his slave identity. The opportunity to become educated brought Frederick Douglass to terms with the possibility to form a new identity. It was a “…pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass 35). Douglass was a good example of how slaves “[tested] their masters’ will” (Davis 195) and “…learned through constant experiment and struggle how to preserve a core of dignity and self-respect” (195). After standing up to Mr. Covey, Douglass regained self-confidence (Douglass 67). Douglass knew that slavery did not define him as a person.

    • Gahbrielle Armrdi April 10, 2013 at 9:45 am Reply

      Do you think that Fredrick Douglass would have the same opinion if he started out as a field-hand? I feel that Frederick Douglass was more open minded to the idea of being more than a slave because of his experiences as a house slave.

    • Daniel April 10, 2013 at 10:30 am Reply

      The level of education Douglass was able to receive as a house slave, that he likely would not have been able to receive as a field slave, probably played a significant role.

    • Eric April 10, 2013 at 12:41 pm Reply

      I think the masters might view this as a reason not to educate their slaves; this one that did receive education also later received his freedom. Keeping slaves in the dark seems more like a method for master to “protect the value of their capital investment.”

  2. Christine Shaw April 9, 2013 at 1:56 pm Reply

    One of the topics mentioned in both Frederick Douglass’ Narrative and the chapter from Davis is the effect that slavery can have on slave owners. While there was a range in how masters treated their slaves, slaves often became targets of their masters’ “hidden anger, passion, frustration, and revenge” (Davis 198). Even when the owner was initially kind or humane, the power that the slaveholders have over their slave(s) and the desire to maintain that power often leads them to turn to cruel exploitation. Douglass writes of this happening with Sophia Auld, the wife of one of his masters. When he first met her, he describes her as “a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings,” but “the fatal poison of irresponsible power” eventually makes her become harsher and lose her compassion towards him (Ch. VI).

    • taymn April 10, 2013 at 2:22 am Reply

      I found Douglass’ description of what happened to Sophia both fascinating and upsetting. It is amazing how power can change people. The power over another human being is one that Sophia (and other people who call themselves masters) should not have regardless.

    • Caroline April 10, 2013 at 11:28 am Reply

      I also found Douglass’ description of Sophia very interesting. Davis also mentions a quote by the Quaker John Woolman who said “no human is saintly enough to be entrusted with total power over another,” (198). Sophia Auld seems to be an example of this.

  3. cal72013 April 9, 2013 at 6:18 pm Reply

    In this chapter, Davis mentions the common sexual exploitation of slave women by their masters. He talks about how it “scared and humiliated black women, instilled rage in black men, and aroused both shame and bitterness in white women,” (201). Frederick Douglass writes about a few instances of sexual exploitation in his narrative and his rage can be clearly seen. For example, he talks about a woman named Caroline who one of his owners, Mr. Covey, bought as a “breeder,” (54). Mr. Covey then forced Caroline to have children in order to increase his own wealth. Sexual exploitation was also a common theme in modern slavery and in Mauritania masters would also use slave women as producers of more slaves.

    • Daniel April 10, 2013 at 10:40 am Reply

      Davis also mentions a slave girl who was condemned to death for defending herself against a white predator. Such treatment of black women though publically unacceptable was a common private practice.

  4. Gahbrielle Armrdi April 9, 2013 at 9:22 pm Reply

    I find it very interesting that Frederick Douglass mentions in his narrative that slave’s sang out of pain and unhappiness not for joy or pleasure. Douglass states “The songs of the slave represent the sorrow of his heart; and he is relieved by them only as an aching heart is relieved by tears”. I also found the differences between how slaves are treated on plantations and slaves in cities to be interesting. Masters in cities took better care of their slaves in order to uphold the reputation of being a good master. Davis draws on the fact that “American masters wanted above all to be “popular” with their slaves.”(Davis, 195) Religion still continues to play a role in justifying slavery. Frederick Douglass refers to the Christian religion of the south to be a blanket that covers the evils of slavery: “I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.” It’s amazing that slaves were able to differentiate the master’s misuse of Christianity as a means to justify slavery and develop their own meaning behind the Christian still believe in the same religion and God. Frederick Douglass gives thanks to go: “This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.” Davis states “slaves created their own folk religion and shaped it to their needs and interests.”(Davis, 203).

    • taymn April 10, 2013 at 2:15 am Reply

      I also find it interesting that Douglass spoke of singing out of pain. I thought he would have mentioned some songs that might have been sung to motivate and lighten the mood. Also, I never thought of how truly difficult and possibly even confusing it must have been for slaves to develop their own meaning for Christianity, having experienced it in such a hypocritical and negative way.

  5. Daniel April 9, 2013 at 11:47 pm Reply

    Both of the readings for this week helped me better understand his view of what Davis means by “inhuman” bondage, as he drives in the point that in all situations slaves ultimately had to be “kept down by force”. Even masters that treated their slaves “well” always did so in the context of forcefully depriving them of their liberty, and their allowances really have to be viewed with this fundamental aspect of slavery in mind. All masters had to prevent their slaves from leaving, and any “kind” actions or allowances of the master only take place within the “meaner” action of continued enslavement through force – a slave who remained and worked voluntarily can hardly be considered a slave in the same sense. I found one quote in particular interesting: “Most masters desperately sought a consensual element, a sign of consent and gratitude on the part of at least some slaves”. That even a kind master would have to “desperately” seek such justification for the constant crime of enslavement, caused me to reconsider some of my views of slavery. It leads me to give less credence to the idea that there could be fundamental differences in slavery based on relative kindness of the master, as Davis stresses the exploitive nature of all slavery, the “fundamental conflict of interests” prevalent throughout the practice. On the other hand, it also strengthened my opinion that slavery is an immediate wrong, so that all masters recognize it as such and can never truly achieve self-justification, meaning that true ethical life is an impossibility within its context and that the relative treatment of slaves by their owners is no ground for moral distinctions between them.

    • Gahbrielle Armrdi April 10, 2013 at 9:54 am Reply

      I think that there were a number of Southern Master who used a twisted understanding of Christianity in order to form justification for their unethical and immoral actions.

    • Caroline April 10, 2013 at 11:24 am Reply

      On that topic, I thought the example of the Christmas holiday that Frederick Douglass brought up in his narrative was especially interesting. He said that if the masters took away this time of relative freedom for the slaves, the slaves would definitely revolt.

  6. Eric April 9, 2013 at 11:57 pm Reply

    Both Davis and Douglass provide views on how slaves lived in the United States and, not surprisingly, they match up, though Douglass provides both more interpretation and a wider view of how slaves lived all across the South. The fact that “masters were primarily motivated by the desire for income and profit” (Davis 194) caused the greatest changes in slave life. Some masters believed being hospitable to the slaves they owned would have the highest labor yield, though most decided keeping the slaves in a state from where they couldn’t rebel the best option. Turning to supplying the slaves with the bare minimum essentials (Douglass tells us their sleeping arrangements consisted of one blanket per slave). A lost slave was always worse than an unproductive slave, masters treated their slaves this way to “maximize their slaves’ productivity while protecting the value of their capital investment” (Davis 194)

  7. Whitney April 10, 2013 at 10:12 am Reply

    Hi y’all,

    My name is Whitney Stewart, and I’m a colleague of Ben’s in the History Department studying race, identity, and culture in the Atlantic World. Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography is one of the most important slave narratives – indeed, one of the most important pieces of literature – published in the antebellum period, giving nineteenth-century contemporaries and modern-day readers a glimpse into one slave’s experience of the inhuman condition of American servitude. I remember the first time I read it as an undergrad. As a history major, I was of course interested in the content, yet Douglass’s eloquence and literary skill truly astounded me. How could a man who had only years before been illiterate, oppressed, and bound in a system meant to keep him subservient be crafting this beautiful, poignant prose?

    Douglass, like so many others, did not let allow his past, present, or future be defined by the institution that enslaved him. This is not to negate the truly powerful nature of slavery’s inhumanity; rather, it shows that slaves worked within the system to define themselves and their communities in their own ways. This point to something that Taymn brought up, that slavery did not define Douglass. What, then, do you think did define Douglass (from his perspective)? The question of how slaves defined themselves within the system of slavery has been of great importance to historians over the last fifty years. In the early- to mid-twentieth century, many scholars grappled with how best to understand slaves, homogenizing the slave experience into one “typical” figure: the Sambo, the Jezebel, the rebel, etc. As historians discovered new methods and techniques of unearthing the variegated lives of slaves across space and time, it became clear that there was no one experience. Indeed, what defined slaves was not the one common factor forced upon them – enslavement – but rather the cultural, social, and political institutions they produced out of a situation not of their own making.

    Alternatively, how do you think slave-masters defined themselves within the system? Christine wrote about slavery’s powerful effect on the masters, a process so dramatically displayed in Douglass’s discussion of Sophia Auld. This is such an interesting passage, revealing that slave-owners defined themselves through their slaves. The ability to own and control another human being was at the core of the slave-holding experience, at the core of what many historians have termed “paternalism.” Paternalism was an ideological system in which the “pater” (father) ruled with absolute authority over his dependents (wife, children, and slaves/servants) while benevolently providing them with protection and life’s essentials. Slave-owners used the ideology of paternalism to justify their slave-holding, something that Daniel rightly asserts was done constantly (though perhaps not consciously). From their perspective, an owner provided food, housing, and “love” in exchange for a slave’s labor. This was Christian benevolence at its greatest, slave-owners told themselves, once again invoking religion as a manner of appeasing their worries, fears, and immorality. That a slave-owner’s tyranny could fit within his or her understanding of Christianity reiterates Gahbrielle and Taymn’s discussion of the different understandings of religion that evolved in the slave cabins versus in the master’s house.

    As Davis argues, American slavery was inhuman, cruel, and oppressive; it tore individuals and families from Africa, fixed them in an inheritable system of bondage, and sought to eliminate any prospects beyond slavery. When we look more closely at the real-life experiences of slaves, however, we can see that slavery did not define their past, present, and future. How has the intensely personal nature of Douglass’s story changed the way you understand, perceive, and relate to slavery in the past and present?

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