Intro to Afro-American Studies
The Melting Pot of African Peoples
Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies
|LOGIC OF CHANGE||Social Cohesion||Traditional Africa||-||Slavery||-||Rural Life||-||Urban Life|
|Social Disruption||-||Slave Trade||-||Emancipation||-||Migrations||-|
|UNITS OF ANALYSIS||Ideology||A1||B1||C1||D1||E1||F1||G1|
The first Black people in North America were not slaves. Evidence indicates that prior to Columbus's laying claim to the new world in the name of the Spanish Queen Isabella, African explorers crossed the oceans. In addition, several Black people were with Columbus in 1492. By the 17th century, however, most Blacks in the Americas found themselves in the institution of slavery.
INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY
has existed at every period in world history until very recently, but its
existence has not always had the same economic character. Two questions
must be answered to correctly analyze any particular cause of slavery: (1)
what other systems of labor exist in the society in addition to slavery?
and (2) what system of labor is dominant? In this way we can make a
distinction between ancient slavery (e.g., in Greece and Egypt where free
farmers coexisted with slaves, but slavery was dominant) and antebellum
slavery in the United States (which coexisted with free farmers, but was
dominated by the industrially-based capitalism of the urban North). The
historical dominance of capitalism in the United States made antebellum
slavery the most barbaric system
of slave labor. Not only did the slaves produce for the direct
consumption of their owners, they were also forced to feed the gluttonous
machines (textile mills) of both New England and "old" England
with their products (cotton). The average productive life of slaves in
cotton has been estimated at seven years during the height of King Cotton.
The textile mills consumed the cotton and the plantations consumed the
Solomon Northup, a slave, described a typical day in the life of a cotton slave:
in the historical experience of Black people is very important because it
lasted for 250 years, and we are only 120 years or so away from it.
Moreover, all subsequent historical experiences of Black people have been
influenced by the mark of slavery. It is a difficult moral problem for
Black and white people to look at slavery, but it is a necessary process
if one is to have a full historical understanding of the United States.
Just as we must understand the atrocities of the Vietnam War committed by
the, U.S. government in order to understand life in the United States
today, so must we understand the system of slavery if we are to understand
the origin and initial development of the United States in general and
Black people in particular.
The social organization or division of labor of slaves during the reign of
King Cotton must be considered as well. On the plantation, there was a
difference between house slaves an field slaves, sort of like the difference
between service workers (maids, janitors, hospital orderlies, etc.) and
production workers (workers who produce commodities for sale or goods for
consumption, like automobile and steel workers). James Stirling, writing
in. 1857, described the differences between house and field slaves:
was also a difference between life on the plantation and the life in the
city. The structure of the plantation was monolithic ( all power being in
the hands of the landowner ) and mostly limited to
what was on the plantation. However, in the city there was great diversity
and density so that life was more cosmopolitan. In the city, there was a
difference between the slaves owned by individuals and those owned
industrially by a company (e.g., a railroad). Though industrial slavery
was quite limited, it did provide the loosest form of social control and
it is here that the emergence of independence and initiative by Black
slaves can be seen most clearly.
These differences were the concrete basis that led to different forms of social and cultural life. Close, constant, and brutal supervision forced field slaves to develop an "underground" social life in addition to a few customs allowed to flourish on key holidays. House slaves were close to the social life of white people so that assimilation could take place (e.g., actual participation in the religious practices of their owners and, when going among field slaves, mimicking "white folks" with clothes, speech, and behavior borrowed from their owners). In the city, since the paternalism of the plantation was impossible, slaves had the time to develop limited patterns of free associate on in illegal institutions that developed in alleys and poorer parts of town (especially in New Orleans and Charleston).
the church and religion provided the main basis for the independent
development of Black social life: (1) to deal with the bible someone,
usually a Black minister, had to read; (2) to deal with religion meant
that Black people developed and/or reinforced. Values that dictated forms
of family life, interpersonal relations, and a general sense of justice
and fair play. In other words, the religion was the moral basis for the
development of the first forms of education and indigenous forms and
values regarding family life.
In analyzing the slave system of the antebellum South, it is necessary to
make a distinction between those mechanisms that held slavery together,
and those that tended to weaken slavery. The slave system was held
together by the dominant influence of the slave plantation owners. They
had the support of the northern industrialists, as well as the capitalist
powers in England, who needed cotton for the textile mills. The local and
state governments as well as Congress were dominated by the slave owners.
In this way, the slave system was totally protected by the economic and
political organization of power. All social and cultural institutions also
served the slave system. Except for a few cases (mainly the New England
Quakers and the social reformers who became forces desiring the peaceful
abolition of the slave system), the churches, schools, mass media, and
artists joined in support of the slave system.
must also be aware of the developments that tended to weaken the slave
system. They included the following:
out - This practice enabled slaves to find jobs and pay the bulk of their
wages to their owner. This developed initiative and independence in slaves
and resulted in a desire for freedom. A few slaves even purchased their
own freedom in this way.
slavery - As pointed out, this practice was the opposite of the close
paternalistic supervision of plantation life. Supervision was impersonal
and allowed slaves greater freedom, though not necessarily better
conditions of life or a higher standard of living.
- This is simply the process whereby a slave owner willfully freed a
slave. Much of this was done to free the offspring of a slave owner and
one of his female slaves.
away - This was the practice of slaves secretly leaving their owners for a
free state in the North or Canada. The most famous pattern was the
"underground railroad," a network of people who would provide
shelter and assistance to runaway slaves. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner
Truth were important leaders in this form of resistance to the slave
mixing -The sexual exploitation of Black women was the usual form of
amalgamation of Blacks and whites. This created a color status group of
mulattoes, who threatened the rigidity of the color line of Black people
on one side and white people on the other.
revolts - This form of collective resistance represented an armed
insurrection by the slaves themselves. Most were small and unsuccessful,
but a few are of great historical significance. In the summer of 1822,
Denmark Vesey organized a slave revolt around Charleston, South Carolina.
Between 6,000 and 9,000 were said to be implicated in the plan to attack
Charleston. The leaders, however, were betrayed and arrested. When slaves
tried to rescue them, state troopers converged upon them. During their
executions, federal troops were brought in to protect the city.
revolts continued throughout this period. In 1831, Nat Turner, a deeply
religious man, along with six other slaves began their crusade "to
take up Christ's struggle for the liberation of the oppressed." They
began by killing Turner's master, and within twenty-four hours they were
joined by some seventy slaves who killed all slaveholding whites in the
twenty mile area (approximately sixty in all). Soon hundreds of soldiers
swarmed the countryside, slaughtering over one hundred slaves and hanging
the leaders of the revolt. As Herbert Aptheker writes,
did not stop the slave revolts. They took place not only on land but also on the
high seas. For instance, Joseph Cinque, a native African, freed a whole
shipload of slaves; Madison Washington, a slave bound from Richmond to the
New Orleans slave market, rose up with others, liberated the ship, and
sailed into Nasseau, New Providence.
Armed attacks - This form of collective resistance represented a militant attack on slavery from outside the slave system. The most famous was undertaken by John Brown, who in 1859 gathered a small band of both Blacks and whites and seized a federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. They were defeated when hundreds of troops moved against them, but their actions, like those of militant slaves before and after them, were a part of a process that ended the formal institution of slavery.
others spoke out militantly over the years. In 1843, Henry Highland Garnet
exhorted slaves to rise up in resistance:
Echoing Garnet, Frederick Douglass some fifteen years later exclaimed:
By 1863 Douglass was urging Blacks to rise up and join the war effort:
What were the main features of the political economy of slavery in the
United States during the early 19th century?
What experiences did slaves have, based upon different occupations within
the plantation system? Of what significance were these differences in
influencing or shaping the capacity of Blacks to resist and to struggle to
Compare the factors that tended to strengthen slavery with those that
What are the similarities and differences in the methods of struggle
against slavery waged under the leadership of people such as: Denmark
Vesey, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Tubman,
Sojourner Truth, and Henry Highland Garnet?
John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the
Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to
Revolutions: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Modern World. New
York: Random House, 1979.
Nathan Huggins, Black Odyssey: The Afro-American Ordeal in Slavery.
New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
Leslie H. Owens, This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in
the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
5. William L. Van Deburg, Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture. Madison- University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.