Intro to Afro-American Studies


The Slave Experience: 
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
Nationality A2 B2 C2 D2 E2 F2 G2
Class A3 B3 C3 D3 E3 F3 G3
Race A4 B4 C4 D4 E4 F4 G4

When "in his cups," Master Epps was a roystering, blustering, noisy fellow, whose chief delight was in dancing with his "niggers," or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream, as the great welts were planted on their backs. When sober, he was silent, reserved and cunning, not beating us indiscriminately, as in his drunken moments, but sending the end of his rawhide to some tender spot of a lagging slave, with a sly dexterity peculiar to himself.

Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, 1853.

 He might plead his cause with the tongue of Frederick Douglass, and the nation listened almost unmoved. He might labor for the nation's wealth, and the nation took the results without thanks, and handed him as near nothing in return as would keep him alive. He was called a coward and a fool when he protected the women and children of his master. But when he rose and fought and killed, the whole nation with one voice proclaimed him a man and brother. Nothing else made emancipation possible in the United States. Nothing else made Negro citizenship conceivable, but the record of the Negro soldier as a fighter.

W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1935.


    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.


Slavery is basically a system of political economy in which the production process is carried out by slaves, human beings owned as property by other human beings. Slaves work under direct coercion, and the product of their labor is owned entirely by their owner. Frederick Douglass captured the essence of slavery in 1846:

Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of property in the body and soul of another. The condition of a slave is simply that of the brute beast. He is a piece of property - a marketable commodity, in the language of the law, to be bought or sold at the will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; he is spoken of, thought of, and treated as property. His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and the wishes of the master are the law of the slave. He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property. If he is clothed, it is with a view to the increase of his value as property. Whatever of comfort is necessary to him for this body or soul that is inconsistent with his being property is carefully wrested from him, not only by public opinion, but by the law of the country. He is carefully deprived of everything that tends in the slightest degree to detract from his value as property.


     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 slaves!

     Solomon Northup, a slave, described a typical day in the life of a cotton slave: 

When a new hand, one unaccustomed to the business, is sent for the first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly, and made for that day to pick as fast as he can possibly. At night it is weighed, so that his capability in cotton picking is known. He must bring in the same weight each night following. If it falls short, it is considered evidence that he has been laggard, and a greater or less number of lashes is the penalty... 

   The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the night. They do not dare to stop even at dinner time, nor return to the quarters, however late it be, until the order to halt is given by the driver... 

   No matter how fatigued and weary he may be - no matter how much he longs for sleep and rest - a slave never approaches the gin-house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short in weight- if he has not performed the full task appointed him, he knows that he must suffer... 

   This done, the labor of the day is not yet ended, by any means. Each one must then attend to his respective chores. One feeds the mules, another the swine - another cuts the wood, and so forth; besides, the packing is all done by candle light. Finally, at a late hour, they reach the quarters, sleepy and overcome with the long day's toil. Then a fire must be kindled in the cabin, the corn ground in the small hand-mill, and supper, and dinner for the next day in the field, prepared. All that is allowed them is corn and bacon, which is given out at the corncrib and smoke-house every Sunday morning.... 
When it is "done brown:' the ashes are scraped off, and being placed upon a chip, which answers for a table, the tenant of the slave hut is ready to sit down upon the ground to supper. By this time it is usually midnight. The same fear of punishment with which they approach the gin-house, possesses them again on lying down to get a snatch of rest. It is the fear of oversleeping in the morning.  Such an offense would certainly be attended with not less than twenty lashes. . . . 

   An hour before day light the horn is blown.... Then the fears and labors of another day begin; and until its close there is no such thing as rest. He fears he will be caught lagging through the day; he fears to approach the gin-house with his basket-load of cotton at night; he fears, when he lies down, that he will-oversleep himself in the morning. Such is a true, faithful, unexaggerated picture and description of the slave's daily life, during the time of cotton-picking, . . . 

     Slavery 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. 

     While we are treating slavery as one of the three main historical experiences of Black people, it too developed in stages. The first stage marks a difference between slavery in the upper colonies (New England and New York), where slaves were mainly used for domestic work and some manufacturing, and in the lower colonies, where slaves were used in agricultural work. The second stage marks a shift from the southeastern region where slaves produced rice, indigo, and tobacco to the fertile delta region of Mississippi, central Alabama, and southeastern Georgia where cotton was grown. The third main stage of slavery occurred when cotton became King and dominated the entire economy of the South. It was a fundamental feature of the entire U.S. economy as well. Based on this changing pattern in the demand for slave labor, the geographical distribution of slaves changed from an initial concentration in the southeastern coastal area (e.g., South Carolina and Virginia) to the western part of the South (Mississippi). This stretched the concentration of Black people in a half moon- shaped pattern creating the Black Belt South (which to some limited extent still exists today, though no longer is it the main concentration of Black people). 


  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:


In judging of the welfare of the slaves, it is necessary to distinguish the different conditions of slavery. The most important distinction, both as regards numbers and its influence on the well-being of the slave, is that between house-servants and farm or field-hands. The house-servant is comparatively well off. He is frequently born and bred in the family he belongs to; and even when this is not the case, the constant association of the slave and his master, and master's family, naturally leads to such an attachment as ensures good treatment....
  The position of the field-hands is very different; of those especially, who labour on large plantations. Here there are none of those humanizing influences at work which temper of the system , nor is there the same check of public opinion to control abuse. The "force" is worked  en masse , as a great human mechanism, or if you will ,as a drove of human cattle.


  There 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 debate over slavery and religion among white people, and the impact of religion on Black people, are major aspects of the social and cultural experience of slavery. If slaves could be baptized, then they were human beings after all; if they were less than human they should not be brought into the "Kingdom of God." So as slaves were either baptized or got access to the bible (which of course meant the learned how to read), they took on a new social and cultural identity. In addition to worshipping with their masters in some cases, slaves were able to express their identity in developing their own forms of worship  and devotion

     Thus, 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.


We must also be aware of the developments that tended to weaken the slave system. They included the following:

Hiring 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.

Industrial 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.

Manumission - 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.

Running 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 system.


Race 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.

Slave 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.

     Slave 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,

The South was panic-stricken. Disaffected or rebellious slaves were, in the winter of 1831, arrested, tortured or executed in other counties of Virginia, in Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina (where at least three slaveholders died from fear!), Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

     This 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.


     Many others spoke out militantly over the years. In 1843, Henry Highland Garnet exhorted slaves to rise up in resistance:

  If you would be free in this generation, here is your only hope. However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once - rather die freemen, than to  be the slaves....
   Brethren, arise, arise ! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the Land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered....
   Let your motto be resistance resistance resistance No oppressed people have ever-secured their liberty without resistance. What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you, and according to the suggestion of expediency.

Echoing Garnet, Frederick Douglass some fifteen years later exclaimed:

If there is no struggle there is no progress...  This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it, never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will-be imposed upon them, And these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

By 1863 Douglass was urging Blacks to rise up and join the war effort:

A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the perpetual enslavement of colored men, Calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress it. Only a moderate share of sagacity was needed to see that the arm of the slave was the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder... Action! Action! not criticism, is the plain duty of this hour. Words are now useful only as they stimulate to blows. The office of speech now is only to point out when, where, and how, to strike to the best advantage. There is no time to delay. The tide is at its flood that leads on to fortune. From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, "Now or never." Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. "Who would be free themselves must strike the blow." "Better even die free, than to live slaves." This is the sentiment of every brace colored man amongst. us.... By every consideration which binds you to your enslaved fellow-countrymen, and the peace and welfare of your country; by every aspiration which you cherish for the freedom and equality of yourselves and your children; by all the ties of blood and identity which make us one with the brave black men now fighting our battles in Louisiana and in South Carolina, I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave....

The chance is now given you to end in a day the bondage of centuries, and to rise in one bound from social degradation to the plane of common equality with a other varieties of men. Remember Denmark Vesey of Charleston; remember Nathaniel Turner of Southampton; remember Sheilds Green and Copeland, who followed noble John Brown, and fell as glorious martyrs for the cause of the slave. Remember that in a contest with oppression, the Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with oppressors. The case is before you. This is our golden opportunity. Let us accept it, and forever wipe out the dark reproaches unsparingly hurled against us by our enemies. Let us win for ourselves the gratitude of our country, and the best blessings of our posterity through all time. Collective resistance continued to be the theme of many militants before during, and long after the war. The historical experience of slavery is one of repression and acquiescence, but it is also one of resistance and rebellion.



Ancient vs. antebellum slavery Manumission
Hiring out Slave revolt
House vs. field slaves Social organization
Plantation vs. urban slavery Three stages of slavery
King Cotton Underground railroad




1. What were the main features of the political economy of slavery in the United States during the early 19th century?

2. 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 abolish slavery?

3. Compare the factors that tended to strengthen slavery with those that weakened it.

4. 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?  




1. John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

2. Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolutions: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Modern World. New York: Random House, 1979.

3. Nathan Huggins, Black Odyssey: The Afro-American Ordeal in Slavery. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

4. 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.


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