How the Slaves' Fears about Family Breakup Could Make for Continual Anxiety
Like the sword of Damocles, a constant dread of sudden disaster hanged over the heads of slave family members. Without warning, at a slaveowner’s whim or turn of fate, he or she could destroy their family relationships through sale, moving, death, etc. This fear could transform itself into an all-consuming anxiety when a given bondsman had a personal make-up so inclined. Sarah Jackson had a good master, who even offered her and her children freedom. She took it because of a quite literal worry about the morrow: "I had served all my days, and did not feel safe at night: not knowing whom I might belong to in the morning. It is a great heaviness on a person's mind to be a slave. . . . I did not know how long before it would be my own fate. . . . I am better here [Canada] than I was at home,--I feel light,--the dread is gone." William Johnson explained why he fled bondage: "The fear of being sold South had more influence in inducing me to leave than any other thing. Master used to say, that if we didn't suit him, he would put us in his pocket quick--meaning he would sell us." Although Johnson was apparently a single man, having no marriage to lose through sale, this general fear gnawed away even on him. George Johnson of Virginia shared a similar anxiety, for the recalcitrant were more apt to be sold than whipped where he lived: "The slaves were always afraid of being sold South." Harriet Tubman constantly worried herself: "Then [after she grew older] I was not happy or contented: every time I saw a white man I was afraid of being carried away. I had two sisters carried away in a chain-gang,--one of them left two children. We were always uneasy."277 Once safely on the free soil of Canada, all these former slaves lost their nagging fears of being sold away from all they knew in this world, and likely being dumped elsewhere merely as some slaveholder's factor of production.
The Process of Being Bought and Sold as Itself Dehumanizing
The fear of being sold was one burden of slavery--quite another was the
dehumanizing process of sale itself. Here a buyer and seller likened your value to barnyard animals’, and weighed it in the balances of the cash nexus. You changed hands as if you were a piece of merchandise, with no end of your own choice but to serve the buyer's purposes in life. The physical inspection process, during which you as a slave had to strip your clothes off in order to help the prying eyes of unknown strangers inspect your body's various orifices, exemplified the intrinsic assault that sale constituted on your dignity. Katie Rowe of Arkansas once described how her master sold his slaves:
He had a big stump where he made the niggers stand while they was being sold, and the men and boys had to strip off to the waist to show they muscle and iffen they had any scars or hurt places, but [ah!--the privileges of Victorian womanhood!–EVS] the women and gals didn't have to strip to the waist. The white men come up and look in the slave's mouth just like he was a mule or a hoss.
During one slave auction in Richmond, Virginia, one witness described a potential purchaser, tagged by him "Wide-awake," conducting a physical inspection of the "merchandise" after having stared at “it”:
Moved by a sudden impulse, Wide-awake left his seat, and rounding the back of my chair, began to grasp at the man's arms [who was accompanied by a boy], as if to feel their muscular capacity. He then examined his hands and fingers; and, last of all, told him to open his mouth and show his teeth, which he did in a submissive manner.
This same witness later saw a black man told to strip behind a screen, where a dozen "gentlemen" rigorously examined his entire body, with "every tooth in his head . . . scrupulously looked at." As dreadful as the process of being sold was, the real pain came afterwards, from enduring separation from your loved ones, which for Douglass meant the friends he wanted to run away with before their scheme was exposed.278
How Slavery Undermined the Families of Slaves
The fear and indignities of sale or other ways separation from friends and relatives took place were but a subset of the damage slavery inflicted upon the enslaved black family. Slavery subverted the bondsmen's families by having the master organize his plantation or farm's work force as a collective serving his ends, having functions of life that normally would have been done by members of a family that he owned instead being done by others or by himself. The more activities others on the plantation performed for the family as part of their regular, non-household work, the weaker it became as a functioning unit because the plantation's organization for work supplanted roles that otherwise would have been performed within it. The master's work organization replaced whatever family economy the slaves would have developed, excepting those in task system areas who raised crops on patches of land in their free time off work. As noted above, old women and young children took care of the young babies of the mothers (and fathers) working in the fields. Clearly, the ever-so-practical masters denied to apply the Victorian idealization of the sex roles as expressed through the separate spheres to their adult female slaves, who went out into the fields with their men instead of caring for their children as homemakers during the day. Some large plantations replaced the cooking done by the slave families individually with communal kitchens, raising greatly the regimentation level of meal times. On the rice-island estate Kemble's husband owned, each one of the four settlements on the plantation had a "cook's shop," where "the daily allowance of rice and corn grits of the people is boiled and distributed to them by an old woman, whose special business this is." While here the bondsmen evidently still prepared food separately, perhaps by warming it up again for lunch, the basic cooking processes were still done communally. The more that the master did or had done for his bondsmen by them as part of their assigned job duties outside of their families, and the more he subordinated their preferences for a stronger sexual division of labor by driving both the women and men into the fields, the weaker as a functioning unit the slave family became.279
How Slavery Weakened the Father's Role
The father’s role clearly sustained the worst damage from the slave family's subordination to the overall work organization, a point which was inflamed by the controversy surrounding the Moynihan report in the 1960s. The causes for this are many, but a major reason was certainly the light weight masters placed on the father-child bond compared to the mother-child tie. Rarely, if ever, was a father sold with his children without the mother’s presence, but sales of mothers together with just their children were relatively common. The masters, undoubtedly influenced by their own patriarchal outlook on life, tended to see the men first as workers, and fathers second, but judged women’s role as mothers as equaling or exceeding their importance as workers. Slave mothers added to their owner’s wealth as she gave birth, but a slaveholder often rated the father's role, especially when another master owned him, as scarcely exceeding a stud’s or sperm donor’s. Partly because the slaves often chose to "marry abroad," that is, to choose a wife or husband owned by another slaveholder, the father’s role was lessened. This practice was enormously common--by one count, two-thirds of nuclear slave families had multiple owners, including cases in which the master owning the children differed from the one owning one of the parents. The husband, especially if he lived a considerable distance away, or his master was rather stingy with passes, often was a mere "weekend father" to his children. In this context, the length of the slaves' workday and the exhausting burdens of heavy field labor looms large, which surely would discourage long walks to a nearby plantation where the husband’s wife was. "Uncle Abram," a slave Northrup knew while enslaved in Louisiana, had a wife who lived seven miles away. He had permission to visit her once every two weeks on weekends. As "he was growing old, as has been said, and truth to say, [he] had latterly well nigh forgotten her." Since the master had such great power over his slaves, including control over their food supply, and the adults of both sexes worked in the fields or in the master's home, the slave father consequently lost the role of provider to his wife and children. Since she was with the children all weeknights, the slave mother did most of the daily housework that was crammed in between sleeping and days in the fields (or owner’s house). By feeding, dressing, and caring for her children much more, she maintained a much firmer family bond with them than the off-plantation father did. Her "quantity time" swamped any supposed "quality time" the father may have had with his children on weekends. Kemble's depressingly pessimistic analysis of slave fatherhood had a solid basis: "The father, having neither authority, power, responsibility, or charge in his children, is of course, as among brutes, the least attached to his offspring." Although Blassingame and especially Genovese emphasize that the slave "man of the house" sometimes helped his family through hunting, fishing, etc., the white master nevertheless had fundamentally undermined the importance of the slave father's position by subordinating his workers' family roles to their roles in the plantation’s or farm’s work process.280
The slaveowner’s total dominance weakened the slave father's role in other ways as well. The biggest, potentially most damaging threat to the man's role in the slave family came from his inability to stop physical punishments or sexual advances by masters who did either. Indeed, a major motive for “marrying abroad” was a husband’s desire to avoid seeing his wife be whipped or letting her see him be whipped. As Moses Grandy explained: "No colored man wishes to live at home where his wife lives for he has to endure the continued misery of seeing her flogged and abused, without daring to say a word in her defense." Harriet Jacobs was happy her lover, a free black carpenter, was not a slave, but even with his superior legal status he still had "no power to protect me from my master. It would have made him miserable to witness the insults I should have been subjected to." She encouraged him to move to the North, since she knew her master would not let her marry him anyway. True, sexually exploiting a slave woman could be hazardous to the health of the exploiter. Sometimes they paid with their lives since some bondsmen would kill them. Jacobs herself was happy when they had the boldness to "utter such sentiments [of opposition] to their masters. O, that there were more of them!" On the other hand, as a result of the dehumanizing, de-masculinizing effects of slavery, Jacobs lamented: "Some poor creatures have been so brutalized by the lash that they will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters."281 Despite the assaults on slave manhood and fatherhood, the passionate battles many husbands and wives fought against forced separations show that many had marriage and family relationships approaching normality. An enslaved man faced terrible impediments in fulfilling his position in nurturing his children and living in understanding with his wife, a role hard enough to make men to fulfill in contemporary free society. That some did is a testimony to the power of the human spirit under oppression, while those who failed suffered under burdens no American bears today.
Where the fathers failed, the mothers frequently picked up the slack. Slavery did strengthen the mother's role in the slave family at the expense of the father's, i.e., "matriarchy" did develop to some degree. The mother's unusually strong role had two major sources. First, by imposing field labor on both sexes, slaveholders basically eliminated the sexual division of labor by creating a kind of forced equality. Second, the practice of having a wife or husband "living abroad" produced a sense of independence in the women because their men simply were not often physically present for much of the day or week.282 The slave wife on her own would care for her children, cook, work, etc. without her husband around except on weekends (or perhaps weeknights) after he had used a pass to go visit her. The men themselves effectively took on the mentality that their master's place was a barracks, while "home" was where their wives lived. Because they were not the providers, and did not own or control property which made their wives dependent on them and what they earned, they intrinsically had less control over their wives compared to free men, as White notes. Planter Barrow strongly opposed letting slaves marry off plantation. Giving a number of reasons against the practice, he in part enumerated: "2d Wherever their wives live, there they consider their homes, consequently they are indifferent to the interest of the plantation to which they actually belong." And because "marrying abroad" was so routine, the "weekend father/husband" role was ubiquitous in the slave community. As noted above, two-thirds of slave nuclear families by one quantitative study had members owned by multiple masters; "marrying abroad" was surely a major reason for the divided ownership. Since such a slave family’s stability was surely conditional to what could happen to two masters, not just one, this arrangement increased the likelihood of forced separations if one master or the other should move, die, go bankrupt, etc. One reason Barrow attacked "marrying abroad" was to avoid involuntary separations. Hence, the practice of "marrying abroad," of seeing the grass as greener on the other side of the fence when choosing a mate, caused a sense of rootlessness in the men, requiring by default the women to take on additional responsibilities at home and work which made them more independent of their husbands.283
Factors Which Encouraged Slaves to Treat Marriage Bonds Casually
No slave state recognized marriages between slaves. Legally the slaveholders’ regime no more concerned itself about an enslaved man and woman living together than about two barnyard animals copulating. Because these ceremonies had no legitimacy, the master had the authority to perform slave weddings; he often joined slave couples together. Some weddings were relatively elaborate, such as those for some favored domestic servants, and still more had a minister perform them.284 But since the normal slave wedding was performed very casually, this very lack of gravity to the ceremony induced many to take their vows correspondingly lightly. In one case, after the master gave his permission, and he said to bring the slave woman to the big house, the couple exchanged their vows thus:
'Nat, will you take Matilda fo' yo' wife?' 'Yes suh,' Pappy say. 'Matilda, you take Nat fo' yo' husban'?' 'Yes, Massa,' she say. 'Den consider yo'self man an' wife!' he say. An' de names went in de book, whar us-all lil' nigger went down later on.'
Another master routinely used a white preacher to marry his slaves, but a neighboring white master, recalled freedwoman Millie Evans of North Carolina, joined together his slaves himself. "He would say to the man: 'Do you want this woman?' and to the girl, 'Do you want this boy?'" After having the couple jump the broom, he'd say, "That's your wife" to the groom. Olmsted found some dispensed with any ceremony at all, after their owner gave them permission. The former long-time overseer that Kemble's husband had employed took the marriage bonds of the slaves very casually in practice. If he heard anything about disagreement between a slave husband and wife, he would make them switch partners in order to curb the marital wrangles.285 These practices illustrate how the surrounding white society actively destroyed slave marriages even when no sales or relocations took place, since the couples were not forced or even allowed to work out their problems to help ensure stability in the quarters. Since the masters knew slave marriages were not legally binding, they often failed to take them seriously themselves, which then encouraged their slaves also to take their vows casually, even when many did not.
How Slavery Encouraged a Casual Approach to Family Relationships
A lack of commitment to family relationships often afflicted bondsmen, as amply documented below. This tendency in part came from the alienation the system of slavery produced among them, in which many felt more or less rootless and untied to a particular place or set of fellow humans.286 Alienation could serve as a defensive mechanism for emotional and psychological protection against loss a priori. Alienation could also be produced among the slaves after they personally experienced being uprooted and transported from all they had known to some distant plantation where their ability to raise and pick cotton was all that mattered. Hence, a feeling of separation or withdrawal from a position, place, or object of previous sentimental attachment could be either a preemptive measure or the eventual consequence of being forcibly separated from family members and friends. Unlike white families in the larger society, the slave family received no benefit from any legal protections and relatively little from positive societal pressures on its members to preserve their relationships with one another.287 Overseer Ephraim Beanland, who was about to move James Polk's slaves down to Mississippi to open a new plantation, tried to buy the wife of a slave that a neighboring master owned, but without success: "I went yesterday and ofered Carter $475 for Seasers wife and she is not willinge to go with you [Polk] so I tell Seaser that she dose not care any thinge for him and he sayes that is a fact."288 The white master’s wish to move his slaves was hardly the only problem here, for he authorized his overseer to offer some cold hard cash to preserve the slave marriage in question. For whatever reason, Caesar's wife used Polk's move as a convenient way to divorce her husband. A casual approach to sexual relationships did appear in the quarters. One slaveholder told Olmsted that the slaves would spend a few weeks "trying each other" before choosing settling down with a particular mate.289 One frustrated master found his slaves avoided quarrels and stole little, but he could not "break up immorality . . . Habits of amalgamation, I cannot stop." The wife of a white pastor for a black congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, incredulously discovered that many took their marriages very lightly. They wanted divorces for apparently trivial cases of disagreement or incompatibility. One man sought to get rid of his wife for wanting to spend all he made on clothes, while one woman visited the pastor's home to make this request: "I came to ask, please ma'am, if I might have another husband."290 The two whites here condemned the sexual promiscuity and casual relationships these actions manifested. But because the white community fundamentally had taken the blacks’ family relationships rather offhandedly itself, it had little reason to expect anything better. It denied their slaves’ relationships legal recognition by authorizing the willy-nilly separations that masters for any whimsical reason at their command could impose on slave couples. It’s wrong to expect all the black community to respect their marriage relationships as sacred when their white owners clearly denied they were by their own actions.
Even the parental-offspring relationship was often treated casually. Although the passion expressed by many slave mothers as their children were separated by the auction block from them for the rest of their lives is truly notorious, others dealt with their offspring quite impersonally. The father-child bond was much weaker than the mother-child tie, for reasons like those given above. Kemble found one baby of a slave family had just been "mercifully removed [from] the life of degradation and misery" to which its birth had doomed it. The father, mother, and nurse who also was its grandmother, all seemed apathetic and indifferent to its death, either from, Kemble inferred, the
frequent repetition of similar losses, or an instinctive consciousness that death was indeed better than life for such children as theirs . . . The mother merely repeated over and over again, 'I've lost a many; they all goes so;' and the father, without word or comment, went out to his enforced labor.
The root of the high infant mortality rates may have been a semi-intentional carelessness, over and beyond the bad treatment and material conditions, such as minimal maternity leaves, that many slave mothers endured. Barrow negatively cited Luce for "Neglect of child. Its foot burnt." This case was hardly unique. Edie, on Kemble's husband's estate, lost all seven of her children. On Polk's plantation, Evy’s babies never lived long after their births. Why did Barrow's slave Maria neglect to tell him earlier about her baby's sick condition before it died? Why did "Candis" say her child was just a little sick when, after checking, "Old Judy" found it lay dying, "'pulseless.'" And Matilda chose not to tell the overseer she was pregnant until a few minutes before her baby’s birth. The child died the next day, evidently because the midwife could not arrive to help soon enough. Although a skeptic of a sometimes weak mother-child tie could always attribute all these deaths to simple bad luck, disease, bad treatment, and poverty, a theme of almost willful neglect still seems to lurk in their background. Consider Bassett’s speculations about Evy's string of infant deaths:
But we may judge that a controlling cause was her inefficiency in taking care of them. Perhaps she did not feel much interest in their health. They were not hers, but her Master's. Why should she be interested in taking care of master's negroes? Here was mother love at a low ebb. . . . Fortunately not all slave women were indifferent on this point.291
Although this analysis cannot be decisively proven without direct access to the slave women's own thoughts, sometimes it should still be seen as a serious possibility. The sense of alienation many slave mothers likely felt from life itself may have made them careless about continuing it in others when existence was a continuous, burdensome round of drudgery organized to serve mainly someone else's ends in life.
Children also sometimes felt a weak emotional tie to their parents, as freedwoman Linley Hadley's story demonstrates: "My papa went on off when freedom come. They was so happy they had no sense. Mama never seen him no more. I didn't either. Mama didn't care so much about him. He was her mate give to her. I didn't worry 'bout him nor nobody then." True, since her owner arranged (or helped to arrange) her parents’ marriage, the husband-wife relationship was correspondingly weak, so they used the arrival of freedom as a convenient moment to get divorced. Nevertheless, the daughter felt no emotional loss about her father’s permanent departure. Frederick Douglass felt no particular ties to the plantation he had lived on before going to Baltimore. He knew no father, who was a white man, his mother was dead, and he rarely saw his grandmother. Although he lived with two sisters and one brother, "the early separation of us from our mother had well nigh blotted the fact of our relationship from our memories." He felt no homesickness when moving away:
The ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case. I found no severe trial in my departure. My home was charmless; it was not home to me; on parting from it, I could not feel that I was leaving any thing I could have enjoyed by staying.292
Douglass's case exemplifies the sense of alienation, detachment, and rootlessness that slavery inflicted on many bondsmen. Consider the inevitable reactions of slaves, after having developed close relationships with their spouses or children, who were then suddenly sold away from all they knew as home and family. They frequently had to finish out their lives on a distant plantation among (initially) strangers under the lash of some brutal overseer or owner who saw slaves as workers above all, not as fathers, husbands, or sons, mothers, wives, or daughters. Certainly the slaves felt little sense of loyalty to the larger white community, i.e., America as a whole, because of the bad treatment and conditions they endured, not to mention how some education was necessary for the creation of nationalism to begin with. A detached, uncommitted outlook on life, developed as a protective psychological mechanism, perhaps affected a majority of slaves, certainly likely a significant minority, which has ominous implications for the looseness of their family bonds.