Eric V. Snow



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Other Ways Slavery Destroyed Family Relationships

Slavery damaged the slaves’ family relationships in other ways, even among those seriously committed their families. Slaves planning to run away faced the cruel dilemma of choosing between freedom and family. As noted below, the slaves’ desire to preserve family relationships was a major deterrent against running away. One woman in Virginia, caught between conflicting orders her master and her foreman gave about getting ice for the former while she was sick, "took to the woods" and was not seen again. She left behind a young nursing infant who soon died, despite another woman took care of it. Escaping after being very badly treated, Christopher Nichols, a Virginian slave, knew liberty had a high price for him: "I left a wife and three children, and three grandchildren,--I never expect to see them again in this world--never." One slave woman in Alabama had six children by six different men, spectacularly illustrating how slavery could undermine family stability. Three of her husbands were sold, another died, and "two others failed to making any lasting attachments." Hence, one of those children, "Aunt" Olivia, had no memories of her father, and commented: "On count o' de husban's changin' so freqump, we all raise up widout any reg'lar Pappy."293 Perhaps for one of these reasons--sale or divorce--was why Jenny Proctor of Alabama remembered nothing about her father. Joanna Draper of Mississippi had been rented out to some place about a hundred miles distant from her original master's place after being sold. Around the age of twelve, she was freed, leaving her on her own from then on. Here the indifference, the rootlessness, the alienation, are all obvious in her statement about why she did not go back to her parents: "I don't know why I never did try to git back up around Hazlehurst and hunt up my pappy and mammy, but I reckon I was just ignorant and didn't know how to go about it. Anyways, I never did see them no more." William Harrison, once a Virginian slave, had been sold away from his parents when he was about eight years old. After serving in the Union Army, he did go to look for his parents, but couldn't find them. He had heard that his mother had been sold from Selma, Alabama, to Birmingham. While searching for her, he stayed one night with a family in Birmingham. Years later, he found out from his brother who he had met while in the army that he had accidently stayed with his mother! Although possibly the product of an overactive imagination, the ultimate Oedipal nightmare of how slavery scrambled family relationships concerned a man who married his own mother by accident after full emancipation came.294 This grab bag of cases illustrates how slavery could mangle slave family relationships, through a melange of sales, leasing, distant, failed childhood memories, and a lack of commitment to family obligations. In other cases, a thirst for freedom robbed them of their family relationships when they chose the former above the latter. Slavery in the Southern states and the general westward movement towards the frontier combined together to form a vast engine for confusing, destroying, and weakening many slaves' family lives.
How the Master Could Routinely Interfere in Slave Family Relationships
The master or mistress’s steady intervention in slave family life helped produce instability in its relationships besides the damage inflicted when they dissolved the family itself by sale, moving, etc. Slaveowners might choose to punish a husband and/or wife for fighting, arguing, or committing adultery. The master, instead of the parents, might punish a slave child for some petty infraction. Since the master loomed above the slaves as a paterfamilias, a father of fathers, some (likely among the domestic servants, not field hands) might have turned to a kind master, and asked him to solve family problems which, had they been free, they would have worked out on their own. Striking at the slave family’s deepest foundations, miscegenation was another way a master could interfere with it. The master (and/or his sons)--rarely was it ever a mistress--would sexually exploit the women under his (or their) authority, and have children by them. The master (or overseer) here thrust himself between the slave woman and her man in order to satisfy his own sexual appetites.295 Forced to stand aside, the black husband usually had to tolerate this intruder into his marriage bed, although some bravely retaliated in a self-sacrificial defiance, surely knowing the dangers involved.296 If the woman was unmarried, her offspring were necessarily illegitimate, and normally lacked a father figure and role model to give them direction in life, assuming they were not sold outright to appease the mistress’s jealousy. Harriet Jacobs's daughter, whose father was a prominent white man, later becoming a congressman in Washington, D.C., lived with him as a domestic servant and slave. He showed no love towards her despite being affectionate to his white daughter by his wife.297 Work discipline issues here spill into the slaves’ personal lives, because the master would regulate and control the off-work lives of his slaves far more than a typical employer would regulate the lives of his employees, excepting live-in helpers such as domestic and farm servants. Since the master claimed the bondsmen themselves as his property, controlling them when they were not working was also part and parcel of his responsibilities over his "troublesome property." Since the slaves normally lived upon the master's land in "company housing," this further increased his power over them, with the important variation that the employees were "company owned" as well! Thus masters and mistresses also weakened slave family ties by their constant daily interference when doing things for the slaves that free blacks would have done on their own or through the (mostly) former’s sexual misconduct and its inevitably unpleasant consequences.
Master-Arranged Marriages
Forced arranged marriages were another way a master or mistress could interfere in their slaves' family lives. The slaveholders normally let romantic love between the men and women they owned take care of their desires for their "negro property" to multiply, be fruitful, and replenish the American wilderness. Nevertheless, slaveowners had the power to impose, not just to destroy, marriages. Charley Nicholls's master in Arkansas said he was going to choose a good woman for him. When he suggested he might help him in the selection process, his owner laughed and said: "Charles, nobody yo' age got any sense, white or cullud!" After the master presented him with "de house-gal," Anna, the choice impressed him. The grin on her face then showed the feeling was mutual. They went on to have no less than twenty-four children together. (One has to wonder whether the master knew his domestic servant had her eye on Nicholls already!) But master-arranged marriages were unlikely sources of soul mates. Consider now the surely far more common and less happy outcomes of such matches as illustrated by Rose Williams’s case. Her master told her to live with Rufus, a big bully of a man, when she was about sixteen years old and still in virginal ignorance. During the first night, she threw him out of bed and banged him over the head with a poker. She had another run-in with him the next night, when she threatened him with the poker again: "Git 'way from me, nigger, 'fore I bust your brains out and stomp on them." Afterwards, her master offered her two choices: Either accept a whipping at the stake or live with Rufus in order to have children for him. Out of the fear of the whip and appreciation from his buying her with her parents the year before, she yielded. William Grose, formerly a slave in Virginia, was sold away from his wife, a free woman. His new master sent for a woman, who after coming in, was unceremoniously assigned to him: "That is your wife . . . Cynthia is your wife, and [to his brother sold with him] Ellen is John's." When doing such things, masters treated their human chattels like animal stock, implicitly acting as if the slaves treated the most physically intimate relationship possible between two people as a purely animal function. Which specific individual was assigned to another mattered little; producing children who increased their owner's net worth mattered much. In Rose Williams' case, her master pointed out he had paid big money for her, so he wanted her to have children. Her mistress said since both Williams and Rufus were "portly," the master wanted them to "bring forth portly children.” What about quality of character and compatibility in personality when men and women choose mates? Well, those characteristics take a back seat to the slaves’ duties to serve as profitable breeding stock for their owners. As it has been observed, unlike the case for traditional societies where arranged marriages remain the norm to this day, those imposed on the slaves were done not in the interests of the families (or the parents of the children) being joined together, but to benefit some third party, the slaveholder. Master-arranged marriages inevitably raised the levels of alienation within the slave family unit and increased the "voluntary” separation rate among bondsmen since the unifying bond was forced, as Linley Hadley's comments above illustrate. Although the slaves did not have to endure imposed marriages often, they certainly were yet another factor that contributed to slave family instability that the slaveowners inflicted.298
Just How Common Was Miscegenation?
How common was miscegenation? It constituted a major, blatant, and direct subversion of the bondsmen’s marriages by their masters. Fogel and Engerman argue that the miscegenation rate was around 1-2 percent per generation. Surprisingly enough, unlike most of their innovative claims, this assertion can survive the scrutiny of their critics. Gutman and Sutch's rebuttal, which proposes a transmission rate in the 4-8 percent range per generation, builds upon an earlier, higher estimate of the percentage of white genes in the African-American population of .31 by Glass and Li. A later, improved estimate by Roberts brought it down to about .20 by substituting data from West African populations (i.e., from Africans of the same ethnic stock as most American blacks) for those Glass and Li took mostly from elsewhere in Africa. The newer estimate assumes ten generations passed, with a gene flow rate of .02 to .025 per generation. Glass later maintained the upper and lower bounds were .0241 and .0336 for the gene flow per generation, down from his and Li's earlier estimate of .0358. In light of Glass's and Roberts's revised figures, and Reed's three fairly similar estimates for total white genes in the black population (which are .273+0.037, .220+.009, and .200+.044), Gutman and Sutch's higher transmission estimates are unsustainable. Additionally, Fogel and Engerman are conservative when they assume 30-year generations, since shorter generational lengths (c. 25 years) are plausible when using Gutman's own averages of slave mothers' ages at their first birth, their husbands’ ages, and average slave life expectancies.299 If more generations passed during the same period of time, each generation needs a lower percentage of white male fathers to reach recent total figures for a given percentage of white genes existing in the black gene pool. On the other hand, Fogel and Engerman apparently look back too far (to 1620) for an appropriate date for white gene transmission to begin. Gutman and Sutch suggest 1710 or 1720, while Glass and Li prefer 1675 or 1700. These two variables largely cancel each other out (length of generation and starting point) for the pre-1900 period. Sutch and Gutman assert that Reed as well as Glass and Li excluded mulattos, but the latter’s methodology contradicts their claim.300 As Glass and Li note: "Since the hybrid individuals between Whites and Negroes are in the United States regarded socially as Negroes, any interbreeding between the two populations will result chiefly in a 'one-way' gene flow from the White to the Negro population." Glass later made similar statements, making a point of repeatedly downgrading the reliability of studies that excluded light-skinned blacks. Precisely for the same reason, Reed even excludes two studies from New York City based upon only dark-skinned blacks. He kept the Evans and Bullock county results from the South, which reveal a low level of white gene transmission (.106 total; transmission rate estimated to be .02 by Fogel and Engerman). In contrast, the figures for Northern cities are significantly higher, such as Detroit (.26 total, with a rate of .052). Strongly bolstering Fogel and Engerman’s low transmission rate estimates is the extreme case of the Gullah sea island blacks of Georgia. They basically had only contact with white masters, overseers, and their families before the Civil War, and relatively little contact with whites since, so their level of white genes will serve as an excellent indication of how much fundamentally involuntary miscegenation occurred. Their total of white genes is a mere 3.66 percent; the corresponding transmission rate per generation is .006.301 Fogel and Engerman clearly can defend the upper bound (i.e., the 2 percent figure) of their 1-2 percent transmission rate by generation, contrary to what their critics have charged.
Despite the Pressures, Slaves Still Maintained Some Form of Family Life
Despite all the damage slaveholders inflicted on slave families, surely the average bondsman was passionate about at least some of his or her relationships, even when a disturbingly high number took one or more of the basic bonds of the nuclear family (parent-child or husband-wife) lightly. Furthermore, the slaves had strong motives for concealing what they really believed from all whites, especially their owners and overseers; the bondsmen could keep whites in the dark about the real strength of these ties. For example, according to overseer John Garner, the "Boy charls," who had arrived last spring, "run away some fore weeks agow witheout any cause whatever." But was this literally true? Even the overseer knew better: "I think he has goun back to tennessee where his wife is." That was a long trip from where Polk's Mississippi plantation lay. After visiting his brother's plantation in Mississippi, William Polk found one slave mother strongly worried about her sick daughter’s health: "Her mother (LucY) says from her complaints of her breast, she fears she [the daughter] is going in the manner in which Alston, Hamp and Charity did, though it may be only the fears of a mother occasioned by solicitude for her welfare." And the child could return deep love to his or her parent. As a boy, Warren McKinney was a slave in South Carolina, where he fought back against the whipping of his mother by his master: "When I was little, Mr. Strauter whipped my ma. It hurt me bad as it did her. I hated him. She was crying. I chunked him with rocks. He run after me, but he didn't catch me." Although constituting only three minor pinpricks of evidence, these incidents still testify how passionately the bondsmen could uphold their family relationships. But even in McKinney's case, the rootlessness and the alienation that slavery caused still may have reached into his family: "When the war come on, my papa went to build forts. He quit Ma and took another woman."302 Although free people do make similar decisions, the slave family still underwent stresses and strains that free families did not. Unsurprisingly, a number cracked under the pressures, and became indifferent to one or more important nuclear family relationships. Much more remarkably, many did not despite the damage wrought by "living abroad," miscegenation, sales and relocations inducing separations, non-legally recognized marriages, the performance of functions for the slave family by others that it would have done for itself if free, and the subordination of the slave family to the process of imposing work discipline. Consider by contrast how casually and indifferently many today in America take their family relationships, parental and conjugal, while having advantages unimaginable to the bondsmen; when considering the centrifugal pressures they encountered, the oppressed and mostly illiterate slaves held some form of family life together remarkably well.303


The Key Issues Involved in Examining the Quality of Farmworker Family Life
The state of the family life of the English farmworkers now needs some close examination. Here the flood tide of controversy greatly ebbs. The overall level of stability of the farmworkers' family life institutionally produces little grist for the mills of contemporary English politics. As Snell notes in passing, "family break-up [is] a subject of great interest because of the rising modern divorce rate, but one on which there has been little historical discussion in Britain."304 By contrast, the slave family's instability, when debated by American historians, carries not just the freight of our mutual obsession with race, but the burden of controversies in the larger society over welfare reform, "family values," inner-city crime, etc. The stability of the laborer's family correspondingly receives much less attention below, in part because it did not suffer the peculiar distortions that resulted from the basically unlimited authority of slaveholders over their slaves, who really had no "private life" shielded from their owners’ eyes. The fundamental norms of then-contemporary lower class and peasant family life in western Europe, such as the prevalence of the nuclear family household and the rarity of divorce, apply to the English case.
But one key theoretical consideration needs exploration first which has important implications for the quality of family life for both English farmworkers and African-American slaves: Were family relationships in the lower and working classes in the past much more motivated by practical material self-interest than at present? Marriages in peasant villages were typically mostly based upon the practical self-interest of the older adults of the families being joined together, such as the inheritance of land and dowries. Does the reality that romantic love weighed little in the balances of peasant marriage contracts mean the husband and wife involved mainly saw themselves as traders merely trying to get the most out of the other? Did the privations of pre-industrial life, with its concept of limited resources that needed careful conservation and rationing as expressed by limiting how many could marry and when they could do sonumbers and timing of those marrying, increase the selfishness of people’s relationships? Did they see the dependents of the family, such as young children and old people incapable of fieldwork, as at best unpleasant burdens to bear, and at worst parties to be permanently disposed of as quickly as possible? Or, despite the privations of life, did married people in the lower classes living close to the subsistence level have fundamentally affectionate, caring relationships with one another? Did the increasing sexual division of labor produced by men working away from home more as industrialization advanced, which increasingly confined women to domestic duties after the spread of Victorian ideals about the separate spheres, raise the level of alienation within families instead of lowering it? On the quality of the pre-industrial masses' family life, Eugen Weber and John Gillis, who paint a pessimistic picture, face off against K.D.M. Snell, who upholds an optimistic view.305
The "Weber/Gillis" Thesis Summarized: Was Brutish Family Life the Norm?
Weber deals exclusively with the case of the French peasantry, while Gillis's work has a broader focus, and deals mostly with western European nations' conditions as part of a political and social history of late eighteenth century and nineteenth century Europe. Weber and Gillis depend on sources left by middle class observers seeing the cruelty or callousness that frequently accompanied peasant (or other, lower class) family life. No direct access to the minds of the peasants themselves is now possible, except perhaps through proverbs or the filter of official documents. The latter are always problematical because the poor often had a strong self-interest to shade or conceal the truth from their superiors in rural society. Since lower-class people lived so close to subsistence levels, the productive adults developed habits and mores in family life intended to reduce the number of dependents, young or old. The constant struggle to survive drained affection out of marriage and parental relationships. It was no formula for marital bliss when forming marriages in peasant village societies that the financial benefits (such as the inheritance of land) that the families involved would gain greatly exceeded in importance the man and woman’s levels of romantic attraction and personal compatibility.
Because of the crude transportation available, villages, having only limited local resources to offer their inhabitants, had to aim for self-sufficiency. As a result, men and women could not marry until their mid to late twenties in order to cut down on the number of children born that would need support. In turn, which is due to a high infant mortality rate and low life expectancies of forty years or less, a family needed to have so many children born to produce the desired one male heir. To get even a 60 percent chance of achieving this goal, four births were necessary. Because of the struggle to feed them, families with more than a few children farmed them out to relatives, patrons, and masters through apprenticeship and domestic service from young ages, eight and up. Adults saw children mainly as mouths to feed when young. Clearly earmarking the expendability of children, adults who perceived newly arrived children mostly as burdens had the motive for resorting to infanticide. As Gillis summarized: "Mothers regarded their hungry infants as little beasts, insatiably aggressive and destructive. 'All children are naturally greedy and gluttonous,' one seventeenth-century doctor concluded." When the children grew older, they would see the old, meaning their parents in particular, as obstacles to self-fulfillment because they could not marry themselves until their parents died or resigned active management of the land (or other property, such as artisanal tools and animal stock). Delayed marriage and involuntary lifelong celibacy were common as a result, unlike in most non-Western European societies. As parents aged, the tables could be turned on them; their children then may have desired quick and early deaths for them. For example, middle class observers heard peasants calculatingly discussing their parents: "He is not good for anything anymore; he is costing us money; when will he be finished?" More generally, peasant sayings such as the following circulated: "We inherit from the old man, but our old man is a sheer loss!" and "Oh! it's nothing, it's an old man."306 The elderly might be driven from one house to another among resentful children, becoming subject to conditions leading to a slow--or quick--parricide or matricide. Grimness and estrangement born out of material self-interest may have characterized the family life of the western European lower classes, a product ultimately of the constrictive ratio of cultivatable land to human food, which encouraged especially the productive in peasant society to resent their dependents.
Since above English agricultural workers and American slaves are compared, the presumably poor family life of French peasants could be deemed irrelevant. After all, Snell is dealing with the English case, while Weber is not. To buttress his optimistic picture of the laborers and artisans’ family life, Snell cites letters English emigrants sent to America, Canada, or Australia that expressed strong family sentiments. Letter after letter, he observes, contain language like this extract’s:
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