14-3 slavery

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

14.3 (Summer 2014)


progress postponed



Slavery by Any Other Name

John R. Harris

A version of this essay was posted previously at the Western Free Press site in late May of this year.

When Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA conducted a rather peculiar project during the mid-thirties, one could still find many freedmen (and women) who had been born into slavery.  Roosevelt’s field-workers (my grandmother called them the “We Putter Around” team) undertook nothing less than the compilation of a stock of first-hand accounts about that most regrettable and deplorable institution.  The resulting work is available as a free Kindle download, or at least some portion of it.  The title to look for is Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.  I believe there must actually be several volumes organized by state.  The one I am reading pertains strictly to North Carolina.  Whether because of this venue, with its huge tobacco plantations, or because the project’s criteria filtered out small slaveholders for some reason, the respondents all seemed to have belonged to crews of slaves numbering at least fifty.

For what it’s worth, outfits of such size were the exception rather than the rule.  Most slaveholders had two or three slaves, or a very few more, in their possession.  This in nowise mitigates the moral atrocity of the South’s “peculiar institution”, nor does it argue conclusively that the slaves of smaller holders were better treated.  Some yes, some no.  Yet the motive for brutality would certainly be stronger for the large holders in several ways.  Their operations were more mechanistic: people of all sorts were more like cogs in a great mill to them.  They could better absorb the loss on their investment if they starved or beat a slave to death.  They would even have more reason to administer severe beatings, since terror would be more needed to keep two hundred prisoners in abject obedience than two.

There are so many comments I long to make as I read through these pages and think about the race-baiting that goes on routinely in 2014.  For one thing, how many young people today know that the British Navy had a habit of flogging its recruits the way slaves were flogged by their masters’ overseers?  How well can any of us today appreciate the degree of barbarity common in life just a century and a half ago?  Even schoolchildren were sometimes corporally beaten–not spanked, but thrashed with a cane.

A reader will also quickly notice that many, if not most, of the overseers were themselves black.  Far from inspiring any sympathy for their victims, this genetic bond seems to have bred a greater sadism in overseers and “paterollers” (the officials assigned the duty of ascertaining that individual slaves had passes to be off their owner’s property).  Power, apparently, is thicker than blood.  People will abuse their kinsmen at an alien’s whimsy just to enjoy the thrill of superiority inspired by the abuse.  If you didn’t know that before, these accounts will instruct you.

Some of the slaves were given small plots of land to farm on their own.  Some were even paid a pittance.  A few learned to read, often from the white children beside whom they were raised.  (A black woman was not uncommonly the wet nurse of her mistress’s children, so the mingling of black and white up to a certain age could sometimes far exceed what we see almost anywhere today.)  Some masters married their slaves to each other, laws notwithstanding, and refused to separate families on an auction block.  Some gave their slaves the weekend off, and even crowded them into white church on Sundays (though not, one suspects, into white sections of the church).  Recall, too, that these were large slaveholders, not farmers with a slave to cook and a slave to help with the plowing.

It sounds as though such humane treatment among the large plantation owners was rare, to be sure—especially if one bundles all the benefits mentioned just above together.  Kindness was more often partial and inconsistent than uniform.  Nevertheless, even the most starved and beaten slaves appear to have had recourse to poaching rabbits and fish; and very curiously, the formula for holding a forbidden worship service and singing hymns was to turn a pot upside-down in front of the closed door.  (I have not yet experimented to see if overturning several large pots outside my front windows on Friday night, when the local college students are out seeking their pleasure, might give me a better sleep.)

The online scholars I’ve read, therefore, who sniff that the freedmen who actually missed their slave days—who fought for the South and hated Yankees—were suffering from Stockholm Syndrome seem to be rewriting history to suit ideology.  The plantation was not a prison, let alone Auschwitz. It was something more like the forecastle of the H.M.S. Victory. Jews in Nazi concentration camps didn’t have a chance to slip away at night and snare some rabbits or raid a local garden.  Their captors gave them no passes to go to town and pick up supplies for the Stalag.  Even Hogan’s Heroes had less freedom of coming and going than any typical African slave.  A slave accompanying his master to fight the invaders from the north was not Patty Hurst pulling a stick-up with the Black Panthers.

I am not suggesting, however, that no psychological programming ever happened.  We are all so programmed to some extent.  Indeed, the one aspect of these testimonies that most disturbed me was how easily the human being grows accustomed to being “looked after”, even when the Protector cracks a whip.

Here are the verdicts of four elderly people, all raised as slaves, on slavery.  Their words have not been cherry-picked from the WPA collection but are drawn, rather, from four successive accounts.  (A “trigger warning” to delicate sensibilities: Roosevelt’s scribes employed a Joel Chandler Harris style to create—I must suppose—a more authentic-sounding record.  The Amos-‘n-Andy parlance characterizes the whole collection.)

“Yo’ axes me what I thinks of Massa Lincoln?  Well, I thinks dat he wuz doin’ the wust thing dat he could ter turn all dem fool n—–s loose when dey ain’t got no place ter go an’ nothin’ ter eat.  Who helped us out den?  Hit wuzn’t de Yankees, hit wuz de white folks what wuz left wid deir craps in de fiel’s, an’ wuz robbed by dem Yankees, ter boot.”  Henry Bobbitt

”Yes mam, de days on de plantation wuz de happy days.  De marster made us wuck through de week but on Sadays [Saturdays] we uster go swimmin’ in de riber an’ do a lot of other things dat we lak ter do.”  David Blount

”I think slavery wus a right good thing.  Plenty to eat an’ wear.  When you gits a tooth pulled now it costs two dollars, don’t it?  Well in slavery times I had a tooth botherin’ me.  My mother say, Emma, take dis egg an’ go down to Doctor Busbee an’ give him one egg.  He took it an’ pulled my tooth.  Try dat now, if you wants to an’ see what happens.  Yes, slavery wus a purty good thing.”   Emma Blalock

“In slavery time they kept you down an’ you had to wurk, now I can’t wurk, an’ I am still down.  Not allowed to wurk an’ still down.  It’s all hard, slavery and freedom, both bad when you can’t eat.  The ole bees makes de honey comb, de young bee makes de honey, n—–s makes de cotton an’ corn an’ de white folks gets de money.  Dis wus de case in Slavery time an’ it’s de case now.”  Andrew Boone

The spectrum of insight here is in fact very broad.  Henry Bobbitt makes a historically incisive (and damning) point about the arrogant folly of freeing hundreds of thousands of unskilled, illiterate laborers to wander the countryside and to starve.  That act was as much a blight on our history as slavery itself.  Andrew Boone likewise notes with very bitter humor that the heavy hand of FDR’s New Deal will not allow him to put food on his table by working because of his age—which isn’t a vast improvement over slaving for a few scraps of meat, and may just be no improvement at all.

David Blount, however, was happy to have his work schedule all mapped out and his days-off filled with “things that we like to do”.  Emma Blalock even remarks, unwittingly, that the plantation essentially provided free health care, which she very much misses.  When the owners were good, they could be very good.  They would make your tough choices for you and see that you got to the right place at the right time.  They would look after you as if you were a child, so you didn’t have to worry about making any mistakes.  Just like Big Brother.

Of course, when the owners were bad, they were very bad… and they didn’t get much better when they no longer formally owned you. The beatings stopped then (until the KKK arose, about three decades later), and the liberators informed you of a bright ring of new rights invisibly floating over your head… but the practical upshot was that “they”—both the Yankees and the ex-masters—had turned you and you family out to walk the roads in search of grinding work that lasted a week or two (if you could find it); or else they told you that you couldn’t work because you were too old—because you’d hurt yourself, and the new white man who had freed you would see that you didn’t get hurt.  You might starve… but you wouldn’t get hurt on the job.

Just like Big Brother.  How things have not changed!  May I suggest this, without giving undue offense, to all descendants of slaves and all would-be slaves of any lineage?  The human being has a corrupt soul: ergo, the less you rely upon others for your well-being, the safer you will live from monstrous abuses of power.  “Interdependency” is the last recourse of free men struggling against calamity–but also the first recourse of fools and idlers who have no care for tomorrow.


Dr. John Harris is founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values.