How African American slaves sought control over their lives
People of the African continent were transported to the New World with a sole purpose: enslavement. Between 1501 and 1866 over 12.5 million Africans were taken from their homeland to be enslaved across the Atlantic.1 The Middle Passage, as the journey is often called, brutally took many lives before ships arrived at their destination, killing approximately 1.8 million slaves-to-be. Of the 10.7 million Africans who survived the dreadful journey, only about 400.000 were taken directly to North America. There awaited them a life of poverty, coercion and hard labor.
Enslavement prevented the African Americans from living the life of their choosing: slaves were physically abused and women often sexually harassed; they lived in poverty and were scarcely clothed and fed; families were ripped apart when children were sold to different slave owners; hard labor from sunrise to sunset dominated their daily lives. However, to say that they had absolutely no control over their lives would be an insult not only to their memory, but also to the strength, endurance and spirit of the African American people. Resistance took shape, amongst others, in the forms of running away, religion and rebellion. To use the words of Philip Morgan “In work and in play, in public and in private, violently and quietly, slaves struggled against masters".2
A very common form of resistance was running away and happened in all slave societies. Most of the slaves were not so much running away from something as running towards someone, often to a lover or a lost family member.3 From this perspective, even motherhood can be seen as a form of resistance. Enslaved women could be separated from their children at any time, even if they belonged to the same slave owner. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Harriet Jacobs writes how she escaped her master’s sexual harassments by running away. In the hope that her master would sell...
Cited: Asante, Molefi Kete & Ama Mazama. Encyclopedia of Black Studies, SAGE Publications, Inc., 2005, p. 352.
Heuman, Gad & James Walvin. The Slavery Reader, Routhledge, 2003, p. 549
Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Concise Edition. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Wadsworth, 2004, p. 843 - 60.
Li, Stephanie. Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
Morgan, Philip. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, Chapel Hill, 1998, p xxii.
Norton, Mary Beth, et al. A People and A Nation, Brief Ninth Edition. 2012, p. 253.
(consulted on 30 November 2013)
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