Slavery and the Development of Black Masculinity, 1619-1860
Years ago, while a toiling slave in Tennessee, I resolved, that with the help of God, and the energies he had given me, I would cast off the chain and be a slave no longer. “Liberty or Death!” never came from a more earnest breast than when I uttered it there before my God! I will be no man’s slave, be he called friend or foe—be he in a church or out. God helping me, I will be a MAN—I will wear no chain!
—Jermain Wesley Loguen, March 1855
By the American Revolution of 1776, slavery had existed over a century and a half in the British colonies. During this period of upheaval, the currents of liberty ran more freely than ever among the American settlers. With the change in the world economy and the declining slave economies of the Chesapeake and Tidewater regions, a growing distaste for slavery in the North, and a favorable ideological climate, prospects for mass black liberty looked rosy indeed. Only six years earlier in March, Crispus Attucks, a black fugitive slave, had sacrificed his life for the cause of the young American nation, and private manumissions seemed to be increasingly in vogue. For the Africans in America, whose population had increased from approximately 250,000 in 1750, to 750,000 in 1790, this was the first realistic prospect for mass freedom.
This chapter lays the basis for a more detailed discussion of conditions confronting African American males and their response to them during the era of slavery. The macrolevel social, economic, political, and ideological factors impacting upon Africans in early America are discussed with a special emphasis on the male role and the contemporary gender-role distinctions. The second half of the chapter focuses on the antebellum development of the black male image in America.
African American history begins with countless crimes of violence. The seizure of thousands upon thousands of human beings on Africa’s west coast—Bambara, Fulani, Fanti, Ga, Ibo, Yoruba, Coromantees, and others—was accompanied by other grave crimes that set in motion a process that led to the creation of a new people—African-Americans—whose history was to revolve around the dialectic of freedom and slavery. Those captured endured the Middle Passage and first tasted the lash of slavery and the excruciatingly difficult choices it presented them. Clearly, the voyage to America and adaptation to the new slave setting served as a rigorous screening process by which the individual’s ability to endure a regimen of physical, psychological, and social terror was put to a severe test. Those too sensitive to pain, physical or emotional, too impatient for revenge, or too physically frail would succumb to one of the many hazards of being black and enslaved.
Olaudah Equaino typified the state of shock the captives shared. Registering his shock over the strange appearance of the whites, he learned that the captives “were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them.” The thought of merely being reduced to constant work, at this point, didn’t bother him, he recalled later. Other Africans, however, leaped from the sides of the vessels to their deaths whenever the opportunity presented itself. Almost as feared as the crew’s whips and assorted torture devices were the stench and horror below decks.
4 “The shrieks of the women with the groans of the dying rendered the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable.” J. Taylor Wood participated in the capture of a slave ship, after the international slave trade had been banned:
From the time we first got on board we had heard moans, cries, and rumblings coming from below, and as soon as the captain and crew were removed, the hatches had been taken off, when there arose a hot blast as from a charnel house, sickening and overpowering. In the hold were three or four hundred human beings, gasping, struggling for breath, dying; their bodies, limbs, faces, all expressing terrible suffering.
While both males and females shared a determination to break free of their captors by whatever means they could avail themselves of, prior socialization in Africa would make it probable that the black male felt the psychological humiliation of military defeat more acutely. Already, on the slave ship, the white male captors had taken the military capacity of the African males into account as they tended to shackle them below decks while leaving females unshackled above deck Clearly, the first generations captured and enslaved had a different outlook from that of subsequent generations raised under slavery; armed revolt was never completely stamped out among African American slaves, although the opportunities for large-scale revolt were not as favorable as in areas featuring black slave majorities such as Bahia, Haiti, or Jamaica.
Each colony featured unique politicomilitary conditions that evolved over time, some creating more favorable conditions for successful uprisings or the establishment of maroon colonies than others. In Louisiana, for example, strong maroon colonies developed in the cypress swamps, la cipiere, the waterways facilitating their movements. The Bambara settlements exerted a powerful lever in favor of justice to the blacks enslaved nearby on plantations. With the growth of a cypress industry in the middle of the eighteenth century, the maroon settlements likewise experienced growth, and, with arms, their defenses improved. The emergence of permanent maroon communities encouraged the growth of their agricultural production and other enterprises, while the raids on nearby plantations continued.
The Bambara experience in Louisiana is but one example of the manner in which African American males and females took full advantage of geographic and demographic circumstances that made some kind of military response advantageous. Nevertheless, despite many variations and exceptions, Africans, upon arrival to America, were generally a conquered and traumatized people who had to first forge a new culture uniting various African ethnic and subethnic groups before they could begin to effectively reshape their environment according to their own designs. When armed resistance proved futile in terms of defeating the enemy and gaining liberty, the captured Africans were forced to come to terms with their new situation, however bleak it may have been. The end of collective armed resistance, however, did not mean that resistance ended. The economic sphere became the focus of the resistance of Africans on a daily basis; work, in all of its myriad forms, was the site of continual battles between slave and master.
The character of work and the occupational structure of American slavery were determined, in large part, by the stress slave owners placed on the acquisition of profits and financial growth, as opposed to a focus on the paternalistic obligations of the master class toward those they claimed ownership over. Historian Eugene Genovese maintains that a “substantial number” of slaveholders were attracted not by the prospect of upward social mobility but rather by “a way of life reminiscent of self sufficient peasantries.” While slave owners worked at a relatively leisurely pace, out of sync with the ideal bourgeois work ethic, they “operated in a capitalist world market” and “had to pay attention to profit-and-loss statements.” Genovese concludes, therefore, that they adhered to the “Puritan work ethic,” “but only so far as their slaves were concerned. Slaves ought to be steady, regular, continent, disciplined clock-punchers.”
9 Yet, such enforcement of the suggested pace of work by means of a whip and other instruments clashes with the “paternalist” imagery promoted by the slaveholders during the mid-nineteenth century.
James Oakes points to the fact that the bulk of the slaveholders were lured to the business by the promotional literature promising large profits in a brief amount of time. Many early European settlers to North Carolina were attracted by the claims that within only a few short years following the termination of their indentures, they would be able to acquire cheaply a large amount of land and slaves to work it.
11 In contrast to Genovese, Oakes stresses that cruelty, rather than an aberration of the system, was inherent to it and followed from its overriding goal of “material advancement.”
12 Far from basing their actions on a sense of obligation infused with emotion, slaveholders resisted attempts to humanize Africans and battled to view the people as commodities for profit. In the final analysis, they were capital assets and a supply of labor. The slaveholders’ ceaseless quest for expansion and wealth, embodied in a popular American ideology of upward social mobility, involved frequent migration, the sale of whole families and individuals, a whip-enforced, brutal pace of labor, and material deprivation. Often slave ownership, particularly for the larger slaveholders, was facilitated by a lucrative career as an attorney, artisan, or physician. For others it was the sole means of their quest for wealth. Hence, slave ownership became widely distributed in antebellum society—by the eve of the Civil War some 400,000 people held slaves. For many of the most ambitious southern whites, the prospect of enslaving blacks offered them the hope that they would be among the prosperous few by midlife. Slave ownership became a badge of success.
13 No wonder that some 20,000 artisans (including blacksmiths, carpenters, and mechanics), 21,000 businessmen and civil servants, and 27,000 doctors, attorneys, and other professionals owned slaves in 1850.
BLACK MALE LABOR AND THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE EARLY AMERICAN ECONOMY
Much of the foundation for subsequent American prosperity was laid by the initial arduous labor of slaves involved in clearing the native forests for agricultural production. In the northern colonies, European settlers took advantage of the excellent natural harbors, temperate climate, abundant timber, and bountiful seas. The only element making for prosperous economic development that was lacking was human labor. The glut of available land for freeholding retarded the ability of the early colonial economy to maintain the minimum number of laborers needed to develop the settlements. The rejection of wage labor among white colonists was so universal that almost every colony resorted to some form of compulsory labor to resolve this acute shortage of workers. For whites, coerced labor took the form of indentured servitude, while for blacks, slavery was instituted.
In New York, then known as New Amsterdam, the first 11 Africans arrived in 1626 and were immediately put to work on building the first roads, clearing bush, cutting trees, and constructing buildings.
16 By 1626 the Dutch West India Company began importing Africans as slaves to clear forests, build roads, and raise crops. Their early accomplishments led an increasing number of whites to gradually turn from fur trading to farming.
While chattel slavery in New England began in 1637 with the swap of captured Pequot Indian males for black slaves from the Caribbean, it soon became widespread throughout the region.
18 With the incentive to trade in slaves, New England settlers soon developed a thriving slave trade industry whose profits fueled the growth of shipbuilding, liquor, and agriculture enterprises.
19 By the 1700s enslaved blacks worked in every phase of the colonial economy. In Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, slaves worked in almost every craft, occupying positions as assistants and apprentices to established white craftsmen. In these capacities they worked as bakers, coopers, tanners, weavers, blacksmiths, millers, goldsmiths, and cabinetmakers, seriously competing with whites, whose business suffered from the competition.
20 Industry in the colonial North was also heavily dependent on slave labor, as were the maritime industries. This dependence on black labor in the North, however, was not without its cost in terms of white anxieties. Any opportunity to exercise a modicum of liberty was taken advantage of by the slaves. Complete control was impossible, as simple tasks such as carrying water or caring for horses could be used to find moments to gather in the streets to socialize or take care of personal business. By the early 1700s laws prohibiting gatherings by slaves and mandating stringent curfews were common in the northern colonies.
In South Carolina the successful production of rice with slave labor required that large tracts of land be cleared of trees. The need for massive tracts of cleared land can be seen from the fact that roughly 500 acres was considered sufficient for as few as ten African slaves to work. Trees alone proved to be enough to fuel a very profitable industry, while the need to produce timber for convenient export created an acute demand for sawyers. For an entire generation or more, black men working in pairs spent their lives clearing forests and sawing timber.
African males in early colonial America also engaged in other subsidiary trades. For example, almost from the beginning of European settlement, blacks came to dominate the cooper’s trade in South Carolina.
23 The production of timber-related products, including turpentine, pitch, and tar became an important industry that occupied the labor of enslaved Africans in the state. This was dangerous and painstaking work, requiring a tall man to chop channels in a pine tree in order that the liquid would drain onto boards below and constructing kilns to produce the tar. The kilns then had to be watched constantly for several days and night, a task necessitating considerable skill in maintaining the proper temperature—a mistake could lead to a fatal explosion.
As slavery consolidated itself in the colonies, there was a progressive differentiation of the black occupational structure within the bowels of the institution. The increasing number of economic roles played by enslaved Africans included careers as barbers, cooks, waiters, butchers, gardeners, shoemakers, carpenters, tanners, bricklayers, and plasterers. In New York City, which had the highest proportion of skilled slaves during the colonial era, black males worked as coopers, tailors, goldsmiths, glaziers, and blacksmiths and in numerous other trades.
24 The competition of these slave occupations with those of free, white workingmen led to restrictive legislation being passed in some areas. In Charleston, too, slaves were involved in dozens of skilled occupations, working as bakers, tailors, plasterers, and coopers and in other trades. Mills and other manufacturing enterprises in the city depended heavily on black slave labor. By the eve of the Civil War, for example, the West Point Rice Mills, the largest in the state, relied on the 160 slaves it owned. The human property included men skilled at carpentry, bricklaying, blacksmithing, and other trades.
25 The city’s waterfront, as in the northern cities, also drew heavily on the labor power of slaves who worked there as stevedores and wharf hands. In Charleston and in other antebellum urban areas, the rigidity of the slave system was relieved somewhat by the provision of the option of “hiring out” slaves.
26 In Charleston the spread of the practice of using slaves for an ever-widening number of jobs led to periodic protests by the city’s white working population. In 1826, for example, the Charleston City Council deplored the increasing number of slaves working as clerks and salesmen. The problem was the spread of slave labor to jobs “which require the exercise of greater intelligence & improvement,” a situation that threatened to disrupt the fabric of society.
27 By this date the significance of the types of work slaves performed was clear, since only years before, Charleston whites had narrowly avoided the necessity to quash a massive slave rebellion. In its aftermath it was clear that these types of black slaves, enjoying mobility, somewhat challenging work, an elevated social status, and a greater sense of liberty, represented a distinct threat to the stability of the slave system. The literacy, sense of organization, and familiarity with the urban scene gave rebel leader and former seaman Denmark Vesey, harness maker Monday Gell, and other rebel leaders the confidence to launch their audacious, yet ultimately ill-fated, attempt at insurrection.
Imported African culture played a more important role in some areas than in others. In contrast to the European settlers, for example, the Africans imported into South Carolina were accustomed to the open grazing of cattle, as was common along the Gambia River. Their skills in husbandry, horsemanship, and herding were brought with them from Africa.
28 In a similar manner, many Africans were quite adept at rice cultivation, processing, and utilization, and passed on their knowledge to Europeans.
29 In rural areas across the plantation South, where the vast majority of slaves were held, plowing, planting, weeding, hoeing, picking, and other activity generally occupied the black male slave from sunup to past sundown. On Nicolas Massenburg’s North Carolina plantation males cut timber, raked manure, dug ditches, and thrashed oats, among other tasks. While they performed the bulk of the plowing, women were involved in this work activity also. This was not true, however, of the ditch-digging, road work, and timber-cutting tasks.
The slave occupational structure was characterized by hierarchy, associated with status, privilege, and material status, consisting of the house slaves, slave drivers and overseers, slave craftsmen, and other especially skilled individuals.
31 Slave artisans could derive some amount of satisfaction from their crafts and from the material rewards and prestige their accomplishments generated. This “elite” often could take advantage of being “hired out” to work, which allowed for more independence and income than other slaves had.
While the nature and variety of tasks varied with the region, the crops produced, and the historical era, during colder months slaves generally performed tasks such as fixing fences, baling hay, and repairing roads.
33 In cotton areas, January and February meant ginning, moting, and sorting as well as digging ditches. The months of March and April meant preparing the cotton ground by bedding, planting, and more digging of ditches and fencing and hoeing. Hoeing dominated the summer months of May through August, and by the fall moting and ginning were again required.
The variety of slave occupations and personal situations within agricultural areas, as well as in urban areas, is striking. Sella Martin was a house servant and boatman in North Carolina while a slave; Parke Johnson was a carpenter, farmhand, and shoemaker in Virginia; Reuben Madison was a “hiredout” rag merchant
35; and J. W. Lindsay was born free but was enslaved and made a blacksmith.
36 Slavery did not preclude involvement with heavy industry, as the success of ironmaster William Weaver’s forges illustrates. The character of the slave labor of Weaver’s forge is an example of the diversity within the antebellum South and the ability of the “peculiar” institution to adapt to a variety of social and economic exigencies.
The gender-role flexibility characteristic of African American life was developed during the slave era as black women performed what would traditionally be considered male roles. Black men’s work conformed to stereotypical, traditional gender role in its heavily physical quality and minimal demands on mental processes.
38 While enslaved females often spent their childhoods in the “big house,” according to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, they “matured into a distinct female sphere shaped by the assumptions of both slaveholders and slaves about gender relations (the proper relations between women and men) and gender roles (the proper occupations of women).”
39 On many plantations, women were forced to wield heavy “slave-time hoes,” implements constructed from pig iron made to thwart all slave attempts to break them “accidentally.” The black female’s physical, emotional, and spiritual resources were stretched to the utmost as she was forced to labor alongside her male counterpart in the fields, exploited for her ability to bear future slaves and, driven by her regard for her family and mate, forced to work in the slave quarters to humanize the home environment to the extent possible.
The microeconomic realities of slaveholding gave owners sufficient incentive to interfere in the most intimate of matters, the reproductive, romantic, and sexual lives of African Americans. Thomas Jefferson, for example, celebrating the black slave “breeding” woman, stated that, “it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.” Jefferson frankly stated, “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”
40 Angela Davis commented that, in the view of the slaveholders, “slave women were not mothers at all: they were simply instruments guaranteeing the growth of the slave labor force. They were ‘breeders’—animals, whose monetary value could be precisely calculated.”
41 As in wartime, a greater approximation of gender equality became necessary and values leaning toward greater role flexibility and gender equality became a feature of the slave’s domestic life.
The hierarchy among slaves heightened the extent of diversity among antebellum African Americans. According to one estimate, one-quarter of enslaved males were supervisors, artisans, skilled laborers, or semiskilled laborers, such as gardeners, coachmen, and teamsters.
42 Perhaps the most pivotal and “political” role on the plantation was performed by the black drivers. The “ideal” traits of a driver in the eyes of the slaveholders were loyalty, reliability, and accountability, combined with mental and physical energy.
43 From daybreak, when the driver would awaken the field slaves and rush them through “breakfast,” to nightfall, when checks would be made to ensure that slaves were in their cabins, drivers played a key role.
44 Much of the black driver’s power flowed from his job of administering punishment, allocating rations, and evaluating work performance. The enhanced social, political, and financial status of the driver often led to his assumption of a leadership role within the social life of the slave quarters. Politically, the stance of the drivers varied from a complete identification and commitment to the slave owner, to complete loyalty to the black slave community. Slaveholders were wary of the pull that the African American slave community had on drivers. An article in the The Farmers’ Register in 1836 advised that “the more the driver is kept aloof from the negroes, the better,” as the emergence of a sense of “equality” between field hand and drivers would result in the loss of all “control.”
THE PRO-SLAVERY ARGUMENT AND ITS IMPACT ON THE BLACK MALE IMAGE
Prior to the introduction of the institution of slavery in North America, the perception of Africans among Europeans, while hardly positive, was not linked with slavery.
46 Lifetime bondage as a laborer was endured by tens of thousands of Europeans indentured during the seventeenth century, and, often, during the middle and latter decades of that century, indentured Africans and Europeans ran away from their masters together.
47 The notion of enslaving Indians was shattered after the 1622 slaughter of some 400 English colonists by the Powhatan Confederacy.
48 After the English gained direct access to the burgeoning trade in human beings via the Treaty of Breda in 1667, and tobacco was discovered to be an excellent export for the world market, large colonial landowners began to push to make African servitude lifelong and hereditary. This proved politically and socially feasible by exempting Europeans from bondage, isolating Africans, and gradually elaborating an ideology and a rationale for black bondage.
The image of the African held by Americans in the early nineteenth century was heavily influenced by the writings of Thomas Jefferson, despite his vested interest in slavery as a large slaveholder. The contrast between Jefferson’s opinions of the innate capacities of Native American males and those of African males is striking. From his masculinist perspective and relying primarily on environmental and cultural explanations for what he perceived to be Native American anatomy, culture, and social life, the Founding Father denied that they were lacking in “ardor” in comparison to whites.
50 Jefferson, terming enslavement of Indians an “inhuman practice [that] once prevailed in this country,” assembled a series of arguments intended to demonstrate the equality of Indians and Europeans. Africans, Indians, and Europeans were found to be equally brave; however, the Africans’ capacity for courage was found to stem from “a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”
Jefferson believed blacks to be an emotional people whose gender relationships lacked tenderness and involved almost pure lust in comparison to whites. He assured readers that the Africans’ “griefs are transient” and that they were “less felt, and sooner forgotten.”
52 Blacks, to Jefferson, were a people who felt but did not reflect. In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson wrote unfavorably of black intellect, writing that “in memory they are equal to the white; in reason much inferior,” doubting that a single black could be found capable of comprehending Euclid’s research. Blacks also lacked talent and creativity in music and the arts, in Jefferson’s opinion, as he found them at once “tasteless and anomalous,” although he later conceded that blacks had some musical talents. Worse still, their very existence in America posed a threat to whites since, if miscegenation occurred, the beauty of the white race would be fouled and replaced by an unattractive and “immoveable veil of black.”
Historian U. B. Phillips described African American slave laborers as “notoriously primitive, uncouth, improvident and inconstant,” a trait deemed to be characteristic of their race. Happy and ignorant, they were totally ruled by both their passions and their white masters.
54 This follows Thomas Jefferson, who, earlier profferring similar views, apparently felt that Africans could become excellent craftsmen, mechanics, skilled workers, or artisans. His confidence in the slave artisans he owned can be gleaned from an exchange of letters in 1825 after the home of Francis Wayles Eppes, his grandson, suffered serious damage from a fire. In dispatching master carpenter John Hemings to repair the damage he wrote Eppes: “I will spare [John Hemings] to you and his two aids and he can repair everything of wood as well or perhaps better than anybody there.”
55 The African Americans with whom Jefferson was closest in terms of blood ties, property ties, and personal contact, some of whom, centuries later, were shown to be his children, were encouraged to learn practical trades. Nevertheless, Madison Hemings was put under the wing of John Hemings, his uncle, who was a carpenter and learned to read only by “inducing the white children to teach” him “the letters and something more.”
Jefferson biographer John Chester Miller concluded that Jefferson labored “under powerful psychological compulsion to believe that the blacks were innately inferior.” Privately, he went further in his charge of black inferiority. In 1807 he told a British diplomat that blacks were “as far inferior to the rest of mankind as the mule is to the horse, and as made to carry burthens.”
57 Yet, Jefferson and other slaveholders made use of black mental and physical powers to the extent they could, given the political, social, cultural, and economic constraints.
Benjamin Bannecker, a free black, challenged some of Jefferson’s views on race. Offering his own achievements as evidence, Bannecker sought to demonstrate the heights Africans could attain intellectually, even while hampered by a pervasive racism. In 1791 Jefferson himself had approved Bannecker’s appointment as an assistant to Andrew Ellicott, surveyor of the newly planned American capital.
58 Later that year, he wrote to Jefferson, then the U. S. secretary of state. Bannecker reminded Jefferson in the letter of the statesman’s image as a man who harbored no rigid prejudices and was “measurably friendly, and well disposed toward us.”
59 If this was true, he asserted, then Jefferson should be eager “to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions” that disparaged the mental and emotional capacities of Africans. The Maryland-born Bannecker assured Jefferson that he was “of the African race” and “of the deepest dye” in order to discourage the idea that a preponderance of white forebears was responsible for whatever intellectual abilities Jefferson perceived him to have.
Bannecker’s anger seems barely contained, as he asked Jefferson to “wean” himself “from those narrow prejudices which” he had “imbibed with respect to blacks” and to “put your soul in their souls’ stead.” At one point he accused Jefferson and his countrymen of acting in conflict with the “Father of Mankind” by enslaving blacks. He remarked on “how pitiable” it was to witness Americans committing “that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others.” Bannecker, who authored six almanacs in 28 editions during the mid-1790s, finally presented Jefferson with a gift of an almanac, recounting that it was produced under many “difficulties and disadvantages.”
60 Jefferson thanked him, yet again voiced doubts that blacks were equal to whites despite his most fervent desire that they be so. Later, Jefferson conceded that Bannecker knew “spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs,” accusing him of secretly being aided by Andrew Ellicott, his younger white supervisor. Uncharitably, Jefferson concluded Bannecker intellectually to be “of very common stature indeed.” He concluded that blacks were “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
61 A year later, Jefferson confided to a diplomat that the letters he received from Bannecker were of a “very childish and trivial” nature, perhaps still remembering the implied insults to his humanistic convictions.
62 Long-term public policy with regard to the issue of Africans in America, according to Jefferson, should be based on the two-pronged danger that blacks posed to the American nation. First, the danger of a “staining” and polluting racial intermixture—fueled by a perception of a large population of promiscuous black males intoxicated with desire for interracial sex—was to be avoided at all costs. The second problem was that of having “the wolf by the ears” and not being able to either “hold him, nor safely let him go.” With whites afraid to “let go,” African Americans had to be “safely” held down.
63 This implied a long-term strategy based on fear that would be primarily aimed at black males, who, it was feared, would be in a vengeful mood if they ever gained a semblance of political or military power. These conclusions led Jefferson to favor continued slavery until a time in the future when black emigration from America could be arranged.
As slavery came under increasing attack, particularly in the North and in Europe, pro-slavery forces felt a need to elaborate a defense for the institution. By the time of the inception of the slave trade, the association of blackness in English culture with sexuality and evil was quite strong.
65 The earliest formal defense of slavery, authored by John Saffin, argued that it was “no evil thing to bring” Africans “out of their own Heathenish Country, [to] where they may have the knowledge of the One True God, be Converted and Eternally Saved.” Saffin’s text also included a poem describing blacks as “Cowardly,” “Cruel,” “Prone to Revenge,” and hateful. They were murderous, “Libidinous,” “Deceitful,” and “Rude.”
66 With the material incentive of profit for colonial planters, merchants, slave traders, and others, coupled with the social incentives of higher status for white laborers, these notions were reinforced as increasing numbers of African captives were imported into the colonies.
67 Bertram Wyatt-Brown stresses that the pro-slavery defenders were aiming to influence a particular audience: the growing chorus of critics of the institution in both the North and Britain.
Defenders of the institution argued that slavery was a school of civilization for pagan blacks, inculcating Christianity and morality in them.
69 If slavery was necessary to force blacks to perform useful, moral, and socially redeeming roles, its abolition would be tantamount to unleashing wild hordes of Africans to plague the nation with their crime, idleness, and violence. By indulging the additional notion that Africans were happy in America under slavery, they were able to reduce their guilt and anxieties about the institution.
70 During the mid-1830s, William and Mary College professor Thomas R. Dew praised slavery, declaring that a “merrier being does not exist on the face of the globe than the negro slave.”
Thomas R. R. Cobb, in a manner similar to Jefferson’s, argued that the subhuman character of Africans is such that their “natural affections are not strong,” and they are “cruel” to their children. It followed that the family breakup endemic to slavery did not entail much suffering by those so victimized. Other ideologists of slavery agreed that blacks lacked the human emotions necessary to bind the family together, as love was seen as alien to the African, being overshadowed by impulses of “lust and beastly cruelty.”
72 Instead, one of the roles of the patriarchal slave owner, in the view of the defenders of the institution, was to provide blacks with a loving and caring plantation “family.” Historian William W. Freehling found a connection between this patriarchal ideal and the incredible impact that the Nat Turner revolt had on slaveholders. The revolt served to shatter the illusions of harmony and tranquillity among the slaves and the close proximity of apparently would-be Nat Turners to thousands of plantations across the nation sent a shiver down the spines of slaveholders. The Turner revolt raised several troubling questions. How many other slaves, ostensibly happy and contented, had a hidden side to their personalities? To what extent were these smiling faces mere masks? How could slaveholding whites trust their cooks, servants, and others whom they depended upon for every task?
A good part of the lure of such patriarchal imagery for slaveholders was that it dissociated their practices from those of foreign slave traders and that it drew on biblical sources. Describing slavery as a condition and not a moral evil was a key element in presenting it as a God-decreed state of being.
74 The image of the southern planter as a benevolent, Abraham-like figure guiding clueless black “children” to a better way of living, saving their souls, and making a modest profit in the process was preferable to the image increasingly put forth by the abolitionists and other critics of slavery.
75 Reverend Joseph Wilson, a North Carolina Presbyterian minister and the father of President Woodrow Wilson, felt that slavery was a “scheme of politics and morals” that under “divine management, contributed to refine, exalt, and enrich its superior race.”
76 A staple element within this thought was the view that blacks must be compelled to work. One southerner told English traveler Harriet Martineau with no trace of irony that “it takes two white men, to make a black man work.”
On 6 February 1837 South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun delivered his landmark “Slavery a Positive Good” speech before the U. S. Senate. Bemoaning the spread of an “incendiary spirit,” Calhoun declared slavery “a positive good,” since it “brought together” two quite distinct races. Describing slaveholder rule as “patriarchal,” he held that the “kind attention paid” to the slaves by the slave masters compared favorably with the conditions faced by the “tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe.”
Within this ideological context the evolving image of the African American male took form. Tilden G. Edelstein’s analysis of two centuries of Othello performances sheds light on how this image changed over the decades. First performed in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1765, the playbill indicated that the moral of the story was the foolishness of Desdemona’s father for despising Othello, a Moor, an account of his blackness. Such prejudices against humanity, while frequent, it said, were nevertheless “wrong.”
79 When Abigail Adams saw Othello two decades later in 1786, she expressed discomfort with “the sooty appearance of the Moor” and experienced a sense of “disgust and horror” every time she saw him touch “gentle Desdemona.” These scenes forced her to ponder whether witchcraft or “love potion” could be the cause of Desdemona’s love for “what she scarcely dared to look upon.”
The ever-increasing antiblack sentiment prevalent in early America made it imperative to recast Othello until the play’s racial-sexual content was within the bounds of acceptability. For Americans, the high status of the Moor Othello clashed with the almost universally debased status they viewed as appropriate for African American males. By 1820 Edmund Kean used makeup dramatically lighter in color to play the role of Othello, inaugurating the “bronze age” of Othello.
81 This greatly pleased Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was sure that Shakespeare was not “so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead royal birth,” adding that it was “monstrous” to think of a “beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro.”
82 Following this, Othello underwent a further lightening, but this failed to satisfy John Quincy Adams, who reviewed the play:
The great moral lesson of Othello is that black and white blood cannot be intermingled without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature; and that, in such violations, Nature will vindicate her laws. Upon the stage her fondling of Othello is disgusting. Who, in real life, would have her for a sister, daughter or wife. The character takes from us so much of the sympathetic interest in her sufferings that when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately to the sentiment that she had her just desserts.
This image of the black male as a sexual predator has deep roots in the American psyche. One pro-slavery writer stressed that the aims of the Denmark Vesey rebels in 1822 were to slay the men and take the women as their concubines. The captured rebel Rolla allegedly said that “When we have done with the men we know what to do with the women.”
One analysis of the eighteenth and nineteenth century press in Pennsylvania revealed a consistent stream of negative images of blacks during this long period. The local papers around Lancaster, Pennsylvania, featured a disproportionate number of negative portrayals of black males. As the years passed, the old image of the loyal and faithful black domestic gave way to that of the black thief, drunk, or fool. Gradually, as the Civil War approached, the images of black males as violent and thieving became predominant. Cowardly and predatory attacks, especially upon women, were depicted as perpetrated almost at random by black males. In this manner, the fear of being personally assaulted on the streets or in one’s household by black males was systematically promoted over the course of decades by these newspapers.
Even when blacks were portrayed as mentally adroit, it was in the context of indicating that they were “tricky” and would take advantage of unsuspecting whites. Incompetence, deceitfulness, and untruthfulness were also prominent in commentaries on black males within these newspapers. Those positive characteristics promoted by the press were consistent with the paternalist imagery emanating from the South regarding the proper role for blacks in society. Musical ability, obsequiousness and deference, vigor and good health, and, most important, loyalty were all celebrated as ideal qualities. A slave’s willingness to risk his life in order to save a slave master was perhaps the standard for gauging slave loyalty, for the ideal slave would identify with the slave master to such an extent that life itself was inconceivable without his guidance.
THE BLACK MALE AS BOY: THE EMERGENCE OF SAMBO
Perhaps the most important historical personification of the black male to emerge during the slave era was the image of “Sambo,” which became a ubiquitous figure in American culture. Stanley M. Elkins writes that southern lore typically portrays him as “docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; his behavior was full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with childish exaggeration. His relationship with his master was one of utter dependence and childlike attachment: it was indeed the childlike quality that was the very key to his being.”
In his extensive study of this fool figure, Joseph Boskin described how the ubiquitous Sambo became unmatched in his ability to reduce audiences to paroxysms of laughter. Boskin writes that Sambo was found in “journals, weeklies, newspapers, magazines, travel reports,” all forms of literary production, and in many commodities of American popular culture. The image of Sambo was that of the black male as perpetual child existing to serve whites with a smiling face, perform hard labor, and act as a lightning rod for humor. Sambo was a key feature in the effort to forge a worldview that rendered the image of the black male harmless. Remaking the black male in humorous terms, as a buffoon, cemented his status as a perpetual child, deprived of manhood, not worthy of being taken seriously. What else could he do save follow orders?
By the 1820s the minstrel show featuring white entertainers in blackface had emerged. These shows presented the black male in two forms: the “darky” and the “dandy,” the former representing a rural figure, and the latter, an urban figure. In 1828 Thomas Rice was inspired by an older black man saddled with rheumatism to begin his Jim Crow performances in blackface.
89 Using a “darky” accent, Rice became an instant sensation on stages across the nation. White males in blackface had portrayed black males as buffoons prior to the American Revolution, but the new form of blackface took off in terms of popularity. As blackface swept the nation and became a fixture of American culture, the “Sambo” image became lodged deeply into the American psyche.
The second half of the minstrel show, the olio, featured a monologue by a blackfaced actor that invariably included mangled words and terms. The humorous oratory could touch on a variety of controversial social, political, and cultural subjects. Garbled words and confused meanings allowed the audience to reach heights of frenzied humor at the expense of antebellum urban black males.
91 Caricatures of the African appearance, culture, language, music, and nonverbal behavior all were distorted in the effort to portray black males as foolish, imbecilic, incompetent, and generally inferior creatures.
Targeting northern black males, beset by discrimination and exclusion in every area, minstrel shows focused on stereotypic, narcissistic “dandy darkies,” who laughingly believed they were handsome with their outrageously deformed African physical characteristics. Having them perform skits in which they were learning new inventions, and discussing the issues of the day or their social lives, the minstrel acts were able to depict humorously the black males’ incurable incompetence and hardheadedness. Minstrels shied away from the stock images of the black male as a sexual predator but were more likely to portray the black male as an overgrown child. “Old Darky” was about as positive as the minstrel images got, as his asexual and comforting ways were not intimidating to white audiences. The image of Old Darky was appealing since it played on the nostalgic images of mutual devotion and love on the plantation. One common scene, of the Master dying, depicted Old Darky’s profound grief. With tears pouring from his eyes, what would dependent Old Darky do now?
Eric Lott focuses his analysis of blackface on what he observes as a “cross-racial desire” characterized by both fascination and defensive derision of black male culture. It represented not so much “a sign of absolute white power and control” as it did their “panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure” in their appropriation of a slice of black male culture. For the working-class white male of Jacksonian America, putting on blackface meant “to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon” that they perceived black males to enjoy. Lott maintains that this historical association of black male culture with masculinity, occurring largely unconsciously on the part of white males, has persisted throughout American history.
Nevertheless, the blackface audiences suffered from a social, psychological, and cultural dissonance, being at once attracted to, and repulsed by, black males, a phenomenon occasionally giving rise to antiblack mobs.
95 Frederick Douglass was once moved to describe the performers of blackface as “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
96 Against these images, articles and books produced by African Americans and other antislavery forces in the nation consisted, in large part, of narratives of slaves, a portion of whom depicted the black male in heroic terms. One commentator noted that the first major portrayal of a black male in American literature was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
There is considerable evidence that even the most fervent adherents of the Sambo view of the black male as an overgrown, passive, and faithful child were unable to fully convince themselves of this. In her Diary from Dixie, South Carolinian Mary Chesnut wavered between an arrogant confidence that the scores of slaves surrounding her were absolutely faithful and a grim realization that she possibly lay vulnerable to their resentment and revenge. In 1861 Chesnut considered the possibilities that her and her husband’s trusted body servant Lawrence would flee to the North after being entrusted with the care “of all Mr. Chesnut’s things—watch, clothes, and two or three hundred gold pieces that lie in the tray of his trunk.” The slave was instructed to bring these valuables to Mary Chesnut if her husband should meet with death or other misfortune. Chesnut speculated, however: “Maybe he will pack off to the Yankees and freedom with all that. Fiddlesticks! He is not going to leave me for anybody else. After all, what can he ever be, better than he is now—a gentleman’s gentleman?”
By 1864 Mary Chesnut’s personal situation had greatly deteriorated, as she was a virtual refugee and had descended to the level of a pauper. Lawrence loyally presented her with the $600 her husband had entrusted him with. Chesnut told him, “Now I am pretty sure you do not mean to go to the Yankees, for with that pile of money in your hands you must have known there was your chance.” Lawrence smiled but remained silent.
Unfree black male labor played an essential role in laying the foundations for agricultural and industrial development in America. The character of this labor was of fundamental importance in shaping the subsequent social history of African Americans. As black males emerged from the traumas of capture, the rupture of family and community ties, the Middle Passage, and the seasoning process, they found themselves victimized by a pernicious and pervasive image that became iconic in American culture. While literally enchained, a fool figure called Sambo was foisted upon the black male. This all-sided structural, institutional, and individual racial slavery inevitably had damaging consequences for the black male’s familial, romantic, friendship, and other social relationships. Their spirited resistance, however, generally would not allow a surrender to despair despite the grimness of the long decades of slavery. In every way, African American males, joined by their female counterparts, fought back to attempt to salvage meaning, purpose, and happiness in their lives. In this effort, they forged a body of concrete achievements and, in so doing, laid the basis for the future progress of the African American people.
1. Jermain Wesley Loguen, Letter to Frederick Douglass. March 1855, in Peter Ripley et al. (eds.), The Black Abolitionist Papers (New York: Microfilm Corporation of America, 1981), 271.
2. Reynolds Farley, Growth of the Black Population: A Study of Demographic Trends (Chicago: Markham, 1970), 22.
3. Nathan Irvin Huggins, Black Odyssey: The African American Ordeal in Slavery (New York: Random House, 1977), 3.
4. Olaudah Equiano, “A Multitude of Black People. Chained Together,” The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African (London, 1789).
5. J. Taylor Wood, “The Capture of a Slaver,” Atlantic Monthly (1900): 451-63.
6. Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: International Publishers 1978), 3-4, See also Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I A Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), 63.
7. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 159.
8. Raymond A. Bauer and Alice H. Bauer, “Day to Day Resistance to Slavery,” Journal of Negro History 27, no. 4(October 1942): 388-419. See also Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to Freedom: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979).
9. Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 297.
10. James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 7.
11. Ibid., 7.
12. Ibid., 25.
13. Ibid., 123.
14. Ibid., 59-61.
15. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1973), 2.
16. Roi Ottley and William J. Weatherby (eds.) The Negro in New York: An Informal Social History (New York: New York Public Library, 1967), 2-3.
17. McManus, Black Bondage, 3.
18. McManus, 6.
19. McManus, 10.
20. McManus, 42.
21. McManus, 82.
22. Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), 3-4; C. Duncan Rice, The Rise and Fall of Black Slavery (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975), 102-03.
23. Wood, Black Majority, 111.
24. Ibid., 108-09.
25. Bernard E. Powers Jr. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1885 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994), 10.
26. Ibid., 12.
27. Ibid., 15.
28. Wood, Black Majority, 30.
29. Ibid., 61-62.
30. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 174.
31. Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present. (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 15-16; Genovese, Within the Plantation, 391.
32. Charles B. Dew, “Sam Williams, Forgeman: The Life of an Industrial Slave in the Old South,” in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (eds.), Region, Race, and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 206-09; William L. Van Deburg The Slave Drivers: Black Agricultural Labor Supervisors in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 3-25; Genovese Roll, Jordan, Roll, 327-394.
33. Jones, Labor of Love, 15-16.
34. Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 2-3.
35. John W. Blassingame, Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 186.
36. Ibid., 396.
37. Dew “Sam Williams,” 206-09. See also Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 65.
38. Jones, Labor of Love, 18.
39. Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation, 172.
40. Jones, Labor of Love, 12.
41. Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 11-12.
42. Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross, vol.1: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974).
43. Van Deburg, The Slave Drivers, 7-9.
44. Ibid., 11.
45. Ibid., 50-51.
46. Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969); Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race volume 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (London: Verso, 1997).
47. Allen, Invention, 155-158.
48. Ibid., 84.
49. Ibid., 187.
50. Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on Virginia,” in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903), 82.
51. Ibid., 193-94.
52. Ibid., 6.
53. Ibid., 195.
54. Van De Burg, The Slave Drivers, 32.
55. Edwin Morris Betts and James A. Bear Jr. (eds.), The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson (Columbia, MO, 1966), 451-54.
56. Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 478.
57. John Chester Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (New York: Free Press, 1977), 57.
58. Sidney Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800 (Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1973), 119.
59. Documentary Sources Database, “Copy of a Letter from Benjamin Banneker,” in Documenting the African American Experience (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1996).
61. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson on Slavery (Dep. Alfa: Informatica University of Groningen, 1996).
62. Miller, The Wolf by the Ears, 77.
63. Ibid., 1-5, 125-28.
64. Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 11, 29.
65. Jordan, White over Black, 23-27.
66. Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 17-18.
67. David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991), 142; Michael Goldfield The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: The New Press, 1997), 8, Allen, Invention, 161-162.
68. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “Modernizing Southern Slavery: The Proslavery Argument Reinterpreted,” in Kousser and McPherson, Region, Race, and Reconstruction, 30.
69. George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 53.
70. Ibid., 53-54.
71. William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, vol. 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 191.
72. Jordan, White over Black, 23-27.
73. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, 180.
74. Wyatt-Brown, “Modernizing Southern Slavery,” 32.
75. Ibid., 33. See also, N. B. De Saussure, Old Plantation Days Being Recollections of Southern Life before the Civil War (New York: Duffield, 1909) (Electronic Edition. Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, 1997), 21.
76. Wyatt-Brown 35.
77. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 299.
78. John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good,” 6 February 1837, in Andrew C. McLaughlin’s Readings in the History of the American Nation (New York: D. Appleton, 1914), 206-212.
79. Tilden G. Edelstein, “Othello in America: The Drama of Racial Intermarriage” in Kousser and McPherson, Region, Race, and Reconstruction, 180.
80. Ibid., 182.
81. Ibid., 183.
82. Ibid., 183-84.
83. Ibid., 185.
84. F. G. De Fontaine, History of American Abolitionism (New York Herald, 1863). (http://www.loc.gov/ammem), 15.
85. Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 29-31.
86. Ibid., 33.
87. Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 82.
88. Joseph Boskin, Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 9; see also Patricia A. Turner Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 73.
89. Boskin, Sambo, 74-75.
90. Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 28.
91. Ibid., 55.
92. Ibid., 69-71.
93. Ibid., 81.
94. Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 6.
95. Ibid., 113.
96. Ibid., 27.
97. William L. Andrews, “The Black Male in American Literature,” in Richard G. Majors and Jacob U. Gordon (eds.), The American Black Male: His Present Status and His Future (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, Inc., 1994), 62.
98. Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1961), 85.
99. Ibid., 284.