Thursday, February 18, 2010

Slavery and the Social Rupture

PelourinhoImage via Wikipedia

Here are my lecture notes from 17 February 2010.


For African American Rhetoric

Thanks to Nathan Huggins for his research and thoughts.


Mainly from West Africa and southwest Africa.

The village – a collection of family compounds.

Nature is at the heart of village life.

It is necessary to hold together to guarantee existence.

Isolation was unthinkable. “Outlaw”

Alone a person is nobody, because it was your place in reference to others.

A cowardly brother was shame to you

A glorious uncle was glory for you

What one was was the village, what pone would be was the village.

Elders were respected because they had knowledge. They could be called on to unravel knots of dispute.

When the family could not, manage or when it was one family against another the elders would be consulted.

The village can be thought of as the family writ large.

But some decisions were too big for the family: when to plant and harvest, when to cut and burn the fields, what crops to plant.

But most of that was kept within the family.

Family was an anchor to those set adrift by death. No orphans, no homeless, no abandoned old people.

There was little between families in terms of material possessions or standards of living. There were no extremes in wealth and want.

Your world is centered in your mother’s house with her other children.

There would be their wives and their children. There would be a senior wife.

Each wife had things that were hers – land, chickens, and goats. She received these when she agreed to become a wife to a husband. Any surplus belonged to the wife, and she could trade it for what she wanted.

She would go to market in the village to try and trade what she had for what she wanted. Clever wives could benefit the entire family in this way, as well as herself.

At the core of the universe is your father, wealth determined by children and land.

You are tied to those in the compound, beyond to the village and perhaps beyond to other villages.

Family compounds had other people as well. People may have been given to the family or taken refuge there. While called slaves they were not so in our current construct.

They were given status based on talents and character. They would merge into the family my marriage. They could not be sold, but belonged to the family.

The family was the economic unit. No one was surplus. Each member of the family gave what they could to increase the well being of all.

If you went to another village you would also know there a relative and a family link.

There was no assumption of equality.

You had a position in your family and the community.

Age, experience and resourcefulness could give you status.

Your character reflected your membership in an age group, clan and family.

You learned to appreciate patterns that had existed for centuries, they worked.

There was a rigid etiquette learned through ritual, routine and religion.

Little thought was given to innovation, as age-old problems of farming, health and warfare were solved by traditional means or remained unsolved.

The real meaning of the individual was that you existed and where you fit into relationships.

As a child you rose through the structures being cared for by others and caring for those younger than you.

Boys would go through rituals marking a transition into manhood, gaining knowledge of mysteries through special experiences.

As girls grew they became more involved with children and pregnancy of others and such until her own time came.

No important decision was really personal.

Marriage was too important to be left to you. Mating must serve the old and the young and those who would depend on the family.

Young man has collected bridal dues given to the family of the woman who was to be his wife.

The couple would establish their house near the bride or groom’s family to maintain contact.

If there was a disaster it was the village and the family that reacted.

One could never deny helplessness before the great surges and ebbs in life and history.

Te European would see evil as a part of moral corruption and sin. The African would see it as a natural part of the hand that was dealt. Evil comes to one as it comes to all in turn. The best defense was to respect and fulfill traditional obligations and remain strong in character.

The life force itself remained an unfathomable mystery.

Death was but punctuation in the story. It began before you and would last long after you.

It was held together by the oral history of the family and the village. All could find their place in it. One could share in the greatness of ones people because one really was a part of them.

There was a spiritual quality to all things. To you, to those around you, to all animals and plants and to the land itself.

The wood had a spirit as it came into the artisan’s hands and through cooperation was revealed in the carving.

Music, dance and celebration were united in all parts of the life cycle – birth, marriage, and death – lifting them to cosmic significance. None of us are irrelevant.

All worked together to link each and all to the world and the universe.

The drums pounded, dancers turned and twisted, libations and offerings invoked the ancestors, bells and beads tang together with flutes.

Some special person would be infused with a spirit, possessed, given some special knowledge, twirling and writhing, and then left spent and empty.

Yet, it was no paradise.

There were extremes of suffering and joy, perhaps greater because they were shared.

Droughts, floods and other events could spell total devastation, with resulting starvation and death for nearly everyone.

A community might make the wrong choice together and suffer collectively.

Any illness could be the threshold of death.

Senses were sharp and felt everything in a way that might be hard for us to understand.


Community, identification, mutual support.

Then, all of a sudden, alone, isolated, lacking in any support.

The transatlantic slave trade was far outside of their experience of “slave” family members.

One went from being a person to a thing.

This was the true rupture, much greater than the simple cruelty and mistreatment that we often focus on.

First capture, suddenly and without warning.

You might hear of something like this happening in the region. You might prepare, but the goal was to steal people, not conquer or rule. Spears and knives were little use against guns and surprise.

Some decided to attack first when there were signs of slave traders in the area.

Others waited and were the victims for it.

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Some were simply disgorged by their communities as offerings to the Europeans. Non-conformists, element of evil forces, etc.

Captives might be held in a village to be gathered into larger groups. They might even work within a family group. But then, a march along a trail to nowhere might begin.

Tales of terrible fates at the hands of monsters, of the end of the world.

His name was meaningless, his connections useless. The young and strong were honored, not the elder and wise. The weak were not assisted but dropped and died, as they had less value.

They reached a market they could recognize but they were the goods to be bargained for and exchanged. It was not for the use of those who acquired them, but for their profit. The captive lost his intrinsic value. One was bound with others that spoke unknown tongues but all with the same fate.

Earlier pain experiences, such as circumcision and scarification had brought manhood, this pain meant the end of being a human being.

Many attempted or achieved suicide. But, the disorganization and disorientation made organized resistance difficult.

The Europeans called their handling and sorting points factories.

Questions of profits overruled all issues of ethics and morality. A $10 African man could yield $600 in the New World.

Packed into ships they were sent to a land to built an empire and create profit for others.

The ships were poorly designed and risky at best. The crews were the dregs of European society. They brought syphilis to the Africans, who brought yellow fever and malaria to the Europeans.

The ship[s were incubators of infection and parasites.

Rations were short and made things worse.

More tightly packed ships meant more losses but perhaps more results, while less packed ships would involve lower losses but perhaps lower rewards. In the end, it was seen as better to fill every possible space with human flesh.

There was dysentery and disease, poor hygiene, and many lie for months in their own filth.

The sea was an unknown element to most Africans. Shortage of air and light. Harsh seas and storms. Doldrums and calms. Rations could get shorter.

Those who died were gathered and thrown overboard in the morning. If one were too weak to be expected to survive, they would be thrown overboard to save on rations. Many simply died of shock, or gave up trying to live. Others might engage in resistance, by biting the legs of jailers as they walked by.

Trails of sharks would follow the ships.

The action against the slave trade in 1807 only increased suffering. The trips were longer and less healthy but more profitable.

Each station in the journey had been passed and never seen again. All knew it was a one-way journey.

There were slave mutinies. The rage and revenge was specific and targeted. But then what?

1. Who would sale the ship? White crews would try and fool the new captains and sale the ships back into captivity.

2. Where to go? If they reached land they faced almost immediate recapture. All Europeans were in solidarity with these sailors. They had a racial consciousness of working together against Africans that the Africans lacked.

3. A woman might seek escape through a sexual liaison. These were rarely successful, as they met only temporary needs.

4. A man might gain service to the slavers based on language skills or organizational abilities. They were often used once and then sold at a higher price.

As the journey neared its end things livened up. Rations increased, exercise was more common and an attempt was made to freshen up the freight. Weaknesses were covered up, bodies were rubbed with oil. Those who could not be made presentable for sale might be cast into the sea or left on the wharf to die.

Just before sale an African man would be sent amongst the captives to talk. It may have been the first encouraging voice in quite some time. The messages included:

The white man will not eat you

There are no evil spirits at work

You will be asked to work as you have always done

There will be many of you working there.

Hope you arte purchased by a rich man, not by a poor man. Look and act your best so that you might gain such a position.

Do not run away as there is no place to run.

If you look mean only mean men will want you.

If you act properly things might yet go well.

Then, the sale. Women were to become breeding stock along with men.


Everything continued to work towards the destruction of the community they had been raised ion and hoped for.

Slaves were now the pawns of those who owned them, and they were fragile and not rooted to place and kin.

It was hard to create a community among themselves:

No meetings

No drums or dancing

No religious services or libations or offerings.

Families might be left together, but could be broken at any moment.

Times when men and women could be together were often strictly regulated.

Special ability might mean privilege, but would only increase the value as a slave. A craftsman would avoid field labor, but also the company of his fellows.

Managerial blacks had to serve the master, and were tolerated but never trusted by their fellows.

House slaves vs. field slaves. Malcolm X was right. Many were good people who were co-opted by the system. They often avoided personal and family tragedy by working against their fellow Africans. Negation and nihilism were multiplied.

Slaves could gain freedom by earning it from a master or by escape. Both were rare and very risky. Yet, in any slave state you were a slave as long as you were black. Slavery was a condition of race.

Some Africans gained authority of a spiritual kind. They held a rank unknown to the masters but clear among the slaves. Often this was used to soothe and comfort, but could also be used to victimize and tyrannize. Spells of protection were important. Slaves could not deal with anti-social elements in their midst, as all were simply property.

The family continued to be of high importance. Even in difficulty, there was an urge to belong and to regenerate. Yet, their work could not benefit the family. The family could not be extended. The family could not be a transmitter of history and values.

Slave masters assumed that without their supervision it would descend into anarchy. They believed that African families existed because of their support and tutelage. Even abolitionists believed this.

Slave families maintained many customs and beliefs, such as that cousins should not marry, whereas southern whites did this often. The bonds of families were still strong, because these intimate bonds were hard to see and hard to repress. Slave families were broken up like white families, but for different reasons. While families did not become extended because the young struck out on their own for new opportunities. In slave families they were sold off without consent.

The idea of family became more important to blacks than whites. The idea of marrying by choice, raising children, and watching them grow and develop was the central feature of freedom they dreamed of, while family for whites continued to degrade. When weddings did take place, sanctioned by the masters, they were a central element ion life. While whites got god’s blessing, the slaves only got the masters’ blessings. Many masters saw allowing slave families as a way to strengthen their slave worker population. When a man was married to a woman who did not conceive, he might be paired with another, hopefully more fertile. Whites, masters and their sons, might become sexual interlopers on a slave family.

Sexual relations among slaves were more open than among whites. Virginity was not a value and enjoying sex as not a sin. While white women were protected, black women were treated lie and worked like the men. Women often did more work than men, such as caring for cabins and preparing meals. But the slave cabins were not male dominated.

An African man felt great pride at being a father, but slave men were often denied this right. They were more easily separated from children than women. But, children were even more valuable because of high mortality, and men protected them and guided them when they could.

Children were guided by other children, with the older ones teaching, often through games. Small children had lighter tasks. By 12 and 134 it was heavier work for them. By 15 full work in the fields. White and black children played, but all too soon began playing their appointed roles. White children would be separated to learn reading and writing, and black children associated magical powers with the book and the script. In general it was forbidden to tech slaves to read and write, although some did learn. All black children were taught to stay in line or suffer.

At night families would gather around fires and stories would entertain. Stories about Africa. Stories that would not die. They also heard stories of free black men who lived wild and stole what they needed.

Slaves were often not Christianized because of the inherent contradictions in accepting slaves as fellow believers. Would Jesus have had slaves?

Slave Christianity became a tool of Black people to preserve their dignity and create their own fellowship. Often it had to be kept secret from masters.

The Bible stories of slaves of Babylon and Egypt being set free held a special fascination. God could deliver the faithful from almost anything. Christ was a special being, unknown to the powerful, who was the Son of God. And the oppressors killed him.

Black Christian spiritual leader adapted to the needs of their new flocks. The Black church became the most important institution for African Americans. It allowed them to transcend the role of victim and take their souls into their own hands.

Slaves faced character disintegration based on fear, deception and hatred, all easy to foment in a climate of slavery. But, the African spiritual experience operated against these threats. Not to fear, for their will be deliverance. Not to deceive, but to recognize the truth for what it is and celebrate it. Not to hate, for that violates the law of love. Oddly enough, it was in Black Christianity that many of the virtues of Africa were preserved.

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