The historical period of bondage in the south of America is still discussed by scholars and historians. They seek to determine whether a violation of essential human rights was a logic stage of the American society development. The scholars also study the version of slavery being a strong incentive for the beginning of the Civil War. An interesting aspect of the mentioned phase is how the slaves managed to preserve their own culture, religion and traditions. This paper analyzes the conditions and social atmosphere, in which the American slaves lived, and proves that, in spite of all restrictions and control, they managed to build an original slave community.
Presently, the concept of a slave excites negative emotions as it is understandable that one’s rights and freedoms are strictly limited and value as a human is not taken into consideration. In order to investigate the conditions, which helped the American slaves to form their own community, it is important to investigate their everyday and social life. Sage claims that the real history of the American bondage is not accurately described in different sources as there was never an agreement on opinion about whether this period had a positive or negative impact on the country: “The strongest defenders of slavery saw it as a necessary good in maintaining the God’s order of things. Those who sought to abolish slavery condemned it as an unmitigated evil” (Sage 1). Therefore, the way the issue was presented depended purely on the individual perception.
In detail, the life of slaves differed depending on the geographical situation of the state. For instance, those in Northern States, as Maryland and Kentucky, did not live in such harsh conditions as the ones in the Southern states. Although, even on the same plantation the slaves could have had different destinies (Sage). Sage does not support the institution of slavery, but wants to destroy all myths about the life of slaves by analyzing the evidence of the conditions they had. He concludes that the wives of rich owners cared for the health of black women, who were allowed to live in the perfect conditions of their masters’ houses and look after the children. There were examples of loving relationships between blacks and whites (Sage). At the same time “on too many plantations regular beatings were routinely administered to slaves who failed to toe the line. The sexual abuse of slave women occurred not only by the forced intimacy of white men, but also by the forced marriages with slave men” (Sage 7). Thus, the life of slaves in the South of America was fully dependent on the decisions of the owners of the plantation and sometimes the balcks,especially women, were lucky to work in some bearable conditions.
A separate aspect of a period of the American slavery is the way the owners and slaves viewed the family relationship and valued it. As it was mentioned above, sexual abuse of black women was quite common and often led to the birth of children, whose fathers were white. Hence, the owners’ wives had to suffer quietly in such cases (Sage). Generally, the slaveholders advocated faithfulness and unity in slave families as it helped them to control the slaves, who were dependent on each other. Rather often the slave families were separated, because some members were sold to work on other plantations (Blassingame). “Moreover, however frequently the family was broken it was primarily responsible for the slave’s ability to survive on the plantation without becoming totally dependent and submissive to their master” (Blassigame 151). Therefore, in spite of a contradictory attitude of the owners to the slave personal relationships, some black families managed to stay together, given they chose the proper line of behavior.
A spiritual life for slaves also existed, even though their understanding of a higher power and God was complex and conditioned by their origin and the hopes to become free. The slave owners did everything possible to prohibit Christianity or any other African religion among the slaves for better control. Nonetheless, as according to the Africans attractions, some secret Christian meetings as well as open sessions took place, where the slaveholders made the priests aware of what information they were allowed to provide as the blacks could not read the Bible themselves (Blassingame). Moreover, the religious culture of the slaves was quite diverse and not limited to Christianity and African religions, for example: “South Carolina’s 402,206 blacks were members of the Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist or Presbapterian churches” (Blassingame 95). However, Blassingame is sure that with time all their religious rituals turned into voodoo practicing, because the black people believed in “the voodoo priests and priestesses, claiming the ability to make masters kind, to harm enemies, to ensure love and to heal the sick” (39). The combination of a great number of religions in the slave community positively influenced their views and became a strong foundation for their rebellious moods and self-expression.
Though the general description of a slave’s life in America does not seem inspiring for the development of any slave culture, “antebellum slaves created several unique cultural forms, which lightened their burden of oppression, promoted group solidarity, provided ways for verbalizing aggression, sustaining hope, building self-esteem, and often represented areas of life largely free from the control of whites” (Blassingname 106). The African culture was not fully eliminated and they managed to preserve it in the form of folk tales, dances and music, the former being noted by some African writers (Blassingame). Accordingly, they developed their own unique mix of the African and American cultures. Blassingame affirms that the uniqueness of the cultural life of a slave community lies in the fact that its culture was developed independently from the slave owners and emphasized the importance of the values of family, education and unity. Overall, Christianity is considered to be an important part of the black culture as the enslaved priests set them right instead of promoting obedience during the secret meetings. Therefore, the slave culture, being free by its nature made a powerful impact on the slaves’ self-esteem.
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The American slaves managed to produce the described African-American culture that covered all the aspects of their life, because it gave them hope for the liberal future. Their inner desire to become free stimulated the slaves to develop their spiritual and cultural views, try and form certain relationships, find approaches to their owners and take care of their families. The slave culture is not just tribal folk tales and music, but an important aspect that shaped the slave community. In spite of all the limitations, the slaves were able to form their own small society to discuss their ideas and share their views among their equals,. Their culture initiated first escapes and was one more factor that made people see slavery as an archaic system (Sage). They gradually became more rebellious, as the Christian religion contributed to the formation of small slave unions that were complicated to be managed by the slaveholders. The Africans were not even allowed to use musical instruments as there were attempts to send some signals with the help of the drums to start a rebellion (Sage). Thus, there was a great difference between those frightened southern slaves at the beginning of the slave period, when they were only looking for the safest ways of communication with their owners, and the ones inspired by their original culture, religious views and strong family values at the end of the 17th century. Sage states that “an organized resistance to slavery was slow in coming, modest steps were taken in that direction” (12). However, with time people recognized that the notion of bondage contradicted the unalienable rights formulated by Jefferson. Therefore, the slave community and culture were formed by the efforts and desires of the slaves to express their identity.
Taking everything into consideration, it is possible to conclude that the period of slavery in the USA demonstrates that the American society passed a long way of development to comprehend what it means to value essential human rights. The African slaves in America deserve respect as they managed to demonstrate their strength and insistence in shaping their original culture by protecting and promoting their spiritual, religious and national views. As a result, the notions of slave community and slave culture stay in the history of the abolition movement as symbols of equality and freedom.