Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What can we learn from the Slave Family?

I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves. - Harriet Tubman

Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. -Frederick Douglass

What can we learn from the slave family?

     No institution was more of a double edged sword for slaves in the Antebellum south than the family.  There is no question that the brutal oppression of slavery was numbed by the culture preserved within families, but at what cost?  Sometimes, such as in the case of a toothache, merely numbing the area is hardly considered a “cure”.  In fact, if the Novocain is used as a cure, we can see that this “solution” quickly becomes detrimental instead of a harmless illusion.  As the infected tooth gets worse, I would have to continue upping my dosage of the painkillers in a frantic race against the ever increasing pain until my inevitable death.  Sadly, this was the reality for most American slaves who sought psychological refuge in family and the culture it defined.  Their teachings of contradictory ethics and superstition made slavery into a cycle which was both bearable and yet, unbreakable.  The slaves of North America could never have freed themselves due to their addiction to slave morality.  By drawing from my own knowledge of moral theory and the raw data provided in The Slave Community by Blassingame, I will aim to give a glimpse into the chilling motor of self-perpetuating slavery.
    Since the individual’s self-concept, including their values and goals, is developed during early childhood, it is necessary to first consider the overall environment that a slave child is born into.  Most slave families were large, tight knit units.  The children were coddled and spared from any work until nearly the age of puberty.  According to Blassingame, this is one of the chief reasons determining the relative bliss slave children experienced in early childhood.  During this crucial period, “[the] young had no idea they were slaves” (Blassingame, 184).  Many slaves were even “spoiled” by their masters themselves who frequently treated them on equal terms with their own children.  

Yet, at the same time, “most black children learned vicariously what slavery was... they were often terrified by the violent punishment meted out to the black men around them.” (Blassingame, 186) This was likely the first ethical contradiction that shocked the minds of slave children.  The child’s natural idealization of their parents was sharply contrasted by the predations those parents chose to endure.  If their parents were good for obeying the masters, the children thought, then it follows logically that the relative freedom experienced in childhood was bad.  The same way that kids today yearn to be 21 so they can buy alcohol, slave children yearned to be big and strong to help their family and get married.    The slave family around them was very conscious about indoctrinating their children, of course. They both “tried in many ways to bolster the self-esteem of their children” and inculcated “moral lessons,” from birth, so it was common for children to completely internalize and then ignore the contradictions of their parents (Blassingame, 187).  Practically speaking, this means that when “[the child] saw his parents playing two contradictory roles,” –a private role of honor and value, compared to passive obedience in public- the child didn’t even bat an eye (Blassingame, 188-190). And it was indeed the parents who talked the child down from anger and thoughts of escape when they first realized the full horror of their enslavement.
    Fully accepting and identifying with that type of family culture mired the slave in a prison with two faces.  On one side, the slave’s conception of goodness itself justified the fear of their masters, and on the other it gave masters the absolute authority in destroying that source of identity and self-esteem. Like morality in this cage, self-esteem becomes defined by people instead of consistent principles.  A slave, who had to rely on propaganda from others when determining what was good morally, would inevitably be drawn to constantly compare themselves with others to determine their level of self esteem.  Collective rituals, religious, familial, sporting, singing, and much more provided fields for this kind of leveling for the slaves.
From hysterical superstition to sophisticated musicality, the culture inculcated by most slave families was full of all sorts of methods to numb the eternal pain of bondage.  Attempts to artificially boost the slave’s self-esteem appear most specifically within their superstitious beliefs.  “Slaves used proverbs to teach the young” focusing on “weather, death, whippings, sales, and family separation” (Blassingame, 114).  This was how slaves coped with the day to day horrors they faced.  The ability to fantasize about vast arrays of omens, rituals, and deities gave the slaves a perspective which allowed them to belittle even their master.  Compared to an “infinitely powerful” deity, the master was made to seem weak.  In addition to the belief in the Christian deity, slaves enjoyed fables in which they identified with “frightened and helpless creatures” such as “Brer Rabbit” (Blassingame, 127-128).
This symbolism reflects a subconscious knowledge that slaves had of the nature of slave morality.  In these stories, an inherently weaken and helpless animal accepts an eternal battle of wits and cunning against the more powerful larger predators they face.  This is pure and brilliant propaganda. The premise hidden in this symbolism clearly attempts to establish a fundamental difference in kind between slaves and masters; something similar to the difference between rabbits and foxes.  Two things happen when a slave accepts this story.  They identify with the rabbit, naming themselves inherently weak, and then they are generating pride by “defeating the fox”.  Unfortunately, this leads “rabbits” to seek out “foxes” to outsmart.  Overcoming their oppressors becomes a fundamental moral good, which paradoxically creates a need for oppressors to exist in the first place.
Coupled with the inflated false self were a plethora of methods designed to repress and redirect the true resentment of slaves toward their masters.   Base trials in athletics were designed to “take out anger toward whites, in physical contests.” (Blassingame, 106)  More popular, however, were communal songs and dances.  Much of the music drew complex meanings by employing the use of “metaphor, indirection, insult, irony, and praise” (Blassingame, 121.)  Call and response songs, group canons, and rhythmic tunes helped to lighten the burden for everybody involved.  Thematic expressions of rage through song included “their feelings about their condition in work,” “deceiving their masters,” and “reflect[ion] on the work they had done.” (Blassingame, 123)  Along with these deflections were also songs dedicated to the emotion-drowning tonic of alcohol (Blassingame, 124).  Managing their hatred for the master was a favored pastime for most slaves.  Slaves who “often organized dances and parties to which all of the slaves in the neighborhood were invited” clearly preferred these socialization methods.  Activities ranging from “wrestling, running races, strumming the banjo, singing, dancing… recounting tales… drinking whiskey…” attempted to fill the void where true self-esteem should have been, as well as deadening their unconscious cries of despair (Blassingame, 108).
Any shrewd master knew that the productive output of a slave was proportional to the feeling of freedom they perceived.  It is reported that, “The slaves on a plantation could get together almost any time they felt like it… so long as it did not interfere with the work on the plantation.” (Blassingame, 108) A free social life was required for slaves to appreciate their slavery.  Yet, social life was impossible without first socializing with family, and some masters were even proactive in the establishment of slave families.  Many slaveholders “insisted that [slaves] marry women on their own estates” and would even purchase female slaves from other plantations to “win the loyalty” of particular slaves (Blassingame, 165).  Once the family units are in place and each slave is psychologically dependent upon others, the real operant conditioning can come into effect.
“In no class of American autobiographies is more stress laid upon the importance of stable family life than in those of former slaves.” (Blassingame, 172)  Masters understood this completely and took actions which threatened these institutions purposefully.  This was a fine line to toe.  Despite the fact that “slaves ran away in an effort to find [sold mates],” the separation of families was always a “haunting fear which made all of the slave’s days miserable” (Blassingame, 173).  Indeed, 32.4% of slave unions were dissolved by their owners.  Apart from being sold, resistance of sexual predation from owners by female slaves was met with harsh punishment by law.  Since the “black male could do little to protect his wife from the sexual advances of whites,” this threat loomed above all others and was very effective in controlling outbursts from slave men (Blassingame, 172).  Generally speaking, any master had a myriad of craven techniques for controlling slaves.  The whip was only the tip of the iceburg.
So, it is now certain that “a black man… who loved his wife and his children was less likely to be rebellious or to run away than would a “single” slave” (Blassingame, 151).  Slaveholders knew this fact and exploited it for all it was worth.  Being given the responsibility to train their children, “slave parents… could cushion the shock of bondage for [the children]” (Blassingame, 151).  This cushion was the Novocain I referred to in the introduction.  Bondage is truly a shocking matter.  These “values” instilled by parents as “referent[s] for self-esteem other than the master” worked only as a cold anesthetic for the ambitions and self-respect of human beings (Blassingame, 151).  After successful family socialization it seems the slave was able to identify fully as a slave.  Thanks to the family, slavery would have continued indefinitely.

I think what we can draw from this analysis is the fact that we need philosophy more than anything to keep tyranny at bay.  There will always be people who desire to exploit and control, but without a clear methodology for exposing and resisting such predation there is no hope.  We cannot rely on others to decide anything for us, we must all be leaders of ourselves.  Without this strong moral foundation we can be lost in the petty squabbles of slave morality, a truly nightmarish state.  Unfortunately it seems that the whole of civilization is slipping back into false collectivist slave morals and as an entire race we risk this doom.  Let us see the American institution of slavery as a call to action. Let us free our fellow slaves before we run out of chances.


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