Historical Notes on “Darker Face of the Earth”

  • The Trials of Girlhood

  • Could Slaves Read and Write

  • House versus Field Slaves

  • South Carolina

  • A Slaveholder’s Daughter

  • Slaves and Music


The Trials Of Girlhood – excerpt from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
During the first years of my service in Dr. Flint’s family, I was accustomed to share some indulgences with the children of my mistress. Though this seemed to me no more than right, I was grateful for it, and tried to merit the kindness by the faithful discharge of my duties. But I now entered on my fifteenth year–a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. The master’s age, my extreme youth, and the fear that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue. Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling. He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him–where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe. Surely, if you credited one half the truths that are told you concerning the helpless millions suffering in this cruel bondage, you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke. You surely would refuse to do for the master, on your own soil, the mean and cruel work which trained bloodhounds and the lowest class of whites do for him at the south.

Could Slaves Read and Write?
For many slaves, the ability to read and write meant freedom—if not actual, physical freedom, then intellectual freedom—to maintain relationships amongst family members separated by the slave trade. A few wrote slave narratives, which, when published, powerfully exposed the evils of slavery. For slaves and their teachers, the exercise of reading and writing was a dangerous and illegal one. In most southern states, anyone caught teaching a slave to read would be fined, imprisoned, or whipped. The slaves themselves often suffered severe punishment for the crime of literacy, from savage beatings to the amputation of fingers and toes.

Although some masters did teach their slaves to read as a way to Christianize them, most slave owners believed that teaching such skills was useless, if not dangerous. They assumed that slaves had no use for reading in their daily lives, and that literacy would make them more difficult to control, and more likely to run away.

For those who managed to become literate and escape to freedom, the ability to write would spark the growth of a powerful genre of literature: the slave narrative.

House versus field slave
Well it seems to me that there is a parallel that is emerging called plantation politics: the politics of the slaves in the field were often different from the politics of the slave who got to sleep in the Big House–I mean White House. You see the slaves on larger plantations who worked in the field would often direct their angst toward the big house where their master lived. So it posed a dichotomy of loyalty when the master would artfully pick a slave to work in the big house. This slave who once was from the field, was now working in the place where their anger had once been directed, and the ultimate question is where do their loyalties lie.

It’s not a hard stretch of the imagination to believe what a quandry the slaves in the house were facing. Realize now that often times they received better food, and a better place to sleep, even better clothing, they were no longer toiling in the hot sun doing back-breaking work during the summer months, and they were protected from the elements during the winter months. The house Negro had to deal with where their loyalties lie.

But the field Negroes–ohhhh, the field Negroes–they knew where their loyalties lay. They were beholden to God and to themselves and each other. They knew where to direct their anger, it was usually at the white man who would stand on the veranda and look out over the plantation, over the legalized and systemitized economy that kept them in bondage. Whether or not their master was a fair one (and fair by what standards) or not, the master was still overseeing and actively participating in what was keeping them in bondage.

South Carolina
Slave owners had more control over the state government of South Carolina than of any other state, blending aristocratic traditions with democracy. South Carolina’s plantation owners played the role of English aristocrats more than the planters of other states, whereas newer Southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, allowed more political equality among whites. Although all white male residents were allowed to vote, property restrictions for office holders were higher in South Carolina than in any other state. South Carolina had the only state legislature where slave owners had the majority of seats. It was the only state where the legislature elected the governor, all judges and state electors. The state’s chief executive was a figurehead who had no authority to veto legislative law.

The majority of the population in South Carolina was black, and overwhelmingly enslaved: by 1860 the population of the state was 703,620, with 57 percent or slightly more than 402,000 classified as enslaved African Americans. Free blacks numbered slightly less than 10,000. Unlike Virginia, where most of the plantations and slaves were concentrated in the eastern part of the state, in South Carolina plantations and slaves were common throughout most of the state. After 1794, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin allowed cotton plantations to grow throughout South Carolina. By 1830, 85 percent of inhabitants of rice plantations along the coast were slaves. When rice planters left the malarial low country for cities such as Charleston, up to 98 percent of the low country residents were slaves. By 1830, two-thirds of South Carolina’s counties had populations with 40 percent or more enslaved; in the two counties with the lowest rates of slavery, 23 percent of the population were slaves.

The white minority in South Carolina felt more threatened than in other parts of the South, and reacted more to the economic Panic of 1819, the Missouri Controversy of 1820, and attempts at emancipation in the form of the Ohio Resolutions of 1824 and the American Colonization Petition of 1827. South Carolina’s first attempt at nullification occurred in 1822, when South Carolina adopted a policy of jailing foreign black sailors at South Carolina ports. This policy violated a treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States, but South Carolina defied a complaint from Britain through American Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and a United States Supreme Court justice’s federal circuit decision condemning the jailings. Foreign blacks from Santo Domingo previously communicated with Vesey’s conspirators, and the South Carolina state Senate declared that the need to prevent insurrections was more important than laws, treaties or constitutions.

A SLAVEHOLDER’S DAUGHTER: Kearney, Belle, 1863-1939
The South was in its glory. It was very rich and very proud. Its wealth consisted of slaves and plantations. Its pride was masterful from a consciousness of power. The customs of society retained the color of older European civilization, although the affairs of state were conducted according to the ideals of a radical democracy. Its social structure was simple, homogeneous. Three castes existed. The slave-holders constituted the gentry. Generally, those of this class served in the legislatures, studied law, medicine, theology; conducted extensive mercantile enterprises and controlled their private finances, – seeking recreation in hunting, traveling, entertaining, and in the cultivation of the elegant pursuits that most pleased their particular turn of mind.

The life of the great landowners and slaveholders resembled that of the old feudal lords. The overseer stood between the master and the slave in matters of detail. He conducted the local business of the plantation, managed the negroes, and was the possessor of almost unlimited power when the less serious-minded planter preferred his pleasures to his duties. The middle class carried on the concerns of commerce and the trades incident to a vast agricultural area, and were the men of affairs in its churches and municipalities. The third class constituted a yeomanry, – small farmers who, for the most part, preempted homesteads on the poorer lands, sometimes owning a few slaves, and who lived in a world of their own, – the westward drift from the Atlantic seaboard and the Blue Ridge mountains, with an inherited tone of life that defied change until the public school, of post-bellum origin, began its systematic inroads on the new generation.

Ladies of wealth and position were surrounded by refinements and luxury. They had their maids and coachmen and a retinue of other servants. There was a time-honored social routine from which they seldom varied; a decorous exchange of visits, elaborate dinings and other interchanges of dignified courtesies. Every entertainment was punctilious, strongly suggestive of colonial gatherings. No young woman went out unchaperoned. Marriage was the ultimatum of her existence and was planned for from the cradle by interested relatives. When the holy estate had been entered, women glided gracefully into the position of the most honored occupant of the home and kept their trust faithfully, making devoted wives and worshipful mothers.

The popular delusion is that the ante-bellum Southern woman, like Christ’s lilies, “toiled not.” Though surrounded by the conditions for idleness she was not indolent after she became the head of her own household. Every woman sewed, often making her own dresses; the clothing of all the slaves on a plantation was cut and made by negro seamstresses under her direct supervision, even the heavy coats of the men; she ministered personally to them in cases of sickness, frequently maintaining a well managed hospital under her sole care. She was a most skillful housekeeper, though she did none of the work with her own hands, and her children grew up around her knees; however, the black “mammy ” relieved her of the actual drudgery of child-worry.

The women of the South, in the main, realized their obligations and met them with reflective efficiency. Notwithstanding their apparent freedom from responsibility and their outward lightness of character, there was the deepest undertone of religious enthusiasm pervading their natures; and this saving grace has clung to the Southerners through all their changing fortunes. They are the most devout people in this nation to-day. Among them is found less infidelity, – fewer “isms” have crept into their orthodoxy. As they have remained the most purely Anglo-Saxon, so have they continued the most reverent. The army of governesses and public school teachers was made up of gentlewomen of reduced means, the large middle class, and of women from the North. Teaching, sewing and keeping boarders were about the only occupations open to women of that day by which they could obtain a livelihood.

Slaves and music
African American work songs originally developed in the era of slavery, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Because they were part of an almost entirely oral culture they had no fixed form and only began to be recorded as the era of slavery came to an end after 1865. The first collection of African American ‘slave songs’ was published in 1867 by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison. Many had their origins in African song traditions, and may have been sung to remind the slaves of home, while others were instituted by the slave masters to raise morale and keep slaves working in rhythm. They have also been seen as a means of withstanding hardship and expressing anger and frustration through creativity or covert verbal opposition.

A common feature of African American songs was the call-and-response format, where a leader would sing a verse or verses and the others would respond with a chorus. This came from African traditions of agricultural work song and found its way into the spirituals that developed once slaves began to convert to Christianity and from there to both gospel music and the blues. Also evident were field hollers, shouts, and moans, which may have been originally designed for different bands or individuals to locate each other and narrative songs that used folk tales and folk motifs, often making use of homemade instruments. In early slavery drums were used to provide rhythm, but they were banned in later years because of the fear that black slaves would use them to communicate in a rebellion, nevertheless slaves managed to generate percussion and percussive sounds, using other instruments or their own bodies. Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few examples of work songs linked to cotton picking.