Resources for Interpreting Slavery

The enslavement of Africans in the Western Hemisphere was the most brutal form of slavery known to mankind. It dehumanized victims; it classified them as less than human beings. The victims had no claim to their families, their culture tradition or humanity. They were considered chattel property. Basically, they had “no rights that whites were bound to respect;” they were ostracized by the institutions of the society in most cases; they were seen as uncivilized, heathen and without skills by many.

Sarah Gudger, former enslaved person

Portraits of African American ex-slaves from the U.S. Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives collections

Historians have spent decades researching the history of slavery to determine what life was like for the chattel. They have documented slave folk culture, general work patterns, and abuses, as well as agency, under the system. Evidence they have used ranges from archival sources to archaeological evidence and oral history. There is no excuse to not document slavery at southern sites and be able to discuss it intelligently. Historians and archaeologists and other interdisciplinary scholars have provided valuable data to use to tell the complicated story.

Many historians have argued that enslaved Africans helped their owners survive. In Louisiana, enslaved people were acquired who knew how to grow certain crops—rice, for instance— and process indigo and other food crops. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, in Africans in Colonial Louisiana (1992), asserts that “the survival of French Louisiana was due, not only to African labor but to African technology.” She continues, “the introduction from Africa of rice seeds and slaves who knew how to cultivate rice assured the only reliable food crop which could be grown in the swamp land around New Orleans.” Other aspects of Louisiana culture, indeed the entire country’s culture, was affected by Africans, including the structure of language and folklore and folktales, especially the famous “tar baby” tales. Food tastes, music and artistic expressions are other ways Africans have influenced American culture.

The interpretation of the lives of enslaved people has to be done with sensitivity and accuracy. There are excellent documentary films, scholarly studies, articles and resources to help provide assistance. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave interviews are a great source, especially the interviews conducted by Black scholars. Published slave narratives are vital sources, especially those by Frederick Douglass, Josiah Henson, William Wells Brown, Solomon Northup and numerous others.

In Remembering Slavery: African-Americans Talk about Their Personal Experiences in Slavery, and Freedom (1998), Ira Berlin and his co-editors emphasize that: “slavery was more complicated than the sad duet of domination and resistance. New World slavery did not originate in a conspiracy to dishonor same or brutalize Africans— although it did all those things. The design of the American captivity of African peoples was the extraction of labor. The struggle over labor— which made some people rich and powerful while degrading and denying the very humanity of others— shaped the history of slavery.”

Eyewitness accounts are insightful as to the horrors of slave routines. Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1853 description of a slave gang coming from the fields of a plantation following a heavy thunder shower, gives a glimpse of the workers. “First came, led by an old driver carrying a whip, forty of the largest and strongest women I ever saw together; they were all in a simple uniform dress of a bluish check stuff, the skirts reaching little below the knee; their legs and feet were bare; they carried themselves loftily, each having a hoe over the shoulder, and walking with a free, powerful swing. Behind them came the cavalry, thirty strong, mostly men but a few of them women, two of whom rode astride on plough mules. A lean and vigilant white overseer, on a brisk pony, brought up the rear. The men wore small blue Scotch bonnets; many of the women, handkerchiefed, turban fashion, and a few nothing at all on their heads.”

One has to be familiar with many topics to do justice to the history of slavery. Understanding African history and cultural traditions, European backgrounds and history and the financial gains or losses related to the system can provide a start to understanding and defining major themes to explore. Details related to work routines, brutality and violence and societal views of racial etiquette and social control add the specificity that visitors seek from historic sites. Sources abound to provide the data.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Charles Vincent, “Challenges of Interpreting Slavery: Research Summary” in Debra A. Reid, ed., Proceedings of the 2006 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 53-55.

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