by Afra Alatas
We all know how slavery as an institution is something morally depraving. Yet, many of us are apathetic toward the subjugation that still exists today in the form of sex slavery, child slavery and labour slavery. Researchers estimate that 21 to 36 million people are enslaved worldwide, generating a profit of $150 billion each year in illicit profits for traffickers. A study of the history of slavery is pertinent if we want to understand its presence today.
The United States is a focal point for the history of slavery since it formed a very important component of American history for nearly 200 years. Slavery affected the lives of individuals on two fronts. Firstly, slaves were subject to brutal treatment where they had to work beyond their human capacity. Secondly, on a more personal level, families were torn apart so as to prevent a chain of subjugation and oppression by the slave masters. The brutal treatment that slaves in general were subject to trickled down to the familial level as adult slaves resorted to sacrificing the lives of their children in order to prevent them from being enslaved. An anecdote of this practice was provided in a book entitled ‘Major Problems in African-American History’ by Thomas Holt where Margaret Garner, a slave mother, sought to murder her own child as the ultimate sacrifice so that her children would not have to go through what she went through. According to a pastor to whom she had recounted the story, she was filled with a combination of understandable anguish and love for her children. The anecdote illustrates just how shocking were the conditions of slavery that it pushed individuals and families to the brink.
Apart from forcing mothers to commit these unfortunate acts, slavery also tore families apart. Thomas Holt provides another anecdote, this time of a freed slave ardently seeking to reunite with his nephew. The freed slave in question, Martin Lee, was so desperate to have his nephew returned to his mother that he was willing to pay off the slave master. Furthermore, according to the law of the state, a child is not allowed to be bound to someone else so long as he has family members available to take care of him. Martin Lee’s courage must be noted here as he was willing to stand up for what was rightfully his even in an atmosphere of white superiority.
It wasn’t just children who bore the brunt of slavery as women too were victims of slavery, seemingly more so than men. Men were either sold off or succeeded in escaping their slave masters, leaving the wives no choice but to stay behind to take care of the children. This made it easier for slave masters to abuse the wives that were left behind. A book entitled ‘Voices from the House Divided’ by Glenn Linden provides a letter that an enslaved woman wrote to her husband, who escaped and became a soldier. Her experience of hardship and distress is evident in the letter where she relates how difficult it was for her to survive alone with the children as a result of her husband leaving. Her distress affected her to the extent that she accused her husband of putting her in this situation: ‘you ought not to let me in the fix I am. ’ The word ‘ought’ shows that she expected him to adhere to the obligation of enduring hardship with her. This notion of women being bearing the main brunt of slavery is illustrated in ‘Major Problems in African-American History’, in which an enslaved woman, Louisa Alexander, tells her husband of her abuse by the master and that she was unlikely to escape. It is appalling to know that men were able to escape from their slave masters at the expense of women’s oppression.
Women also had multiple roles to fulfil, in addition to being abused by the slaves. While women (and men) were sources of labour, they also assumed an additional role of reproduction for their slave masters. They were encouraged to have more children through marriage so as to increase the labour supply in the slavery institution. Accounts of relationships between female slaves and different men were common. Women were effectively seen as commodities whose only value was to reproduce so as to perpetuate the practice of slavery at the hands of their white superior masters.
However, various accounts of female black slaves escaping from their white masters were also found in the two books. An example provided is that of one Aunt Sallie, who succeeded in running away from her master’s home, despite being threatened. Rather than viewing women wholly as a commodity, they did still possess an agency and a blueprint to emancipate themselves from slavery. Nevertheless, these instances of emancipation should not discount the fact that slavery was a harsh regime. While it is well known that the institution of slavery was a tyrannical one, it is the more subtle effects of slavery on people’s personal lives and individuality that are equally brutal. By constantly, struggling for their freedom, families were forced to separate, young lives were painfully sacrificed, and women were oppressed. Black people lived in a society begotten with inequality and it was the escape from this inequality that assumed central importance in their lives, apart from their reunification with their loved ones.