Last week in my African American history class, we emphasized stereotypes and racism, particularly by walking through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Then Friday, the student leaders showed the first part of the film “Ethnic Notions.” It was totally ahistorical–we’re in the 1820s and their showing a film largely about cartoons in the 1940s (as well as Jim Crow paraphernalia), but they were so excited I let them do it. Monday, I cut the other way and detailed some of slave life–the agency in the oppression. There’s this wonderful primary source I’ve stumbled upon of “Descriptions of Love and Courtship in Slavery” originally published in We are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century edited by Dorothy Sterling. I found the excerpts here.
In the excerpts, the enslaved people fear of getting sold away from families (i.e. oppression is not ignored), but there is also the butterflies and first looks of courtship among young people. I think students can dehumanize slaves in their minds if we emphasize too much their oppression. Today and Friday we are reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. Unlike Olaudah Equiano, which students read as someone not criticizing slavery (well at least I became a Christian was a favorite line of theirs), despite my emphasis that he was an abolitionist, Jacobs clearly delineates slavery’s wrongs. I had them read Equiano and asked about his role in the slave trade because I also wanted the students to understand that slavery was pervasive during that era and that’s why Equiano participated in the slave trade before he became an abolitionist. I think instead they saw him as a privileged slave who should have fought against slavery from the very beginning. It is so easy to judge the past. I don’t want them not to think slavery is a horrible institution, but I would like them to think about how it was a pervasive system and that we also live in systems of oppression today that we may or may not be fighting against. The interesting thing with Jacobs is that she minimizes the sexual exploitation she suffered. She writes as if it were just persistent sexual harassment (“just”), when if you read behind the lines, it seems pretty clear that it was also rape. My colleague Novian Whitsitt is beginning a project on slave narratives and he pointed this out to me.
Anyway, back to love and courtship. I love this one:
My first husband–nice man; den he sold off to Florida–neber hear from him ‘gain. Den I sold up here. Massa want me to breed; so he say ‘Violet you must take some nigger here.’
Den I say, “No, Massa, I can’t take any here.’ Well den, Missis, he go down to Virginia, and he bring up two niggers–and Missis say, ‘One ob dem’s for you Violet;’ but I say, ‘No, Missis, I can’t take one ob dem, ’cause I don’t lub ’em.’ By-and-by, Massa he buy tree more, and den Missis say, ‘Now, Violet, ones dem is for you.’ I say ‘I do’ no–maybe I can’t lub one dem neider;’ but she say ‘You must hab one ob dese.’ Well, so Sam and I we lib along two year–he watchin my ways and I watchin his ways. At last, one night, we was standin’ by de wood-pile togeder, and de moon bery shine, and I do’ no how ’twas, Missis, he answer me, he want a wife, but he didn’t know where he get one. I say, ‘Plenty girls in G.’ He say, ‘Yes–but maybe I shan’t find any I like so well as you.’ Den I saw maybe he wouldn’t like my ways ’cause I’se an ole woman, and I hab four children; and anybody marry must be jest kind to dem children as dey was to me, else I couldn’t lub him. Well, so we went on from one ting to anoder, till at last we say we’d take one anoder, and so we’ve libed togeder eber since–and I’s had four children by him–and he never slip away from me nor I from him.
I find this passage fascinating for the resistance that the author shows to her owners’ attempt to coerce her into giving birth. I also like sense of slowly accumulating love that appears between the couple.