This section, with the next on religion, could be titled "Plantation Culture of the Enslaved," but there's a problem with the word "culture." When applied to a minority or foreign population by the majority population, "culture" may imply something elusive, something planned, something "other." As historian Colin A. Palmer reminds us, "blacks created a culture not because they were slaves, but because that was a function of being human even if they lived in a hostile environment."1 White slaveholders had their own plantation "culture," of course, with traditions, rituals, and unspoken assumptions that were alien to the earliest slaves. So let us think of culture-building as a universal human trait, not as a phenomenon of servitude; then we respect the voices we read and hear in this Toolbox.
Two aspects of the enslaved community on a plantation are explored here: (1) the master-endorsed group activities such as work songs, corn-shuckings, Fourth of July barbecues, and Christmas celebrations; and (2) the support network and secret gatherings invisible to the master—taking food to a runaway's cave, sending news via the "grapevine telegraph," warning of danger with code songs and phrases, praying under an overturned washtub, and slipping away at night to attend a slave dance on another plantation. "[D]ey wuz a lot happen in dem times dat mahsters didn't know nuthin' about," asserts Preston Kyles, once enslaved in Arkansas.
Consider these readings and songs in the context of the physical environment of a plantation as described in Theme I: ENSLAVEMENT, #3, Plantation. How does an image of a plantation's layout and organization enhance your understanding of the community within it created by enslaved persons? (17 pages.)
- The plantation community. We begin with brief excerpts from the interviews of thirty-three formerly enslaved African Americans, among those compiled in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal agency under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Some former slaves recount pleasant memories of after-work gatherings, Saturday rest and games, and Sunday church-going with their slaveholders. Others were allowed no group leisure or festivities on their own, describing lives of unending labor. And many emphasize the protective community nurtured on their plantations. "People in my day didn't know book learning," remembers Susan Rhodes, "but dey studied how to protect each other, and save 'em from [as] much misery as dey could."
- A slave dance and the slave patrol. Getting caught in any unsanctioned activity risked brutal punishment, perhaps death. Slaves who left the plantation without permission—to spend time with family, take food to a runaway's hideout, meet for prayer in the woods, or attend a nearby slave dance—risked a severe beating from the "slave patrol," white men (usually nonslaveholders, often violent and virulently antiblack) deputized to capture and punish slaves traveling without a pass. In an excerpt from Austin Steward's 1857 narrative, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, we read of an elaborate dinner dance hosted by the slaves of a neighboring plantation (and endorsed by their slaveholder) that ends in tragedy for the slaves who attend without a pass.
- "Corn Songs in Harvest-time." "Slave songs" have become mythologized in the retelling of American history. Their depiction in "comedy" postcards of the late 1800s, mass-culture films like Song of the South (a controversial 1946 Disney film), and published collections of "Negro spirituals" varies from accurate to condescending to racist. Here we consult first-person renditions of work songs (many are recounted in the WPA narratives). In this selection from Francis Fedric's 1863 slave narrative, Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky, we read several call-and-response songs heard at harvest corn-shuckings attended by many residents, white and black, of neighboring plantations.
- Work songs. In 1939 folklorist John Lomax drove across the southern United States, documenting and recording hundreds of white, black, and Hispanic performers, most of them amateur musicians. Here we listen to three African American work songs derivative of antebellum field songs, each audio clip accompanied by a separate webpage of lyrics. Two are call-and-response songs, and one (Driving Levee) is more reminiscent of a field holler. How does each type of song enhance communality, in addition to the cohesion created by singing together? (Lomax also served as an advisor with the WPA Federal Writers' Project that produced the interviews of thousands of former slaves excerpted in this Toolbox.)
- How did enslaved African Americans build and strengthen communal ties in their work and non-work time?
- How did communal activity enhance (and at times hinder) each individual's ability to endure enslavement?
- List the communal activities described in these readings and songs. Then differentiate the master-endorsed and slave-initiated activities. How did they differ? What did they have in common?
- What factors circumscribed all communal activity of the enslaved, on or off the plantation?
- How did slaves work with and around these factors?
- How did the slaveholders work to limit slaves' initiative and autonomy?
- Were all enslaved people protective of each other? What led some slaves to hurt or betray others?
- What divisions in the slave community are revealed in Austin Steward's narrative?
- According to Steward, how did slaveholders manipulate slaves? Why did they do so?
- Describe a child's life in the enslaved community on a plantation.
- In what ways did family ties and community ties blend together on the plantation?
- What common aspects do you find in the songs recounted in the WPA narratives?
- How do the work songs differ from those sung at social gatherings and religious meetings held among the enslaved (see next section, Religion)?
- How do the work songs enhance individual as well as community identity?
- Why does Fedric end his description of a harvest corn-shucking by relating the sale of Reuben, who led the call-and-response songs?
- How does each type of song (work song, field holler, call-and-response chant, spiritual) enhance communality, in addition to the cohesion fostered by singing together?
- Gather examples from these texts and others throughout the Toolbox to illustrate these statements about the plantation community of the enslaved:
- - "[D]ey wuz a lot happen in dem times dat mahsters didn't know nuthin' about." Preston Kyles
- - "People in my day didn't know book learning but dey studied how to protect each other, and save 'em from much misery as dey could." Susan Rhodes
- - "If you treat me good / I'll stay 'till de Judgment day, / But if you treat me bad, / I'll sho' to run away." Song related by Sam Polite
||How did enslaved and free African Americans construct communal identities in antebellum America?|
||What obstacles did they confront from white people? from other African Americans?|
||How did they respond to these obstacles?|
||How did African Americans exercise autonomy and influence through community?||
|Plantation community: || 7 (WPA narratives)
|Slave dance and the slave patrol: || 5 (Steward narrative)
|"Corn Songs in Harvest-time": || 2 (Fedric narrative)
|Work songs (lyrics): || 3 Listen to audio clips online.
|TOTAL ||17 pages
North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), full text in Documenting the American South (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library)
WPA Slave Narratives, 1936-1938, full text as digital images, Library of Congress
An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)
"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)
Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)
African American work songs recorded in 1939, in Southern Mosaic: The John & Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip, from the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Field notes for the Lomax recording sessions of April 15-17, 1939, including the three work songs included in this Toolbox
Work Songs, with audio clips, from Colonial Williamsburg
Music and Slave Life, in Slavery and the Making of America (PBS)
General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865
1 Colin A. Palmer, Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America, Vol. I: 1619-1863 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2002), p. 158.
Image: Group of "contrabands" (refugee slaves) at Foller's house, Cumberland Landing, Virginia, 14 May 1862, photograph by James F. Gibson (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
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