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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Enslavement

Slide Show, Illustrations in Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave
- On the master-slave relationship, selections from 19th-century slave narratives (PDF)
- On masters' sexual abuse of slaves, selections from 19th- & 20th-century slave narratives (PDF)
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781,
From the author of the Declaration of Independence we have a stark admission of the contradiction of slavery in America—that its existence required the "perpetual exercise" of inequality among human beings. Not only were masters to be masters, they were to be tyrants. Not only were slaves to be chattel labor, they were to act as accomplices in their subjugation. "In practice," writes historian Colin A. Palmer, "this required knowing and using the proper forms of deferential address for whites, the uncomplaining acceptance of verbal and other forms of abuse, and a day-to-day obsequiousness that whites needed to assure themselves of their superiority."1 How did a person maintain a sense of worth (and worthiness) when survival required "degrading submissions," as Jefferson wrote, and constant self-monitoring to avoid the master's wrath? The slave's perspective of the master-slave relationship is the focus of these two groups of selections.

  1. The master-slave relationship. The first group presents statements from eleven formerly enslaved black men and women whose narratives were published between 1825 and 1868. Harriet Jacobs came to realize that her status as property defined her role in the master-slave relationship: no matter how humane a master might be, he or she could sell a slave with little or no discomfort. Frederick Douglass recalls becoming aware as a child of his status as a slave—"Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves, and others masters?"—and struggling to reconcile slavery with his belief in a benevolent God. And James Curry asserts in his narrative that, no matter how ignorant masters kept their slaves, it was "impossible to beat it into them that they were made to be slaves."

  2. Masters' sexual abuse of slaves. The second group deals with one of the cruelest hardships endured by enslaved African Americans—sexual abuse by their slaveholders, overseers, and other white men and women whose power to dominate them was complete. "I know these facts will seem too awful to relate," warns former slave William J. Anderson in his 1857 narrative, ". . . as they are some of the real 'dark deeds of American Slavery.'" Enslaved women were forced to submit to their masters' sexual advances, perhaps bearing children who would engender the rage of a master's wife, and from whom they might be separated forever as a result. Masters forcibly paired "good breeders" to produce strong children they could sell at a high price. "Forced breeding in the slave quarters manifested itself as an indirect form of rape," writes Daina R. Berry, a scholar of African American history, "where powerless enslaved males and females became the victims of reproductive abuse to which they did not willingly give their consent."2 Resistance brought severe punishment, often death. These selections are drawn from the nineteenth-century published narratives as well as the twentieth-century interviews of former slaves compiled in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave Narrative Project.

A recurring theme in these selections is the dehumanizing effect of slavery on both slave and master—the slave due to his being oppressed, the master due to his power to oppress. "Such unlimited power," Austin Steward writes in his 1857 narrative, ". . . transforms the man into a tyrant, the brother into a demon," echoing a truth voiced by Thomas Jefferson seven decades earlier. (14 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. In these readings, how and when did the enslaved become aware of their place in the master-slave relationship?
  2. How did their awareness influence their attitudes and behavior?
  3. What adjustments did they make (or refuse to make)?
  4. What role did reflection and religious faith have in their adjustments?
  5. What role did other slaves' advice and experience have in their adjustments?
  6. How did enslaved people resist subjugation in the master/slave relationship? What were the consequences? (See Section #7: Resistance.)
  7. What is the difference between adjustment and resistance? Where do they overlap?
  8. What aspects of slavery do these writers emphasize to rebut the view that slavery was beneficial to the enslaved and that most slaveowners were humane?
  9. Why does Frederick Douglass conclude that his growing awareness of slavery as a child, while deeply painful, was "knowledge quite worth possessing"?
  10. What aspect of the slave's awareness does Douglass call "a constant menace to slavery"? Why?
  11. In what situations did slaves choose to submit to the master's authority without resistance? Why?
  12. When did they choose not to submit? Why? (See also Topic #7: Resistance).
  13. What were the consequences of resistance or submission?
  14. What forms of sexual abuse did enslaved women and men experience, as documented in these accounts?
  15. What effects did the sexual abuse have upon enslaved women and men, upon the masters and their wives and children, and on the slaveowning society overall?
  16. Select incidents and commentary from readings in this Toolbox that exemplify the oft-stated conclusion that, as Harriet Jacobs wrote, "slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks."
  17. To what extent were slaveowners aware of this consequence of slavery? How did they respond?
  18. To what extent do you agree or disagree with these statements about the master-slave relationship? Why?
  19. To what extent could enslaved people exercise autonomy and power while subjugated in the master-slave relationship?
  20. Compare the nineteenth-century slave narratives that were written for publication (many before emancipation) and the twentieth-century interviews with former slaves. What different insights into the master-slave relationship can be gained from each group?

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslavement in America affect Africans and their descendants?
  •  How did enslaved peoples maintain selfhood in the slave-master relationship?
  •  What aspects of slavery did freed men and women emphasize when relating their experiences?
  •  How did a person respond to being the slave of another?
  •  What impact did slavery have on white people?

Master-slave relationship:  7
Sexual abuse of slaves:  7
TOTAL 14 pages
Supplemental Sites
Letters to a slave trader on the sexual abuse of enslaved women, 1848, 1853, in Africans in America (PBS)

North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), Introduction, Dr. William A. Andrews, UNC-Chapel Hill

Slave narratives, 19th-century, full text in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library) WPA slave narratives, 1930s, full text as digital images, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman A. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

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. 61.

2 Daina Ramey Berry, Swing the Sickle for the Harvest Is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 79. Italics in original.

Images: Illustrations in Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (Auburn [NY]: Derby and Miller, 1853), pp. 44a, 88, 304. Courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, in the online collection Documenting the American South.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. An Enslaved Person's Life   2. Sale   3. Plantation   4. Driver
  5. Labor   6. Master/Slave   7. Resistance   8. Runaways

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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