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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: Emancipation

African American cemetery, July 1939
Death as Freedom
- "Grave . . . the only refuge for the slave," poem by George Moses Horton, 1828 (PDF)
- Suicide as freedom, narrative and newspaper selections, 19th-20th c. (PDF)

Most enslaved African Americans in North America died enslaved, leaving no documentation of their lives unless listed in a master's will or plantation account book, or perhaps remembered decades later in a former slave's narrative. For some, death was the only "emancipation" they could hope for, as we read in these selections.
  • "Grave . . . the only refuge for the slave." George Moses Horton holds a rare position in American literature—one of the few black poets who was published while still enslaved. White benefactors helped him publish his poems in newspapers and books to support a "freedom fund," but the profits never equaled the amount demanded by his owner, and Horton remained enslaved until the general emancipation of 1865.1 In this poem entitled "Slavery," Horton intones "Is it because my skin is black / That thou should'st be so dull and slack, / And scorn to set me free? / Then let me hasten to the grave, / The only refuge for the slave, / Who mourns for liberty." The "thou" of the poem is left ambiguous. A master? God? Fate? Pity? The reader?

  • Suicide as freedom. How many slaves chose death rather than continue life enslaved? "In the United States today," writes Dr. David Lester, a psychologist and suicide researcher, "suicide is less common among African Americans in general than in whites . . . [which] may represent an African worldview which accepts suicide only as a very last resort in the face of extreme stress."2 Calculating an approximate suicide rate among enslaved African Americans, Lester notes the difficulty of gathering unambiguous data on slaves' deaths, whether natural or at their own hand. Thus, analysis of the number, motivation, and consequences of slave suicide must include anecdotal evidence, i.e., first-person accounts and second-hand reports to supplement numerical data from census and plantation records. The selections here offer a representative sample of this evidence from slave narratives, former slave interviews (as transcribed by the interviewers), and antebellum African American newspapers. To what extent was suicide a form of resistance? to what extent "a very last resort"?
Also consider slave attitudes toward death in Theme II: ENSLAVEMENT #7, Resistance, and read other poems by George Moses Horton in Theme IV: IDENTITY #6, Poets. (5 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. In Horton's poem "Slavery," what is the "tantalizing blaze"? How is it that the "friend became a foe"?
  2. Who or what is the "thou" in the poem? A master? God? Fate? Pity? The reader? Why is its identity left ambiguous?
  3. Does Horton appear to contemplate suicide in the poem "Slavery"?
  4. Compare the poem "Slavery" with other poems by Horton in Theme IV: IDENTITY, #6, Artists. How do his theme, tone and wording differ in the poems? Why?
  5. Why did slaves attempt or commit suicide, as recorded in the narrative accounts? From what you can infer, did the enslaved view death as a liberator? momentary escape? reward? passage home?
  6. Compare the suicide accounts with the selections in Theme II: ENSLAVEMENT #7, Resistance. To what extent are the suicides or attempted suicides a form of resistance? to what extent "a very last resort"?
  7. Who is the audience for each account? How do the first-person accounts differ from the second-hand reports, as in newspapers?
  8. What different attitudes toward slave suicide appear in these readings? How do you account for the differences?

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslaved African Americans construct communities over time? What were their principal characteristics?
  •  What obstacles did slaves confront in constructing communities?
  •  How did white Americans respond to the collective behavior of African Americans?
  •  How was autonomy exercised through community by antebellum African Americans?

Horton poem: 1
Suicide as freedom: 4
TOTAL 5 pages

Supplemental Sites
George Moses Horton, in Documenting the American South, from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Library

- The Hope of Liberty, poetry collection, 1829
- Poems by a Slave, 1837
- The Poetical Works of George Moses Horton, 1845
- Life of George M. Horton, from above title
- "Farewell Address to Prof. Hooper," poem, 1837
- "An Acrostic on the Pleasures of Beauty," poem, ca. 1835
- Biography, from Dictionary of North Carolina Biography

George Moses Horton, digitized manuscript pages, from UNC-Chapel Hill Library

George Moses Horton, letters and poems, in Slavery and the Making of the University, from UNC-Chapel Hill Library

George Moses Horton, biography and poem, from the NC Writers' Network

George Moses Horton on the Internet, from The University of North Carolina Press

The African Burial Ground, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Slave narratives, 19th-century, full text in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library)

- William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave.
   Written by Himself
, 1847
- Lewis Charlton, Sketch of the Life of Mr. Lewis Charlton, and Reminiscences
   of Slavery
, ed. Edward Everett Brown, 1847
- Benjamin Drew, ed., A North-side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the
   Narratives of Fugitives Slaves in Canada
, 1856
- Moses Grandy, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, 1853
- Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, 1853
- Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a
, 1857

WPA narratives, 1930s, full text as digital images, from the Library of Congress

- Fannie Berry
- T. W. Cotton
- Ida Blackshear Hutchinson
- Martin Jackson
- Annie Tate
- William Henry Towns
- Unnamed former slave (Georgia): go to p. 292
- Home Page

An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, by Norman R. 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)

1 Joan R. Sherman, ed., The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 13-16.

2 David Lester, Center for the Study of Suicide, "Suicidal Behavior in African-American Slaves," Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 37:1 (1998), 1-13.

Image: African American cemetery, photograph captioned "A red clay Negro cemetery" (detail), Person County, North Carolina, July 1939. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

*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. Buying Freedom   2. Death as Freedom   3. Abolition
4. Liberia   5. Civil War I: Slaves   6. Civil War II: Soldiers
7. Emancipation, 1864-1865   8. The Institution

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

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