Bondage of a Child

Thetumb idea of a necessary childhood is a fairly recent occurrence that the United States has started to take into account. It was not until the late 1800’s that people worldwide realized children should be freed from responsibilities and grooming that made them into little adults. During that time this attempt only reached a number of adolescents, predominately those of upper to middle class European descent. There was another, seemingly unorthodox population who did, to a degree, share in this newfound child human right. These were the slaves born and bred in the United States.

Even though some of these children had lineage of their European parents, the fact that a small percentage of their bloodline was of African heritage made their rights obsolete. Although a small percentage of slaves were owned by Native Americans and even other blacks, this essay will focus mainly on the majority of slaveholdings owned by caucasians due to the often more harsh treatment imposed on slaves by the latter group. This analysis is to document, through research and popular slave narratives, the truths of how slave children- especially those of mixed European heritage-were treated by both their slave and slave owner parents.

A woman by the name of Louise Clark Pyrnelle wrote and in depth children’s book  coined Diddie, Dumps, and Tot in the late 1800’s that showed the dynamics of child play on southern plantations. She reminisced of her experience playing with the slaves on her family’s property with her two other siblings. Although the text stays in the stereotypical light of the happy slave, her attention to the games that she played with her black counterparts shows a breakdown in the hierarchy of color that was pertinent to the slave holding mentality. Through her playtime with the slaves, roles were reversed at times and the color barrier was broken. Psychologists believe that when children play they test the waters of limitations by gaining control over their environment via imagination and the outcome may be vastly different than what society would consider appropriate or the norm. This is what happened in Pyrnelle’s literature as both races enjoy the perceived boundary of the white privileged home of the master’s home as well as the less prestigious slave quarters.

Although the text can be seen as degrading by today’s standards, Pyrnelle was recounting her treasured childhood moments by using slave vernacular to express the many stories and lessons the she learned via the black children and their families on her father’s plantation. The account also shows how the adults on the plantation made a point to treat the children differently. One account being that the white sisters received delicate and white stockings during a holiday and the black children received the same thing but in the coarse material that was consistent with slave wear. Even though the adults forbade the white children from playing with the slave children, their care was placed in the hands of the older black women, being rarely supervised by white supervision, thus enabling the mingling of the sisters to the ways and lives of the slaves in everyday life activities such as religious events and even celebratory festivities.

A glimpse into this lifestyle shows how blurred plantation life became for both black children and white, until the adults chose to reinforce societal norms. This norm was even more complicated when one took into consideration the mixed race children of the slaveowner men and the slave women. How does a child fit into the hierarchy of race division in a setting where he or she can blend perfectly into both extremes? In the case of what it is to be considered black or white in America, the law is not as concrete as one would think, regardless of the strict societal norms that dictate the behavior.

In the Salem Press Encyclopedia it is noted that the legal definition of what is considered to be white or black is not very concrete. The American government to this day has never provided a definite rule to what constitutes a person being either black or white although the encyclopedia denotes that “The United States Census illustrates the fluidity of racial definitions on a national level. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which constructs the racial options on the census, continues to alter the number and description of these categories. These determinations are influenced by common usage in the population. For example, in 1790, the first US Census divided the population into free white males, free white females, slaves, and other persons (these included free blacks and American Indians residing in or near white settlements).

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the US census broke African Americans into black and mulatto (mixed-race) racial categories. The 1890 census created the categories of quadroon and octoroon (one-quarter and one-eighth black, respectively) to distinguish between various black-white biracial persons. Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, as the “one-drop rule” (“one drop” of black blood made the person black) became entrenched in US society, the census no longer included any mixed-race categories. After 1920, the census classified persons with any African ancestry as black.”(Korgen)

The ambiguity of technically defining a person’s color has never deterred the U.S from enslaving the offspring of African Americans from the 17th until the 19th century. During this time it was common place for white men to rape or carry on liaison’s with their slaves for their own benefit of producing more ‘property’ and also for their own devious desires. These children were oftentimes ostracized and treated harshly due to the hatred of the slave-owners wife. As stated in the popular slave narrative of Frederick Douglas, it was a normal habit of separating child, especially one of mixed race, from parent early on in life. Douglas relates to his own personal struggles in relation to never truly having a bond with his mother. He states in his autobiography that “frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed in the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.” (Douglass 338)

Another harsh scenario was that sometimes the child was made to cater to their half siblings who they may have looked identical in complexion to. They were vulnerable to getting beatings from their father’s wife if she was aware of the parentage of the child. A similar circumstance was seen in the book “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neal Hurston when she chronicles the birth of the mother of the main protagonist named Janie. The grandmother is resting in her shack with a week- old child when the father, and slave owner, leaves her home to fight in a war. Immediately after the wife comes in and demands to see the child. When she catches a glimpse of the blonde hair and gray eyes she starts physically attacking the new mother while she holds her baby and promises at least a hundred lashes in the morning. Luckily, in the story the woman runs away and escapes unscathed until the emancipation process is complete.

Although this story is a work of fiction it doesn’t hit far from the truth. If in fact, a person was allowed to keep their mixed child in the same location with them, it could be assumed that many atrocities would lay in store for them. As stated before, it was common practice to separate all children born of slavery to detach them from the bond of their mothers. Harriet Jacobs, author of  “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” states of the fellow enslaved persons that “the slave child had no thought for the morrow; but there came that blight, which too surely waits on every human being born to be a chattel.” (Jacobs 226) She also spoke of how slave children played alongside the white ones as companions and friends. She spent her time as a company to her mistress by partaking in sewing and picking flowers and stated about this time during her life that her “heart (was) as free from care as that of any free-born white child. She was allowed play time and exercise outside. Her stress came when she reached puberty and started experiencing the advances of the male slave-owner.

Frederick Douglass has similar experiences being born as a mixed child, having a white father and black mother. He experience hostility when he became a teenager, but surprisingly, Frederick Douglass mentions his white childhood friends fondly as his best memories of living on a plantation. One can assume that a young female slave would be allowed more leniency during childhood than their male counterparts but Douglass states that most children born into slavery are cared for by the older women at the location. In chapter five of his autobiography he reminisces that his experience was similar to that of other slave kids as he was not of age complete field work with “there being little else than field work to do” (Douglass 348). A decision to send him away to become a companion in Baltimore is credited as a life changing choice by Douglass in his success of becoming a free man. These same choices in the lives of other children were detrimental in their mindset of having hope and perseverance to create equality in their lives.

While still a child, he spent his leisure time hunting fowl and rarely was beaten by his masters. He does shine a light on the normal wear of slave children. Both male and female were made to wear a knee length coarse linen shirt. As were most children, he had no bed to lay on and fed mush, a mixture of boiled cornmeal and other additives such as oyster shells. Both Jacobs and Douglass succeeded against another obstacle in the life of a slave child. They learned how to read. Jacobs was taught by her mistress and Frederick was self- taught after first learning the basics from one of his mistresses before her husband stopped her.

Teaching a slave to read and write was against the law and considered unethical due to the perception that blacks were not intellectually capable of doing that skill, although there were plenty of examples to the contrary. Douglass stated the reason behind this harsh treatment of those who chose to enlighten a slave by using his former slave owner’s mention of the task as a means of spoiling as “a nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do wat he is told. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” (Douglass 351) The desire to become literate was a purposeful fight for liberation against those who oppressed them. It symbolized the greatest resistance that a slave could perform by providing hope and goals to become equal and just in the rights of all men.This is why if a slave child was taught to read or write they would literally have to keep that a secret for fear of retribution against themselves and whomever chose to defy the law.

Besides education the next most feared skill for a slave to learn was religion. This included the standard belief in Christianity as well as African themed spirituality. Folktales were pertinent to educating a slave child the ways of the world and how to survive in it. It was important for parents of slave children to instill in them ways to keep their integrity intact while enduring demeaning and inhumane practices geared toward themselves and the ones that they loved. Usually the parents would teach a lesson of do unto others in order to try and curtail defiant acts that would bring harm unto a rebellious youth. There was also a great emphasis placed on respecting elders, whether in the Big House or the slave quarters. This sometimes created tension between a child and the adults of both the white and black race, especially if each decided to authort power by changing the child’s name. Confusion also played a part when adolescent slaves were made to show reverence to infants and toddlers of their slaveholders. Oral religion helped shape an entertaining narrative to promote self confidence in an ironic and often hypocritical society.

Since the purpose of the enslavement was to bring the slaveowner profit, the life of anz slave was heavy with physical labor. Work determined when the black American would rise and also when they would sleep. Their own household went lacking in the way of personal parental care and quality time. The rearing of the children was left, as stated earlier, to the older women of the plantation. Despite this inability to spend as much time as desired with their families, bonds sometimes did generate between slave children and their parents. Because of the limited time period to recuperate from childbirth, many slave mothers wrapped their children to their bodies and continued field work in order to be able to nourish the child. This meant at times excessive exposure to the elements as well as some dangerous crops such as tobacco, which usually turned soil infertile after a while.

For those children who were in the stage of toddlers and over, the care became more community laden. Although this was not the best situation, it promoted bonding with other people other than the immediate family members. Due to the sometimes limited amount of elderly females in a location, some parents had to use whomever was available in the local area to assist in childrearing. This meant at times that children had to leave the slaveholding of the parent and reside at another location until they could be seen as fit to not need as much monitoring. Other times older children were made to look after the younger ones, and even the white family that owned the slaves had to take responsibility for looking after small kids. This was done only in extenuating circumstances as the benefit of the slaves was to assist in rearing the slave-owners children and not vice versa.

In the most extreme cases children were left unattended while their parents worked. This sometimes causes turmoil in the area as children are often prone to explore and perform dangerous actions. Due to this issue some slave-owners chose to put children not even school age into the fields so that adults could keep an eye on them. The work load varied from cleaning up weeds and stacking wood to carrying water to the adults and collecting trash. Some jobs, like those of chimney sweepers, required very young childern due to space restraints, and placed these adolescents into harms way by exposing them to cancer causing soot.

The age in which a child was given full duties could also vary from the age of six to around fourteen. When a child was considered able to work a full work load then they could assist in work gangs, which often included their parents or siblings. This gave for more time to bond, and also for creating assistance for those in the household who couldn’t produce as fast as others. This transfer of responsibility gave them position in the household and determined their value to the slave-owner. It also made the children more susceptible to being sold off to the highest bidder.

Once of age, jobs also became more gender specific. Girls were trained in the way of stereotypical female work such as sewing, cooking, spinning, and also less intensive field work. Boys were given more skilled jobs that allowed for travel and easier capabilities to buy personal time to make money. They were both taught at a young age by their relatives to live smart and not cause problems in the way of correct etiquette for a slave. This was of course trying for some who chose to run away for many reasons including freedom and also when a beloved parent or parent figure was sold away.

When these children were able to create a bond with another slave, whether it be a mother, father, brother, sister, or communal aunt, if they were left due to a slave escape then they felt compelled to share in the joy of the other brethren. Most times children were left behind in an escape because of the inability to carry them long distances along with food and other necessities. If a child was brought along, this would make the journey a lot slower and difficult. Teenagers were encouraged to severe any familial connections in order to run away and be free from the bondage of slavery or desire to return and assist others remaining.

The end result of having children placed in this system is a life full of emotional turmoil and searching. This is most evident in the establishment of ‘Information Wanted’ sections of black newspapers immediately following the end of the Civil War. In these classified articles both former child slaves and also their parents placed information pertaining to reunification. One such newspaper was called the Colored Tennessean out of Nashville Tennessee, and it enabled family members who had been displaced by inhumane treatment and separation of their relatives for monetary gain or punishment by the slaveholders. It is a true travesty to know that during the Transatlantic Trade that children were often the focal group of those who needed to fill ships with cheap and quick cargo.

Realizing this information is bittersweet when one considers that children are the most vulnerable, but yet resilient of the human species. They can adapt far better than many older adults who are placed in the same environment. The motifs that was brought forth in the slave narratives during class and also the added sources regarding literacy is key because it was a driving point in a slave child’s life because it was hope of a freedom one day. The point of view of both former child slaves as well white show that the children that had to endure captivity in such a brutal way also had decent and respectable moments of their lives when they could be simply a kid. Through this essay the desire is to dispel any stereotypes of fair skinned children being more treasured in a slaveholders household as well as shedding light on day to day functioning of children who in their innocence still blended in seamlessly with whatever role or aspirations they had, regardless of melanin tint, even if only during playtime.

Bibliography

Chudacoff, Howard P. Children At Play : An American History. New York: NYU Press,

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Douglas, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas.” The Norton Anthology of          African American Literature. Third Edition. Volume 1, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.     and Valerie Smith, WW. Norton and Company, 2014, pp. 330-393

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. First Harper Perennial Modern Classics,    2013.

Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” The Norton Anthology of African   American Literature. Third Edition. Volume 1, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and   Valerie Smith, WW. Norton and Company, 2014, pp. 224-261

Kelley, J. E. (2013). “Mammy, can’t you tell us sump’n’ to play?”: Children’s play as the locus for

imaginative imitation and cultural exchange in the plantation novels of louise clarke

pyrnelle. Children’s Literature, 41, 140-171,310. Retrieved from    http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/docview/   1399544030?accountid=3783

King, Wilma. Stolen Childhood, Second Edition : Slave Youth In Nineteenth-Century America.

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 4

Nov. 2016

Korgen, Kathleen Odell. “Legal Definitions Of Blackness And Whiteness.” Salem Press

Encyclopedia (2015): Research Starters. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Pargas, Damian Alan. Work and Slave Family Life in Antebellum Northern Virginia In: Journal

            of Family History. Oct, 2006, Vol. 31 Issue 4, p335, 23 p.; Sage Publications, Inc

Williams, Heather Andrea. Help Me To Find My People : The African American Search For

            Family Lost In Slavery. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press,

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