Anthony A. Lee, Ph. D.
UCLA & West Los Angeles College
Anthony A. Lee teaches African American history at UCLA and at West Los Angeles College. He was awarded the 2003 Nat Turner Poetry Prize (Cross Keys Press) and the 2005 Naomi Long Madgett Award for poetry (Lotus Press).
The Subaltern Voice – The Genius of African-American Slave Culture
At the outbreak of the Civil War, there were about four million enslaved African American people in the United States. Cut off from the wider American society by ideological constructions of racial inferiority, and the legal constraints of perpetual bondage, the slave population developed a distinct culture and a counter-ideology that supported their communities through brutal oppression.
Slave culture finds its roots in both the ideas, beliefs, and customs brought from Africa and the European milieu in which enslaved Africans found themselves in the New World (with Native American influences that should not be overlooked). The mix that resulted affected white American culture as well as black, but gave rise to a distinctive slave culture that included a deep sense of solidarity and community.
Slave culture emerged at a time when the assumption of white supremacy was ubiquitous. Every leader of thought, every institution, in American society—laws, governments, courts, churches, clerics, universities, books, newspapers, academies of science, and so forth—was unanimous in the assertion that black people were not, and could never be, full members of the human family. Slaves were, therefore, regarded as inferior persons to whom ordinary moral considerations did not apply. This attack on black humanity left slaves profoundly isolated existentially, socially, economically, politically, and ideologically.
Under such circumstances, the fundamental project of slave culture was to resist dehumanization, assert black humanity, and convince enslaved people of their own self-worth. Cornel West suggests that the primary challenge of the culture was “to ward off madness and discredit suicide as a desirable option.” The slave culture that developed in response to this challenge was intense and compelling, characterized by an animated orality, tense physicality, covert intellectual musing, nimble improvisation, deep secrecy, coded communication, and defiant spirituality. Slave culture, by the time of the Civil War, was in all its aspects focused on the problem of black suffering and the appropriate response to it. West suggests that “the ‘ur-text’ of black culture is neither a word nor a book, not an architectural monument or a legal brief. Instead, it is a guttural cry and a wrenching moan . . .” Such shouts and moans were found omnipresent in slave song and religious practice, in musical performance and in folktales—even in everyday speech.
The slave response to suffering and injustice was not to deny it, but rather to defy it. That is, slave culture consistently demands that suffering be acknowledged and that life be celebrated in all its aspects in spite of such suffering. The words of one slave spiritual illustrate such defiance:
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.
Nobody knows but Jesus.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.
The shift of mood in the last line of the lyric from mournful grief to joyful exultation is typical of the sudden mood shifts to be found in all black cultural performance.
Another slave spiritual, cited by W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, illustrates this same defiance:
You may bury me in the East,
You may bury me in the West,
But I’ll hear the trumpet sound in the morning . . .iii
Such defiance is masked and coded, however. As much as slave culture was universally a culture of resistance to the dehumanization that lay at the foundation of slavery, it had to accommodate itself to the realities of bondage and white domination. The culture recognized the need for slaves to masquerade in the presence of masters as dull, crude, foolish, childlike, or humor filled. Nonetheless, the study of slave life has revealed a culture of great subtlety, strength, and introspection. The African American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906) has acknowledged this painful masking in a poem published in 1896, well after the end of slavery:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask. . . .iv
Slave life was dominated by long hours of toil and unpaid labor. But slaves were given some time for leisure and recreation. Slave culture could be expressed most fully during these periods. Almost all masters observed Sunday as a day of rest, since it was a religious obligation, and slaves were left to themselves. Saturday was often only a partial work day, with Saturday evening a time for gathering and partying. The Christmas holiday, the week from December 25 to January 1, was usually observed as period of no work, for field workers at least. Other holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Easter Monday, and the Fourth of July, might also be given to slaves as holidays, depending on the practice of each master. Work was usually suspended on rainy days, when fieldwork became impossible. Impromptu holidays might also be declared by masters after planting was done, during slow periods of the agricultural cycle, and in association with weddings, birthdays, and funerals of the master’s family.
Naturally, slaves might create other opportunities for recreation. Illicit nighttime gatherings, for worship and for socializing, were a regular part of slave life. Though they might be broken up by slave patrols, they usually went undetected. More risky options for taking leisure were pretending to be sick or simple truancy—leaving the plantation without permission.
During such periods of rest, slaves spent most of their time in parties with music and dancing, in worship services, hunting and fishing, lounging, storytelling, drinking, or visiting wives, girlfriends, and family on other plantations. Slave codes in the South usually outlawed certain other leisure activities, such as cards or dice, gambling, or playing any game of chance for money—indicating that such games were popular pastimes among slaves.
Sunday was a day of worship, of course, at least for enslaved Christians. However, most African Americans slaves resisted conversion right up until the Civil War. Michael A. Gomez suggests that by 1860, only 22% of slaves may have been converted to Christianity. For example, Charles Ball claimed that his African-born grandfather “never went to church or meeting, and held, that the religion of this country was altogether fake, and indeed, no religion at all; being the mere invention of priests and crafty men, who hoped thereby to profit through the ignorance and credulity of the multitude.” So, contrary to popular belief, Christian slaves probably remained in the minority until the end of the war.
Christians might hold secret prayer meetings at night in secluded areas they called “hush harbors.” Clandestine night gatherings were a regular feature of slave life, in any case. Mary Reynolds recalled one of these meetings many years later:
Once my maw and paw taken me and Katherine [her sister] after night to slip to ‘nother place to a prayin’ and singin’. A nigger man with white beard told us a day am comin’ when niggers only be slaves of God.
We prays for the end of Trib’lation and the end of beatin’s and for shoes that fit our feet. We prayed that us niggers could have all we wanted to eat and special for fresh meat. Some the old ones say we have to bear all, cause that all we can do. Some say they was glad to the time they’s dead, cause they'd rather rot in the ground than have the beatin’s.
As can be seen here, Christian gatherings consisted of singing, praying, and preaching. They lacked formal services, rituals, or sacred objects. In the ring shout, a form of Christian worship, believers formed a circle and shuffled counterclockwise, while singing, shouting, dancing, and praying. Others stood outside the circle and sang and clapped. Eventually, some dancers would become possessed by the spirit and fall. The ring shout probably combines African forms of worship with Christian practice.
The slave’s theology rejected the slaveholders’ Bible teachings that supported slavery and justified their mistreatment. Enslaved Christians believed that they were the people of God. Slaves were convinced that they were going to heaven and that their masters were not. Frederick Douglass remembered that crowds watched his master’s dramatic conversion to Methodism. The white congregants celebrated, saying: “Capt. Auld had come through.” But the slaves secretly believed otherwise, according to Douglass:
. . . the slaves seldom have confidence in the piety of their masters. “He cant go to heaven with our blood in his skirts,” is a settled point in the creed of every slave; rising superior to all teaching to the contrary and standing forever as a fixed fact.vii
Slave Christianity also included a covert theology of liberation, at least by the ante-bellum period. In June 1850, a white slaveholder in South Carolina accidentally overheard a slave named George sharing a Christian message with other slaves, that they:
. . . ought not to be discouraged on account of their difficulties. There was no reason why they were in the situation they were, only that God permitted it to be so. That God was working for their deliverance. He was working by secret means, and would deliver them from their bondage as sure as the children of Israel were delivered from the Egyptian bondage. . . . [They] did not know exactly how long it would be before they would be set free. There was no doubt that it would be soon. That they ought to pray for [it], and their prayer would go up before God and be answered.ix
George was arrested, charged with sedition, tried, and sentenced to thirty-nine lashes plus deportation from the state. It is clear that, as with other aspects of slave culture, slave theology had to be kept strictly secret.
Nonetheless, cultural attitudes and beliefs can be discerned in slave music, and especially in spirituals and other slave songs. The Bible story most often found in spirituals is that of God delivering the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Moses is one of the most often mentioned persons in these songs. Others include Noah, Daniel, and Jonah—all rescued from tribulations by God. Jesus appears as the innocent child, the victim of whipping, and the powerful King Jesus, who cannot be defeated. Bible stories are conflated, with episodes from the Old and New Testaments lumped together. Salvation was universal for slaves; God would save anyone who believed in him. Slaves spent little time singing about hell or damnation. Whites seldom appear in these spirituals, as the songs invoke the autonomous world of African American cultural imagination.
Besides Christianity, enslaved Africans preserved their ancestors’ beliefs as “conjure” or “hoodoo.” This was a rich mixture of European and African magical practices which included herbal medicine, love potions, ghost lore, witchcraft spells, protection from evil, and divination. Such practices remained important in the slave community even after conversion to Christianity.
The cultural values of the slave community were also embodied in storytelling, which was an important part of slave life. African American folktales were widely known before the Civil War. They amused and entertained generations of Americans—white and black. But, one of the of the persistent misunderstandings of these stories is that they were told as mere foolishness—that they are light and nonsensical stories that slaves told one another, just to pass the time or to provide a source of amusement. On the contrary, contemporary scholars have argued that this folklore represents the serious oral literature of slave culture.
Although the tales can be quite humorous, enslaved African Americans used folktales to explore the most central and urgent issues that their culture faced. They used folktales to inspire and educate others, to socialize children to the norms and realities of slavery, to maintain solidarity within their communities, to rebuke and satirize their masters, to protest their condition of bondage, to resist the dehumanization of the slave system, to accommodate to the injustice of slavery and make them bearable, to communicate encoded messages to one another, to suggest solutions to common dilemmas, to explain how things came to be as they are, and so forth.
It is one of the most profound achievements of African American culture that the animal tales, at least—the stories about Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, etc.—could achieve all of these purposes with such perfect subtlety and ambiguity that they could be told openly and freely—in full view of white society, without attracting suspicion or condemnation. This in itself gives insight into the nature of slave culture and black consciousness in the ante-bellum South. While it pretends to be clumsy and foolish, slave culture is consistently subtle and indirect. It is a culture that was extremely careful with words, and it crafted its literature with delicate nuance and shrewd complexity. It is also a secretive culture, but one that tends to hide its secrets in plain sight.
Most of the animal stories are trickster tales. These are consistently the stories of how a small, weak, but cunning creature (such as a rabbit) outsmarts a much larger, more powerful, but rather stupid animal (a fox, perhaps) who in the natural course of things should be eating the smaller creature. The little trickster animal is marked by his capacity for bragging, lying, and trickery; and by his strutting, egotistical, and self-assured personality. The larger animal is portrayed in these stories as dull, slow, rather unsure of himself, and easily tricked. The identification of the smaller animals with the slave and the larger ones with the slave master must have been obvious to the black community, but never seems to have occurred to slave-owning whites.
The cultural productions of African American people during the centuries of slavery in the United States are indeed remarkable. Their cultural creativity seems to have reached its peak during the years just before the Civil War. By then, the culture included a rich musical tradition, a new form of Christianity, a remarkable dance tradition, a vast and subtle oral literature, and a counter-ideology to prevailing attitudes of white supremacy. In addition, the slave community developed unique patterns of extended family relationships, styles of dress, and styles of work that both resisted and accepted the limitations and intrusions of slavery. They developed a full and expressive language that, while it was regarded as an ignorant and broken form of English at the time, is now recognized by scholars as a full and legitimate language system that is, in some ways, more expressive than Standard English. The culture also provided slaves with amusements, games, and pastimes for leisure hours.
Slave culture was a fully developed system that provided its people with tools by which they could protect themselves, especially psychologically, from the brutal ravages of racial oppression. Beyond that, it has had a profound influence on all aspects of American life and has influenced white society and culture in every aspect.
- iCornel West, “Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization” in The Future of the Race (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) p. 81.
- iii“You May Bury Me in the East,” also known as “I’ll Hear the Trumpet Sound,” cited in W.E. B. DuBois, “The Sorrow Songs,” Chapter 14 of The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1903 ) p. 180.
- iv“We Wear the Mask,” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, in The Norton Anthology of African
American Literature, ed. by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997) p. 896.
- vMichael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998) p. 260-61. Blassingame supports this estimate, suggesting that about one million slaves were Christians by 1860, about a quarter of the slave population. (John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, Revised and Enlarged Edition [New York: Oxford University Press, 1979] p. 97-98.)
- viCharles Ball, Slavery in the United States: A Narration of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball (New York, 1837) p. 21.
- viiQuoted in The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972-79) Vol. 5, pp. 240-41.
- viiiFrederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Dover Publications, 1855 ) pp. 195-96.
- ixQuoted in J. William Harris, Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society: White Liberty and Black Slavery in Augusta’s Hinterlands (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985) p. 41.
- x Charles Joyner has suggested, for example, that the same role that the novel plays in twentieth-century European culture was carried by the folktales in slave culture. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984) p. 172.