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In their interviews, two ex-slaves reveal their attitudes towards the days of slavery, remembering their childhood, parents, masters’ attitudes, and other details. Comparing the interview with Aunt Harriet Smith in Hempstead, Texas, and the one with George Johnson in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, one may note that both of them focus on their daily lives during their enslavement.
Voices from the Days of Slavery
Aunt Harriet Smith and George Johnson discuss how their masters took them to the local church and organized a music band for male slaves, respectively. According to the reminiscence of Aunt Harriet Smith, many slaves were unaware of God and related issues: “We, sure, didn’t know there was any such thing as God and, and, and God, you know.” Indeed, she explains that church was something unusual yet interesting for them (“Results 1-2 of 2 for Interview with Aunt Harriet Smith, Hempstead, Texas, 1941 part 1 of 4”). It is possible to suggest that by involving their slaves in the religious sphere of life, masters wanted to educate them and make them more spiritually enlightened, respectful, and kind.
Taking into account the issue of slaves and the church, it seems essential to consider the situation from a different angle. Prichard claims that American slave-owners and churchmen sought out arguments in the Bible’s sacred writings to call upon slaves to obey their masters (109). It was not difficult to find such quotes in the Bible, given a bit of free interpretation and subjectivity. Indeed, the so-called “theoretical” justification for the enslavement of Negroes was found in the book of Genesis through the story of how Ham, the son of Noah, saw the “nakedness” of his hopeless father.
The angry Noah cursed the son of Ham, Canaan, for this, promising that he would be a slave of slaves to his brothers (“Joseph Sold Into Slavery (Genesis 37)”). The theologians of that period argued that Negroes were the descendants of Canaan, and, therefore, it was legitimate to place them into slavery. Referring to the authority of the Bible, the clergy demanded patience, obedience, and submission from the slaves. Especially popular were references to the epistle of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians, where he compares Jesus Christ to the slaveholder, urging the slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling.
George Johnson notes that his master’s band of Negroes consisted of 14 men who played songs such as “Dream On,” “I’m a Soldier,” “Flower Flop,” and more. Singing was something powerful and allowed slaves to express themselves—not only for the band members but also for other men, women, and children on plantations, at homes, and in yards. More to the point, like Aunt Harriet Smith, George Johnson notes that they had dances and “danced ah, thirty-two on a set” ( “Results 1-2 of 2 for Interview with George Johnson, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, September 1941 part 2 of 6”).
In this regard, one may claim that the era of enslavement was also represented by such activities as singing, dancing, and churchgoing, all of which were organized by masters for their Negroes and show a merciful and caring attitude. As typical representatives of slaves, Aunt Harriet Smith and George Johnson speak about their masters with respect and some extent of gratitude. For example, Aunt Harriet Smith states that masters “never whipped none of their colored people” (“Results 1-2 of 2 for Interview with Aunt Harriet Smith, Hempstead, Texas, 1941 part 1 of 4”); Johnson notes the same. Even though these ex-slaves were dependent on their masters, their attitudes may be regarded as the outcome of the appropriate treatment of slaves.
However, on the other hand, slavery entails conditions under which the life, freedom, and destiny of a person are in the hands of another. It is an open form of exploitation of man by man based on strength. In many states, slavery was the basis of the economy and a source of prosperity for colonialists, Latinists, and planters, especially in Southern states (Krauthamer 37).
Both the slave trade and slaveholding, in general, created a certain “style” of life, of which unrestrained cruelty, arbitrariness, and violence were characteristic (Fraser 71). As noted by Aunt Harriet Smith, she and her family had never known freedom. Thus, the slavery system is not only responsible for the enslavement and death of millions of Africans but also for the moral damage that is inflicted on society as a whole, generating racial prejudices, barriers, and discrimination. Slavery remains slavery even if the masters have a good attitude because people are being robbed of their freedoms and rights.
Research shows that the enslavement epoch, while often known as cruel and inhumane, was also merciful and intelligent in some cases. Even if the issue with church leaves room for controversy, slaves’ participation in music cannot be ambiguous as it undoubtedly benefited their development and knowledge. Comparing Aunt Harriet Smith from Texas and George Johnson from Mississippi, one may state that the latter can be characterized as more aware of the social life and his role in society, while the former seems to be more “enslaved”—forced to visit the church and devoid of any entertaining activities except traditional Negroes’ dancing and singing. Thus, it is possible to conclude that slaves’ lives were completely determined by the state and their particular masters.
Fraser, James, M. Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America. Johns Hopkins UP, 2016.
“Joseph Sold Into Slavery (Genesis 37).” Bible.org
Krauthamer, Barbara. Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South. University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Prichard, Pobert, M. A History of the Episcopal Church. 3rd ed., Morehouse Publishing, 2014.
“Results 1-2 of 2 for Interview with Aunt Harriet Smith, Hempstead, Texas, 1941 part 1 of 4.” The Library of Congress, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/S?ammem/afcesnbib:@field([email protected](Interview+with+Aunt+Harriet+Smith,+Hempstead,+Texas,+1941++part+1+of+4+)).
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“Results 1-2 of 2 for Interview with George Johnson, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, September 1941 part 2 of 6.” The Library of Congress, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/S?ammem/afcesnbib:@field([email protected](Interview+with+George+Johnson,+Mound+Bayou,+Mississippi,+September+1941++part+2+of+6+)).