During the Antebellum period in American history,Slaves were molded by both oppression and agency, they were mistreated and had a lack of education but slaves also had hope in religion, songs and education, they thought this would lead them to freedom. Historians have made the argument that slavery stripped away all of the slaves African identities, stopped them from forming strong relationships and made them workers that couldn’t think on their own. However historians recently have argued that people born into slavery actually had control to change their own life and make their own choices and were not just shaped by oppression.
One of the ways slaves were oppressed was by the way slave women were mistreated. According to Document 7 “Charity Bowery” by Lydia Maria Child she states that ” From the time my first baby was born, I always set my heart upon buying freedom for some of my children. I thought it was of more consequence to them than to me; for|| was old, and used to being a slave. But mistress Mckinley wouldn’t let me have my children. One after another- one after another- she sold em away from me. Oh, how many times that woman’s broke my heart! ” (Doc 7).
Lydia’s mistress wouldn’t let her have her children, she would always sell them away even if Lydia tried to buy them back with money she earned by working. Not only would Lydia work as a slave but when she had free time she would sell oysters on the roadside. Slave women having their children taken away is clear proof of the mistreatment and oppression they went through. Harry McMillan is also asked in an interview that “Q:Il The women had the same day’s work as the men; but suppose a woman was in the family way was her task less? A: No, sir; most of times she had to do the same work.
Sometimes the wife of the planter learned the condition of the woman and said to her husband you must cut down her day’s work. Sometimes the women had their children in the field” (McMillan, p. 14). Harry says that women slaves did just as much field work as the men. Some women even gave birth to their children while out in the field. In this interview you can see just how mistreated slave women could be during this time period, from being pregnant and having to still work just as hard as everyone else and even giving birth in the field that you work in.
This is a clear sign of oppression that these slaves had to go through. Just as women slaves were mistreated, so were children born into slavery. In Document 6 there is a picture that shows a bunch of people in a room. There are 11 black people surrounded by about 8 white men. There is a sign on the wall that is advertising slave trade and a white man standing on a table dangling a black baby in his hand. There’s also a lady on the floor that looks like she is begging a man standing up in front of her. In you this picture you can see how children were mistreated and not cared for.
The white man is hanging the baby out in front of him like he doesn’t care about it and it’s just something that he wants to sell and get rid of. This is a sign of oppression because you can tell that the white men in this room just see them as objects and not human. In another document, Document 4, written by Josiah Henson he says “His cries grew fainter and fainter, till a feeble groan was the only response to the final blows. His head was then thrust against the post, and his right ear fastened to it with a tack; a swift pass of a knife, and the bleeding member was left sticking to the place” (Doc 4).
In this part of his autobiography he is talking about seeing his own father get beaten and his ear cut off. This is mistreatment of children slaves because they had to see their parents being whipped and hurt by people and couldn’t do anything to help them or stop it. Not only does this cause fear in a child but like in this instance, it changed Henson’s father, made him not care about anything anymore, not even his children. While slaves during this time were mistreated they still had hope because of religion.
On pages 278-280, the book states “Enslaved people took comfort in their religion, a unique mix of traditional African and Christian beliefs, which shone light of hope in the midst of their difficult lives” (p. 279). So even when slaves were going through the worst of times and working hard every day, most slaves still had faith in religion. Slaves turned to religion for the hope of someone out there that would help them escape the chains of slavery. Also in a slave spiritual called The Ship of Zion the lyrics say “Dis de good ole ship o’ Zic
Zion, and she’s makin’ for de Promise Land, she hab angels for de sailors”(ship of zion). In these lyrics it’s talking about angels taking them to the promise land on the boat to zion, which is a place in Africa. So their faith in God would help them be free and escape back to Africa, that is what gave them hope. Another way slaves continued to be hopeful was by songs that they would sing while working. In document 3, a slave spiritual called Swing Low Sweet Chariot states the lyrics “Swing low, sweet chariot, Comin’ for to carry me home! I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, Comin’ for to carry me home! A band of angels comin’ after me, Comin’ for to carry me home! “(Swing Low Sweet Chariot). In this slave song the lyrics are talking about angels taking them home to heaven. For some slaves singing about the thought of one day going to heaven and leaving slavery behind gave them tremendous hope. Religion was an act of slaves agency because christianity wasn’t forced upon them, they chose to practice it.
In document 2 written by frederick Douglass he wrote that “They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves”(doc 6). In this paragraph he explains that slaves would sing if they were sad or happy, in rapturous or pathetic tones. To most people they didn’t understand the slave songs but to slaves it meant a lot and gave them hope.
Singing was also an act of agency for slaves because again they weren’t forced to sing yet did anyway as an community. While religion and song gave slaves a sense of hope what really would help them become free is an education. In document 1 written by Henry Bibb he talks about how “Books were supplied and she started the school; but the news got to our owners that she was teaching us to read. This caused quite an excitement in the neighborhood. Patrols were appointed to go break it up the next sabbath”(doc 1).
So in his paper he talks about how a school for slaves was made by a white lady but then shut down by the neighborhood. Slaves wanted to learn and have an education but were so oppressed by whites and their masters that they weren’t even allowed to own paper in fear that would try and educate themselves and end up running away. In document 11 named Ber Rabbit and Ber Fox the story says “I was goin’ to school all my life,” Rabbit mutters to himself as he walks away from the carnage,” and learn every letter in de book but d, an’ D was death an’ death was de en’ of Ber Fox” (doc 11).
In this story it talks about a rabbit that tricks a fox and ends up killing it and he knew how to do so because he had gone to school his whole life. In this story the rabbit represents a slave and the fox represents the slave owner. This story was written to warn slave owners that if they let their slaves have an education they would end up tricking them and running away or killing them for their freedom. This caused white owners to oppress their slaves more by not letting them learn. Another way slaves worked towards freedom was by resisting and fighting back against slavery and oppression.
In pages 278-280 the textbook says “Many enslaved people did whatever they could to fight back against their oppressors. Resistance took many forms including sabotage, such as breaking tools or outwitting overseers, and the more direct method of escape” (p. 280). The textbook says that slaves did fight back and resist even if it was smaller things like breaking tools or major things like trying to escape slavery all together. This gave slaves agency because some decided to stand up against their oppression and try to gain their freedom.
In document 3 the slave spiritual called Swing Low Sweet Chariot it says ” Swing low, sweet chariot, Comin’ for to carry me home! : I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, Comin’ for to carry me home! A band of angels comin’ after me, Comin’ for to carry me home! ” (doc 3). Although this song has a literal meaning, as used earlier in this paper, it also has a secret meaning. This is song is talking about how to escape slavery by using the underground railroad that was meant to help slaves run from their owners usually in the South to the North where more slaves were free.
This is another act of agency because it’s another way slaves resisted their imprisonment. So while historians argue whether slavery molded slaves by oppression or agency you can see that slaves were molded by both. they were mistreated and had a lack of education but slaves also had hope in religion, songs and education, they thought this would lead them to freedom. Even though slaves were very much oppressed and treated cruelly by their masters, their agency changed and shaped them as an community to make their own choices and decisions and that’s important for a group of people.