The institution of slavery was a business that operated on the oppression of an entire society, which successfully destroyed the traditional African family core values mercilessly. The hierarchy structure of the traditional West African family and values of an entire people were destroyed and replaced with an economic driven control system. Using examples from author John W. Blassinggame The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South which made the argument that the monogamous slave family worked as a survival mechanism for black slaves. E. Franklin Frazier ‘s Negro Family in the United States (Phoenix Books) argued that rape and the contrast between the house negro and field slave led to the demise of the black family. Lets explore how the institution of slavery preyed on the physical and psychological structure of the African family using both of these arguments.
According to Blassinggame, the sex ratio in the South was near equal when compared to slave societies in Latin America. This fact would play a major part in the formation of monogamous families throughout the plantations. In Latin America, like throughout most slave populations throughout the New World, planters preferred men to women as slaves in large part because of the production of resources needed by strong workers for efficiency purposes. There wasn’t an emphasis placed on the natural reproduction of slaves early on because of the profitable nature of the African slave trade and its mass importation of African men, who were preferred physically for slave labor in comparison to women. However, by the mid 19th century the ratio had almost became even throughout the South, with the new emphasis placed on reproduction powered by slave women. Frazier argues that the sex ratio imbalance caused what was once strong feelings toward relationships to become animalistic, based off of casualness of contact between men and women slaves.
Planters would encourage monogamous relationships among slaves not for any moral purpose, but to maintain order on the plantation. Christianity was introduced to slaves in a bid to destroy any familiarity they may have with traditional heritage in order to integrate them further into the religious practices of their owners. Slavery is an institution of complete control enforced through physical and mental oppression. Frazier pointed out that it was easier to control a slave if he was married to a mate on the plantation because he is less likely to run away, instead benefiting from his ability to maintain order amongst other slaves on his behalf. For the most part, planters did not care about the sexual customs of slaves, only that order was maintained. As the Atlantic Slave Trade became illegal in the New World, planters forced slaves to mate in order to enrich the population. This ended the traditional African courtship system. The result was the male slave sex life placed directly in the control of planters, as much of their existence already were.
Courtship was a blend of old African and European customs learned through observation combined with the nomadic lust and rape by white plantation owners upon the slave women. As the African became transformed into the Afro-American male, he lost a lot of the authority and respect that is custom in most West African societies. Where in Africa, procreation is a natural occurrence of life with no ties to sin, the introduction of Christianity placed an emphasis on monogamy to be with one mate for life. While men may initiate courtship with women, the institution of slavery broke down any superiority that the male may have had in old traditions. In fact according to Blassinggame, the slave woman actually was more superior in this process than the male. Being the woman controlled the time, pace, and effectiveness of the conversation, it was she who ultimately determined his success. This further proved true in the dynamics of the slave household, where women was the symbol of strength and tolerance in comparison to the man.
According to Frazier, slaves picked up white traditions depending on the level of contact between slaves and whites. In this case, the growing difference between the field slave and the house Negro. “House Negroes” naturally took upon white traditions more eagerly because the close quarters and engagements between the slave and master in the house.The field slave looked to the house Negro as an example of politeness and gentility. This difference also caused slaves to become aware of different statuses within the plantation. Engagement patterns often led house negroes to improved lives and benefits, depending on their level of responsibility on the plantation.
Sexual conquest became a path to status in the slave community. Planter’s routinely raped and bought black women for these purposes. Slaves in turn, already suffering from animalistic sexual desires, became very reckless with their pursuit of women. Engaging in premarital sex as well as extramarital sex was rampant in slave quarters. In fact, most slaves preferred to marry slaves on other plantations because they can’t bear to see a loved one beaten and raped by their slave master. This further devalued the importance of a monogamous family and encouraged sexual encounters based on sexual urges alone.
Women were recognized as the head of the household and replaced the male, who being physically and mentally broken through the hardship and humiliating nature of slavery, could do little to stop this. Slaves always faced the possibility of being sold or killed on a daily basis, therefore the women were usually the comforters and instilled the discipline into the children, which was needed to live in a slave society. Unlike Africa, the black male had to come to grips with being controlled by another man, with absolutely no say in his own or family future.
In conclusion, Frazier and Blessinggame both make the argument that slavery destroyed the black family through many methods. The eradication of African customs destroyed the male’s dominance over family life. The rape of black women devalued their character while introducing a less sympathetic courtship system within the black community. Slave masters encouraged monogamy as a means of maintaining order on the plantation and never cared for the long term effects the slavery system caused to an entire race. The family structure of blacks was no longer based on the male leading the family and making decisions, it was replaced by white superiority and dominance. This effect would have long lasting consequences on black life in America throughout history.
References: E. Franklin Frazier |John W. Blassinggame The Slave Community|wikipedia images
By: Hayden Williams III
Co-Founder of Workingmomin20s.com