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Slavery in the South

UPPER-INTERMEDIATE Vydáno dne 07.08.2008

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Slavery in the South

Above the Mason-Dixon1 line, it's almost impossible to find grits2 . If you ask for sweet tea, they'll give you a couple packets of Splenda and look at you like you're crazy. The food of the South is very localized because of the strong ties to the Old South culture, not the least influence of which is slavery.

When eating seafood, usually fried, you'll usually get little brown balls of some sort of bready something - I've never been quite sure. They're called "hushpuppies." Personally, I can't stand the things, but most people love them. In the era of plantations, most of them had the kitchen in another, small, unconnected building to minimize the risk of fire. According to the story of the creation of hushpuppies, the kitchen slaves would take the little bits of breading that fell off the fish or whatever was being cooked, and make a ball out of it. On the way to the dining room, they would toss these balls to the dogs to keep them quiet - to hush them. Recently, I heard about a book that studies the cultural connotations of fried chicken, and while that may sound ridiculous to you, for some, cooking was not only a way of life, but a way to stay alive.

When I went to Atlanta to stay with my friend Alyson for the weekend, her mom and I went deep into my mother's genealogy. My great-great-(great-?)grandfather lived in Virginia, before it split. In the 1860's census, he was listed as having 11 or 12 slaves. In the 1970's census, now in West Virginia, he is about $12,000 richer, and with 11 or 12 fewer people in his household. While I don't think Old South is an accurate description for my mom's side, slavery is still tangled in that branch of my history. This isn't something I'm proud of, but if I'm going to write about slavery, I should at least be honest about what I know of my family's history, with regards to it.

And, before I actually start talking about slavery, know that I'm not justifying the slave owner's actions, and I'm not sympathizing with them.

Intrinsic to understanding the appeal slavery had is understanding the power dynamics. Slavery wasn't wholly about cheap labor. It was more about control. As a slave owner, you could do anything. Men, like Thomas Jefferson, could take black mistresses because they didn't count, and their children could be discounted. If you got angry and beat a slave within an inch of his or her life, or farther, that was acceptable because they were property. In the slave owner's mind, that sort of treatment could be likened to beating a piece of furniture or an animal. It was almost cathartic to be able to do what you wanted and not answer to anyone for it.

The slave owner had two tools to use to keep his slaves in line: Religion and Fear.

Religion, especially systems of belief that have some sort of paradise, are extremely effective tools to keep people in line no matter what is done to them. I'm sure most slave owners introduced their slaves to Christianity because they though they were doing their part as "Christian Soldiers," bringing religion to those they saw as heathens. I'm also sure that they used religion to break the slaves spiritually. Much like in Medieval Europe, if a downtrodden people has hope of a better afterlife if they follow their (seemingly) God-given orders, they will continue to do what is required for fear of not achieving paradise. The slave owners used the Bible to justify slavery, citing passages in favor of slavery (usually from the Old Testament, according to my understanding), and using it to confirm their belief that the slaves were some sort of subhuman thing not worthy of equality. However, as effective as religion was as a tool, fear was even more insidious.

Because of religion, the slaves didn't fear death nearly as much because what waited for them? Hopefully heaven. Pain, though, pain was worth fearing. And the slave owners, the plantation masters, even the wives and children could inflict pain without having to have a good reason. The slightest action could be viewed as disrespectful, which, of course, required pain to garner respect. If a slave was suspected of having the slightest mutinous thought, pain was the response. In fact, much like how some banks and like institutions will randomly search employees to prevent theft, those in power would sometimes randomly beat slaves to prevent insurrection.Slavery I know it may sound like pain was the real tool the slave's masters used, but pain is a temporary thing. Fear was a constant. That fear is what caused slaves to brag about how wonderful their masters were, those same masters who harshly punished them for no reason, to other slaves from other plantations. Each feared the other might report to the their master and tell their master that they were disrespectful.

The reason lashes were used is, of course, that a whipped slave could begin working again a lot faster than one who suffered other injury.

Slaves who tried to run might have their big toes cut off so they couldn't balance as well to run, or they might have their hamstrings cut, again, to make running difficult or impossible. Or they might just be killed, to prove a point to the other slaves. Slaves were expensive, so killing one was usually a calculated tactic.

We're taught very young about Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad, but we're taught so young, we don't really understand slavery or what those people (as young children, we're removed from it; it's a story) were trying to escape. We're not told that she had seizures, whether from epilepsy or something else, I don't know, but those seizures were dangerous to her and the people she traveled with. We couldn't understand the huge risk that the people that hid slaves on the run were taking.

Footnotes:

  1. An almost arbitrary line that, in older times, separated the North and the South. Not really relevant anymore.
  2. Like oatmeal, but made from corn. Grits are as Southern as college football and big blond hair.



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