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BYU history professor explores what freedom without family meant to enslaved people

Analysis of former slaves’ narratives: freedom was a family affair

In the antebellum South, rarely were enslaved families freed together; and the difficult, and also rare opportunities for escape generally required leaving spouses, parents, siblings, or children behind as well, possibly forever. 

Through her recent research published in Slavery & Abolition, BYU history professor Rebecca de Schweinitz explored what freedom without family meant to enslaved people. Her analysis of former slaves’ narratives showed that many saw freedom as a collective, family affair — and some even risked returning to slavery in order to free loved ones or to be with family members.

The emotional unity displayed by enslaved families, Dr. de Schweinitz believes, compels us to reconsider the connection between slavery and the well being of black families today.

Rebecca de Schweinitz profile.
BYU history professor Rebecca de Schweinitz

“There have long been assumptions that the problems black families face now, such as high numbers of single-parent homes, are the legacy of slavery,” Dr. de Schweinitz said.  “Those assumptions, and related beliefs about the supposed ‘cultural failings’ of African Americans, fall apart when you look at the lengths that enslaved people went through both in slavery and in freedom to secure family relationships.”

For an enslaved person in the antebellum period, sacrificing liberty for family was courageous, although contemporaries may not have seen it that way. Adopting the popular philosophy of Samuel Adams, most political theorists in the nineteenth century thought that freedom was something an individual earned by actively rebelling against tyranny. Some went so far as to blame enslaved people for their own captivity, suggesting that they lacked the will to free themselves.

“These writers of ex-slave narratives are challenging that hyper-individualistic notion of freedom,” Dr. de Schweinitz explained, “by saying, ‘look, it’s not just about the will of the individual. It’s about more than that. If there are other people in your family or social community who are not enjoying the blessings of freedom, it’s not real freedom, not until it includes everyone.’”

To understand how enslaved people grappled with tensions between family and freedom, Dr. de Schweinitz studied dozens of personal narratives, speeches, and other writings by black individuals such as Frederick Douglass, James Pennington, and Harriet Jacobs, as well as pro-slavery fiction like The Cabin and the Parlor and anti-slavery fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Many formerly enslaved people felt that the pain of being estranged from family, whether within or outside of slavery, rivaled the physical hardships of bondage.

“Hunger or poor diet, or exposure to heat, or lashes [are] evils which a slave soon forgets,” de Schweinitz quotes from the formerly enslaved Theodore Gross. “But that which preys upon his mind is the thought that his wife and his children and nearest relatives may any day or hour be sold and sent away.”

Expressing their commitment to their families, and explaining that they experienced slavery as members of families, Dr. de Schweinitz said, black writers were making a pointed abolitionist argument.

For one, they exposed the hypocrisy of white Americans who touted family values while allowing black families to endure the trauma of separation. For another, they showed that black families were just as devoted as white families, refuting white Southerners’ argument that black individuals were inherently incapable of fulfilling family responsibilities. In highlighting the ways “enslaved people’s exemplary concerns for their families shaped and complicated the quest for freedom,” de Schweinitz further suggests, they translated abstract political principles into terms ordinary Americans could understand.

Considering this history can help us to address the challenges faced by black families in our own time, Dr. de Schweinitz pointed out.

Rather than looking to the distant past to explain the struggles of black families, she suggested we look closer to home. “That kind of myth tries to excuse us from or dismiss ongoing inequalities that have contributed to those problems,” she said. “The structural obstacles to freedom and to family life under slavery seem so obvious to us now. Yet slaveholders told a different story; they condemned black people for what appeared to be weak family commitments, and for their own enslavement.” 

Dr. de Schweinitz hopes that understanding the ideas of antebellum black writers will encourage us to listen more carefully to voices from the black community today, noting that “many seem to have a similar message about the collective quality of freedom.”

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