Humanity and Opression
In order to retain their humanity slaves had to resist their owner’s influence.
Doing this requires that they find agency wherever it exists, and if none exists they must create their own. Finding agency means they must rebel against their oppressors in a number of different fashions. Some of the most notable ways to do this is through use of their own community of slaves, or through their arts and various other forms of expression. Regardless of this, there were still numerous examples of the cruelties of the slave owners. Although the slave holders made many attempts to force slaves to internalize their oppression, many slaves clung to some amount of agency, therefore retaining their humanity. In the fight for his or her humanity, one of the most vital weapons a slave wields is his or her community.
Without the support of his or her equally oppressed peers, every slave would quickly succumb to the owner’s attempts to vanquish his or her humanity. A community such as the one established in Sarah Fitzpatrick’s account of the slaves’ church going and stealing habits shows some degree of agency even in the face of oppression. Even while being told when and where to attend church, they rebelled by stealing from their owners, proving they had not completely internalized their oppression. Harry McMillan’s interview mentioned that a husband might take on some of his wife’s work if she was not capable enough. Despite the fact that they are both being forced to work, a man has the choice to relieve his wife of some of her work. In “Lynchburg Negro Dance” you can see plainly that despite the horrendous trauma of slavery, slaves were still able to enjoy themselves given the opportunity.
These two examples display the slaves’ ability to create agency through community, even if there seems to be none. When looking at the desperate struggle against oppression facing the slaves it is easy to overlook one of the most vital tools they use in order to persevere. That tool is their use of art, literature, and any other form of creative expression the slave holders are unable to rob from them. A slave child’s doll, although it had to be kept secretly and was poorly made, shows freedom in the face of oppression not only because it was made in secret presumably against the owner’s wishes, but because it could be used as an anchor to withstand the horrors inflicted upon them. They can also rebel more directly using their art such as in “Brer Rabbit Outsmarts Brer Fox”. Although it seems to be an innocent folk tale, slaves would use it in order to teach their children that they are able to retain their agency and resolve through the use of cunning.
Another example of slaves manipulating their arts to outsmart the slaveholders is “A Slave’s Spiritual.” Even relaying these messages in secret displays more agency than their oppressors would ever wish them to have. Even a man who has been freed from slavery for a number of years flaunts his new found freedom in “A Slave’s Letter to His Former Master”. This man displays his agency by gloating in the face of the man who has governed his life for what must seem like an eternity. Despite slaves’ uncanny ability to create agency where there doesn’t seem to be any, there are still situations that hold no potential for agency without dire consequences. Reading Lewis Clark’s account of his slave holder’s horrendous actions, you see no point where a slave can resist the patrols without him and his family being brutalized more than they already have been.
In a similar fashion, the interview of Uncle Ben shows no obvious opportunity for slaves to form agency while being whipped. Even in the case of Charity Bowery, who shows tremendous willpower in attempts to receive one of her own children, she finds her efforts ultimately futile. Although these examples show no obvious examples of agency, it still exists in their willingness to persevere hoping to rebel when they are able to. This is how many slaves manage to retain their humanity in the face of tremendous oppression. A slave needs to possess agency in order to thwart the slave owners’ attempts to dehumanize him or her.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this but the most notable ways would be through a sense of community among their fellow slaves and various forms of expression and art. Even as the slave holder tries to undermine the spirit of a slave, the oppressed can still hold on to their humanity and some degree of agency merely by persevering. This proves that even in a white man’s world, a slave can remain strong and exert control over his or her own life.