Changing the narrative on slavery in America

The Slave Dwelling Project aims to highlight the lives of enslaved people by bringing people to sleep in the places where they lived, like this dwelling at Sotterly Plantation in Maryland. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Slave Dwelling Project aims to highlight the lives of enslaved people by bringing people to sleep in the places where they lived, like this dwelling at Sotterly Plantation in Maryland. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the story of slavery in America is often told by the perpetrators. Isn’t it time we started to listen to the voices of the victims?

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I have been working on exactly this issue concerning the Holocaust. We have come to recognize that the story of the Holocaust is often driven by the perpetrators’ perspective. One of my missions is to bring the voices of the victims to the forefront and to make that story relevant to a modern audience. I strive to tell a more nuanced story, one that includes both the terror and the strength of the victims of the Holocaust.

I believe that it is time we start doing the same for slavery in America. And I discovered recently that I’m not the only one.

Survivor stories

My first real recognition that there was a deeper story to be told came from listening to the audiobook of 12 Years a Slave, by Simon Northrup.[1] Written just two years after his rescue, Northrup’s full range of emotion and experience comes through the narrative, from his righteous indignation at his kidnapping and the cruel treatment he received during his enslavement to his intense relief at his rescue.

I felt as if I was listening to a survivor story. Then I realized, I was listening to a survivor story. I was listening to a survivor of slavery as I had never heard one before. And it felt very much like listening to a Holocaust survivor.

It was not, however, the passion but the nuance of the story that most struck me. This is not merely a story of violence and horror. It is also a story of strength and friendship. It is a story of hope never quite quenched.

Finding evidence

These personal stories are one of the key missing pieces in the way we talk about slavery in this country. I recently had the opportunity to listen to Joe McGill talk about the Slave Dwelling Project. Joe’s mission is to bring the viewpoint of enslaved people in America to the forefront by bringing people to actually sleep in historic dwellings where enslaved people lived.

Evidence of enslaved people’s stories can be difficult to find. Most of them could not read or write, so narratives like Northrup’s are rare. Joe uses buildings to help pull out these stories. Most of the grand buildings built in the American South before the American Civil War were built by enslaved people. Sometimes, Joe told us, you can find fingerprints in the bricks, as if the maker was reaching out across time in the only way they could. I was here, they seem to say, remember me.

Pride in your past

Joe’s description of the problem also felt familiar. “Learning about slavery in school,” he said, “gave me nothing to be proud of.” Like the standard narrative of the Holocaust, the standard narrative of slavery is written from the perspective of the perpetrators, with the victims a faceless flow of bodies with no wills or voices of their own. Black slaves are primarily portrayed as strong field hands, mostly capable only of unskilled work, desired for their brawn, not their brains.

The full story is very different. Enslaved blacks were capable, skilled laborers who could be trusted with the running of a plantation. We see this in Simon Northrup’s story, whose skill as a carpenter became so well known that he was regularly sent, by himself, to other plantations to work. Joe McGill told me about Southern rice farmers who sought people from rice growing regions in Africa to turn Southern swamps into rice fields. “They [the enslaved Africans] were engineers,” he said with pride. “Skilled labor.”

Joe’s difficulty with the standard image of enslaved people in America reminds me of the difficulty Jews have with the standard image of Jews in the Holocaust. Jews in the Holocaust are typically portrayed as helpless, passive victims. We know this story to be false. Jews in the Holocaust were smart, strong, active movers in their own lives. Enslaved people in America are often portrayed as broken victims, passively doing what they were told to do. We do hear stories of skilled slaves but they are described as the exception, not the rule. We know this to be false too. Enslaved people were smart, strong, active movers of their own lives, just as the Jews in the Holocaust were.

Spiritual resistance

We are, actually, taught stories of resistance to slavery in school. Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad is a favorite topic in many elementary schools. The bravery of people like Tubman is another essential point in this narrative. People who had escaped slavery returned to help others. Many of the black soldiers fighting for the Union in the Civil War were escapees from slavery, returning to danger to help their fellows. Again, this reminded me of the stories of people returning to, or remaining in, the ghettos and camps in the Holocaust in order to help others when they could have escaped.

When we talk about resistance in the Holocaust, however, we mean more than simply physical resistance. We also talk of spiritual resistance. Spiritual resistance is the seemingly simple act of continuing to celebrate your own faith when it is forbidden. Enslaved people continued to practice their beliefs as well.

“White colonists of North America were alarmed by and frowned upon the slaves’ African-infused way of worship because they considered it to be idolatrous and wild. As a result, the gatherings were often banned and had to be conducted in a clandestine manner,” an article at the Library of Congress tells us.[2] That offhand phrase, “conducted in a clandestine manner,” belies the remarkable courage of people who snuck away from their enslavers in order to continue to practice their own beliefs.

Enslaved people used stories, music, and hand-made instruments (because drums were forbidden[3]) to create community and pass on their culture and values. They sang songs of their sorrow and their hope. The seemingly simple act of singing apparently biblical songs like “Go down Moses” is a powerful act of resistance to your enslaved status.

Changing the narrative

In my extended family tree, I have both victims (of the Holocaust) and perpetrators (of slavery).[4] I also have relatives who liberated the death camps and who taught in some of the first integrated classrooms in the American South. If you go further out, you will find German soldiers as well. This full nuance of both victim and perpetrator is the story of families in America. Nor is my family unique in this way.

Those of us who are related to perpetrators have nothing to fear from telling the victims’ stories. Those of us who are related to victims have nothing to fear from fleshing out the perpetrators’ stories. Neither diminishes us. Rather, understanding the nuances in everyone’s stories helps us avoid cardboard caricatures of complex people.

The stories of the powerful are the easy stories to tell. These are the stories of people who left behind antebellum turkey platters that we still use today.[5] The stories of the oppressed are less accessible. We must go digging for them, like the Oneg Shabbat Archive which preserved a deeply nuanced story of Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto. We must dig deep enough to find the stories of courage, hope, strength, and skill that are missing from our current narrative of slavery in America. Even if that story is merely fingerprints on a brick.

[1] There are a number of audio versions this book. The one I listened to was Twelve Years a Slave, narrated by Richard Allen, Dreamscape Media, 2013.

[2] “African American Spirituals,” Library of Congress: www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/

[3] news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/02/jubilee-america-culture-enslaved-africans/.  Drums were used in Africa to communicate between villages. When the enslavers recognized the potential for secret communication between slaves, they banned drums. Enslaved people found other means to make rhythm, and to communicate.

[4] My family came to America from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. I found the town they came from on the wall of lost communities at Yad Vashem. My husband’s family were plantation owners and enslavers in South Carolina. My sister-in-law’s (non-Jewish) family came from Germany much more recently.

[5] A turkey platter is one of the few objects that has been preserved from the Fripp Plantation from before the American Civil War. Every daughter-in-law in the family dreads inheriting it, fearing to be the one to break it.

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. You can sign up to hear about her new blogs at www.teachtheshoah.org/#optin.
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