When the African Americans were introduced to slavery, they didn’t accept what was happening to them and how they were being treated, but as time passed working for their masters, not only physical, but mental abuse took its toll and soon they began to believe the way they were living was normal and alright.
Punishment played a giant role in slave life. It showed the consequences of not doing what was asked or disobeying their master thus instilling fear in every single slave the owner possessed. Charity Anderson recalls, “But honey chile, all white folks warn ‘t good to dere slaves, cause I’se seen poe niggas almos’ to’e up by dogs, and whipped unmercifully, when dey did’nt do lack de white folks say.” Mary Reynolds remembers, “I seed them put the men and women in the stock with they hands screwed down through holes in the board and they feets tied together and they naked behinds to the world.
Solomon the [sic] overseer beat them with a big whip and massa look on. The niggers better not stop in the fields when they hear them yellin’. They cut the flesh most to the bones and some they was when they taken them out of stock and put them on the beds, they never got up again.” These two accounts show just what these poor slaves had to deal with. They were constantly watched, and felt that if they just as much as gave a superior a wrong look, they would be beaten, or even worse, killed.
Of course slaves saw this as inhuman but had no choice to obey as their masters said. There is much evidence that shows how quick they learned to do as they were told and after a period of time, many slaves accepted the idea of being just that…a slave. This transformation started with the servants becoming fearful. Surviving was a game of smarts, hard work, and willpower. In order to live, slaves would allow their masters to beat and punish them without questioning so as not to risk a painful and senseless death. Snitching on other slaves who planned to escape was a good way to show their masters how loyal they were. Many slaves went as far as calling their masters “nice” and sometimes even boasting about their masters to other servants on different plantations. These small acts helped many stay alive but living oppressed lives affecting their minds and emotions forced themselves to cope with their sadness.
Singing was common among slaves to express themselves and their hardships. Frederick Douglass recollects, “They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.” The servants shared their feelings with each other through these hymns and so it made them strong enough to have the willpower to keep living by obeying and doing as they were told. Dogs lived a better life than many slaves, “We had very bad eatin’. Bread, meat, water. And they fed it to us in a trough, jes’ like the hogs. And ah went in may [sic] shirt till I was 16, nevah had no clothes. And the flo’ in ouah cabin was dirt, and at night we’d jes’ take a blanket and lay down on the flo’. The dog was supe’ior to us; they would take him in the house.” -Richard Toler. The serfs accepted that they lived worse than dogs and at this point, it becomes evident that slaves began accepting the life of slavery.
They knew escaping was a bad idea because they would have no shelter, food, or clothes. If they were caught, they would be in the worst kind of trouble so they were forced to keep living the oppressed life. Being beaten and abused had them physically and mentally feeling that they were a lower race. Being intimidated all of the time had a harmful affect and they started to see slavery as acceptable. Their owners didn’t allow them to read or write so living with a roof over their head made them feel privileged.
Mr. William McNeill says, “The escaped slaves were always trailed down by hounds; they never got away, there were always some good slaves to tell on others. I was glad when the slaves gained their freedom, even though we had a large number and lost plenty of money. They made many people rich and got nothing but punishment as a reward. They tell that some of the masters were good but I never did see a good one.” This man is one that didn’t buy into slavery and kept his mind from being brainwashed like many other slaves. He knew deep down that slavery was wrong and kept the truth in his reality.
Even after the slaves were “freed,” life for them wasn’t as great as they hoped it would be and they soon realized that being freed was near as bad as being slaves. Being freed toyed with their minds; just like they became slaves and felt out of place in the beginning, they were put into another tough position to have to readjust once again.
“An’ after, soon after when we found out that we was free, why then we was, uh, bound out to different people. An’all such people as that. An’ we would run away, an’ wouldn’ stay with them. Why then we’d jus’ go an’ stay anywhere we could. Lay out a night in underwear. We had no home, you know. We was jus’ turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how they turn cattle out in a pasture? Well after freedom, you know, colored people didn’ have nothing. Colored people didn’have no beds when they was slaves. We always slep’ on the floor, pallet here, and a pallet there. Jus’ like, uh, lot of, uh, wild people, we didn’, we didn’ know nothing. Didn’ allow you to look at no book.
An’ there was some free-born colored people, why they had a little education, but there was very few of them, where we was. An’ they all had uh, what you call, I might call it now, uh, jail centers, was jus’ the same as we was in jail.” -Fountain Hughes. This man described how, after being freed, he and his family lived the life that nomads lived. They traveled around aimlessly, trying to find any place they could possibly stay. He described themselves like cattle which was an understatement because cattle could at least count on being fed. They could eat the grass of the land but the newly freed slaves would be lucky if they could find a piece of fruit.
The freed slaves had no money, no beds like Fountain said, no education, basically they had nothing to call their own. Living free was as if they were living in jail Hughes thought, and many others agreed. “An’ my father was dead, an’ my mother was living, but she had three, four other little children, an’ she had to put them all to work for to help take care of the others. So we had what you call, worse than dogs has got it now. Dogs has got it now better than we had it when we come along.” -Richard Toler. Families were torn apart when all members had to work in order for the family to be able to buy the essential necessities they needed to live. Toler said dogs have better lives now than the lives of black families after being freed which shows just how much of a mess the south was in. Many white people did not accept this idea of freeing the slaves so this had many colored people feeling insecure and out of place. Some white people would go out of their way to try and hurt the colored people like the KKK did. Frederick Douglass talks about the idea of trust in “Getting Help from Others” He said he met an Irishman who felt it was a pity for Douglass to be a slave. He then told Douglass to run away to the north where he would find friends there to help him.
“I pretended not to be interested in what they said and treated them as if I did not understand them; for I feared they might be treacherous. White men have been known to encourage slaves to escape, and then, to get the reward, catch them and return them to their masters.” Douglass had this distrust when he was a slave but these feelings were carried on even after people like Douglass were freed. They felt they could not trust anyone but their own people. This idea is seen in the Tar Baby story as well. The main purpose of this tale was to show black people that they shouldn’t go out of their way to talk to others. It was better to keep their mouths shut and thoughts to themselves because opening up to white folks could only get them into trouble. Since the colored people did not fit in, they kept to themselves which didn’t seem like true freedom.
Douglass also said in “Thoughts of Escape” that he and the slaves “rather bear those ills we had, than fly to others, that we knew not of.” Once he and every other slave was freed, this is essentially what happened. They had to move and re-adapt to new ‘ills’ and complications which challenged them as slavery had challenged them once before. The whole time being slaves, black people finally started believing that slavery was what they were meant to do and it was alright for them to be treated at a lower level. Setting them free in an unaccepting world with no help or direction forced them once again, to cope with new problems and start a new theory about what it was they were really supposed to be doing or could be doing if it wasn’t working and slaving for the white man.