By Josh Evans
In the famous account Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup says “if ye wish to look upon the celerity, if not the poetry of motion upon genuine happiness, rampant and unrestrained – go down to Louisiana and see the slaves dancing in the starlight of a Christmas night.” Now, celebration is certainly not a theme that immediately springs to mind when talking or thinking about the topic of slavery, and is in fact the complete antithesis to the view of slavery as an institution that prevailed prior to the ‘cultural turn’ of the 1970s.
Enslaved people were completely and utterly crushed by the practice of slavery, forming the basis of the passive, docile, Sambo narrative. This interpretation follows a very Freudian theory of personality and reinforced the idea of slavery as an infantilising institution. The Sambo narrative has been critiqued strongly by a series of scholars such as John Blassingame and Eugene Genovese to name but a few. Amongst this new wave of scholarship has been an increased focus on the enslaved community, a vehicle for enslaved people to demonstrate and assert autonomy in resistance to the almost complete spatial and temporal control exercised by their masters. This article will follow this path, but retain an awareness of the importance of context, and avoid portraying a ‘utopian slave community’ as Peter Kolchin warns.
One of the most popular ways in which enslaved communities resisted the oppressive spatial and temporal control of their masters was through parties. It is worth noting here that on plantations, slaveholders would from time to time hold organised ‘frolics’. The motives behind this were a far cry from the self-professed benevolent paternalism that they ascribed to themselves. They were meticulously controlled and surveilled by slaveholders so as to give the impression of celebration while retaining a significant level of control and to reduce the appetite/need for enslaved people to arrange their own in midweek where hangovers were such a concern for slaveholders in terms of reduced workload the following day. Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass are particularly critical of these organised frolics – he laments the masters for their instrumental use of entertainment and making enslaved people ‘perform’ happiness just for the entertainment of masters and their guests.
Stepney Underwood, a formerly enslaved man from Alabama, is perhaps the most damning indictment of this, as he recalls his master purchasing his mother so as to encourage him not to run away. Underwood as a young boy was used by his masters to ‘entertain’ plantation guests, saying in his interview for the Works Project Association in the 1930s that “De massa usta laugh his head off at me, and when dere was parties, de guests would always say: ‘Whar Stepney? We wants to see Stepney dance.’” In recalling events from his childhood, we can clearly see the malicious side of these more ‘mundane displays of power’, as historian Saidaya Hartman has described, in the manipulation and exploitation of enslaved children who knew no better.
Enslaved people, in order to celebrate as they wished, would organise their own, illicit parties and celebrations in the woods neighbouring their plantation, often under the cover of darkness late at night and early in the morning. It would be necessary for enslaved people to wait until after the overseer had done his nightly rounds before sneaking out and enjoying the festivities. These celebrations would encompass a wide range of activities and embrace multiple facets of their African culture and heritage they sought to preserve against the vices of slavery. Chief among these were religion, dance, and song. It was not out of the ordinary for youthful enslaved people to walk for miles under the cover of darkness to dance away the night on neighbouring plantations. This provided plentiful opportunities for courtship and community building. Celebrations such as these provided enslaved people an escape from the oppressive nature of slavery, and were vitally important in terms of cultural and communal formulation and resistance.
These illicit celebrations were rarely spontaneous, and took significant planning on order to execute without getting caught and severely punished. Male slaves would sneak out after dark for weeks prior to observe patrol routes and establish a location that would provide them with a suitable level of safety. Enslaved women would use these parties to celebrate their talents with textiles. They would stay up for countless nights preparing a dress out of scraps of textile in order to look and feel their best and escape the horrors of everyday life, even for a few hours. Former slave Mary Wyatt recalled how she stole her mistress’ dress to wear for such a frolic; a particularly poignant moment, shedding her slave status and symbolising freedom, even if the act of resistance was limited temporally as she had to return the dress the following day. Enslaved women were also best placed to procure alcohol for the evening, forming the majority of house slaves. These roles suggest a level of organisation that clearly illuminates how important these celebrations were to the enslaved people. They were inherently risky even in the planning phase, and although many were interrupted and broken up by slave patrols, this did not diminish the determination of enslaved people to celebrate on their own terms and claim back autonomy over their body.
Singers and creators of black music and culture were esteemed members of their enslaved community, providing much needed entertainment during these illicit parties, such as the backdrop for dancing competitions. Former slave Sarah Waggoner detailed how “We sure did have good times, too. There was dances, and I liked to dance. Uh-huh. I was a regular king ruler at de dances.” These dance competitions provided enslaved women a break not only from the overbearing slaveholding control, but also from gender hierarchies entrenched within enslaved communities.
Overall, in a context where control and degradation of the enslaved person’s body was essential to the creation and maintenance of slave-owning mastery, – symbolically, socially, and materially- slave organised, illicit parties provided enslaved people with the means to celebrate the oppositional element of their own bodies and regain autonomy. Inspirational accounts of former slaves’ character and determination give us an illuminating opportunity to celebrate their agency and resistance in the face of slavery.
Blassingame, John, ‘Status and Social Structure in the Slave Community: Evidence from New Sources’ in Perspectives and Irony in American Slavery, ed. Harry P. Owens and Carl Degler (1976), 137-51
Blassingame, John, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York, 1979)
Camp, Stephanie M. H., Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill, 2004)
Genovese, Eugene D., Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1972)
Kolchin, Peter, ‘Re-evaluating the Antebellum Slave Community: A Comparative Perspective’, Journal of American History, 70, 3 (1983), 579-601
Hartman, Saidaya, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th Century America (New York, 1997)
Rawick, George, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, 1972)
Stampp, Kenneth M., ‘Rebels and Sambos: The Search for the Negro’s Personality in Slavery’, Journal of Southern History, 37, 3 (1971), 367-92