.. the logs in leather straps attached to their shoulders. They plowed using mule and ox teams. They dug ditches, spread manure, and piled coarse fodder with their bare hands. They built and cleaned Southern roads, helped construct Southern railroads, and, of course, they picked cotton. In short, slave women were used as badly as men, and were treated by Southern whites as if they were anything but self-respecting women.
From the black women who were even partially literate, hundreds of letters exist telling of the atrocities inflicted by “massa.” Both physical and sexual assaults on black women were common at the turn of the century. Nothing I have read captures the true devastation to the spirit of the black woman during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Sethe, the main character, is the iron-willed, iron-eyed survivor of slavery at Sweet Home, where one white youth held her down while another sucked out her breast milk and lashed her with cowhide while her husband helplessly watched. Once her owner discovers the location she and her children have escaped to, she takes them to the back-yard barn to murder them and forever keep them free from the unbearable life of slavery. She is discovered after killing her infant daughter and taken to jail. In a heart-wrenching passage, we learn that her reason for committing the infanticide was “that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind.
Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up..Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing..She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter. And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no.” (251) The whole question of how to love in an inhuman system which breeds children like horses results in inhumane choices.
This theme, Morrison carries throughout the novel. For women like Ella whose “puberty was spent in a house where she was shared by father and son, whom she called the lowest yet.’ It was the lowest yet’ who gave her a disgust for sex and against whom she measured all atrocities,”(256) nature mercifully quenches the life from the “white hairy thing,” the freakish offspring from this monstrous childhood assault. For Morrison’s women, sexuality is the reward and burden of their gender. The unlikelihood that any female slave could survive sexual abuse, lashing, thirst, hunger, and childbirth, yet continue to form milk to suckle is Morrison’s comment on Sethe’s determination, and a tribute to the countless black women who were victimized by the evil of the white man. That the white man committed evil there is no question.
The letters of the past reveal countless lives that were ruined or ended because of racial slavery. Our forefathers had no virtues when it required compassion for African-Americans. One cannot speak of morality in terms of active or passive–there simply was no morality concerning slavery. We as a people today must exist in a country that was handed-down, literally, by hypocrites. For over two hundred years, the leaders of our country eagerly allowed the oppression for which they established the country to escape. How can we as descendants of those people view the past and honestly feel a sense of morality for the country? To deal with our past realistically, it is necessary to view the early leaders in their own terms: as frail, fallible human beings.
We could have admired them for many things: their courage and bravery in the military struggle against Britain; their creativity in forging a new government; and their service to a cause that captured the imagination of people around the world. However, it is impossible to admire the hypocritical Founding Fathers of this nation for betraying the very ideals to which they gave lip service. It is impossible to admire our early leaders for speaking eloquently at one moment for the brotherhood of man and in the next moment denying it to the black brothers and sisters who fought by their side and bled for their profit. It is forever impossible to admire the thousands of white settlers of America in light of the degrading treatment of the human spirit, for considering “the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every two years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.” (Jefferson, Thomas. “The American Nation.” p.
352) The concern here is not for the harm that the Fathers did to the cause which they claimed to serve as for the harm that their moral legacy has left for every generation of their progeny. Didn’t they realize the effect their actions would have on the growing nation? Didn’t they know the black slave would not behave like a well trained dog forever? After reading the facts, one can only speculate that, no, neither did they realize nor did they care about the misfortune of the black race. They were profiting from the degradation of a whole race of people, and that was the driving force behind the cracking whip. Having created a flawed revolutionary doctrine and a Constitution that did not bestow the blessings of liberty to its posterity, the stage was set for every succeeding generation of Americans to apologize, compromise and criticize the principles of liberty that were supposed to be the foundation of our system of government and our way of life. Abraham Lincoln, the celebrated president who “honorably” put an end to black slavery in America, shared his true motives in a letter addressed to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862: “I would save the Union.
I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution..If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.” I now relate with the anger in the voices of many contemporary rap artists. I now see why certain black men look at white men with anger in their eyes. I now underezd why I was punched in the face by an unknown black youth one day a few years ago as I walked out of a Safeway supermarket. His one comment to me as he ran off was, “Sorry, man.
I just hate white people.” So do I, my brother. Now, so do I. — Bibliography Berlin, Ira. “Free At Last–A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War.” New York, NY: The New York Press, 1992. Catton, Bruce.
“The Dread Scott Case.” Quarrels That Have Shaped The Constitution. Ed. Garraty, John A. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1964. Cooper, David.
“Slavery Violates Human Rights” Slavery–Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley, William. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1992. Franklin, John Hope. “Slavery Left America Divided.” Slavery–Opposing Viewpoints.
Ed. Dudley, William. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press Inc., 1992. Freehling, William W. “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” American History Volume One, Pre- Colonial through Reconstruction. Ed.
Maddox, Robert James. Thirteenth Edition. Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1995. Garraty, John A. “The American Nation–A History of the United States To 1877.Volume One.” Eighth Edition. New York, NY: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995.
Lincoln, Abraham. “Preserving the Union Should Be the Primary War Aim.” August 22, 1862 Slavery–Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Dudley, William San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1992. Morrison, Toni.
“Beloved.” New York, NY: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1987 Phillips, Ulrich B. “Life & Labor In The Old South.” Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1963. Sewall, Samuel. “Slavery is Immoral.” Slavery–Opposing Viewpoints. Ed Dudley, William San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1992.
White, Deborah Gray. “The Lives of Slave Women.” American History Volume 1, Pre- Colonial through Reconstruction. Ed. Maddox, Robert James. Thirteenth Edition. Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1995.