THE DESIRE FOR LIBERTY

If their masters developed an elaborate ideology defending the South’s “peculiar institution,” slave culture rested on a conviction of the unjustness of bondage and the desire for freedom. “Nobody,” the British political philosopher Edmund Burke had written during the American Revolution, “will be argued into slavery.” Frederick Douglass called the proslavery argument “flimsy nonsense,” which men would be “ashamed to remember” once slavery had been abolished. Whatever proslavery writers asserted and ministers preached, blacks thought of themselves as a working people unjustly deprived of the fruits of their labor by idle planters who lived in luxury. “We bake the bread / they give us the crust,” said a line from one slave song.

Most slaves fully understood the impossibility of directly confronting the system. Their folk tales had no figures equivalent to Paul Bunyan, the powerful, larger-than-life backwoodsman popular in white folklore. Slaves’ folklore, such as the Brer Rabbit stories, glorified the weak hare who outwitted stronger foes like the bear and fox, rather than challenging them directly. Their religious songs, or spirituals, spoke of lives of sorrow (Tve been ’buked and I’ve been scorned”), while holding out hope for ultimate liberation (“Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?”). When they sang, “I’m bound for the land of Canaan,” slaves meant not only relief from worldly woes in an afterlife but also escaping to the North or, in God’s good time, witnessing the breaking of slavery’s chains.

“Freedom,” declared a black minister after emancipation, “burned in the black heart long before freedom was born.” A fugitive who reached the North later recalled that the “desire for freedom” was the “constant theme” of conversations in the slave quarters. Even the most ignorant slave, observed Solomon Northup, could not “fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest white man’s, and to realize the injustice of laws which place it within [the owner’s] power not only to appropriate the profits of their industry, but to subject them to unmediated and unprovoked punishment without remedy.”

The world of most rural slaves was bounded by their local communities and kin. They became extremely familiar with the local landscape, crops, and population, but had little knowledge of the larger world. Nonetheless, slaves could not remain indifferent to the currents of thought unleashed by the American Revolution or to the language of freedom in the society around them. “I am in a land of liberty,” wrote Joseph Taper, a Virginia slave who escaped to Canada around 1840. “Here man is as God intended he should be ... not like the southern laws which put man, made in the image of God, on level with brutes.” The social and political agenda African-Americans would put forward in the Reconstruction era that followed emancipation—stressing civil and political equality, the strengthening of the black community, and autonomy in their working lives—flowed directly out of their experience in slavery.

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