To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
contact us | site guide | search
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

Slaves on Drayton plantation, South Carolina, 1862
Slaves on Drayton plantation,
South Carolina, 1862
- On being a slave, selections from 19th-c. narratives (PDF)
- "I was born a slave," selections from Jacobs and Keckley narratives, 1860s (PDF)
- "The position of the African slave," address by John S. Rock, 1858

The enslaved African Americans at right were photographed in 1862 as Union troops advanced into Virginia. What do their expressions convey? What would you ask them about this day when they shed the status of "slave" and became free? We have few photographs of slaves but numerous written narratives to document the harsh realities of living enslaved. "Reconstructing their past lives required many ex-slaves to undergo a disquieting psychic immersion into their former selves as slaves," writes William L. Andrews, a scholar of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave narratives. "During this journey backward and within, a free person was forced to relive the most psychically charged moments of his or her past and to be reminded of thoughts and deeds about which he or she had come to feel very ambivalent."1 In this section we will read what SLAVE meant to the enslaved.

  • On being a slave. "To be a man, and not to be a man—a father without authority, a husband and no protector—is the darkest of fates." So wrote John Jacobs in his 1861 narrative, one of eight excerpted here. Several recount their growing awareness of enslavement as a child and later, their internal rebellion against their status as chattel property. In the final excerpt, Josiah Henson recounts his postwar visit to his former slaveholder's wife. "Why, Si, you are a gentleman!" she exclaims. "I always was, madam," he responds.

  • "I was born a slave." From the narratives of two African American women—Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley, we read of their childhood years broken by the strictures and loss inherent in enslavement. "I was born a slave," writes Harriet Jacobs, "but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away." Her mother dies, and when her slaveholder dies she is devastated to be bequeathed to a niece, and not freed as she had dreamed. Elizabeth Keckley recounts gruesome rites of passage in an enslaved childhood—the first whipping, her self-assigned tasks to ease her mother's toil, the permanent loss of her father after a brief reunion, and witnessing her mother's "stoical silence" in the onslaught of her owner's ridicule. "Notwithstanding all the wrongs that slavery heaped upon me," Keckley concludes, "I can bless it for one thing—youth's important lesson of self-reliance."

  • "The position of the African slave." The final text answers an accusation often directed at victims of enslavement, subjugation, and genocide—why didn't you fight back? Often the first reply is "We did," followed with examples, and the next reply is "If and when we did not fight back, it is not because we were cowards." This is the message of John S. Rock, a free African American physician, delivered in 1858 on Crispus Attucks Day in Boston. He rejects whites' assertion that "if we had the courage of the Indians or the white man, we would never have submitted to be slaves." He goes further and, in the second part of his address, calls for African Americans to unite in racial pride as well as abolitionist activism. (This address could be included with readings in Theme III: COMMUNITY, #5: Mutual Benefit).
Combine these readings on being a slave with those in Theme II: ENSLAVEMENT, #1: An Enslaved Person's Life, and #6: Master/Slave; and in Theme V: EMANCIPATION, #8: The Institution. (13 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What physical and psychological aspects of enslavement are emphasized in the nineteenth-century slave narratives?
  2. How did former slaves who published narratives deal with relating their enslaved experience and its "psychically charged moments" (as described by historian William L. Andrews)?
  3. Are their writings directed inward or outward? How do they compare with current memoirs of hardship, trauma, and genocide?
  4. When and how did African American children learn they were enslaved?
  5. How did they respond (a) within themselves and (b) with their relatives, fellow slaves, and slaveholders?
  6. Compare the childhood experiences of Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley? What caused each woman the most pain? rage? astonishment?
  7. For each woman, what strengthened her resilience and, as Keckley stresses, her self-reliance?
  8. Gather statements from narratives in this Toolbox to illustrate these statements from former slaves:
  9. If we had a narrative of a never-emancipated slave, how do you think it would differ, in its description of enslavement, from those by authors who had escaped slavery?
  10. What are John Rock's goals in his Crispus Attacks Day address of 1858?
  11. Which of these groups does he address, directly and indirectly former slaves, free-born blacks, black abolitionists, white abolitionists, white apologists for slavery, white slaveholders?
  12. What messages does he assert, imply, or avoid?
  13. How did free-born African Americans relate to the enslavement of millions of their fellow blacks, according to Rock's statements and implications?
  14. Does his call for racial pride include the enslaved?
  15. What does he mean when he asserts that "we can never become elevated until we are true to ourselves"?

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

On being a slave:  4  (19th-century slave narratives)
"I was born a slave":  3  (Jacobs & Keckley narratives)
"The position of the African slave":  6  (John Rock address; much white
TOTAL 13 pages
Supplemental Sites
North American Slave Narratives, full text of nineteenth-century narratives, in Documenting the American South (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library) John S. Rock, brief overview, from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

John S. Rock, extended biography, from Wikipedia

Historians' commentary on slave identity, in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS)

1 William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 7.

Images: Details from photograph labelled "Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of 'contrabands' [slaves in Union-controlled territory] at Foller's house," May 1862, by James F. Gibson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Collection.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: July 2009