tv Lectures in History Power in Antebellum Slave Societies CSPAN March 24, 2020 8:01pm-9:01pm EDT
professor teaches a class about the concept of power in antebellum slave society. he explores the way owners and enslaved people exerted or expressed their will and looks at how these dynamics played out in the context of individual plantations. he also discusses how the invention of the cotton gin impacted the relationship between owners and the enslaved. >> i want to go ahead and get into it, good morning, welcome back, good to see you today. what we are going to do is think through some big questions about power dynamics in american slave societies today. part of this is like building on what we talked
about last thursday, we talked about gabriel conspiracy, richmond 1800, and the way it reflects the complexity of slavery. slavery was a relationship between individuals, and it was endlessly complex. with gabriel, we saw some of the ways an enslaved person could enjoy some freedom within their bondage. different practices of power influenced the way different people experienced slavery. today we will talk through some of those practices of power. our big questions today are broadly about this. we will come back to these questions at the end of class, questions about the way labor influence lives of enslaved people in the south, and the particular tools available to both enslaved people and slave owners in power struggles. in the early 19th century, slaveowners moved massive number of people into cotton
territories. they made massive amounts of money based on the violent extraction of labor. enslaved people worked and lived together and cultivated their own kinds of power through relationships with one another. slaves did a number of things that enabled them to exercise a degree of control in their own lives. we will talk about both of these sides of the story. the tools, the techniques of slaveowner power, and we will talk about the tools and techniques of power that were practiced by enslaved people. before we get into the particular questions about power we are thinking about today, i want to look at a clip from 12 years a slave. i like this movie as a teaching tool. one of the things i like about it, it makes it possible to really kind of sit down and see the landscape, see the environment of the slaveholding
south. the story -- how many of you have seen the movie or parts of it? the story is the story of a guy, solomon northrup, who was free and kidnapped and put into slavery, and spent 12 years in bondage. the film is based on his narrative. the scene i am going to show is about two minutes and it takes place during a funeral. the scene is just after solomon and other people have watched a fellow enslaved man collapse and die while working in the fields. i want to show this and think a little bit together about what we see. watch this and think about how we might use it to understand solomon and how we might use it to understand human experiences of slavery, and then we will build from there. ] >> went
this to understand what slavery was like for people who were held in bondage? what do we think? john? >> you mentioned earlier about how when someone passes away, they are expected to move on. you could tell he was really upset, but everyone, it was more of a celebration, the funeral, so you have to move on, you saw him sing with them at the end. >> so a collective emotional experience but there is evidence of an individual emotional experience, that solomon is feeling particular things. what is happening with solomon northrup? what might this clip say about him? you are saying he's being transformed, what is happening
with him in this clip? >> it's almost like he has started to accept his fate in this situation. he was a free man and he is not anymore, so it is a transition, like maybe this is what my life will be going forward. >> we can think about the reality, we know he was enslaved for 12 years and then liberated, but in this moment he doesn't know that. maybe part of what you're seeing is him grappling with that, the feeling of, the possibility that slavery might be a permanent status for him. other thoughts on how we might understand or think about this kind of transformation? what is happening with solomon northrup in this moment? is he just resigning himself to be a slave for life? how else might we think about it? when you say that he feels sad? >> i feel like he's having a hard time accepting the fact
that everyone sees this as normal. in the background, everyone else doesn't really have the animation in their faces but he has all of this emotion. he is trying to not accept it, he doesn't want this to be his life. >> there is a change in his life but there is a struggle you can see that what is happening here, whatever he might be feeling at the end of the clip, it is a feeling he comes to gradually as a part of a difficult process. it's not easy for him to feel what it is he's feeling in this moment. i think there are important things you guys have pointed to that i want to build on a little bit. on a fundamental level, one of the things we see here is that slavery could be a transformative experience. enslavement could shape a person's life. for a slaver and connections with other enslaved people, these things could shape the
ways people like solomon northrup live, how they thought of themselves and felt on a day-to-day basis. one of the things i think it's interesting about this scene, he seems to almost be thinking of himself gradually as a part of this community of enslaved people. one way we can read that is what laura is saying, there is a way solomon northrup seems to be identifying himself as a slave. in this moment he knows that is his status, but there are other ways to think about what that might mean. northrup is at a funeral, and you were suggesting that funerals are like celebrations of life. he is in this moment joining in a community celebrating this guy, joining in a community that is singing a song that doesn't sound particularly sad, right? i think there are ways to see that solomon northrup is changing how he sees himself both in relation to the institution of slavery and in relation to other enslaved people. so the song they are singing,
the hymn has its origins in communities of enslaved african americans and it is talking about the river the israelites crossed this before they enter the promised land. the jordan river is the last task, crossing the river is the last struggle people would have to endure before they achieved spiritual liberation. that is kind of a way of thinking about what the participation in the singing might mean to solomon northrup. it's not just an active grieving, but a particular active grieving, that is designed to represent death as a triumph over the bondage of slavery in the south. so northrup's story as it is told in his narrative and in
that film, it represents how a person's life can be changed by slavery. the work of cultivating cotton had profound effects on the daily lives of northrup and the people there at that funeral and other enslaved people who were forced to cultivate cotton. cotton grew really well in the long, hot summers of the deep south. the fact that the summers were long and hot was a part of what made slavery so difficult, slave labor so difficult in these places. slaves would plant seeds in the summer and spend the summer hoeing and in the fall they would harvest the cotton. the cotton gin separated the seeds out of cotton fibers and before this machine existed, enslaved people were forced to
do this by hand. it is a slow process and essentially described as a production bottleneck. it limited the amount of cotton that could be cultivated in any one year. eli whitney's cotton gin made it possible for enslaved people to clean more cotton. slave owners wanted to force enslaved people to produce more cotton for the market. after the invention of the cotton gin, more enslaved people were forced to harvest more cotton. technology is one the tools to exert power. picking cotton was a particular different process because cotton is a stubborn crop. you are looking at a cotton bol.
when it blooms, it opens up and the raw, white cotton fibers are exposed. but you can see it doesn't open all the way. so the job of a person picking the crop is to region and pick out as much of the fiber as they can to avoid pulling out stems and pieces of the plant or leaves, but also to avoid cutting themselves. the leaves are sharp. this is a profoundly difficult task and requires a lot of dexterity and really leads to a lot of small injuries on the hands come on the fingers of people forced to pick cotton. the cotton gin encouraged more slaveowners to acquire more enslaved people and encourage them to do this difficult work. in order for this to happen, slave owners relied on constant supervision and regular violence to compel enslaved
labor. we are going to look at a couple of pieces of northrup's narrative as we work through today, and i'm going to highlight some things that he shows us, some things he reveals about the way the work of the plantation took place. in his narrative, he describes some of the order, some of the structures of power on a cotton plantation. the landscape, one of the things he points out, was arranged into rows. there were neat, orderly ways of laying out a cotton field. that made it easy for overseers or slave drivers or slaveowners, for them to see the progress of enslaved people moving across the field. if everybody is lined up, you can see how far everyone is moving. the positioning of the overseer is one of things that northrup highlights.
you can imagine somebody standing 10 feet tall on horseback and how much they could see as opposed to someone who was five and a half or six feet tall. overseers on horseback would literally see over, watch over the work of enslaved people. overseers would use the whip to continue to compel enslaved people to do this work. northrup writes that the lashes are constantly moving, all day long, people are being whipped, the sound of the whip is a constant background noise for plantation labor. the labor of cotton the crop reshaped the united states. and change the nation's geography and the nation's economy. we look at this slide in other contacts, i pointed out the early statehood of louisiana, mississippi and alabama, this
movement of people into what is now the deep south, what was then called the old southwest. we can see here the movement of the nation into these spaces. when we look at these maps, we can think about other aspects of what actually is happening when these states are being created. these maps connect the movement of people to the movement or expansion of cotton production. you can see two big things here, the top map is 1830 and the bottom is 1840, and each dot i think is 2000 bales of cotton. there is a lot more cotton being produced as the 19th century was progressing. the other thing you can see is the shift in where the production was happening. it was being concentrated around the mississippi river. the production of cotton was
moving into new spaces, south and west as the 19th century progressed. the people and the work of cotton moved south and west as the 19th century progressed. the map is representing cotton bales, where these things were being produced, but implicit in this map are the people forced to do the labor of producing cotton. each dot represents dozens or hundreds of thousands -- or thousands of enslaved people moved into the south and west to produce this cotton. the map is a representation not only of the movement of people across the country, the movement of cotton production, but also the movement of enslavement, the transformation of the geography of slavery.
i mentioned that the slave population experienced a natural increase. the population was going up even beyond the numbers of enslaved people being imported. in 1808, the u.s. banned the import of enslaved africans through the atlantic slave trade. but even after that, the population continued to grow. in 1810, there are 1.1 million slaves in the u.s., in 1830, about 2 million slaves in the u.s., 1840, about 2.5 million. in the early 1800s, massive numbers of these people were moved south and west in what historians have come to describe as a second middle passage, a reference to the first middle passage, which we
have talked about, the transfer of people across the atlantic ocean in the bottoms of slave ships, 12 million people extracted from africa and transported to the americas. the second middle passage described this massive movement of enslaved people into cotton producing territories. between 1800 and 1860, an estimated one million people were moved into these territories. this is a contemporary image that kind of represents, or is a representation of a coffle, a critical term for us, i don't know if you can read that. it is basically the term used for a group of enslaved people chained together and forced to walk over long distances. this is a coffle being moved
from virginia to tennessee. from the old tobacco producing regions of the country into newer spaces intended for cultivating cotton. an enslaved man named charles paul described what it was like to be part of a coffle from maryland to south carolina. i think this image is useful as a contemporary representation but this image of think gives us more texture to see what it would have actually been like. ball wrote this about being in a coffle. "the women were tied together by a halter around the neck of each, but for the men, a strong iron coller around our neck and a chain of iron passed through the hassle of each padlock. in addition to this, we were handcuffed in pairs." you get a better sense of the forced
connection of people in the image, you can see these two guys are chained together at the wrist and this guy on the front right is chained by the ankle to people behind him. this is on an obvious level, awful. people bound together and forced to walk long distances to a new life and a different kind of enslavement. but there are little things that i think people might not think about when you consider how difficult the situation would be. people are forced to walk all day, and at night, they are forced to try to sleep but often there was not enough slack in the rope or chains to lie down. people were bound together in pairs and when one person needed to go to the bathroom, they had to stay bound to the person to whom they were
chained. the concept of privacy is eradicated in some ways by the bonds of a coffle. the second middle passage moves people from the states of the upper south and east coast, maryland, virginia, north carolina, delaware, into the deep south, into the cotton producing regions, mississippi, louisiana, alabama and increasingly texas as well. one of the interesting things and terrifying prospects to think about, many were moved to overland but others were moved over sea. people who had heard stories from older folks about the middle passage and then were put onto a ship not knowing what was going to happen. not knowing what kind of experience they might have on that ship, as it would sail likely into a place like new
orleans. slave traders, most of the people sold in the second middle passage were sold from states like maryland and virginia. slave traders would buy people and lead them on a trek or ocean voyage with the goal of selling them the cotton planters. this illuminates and allows us to see some of the human realities of the growth of the system of slavery. there is an institution that is growing and expanding, but we have to think about the marching of the people, the forced movement of individuals as slavery moved and expanded. the expansion of slavery was the movement of people. this is another kind of power that slave owners exercised as well. slave owners had the power to
move people, to force them to do work in other places. as cotton is changing the geography of the u.s., it's also changing the country's economy. slave trading was part of this, it was a big business in the 19th century. there were slave trading firms in baltimore and richmond and here you see one in alexandria that is being sort of inspected, photographed by union troops during the civil war. save trading firms in baltimore and richmond had connections with slave traders in places like new orleans and mobile, alabama. the south was linked together by trading slaves. the business of slave trading -- this is an interior shot of this slave market, essentially a jail where people would be held waiting for sale in alexandria. the business of slave trading was part of a larger set of economic relationships, and i
want to highlight here on this money from alabama, how important slavery and cotton production were to the economy. enslaved people were literally on the money in some parts of the south. the business of slave trading became part of the set of economic relationships that were bound to, connected to cotton production. and so this set of relationships reached far beyond the u.s. south, and an example of this is the consolidated association of planters of louisiana. the capl was organized in 1827 and was essentially a bank. it linked cotton planters, english investors, and the louisiana government. what we are seeing here is
basically a sketch of how this organization worked. investors in england bought bonds from the capl. the capl would loan money to slave owners louisiana and slave owners would put up land and enslaved people as collateral. so that if they failed, they would have to surrender in number of enslaved people to the bank. slave owners would use the cash they got from the capl to live their daily lives. they would use it to buy land and slaves, to buy cottonseed, to buy a fancy velvet coat if that's what they wanted. it was a bank, they could do what they wanted with this money. when slaveowners repaid their loans, that made dividends for english investors. basically you're getting people connected across the atlantic ocean and connected in the
project of making profit off of enslaved people and the production of cotton. the most important development or innovation of the capl is this. louisiana tax revenue would protect investors in case of emergency. if there was bad weather, if the price of cotton collapsed, if for some reason a large collection of slave owners were unable to repay their loans, the capl got the government of louisiana to back them. if there was a crash, louisiana tax dollars would be used to repay english investors. so this is like a state guarantee of the risk of investment in cotton. governments and investors on both sides of the atlantic
ocean were getting deeply involved in the industry of cotton production. so the capl illustrates the extent of national and international investment in american slavery. cotton became the most important export product of the united states in the early 1800s. slaveowners were using financial power and government power to enhance their wealth. so this is -- i use the term national, it is also international, but i use the term national. one of the interesting phenomena connected to the cotton industry are the ways it brought together the north and south. so cotton was the fuel for industry in the northern united states. new england factories produced large amounts of cotton clothing for american people, and a number of the american
people for whom they produced cotton clothing were enslaved people. this photo is showing some of the clothing enslaved people might have been wearing. i think likely these clothes are made out of cotton. there is an interesting phenomenon of what is called negro cloth. cotton was grown in the south and woven into a cheap, rough and ideally durable fabric for clothing that would then be sold back to slaveowners in the south. enslaved people were wearing the fruits of their labor, wearing this rough woven cotton clothing designed to sustain them as they work to cultivate more cotton. so this is part of the story of power in american slave society. slaveowners had massive power on their plantations, they had extensive power beyond their plantations because they controlled so much wealth and
they had government support for their efforts to get rich by exploiting enslaved labor. the institution of slavery is growing and moving and expanding and becoming increasingly embedded in the nation's economy. i want to talk through now some of the ways enslaved people would have experienced this as humans. what was it like to live through these changes? in 1835, there was a family of north carolina slaveowners who decided to pack up and move a number of their family members and the people they owned, a number of their enslaved people, to alabama. during the trip, one of the women, one of the slave owning women, named sarah sparkman, asked the enslaved people she owned if they wanted to send messages back to family and friends in north carolina.
sparkman wrote, she said, "the servants request me to send many messages to their friends and relations. i hope you will read it to their friends in the very words they want to say to them." you are looking at a message that arthur holley wanted to send to his wife amy. he is letting her know that they are doing well, he is saying he is glad to have the chance to talk to her, to hear from her, he misses her, and sends his love. you can imagine these are regular things that people would feel and convey to a family member from whom they were separated. there are a couple of things i want to highlight as well. when you read this broadly, you can see how important family and friendship were to this one enslaved person. "i hope to see you and the children in the spring." there
is this desire, this need to believe that in the near future they will be reconnected. arthur had a wife, and children and friends back home. i think this is key. "i was mighty glad to hear from our home." arthur had a place he identified as his home, enslaved people make connections. they built communities and established families. one of the obvious things you see here is that this family is fragile and arthur is being separated from his wife and his wife is being separated from her children. but these connections were no less significant for these people because they were fragile. it's just part of the reality in slavery. arthur also writes that he is sorry to hear that his master
is sick. they are a couple of ways to interpret this. first, he might be saying this because he is dictating, reading these messages to sarah sparkman and he knows the slave owner would want to believe or imagine that arthur is actually concerned about a slaveowners health. maybe he is saying this because he thinks that is what she wants to hear. another way to read this is that he was actually concerned about his owner's health. a slave owner who is sick is a slaveowner might die and when a slaveowner died, enslaved people were often sold or inherited or given away. they were given away in ways that split up the communities that enslaved people had built. the health of a slaveowner could be really important for someone like this writer.
the health of a slaveowner could be important to the possibility that arthur could stay in touch with his wife and friends in north carolina. so thousands of people like this man were moved in pursuit of a cotton crop. the fact that people were treated as property had profound effects on their lives. i will just reiterate that since this is the topic of your second essay. the fact that people were treated as property had profound effects on their lives. historians estimate that the domestic slave trade broke up about one third of enslaved peoples's marriages in the upper south. north carolina, maryland, virginia. it is likely that sale and forced movement separated about half of all enslaved children from at least one of their parents. so the economy of slavery had dangerous results for black families, for black communities.
as all of this proceeded, enslaved people organized and strategized and look for ways they might claim some kind of power over their lives. their connections to one another were critical for the kind of power they were able to use. one way we can understand the importance of the kind of connections is the practice of truancy. truancy describes the practice of enslaved people running away from a plantation, running away from a farm, and staying away for a few nights. maybe they would stay away for a week or two. but the distinction between truancy and just running away is that enslaved people who were described as truant were not necessarily intending to
leave the south. there is a woman named sally smith who described some of her experiences with this. smith was interviewed in the late 1800s after the end of slavery, after having survived emancipation, and she talked to an interviewer about her life in louisiana as a slave. smith said that at one point she had a quota, she had to pick 150 pounds of cotton each day and that if she did not meet that quota, she would be whipped. one night, sally smith decided she would try to avoid the hassle, avoid the possible punishment, avoid the hardship of labor of picking cotton, and sally smith went and hid in the woods. she described basically like this perpetual practice that developed after she went away the first time.
she said sometimes i would go so far off the plantation i could not hear the cows low or roosters crow. sally is really getting away, she is out, not in a space where the plantation is nearby. smith would hide out for as long as she could, but sometimes she had to come back when she needed food. she talked about this one night. she went back to the quarters, back to the place where enslaved people lived, she knocked on a ladies door and asked for some food. the lady said i don't have a piece of bread but you can bake you a corn cake. sally is about to make her meal and the overseer comes in and catches her. there are a couple of important things you can see about truancy in this piece of smith's interview. one of them is that truancy was fostered by african-american
communities. smith was trying to use her connections to other enslaved people to help her stay away from forced labor. she is literally not away from the plantation avoiding the work of picking cotton. she comes back to the plantation to try to get food. i think it is important that sally smith asks for help and this woman says i don't have exactly what you want, but here is how i can help you. you can bake a corn cake. this woman is trying to offer help in whatever way she can. so truancy was possible because of african-american communities. connections between people, connections among enslaved people, made it possible for individuals like sally smith to escape their owners grasp for a few nights or few weeks at a time.
smith ran away, but of course in this moment she did not really get away. in this case, she got caught. every time smith ran away, she was punished. the punishment was a particular horrific experience. the overseer catches sally smith and smith can tell he is upset. the overseer has a big barrel, and what he does is take a bucket of nails and hammer the nails from the inside of the barrel out so the nail heads are all wrapped around inside this barrel. he put sally smith in the barrel and rolls her around. essentially sally was beaten up
by a barrel full of nail heads. another interesting piece of this is that once she is out, she is sore and bruised, and another nice old lady looked out for her. a poor old woman greased her all over and helped her get over her bruises so that she would be able to go back to work as she was required. again, you can see community dimensions of what is happening. but it is important to recognize that this punishment was a horrific experience. and so i wanted to talk about this particular punishment because i think truancy can feel like a really odd act. why go away if you're not going to get away? what does it actually matter if sally smith leaves the plantation but then she gets caught and punished in this horrific way? truancy can feel like a thing that is not all that meaningful if we start thinking about it
in those terms. the interviewer is maybe thinking about this as well. after sally smith tells the interviewer about this punishment, the interviewer asks, i suppose that was the end of your stay in the woods but sally smith says no, i did not stay more than a month before i ran away again. i tell you, i could not stay there. there were important reasons why enslaved people went truant. sally smith dealt with this brutal punishment and decided that again and again she would continue to try to leave. people like sally smith -- one of the reasons people might pursue truancy as a strategy, people might not have thought they could run to freedom in some other place, so one way to think about this is geography. sally smith is in louisiana. if she wants to get to pennsylvania or new york where abolition laws are taking effect, that is a really long
way to go. she has to run through a lot of slavery to find a potential life in freedom. if sally smith stayed close to the plantation like she did in this case, she could come back to borrow food, she could come back and try to get things from neighbors, but if she left, if she ran through alabama and mississippi and tried to find her way north, she lost that potential support system. one of the reasons truancy happened, and we will talk more about this in the weeks to come, one of the reasons truancy happened is because running away from a plantation, escaping slavery, was incredibly difficult. also, another way to think about how truancy happened is that enslaved people understood that running away from a plantation often meant leaving behind family and friends.
as much as enslaved people hated their bondage, they were not always ready to abandon the place they might have seen as home. think back to arthur. he seems to be sad to be leaving the place he feels is his home in north carolina and part of that is because he is leaving his wife. part of that is because he is leaving his friends. part of that is because he has a familiar place, even if that familiar place is a plantation where he is held as a slave you'd it is a place he knows -- as a slave. it is a place he knows. running away is a decision that would separate enslaved people from a lot of what they understood and knew and appreciated about their lives -- family, friends, community. but i also want to encourage you guys to think about truancy
as an act, a phenomenon that was really tremendously meaningful to enslaved people and slaveowners. there are important differences between truancy and escape. truancy and flight. for enslaved people, truancy could feel liberating. think about the way that we talked about the possibilities for freedom in slavery for gabriel. sally smith is experiencing similar kinds of moments or flashes of freedom. smith got punished when she got caught, but while she was in the woods, she spent a few days not picking cotton, not having her pickings weighed, not being whipped or watched over carefully to see that she was doing the work she was compelled to do. sally smith got a few days off
of work on the most basic level. sally smith also spent a few days living for herself. she writes about, talks in this interview about bugs and snakes and all kinds of scary outdoors stuff. she is sleeping in the woods, not camping. but even with all that, she is saying this is something she came to enjoy. she came to an prescient the time she spent in the woods on her own. she was living outside of the oversight and violence of her plantation. truancy on one level is important because it helps us to see some of the strategies enslaved people used to claim some power over their own lives. sally smith went to the woods because it made her feel good. truancy also points to how powerful enslaved people's
actions could be in relation to the larger system of slavery. think about this. in the eyes of slaveowners, we might think of slavery as -- let's make sure this is nice and solid. in the eyes of slaveowners, slavery was like a fence, a bound space, and the idea for slaveowners was that they could put a person in this space and compel them to do particular things. you will go to this place and do this particular work for this long. six days a week, more intensity particular times of year. the slave owner idea of slavery was that it was a fence that dictated where and how enslaved people lived their lives.
every time an enslaved person did something they were not supposed to do, every time an enslaved person went somewhere there were not supposed to be, they poked a little hole in that. when sally smith runs to the woods, she is poking a hole. when she is punished and runs again, maybe she is poking a bigger hole. acts like a truancy challenge the idea that slaveowners had absolute control over slaves. again, what is important here is that this is the slaveowners idea of slavery. this is how people who owned slaves wanted to imagine slavery. a solid fence. the reality is that it was shot through with holes that enslaved people used to live lives in the ways they wanted to.
so sally smith's truancy was a threat to her owner's belief that he controlled the people he owned. there are all sorts of ways that enslaved people could seek power in their lives. sometimes they would break tools, sometimes they would destroy crops. sometimes they would just work a little slower. they might take breaks, they might plot. sometimes people like nat turner would rise up, we will talk about him in the weeks to come. sometimes gabriel would plot a conspiracy. sometimes people in a place like south carolina would come together and share cultural practices and try to escape to freedom in florida. every day enslaved people did things that were different from what their owners wanted them to do. one of the most frequent things they could try to do, one of the most frequent things they
did was try to control the pace of their work. some of the songs that enslaved people might sing could be used to try to regulate or influence the pace of labor on a plantation. i want to play a little piece of one of these songs that will allow us to think about this a little bit. ♪ ♪ we appreciate music,
generally, right, and we can understand that songs that might be intended for one place can be enjoyed in other places, right? this is a song that historians understand as a work song. and that is how you are seeing it some, at the lyrics are suggesting that this is the work we are, doing we're trying to think about it and enjoy that, right? but the song does not have to be confined to the cotton field. we can imagine that a song like this might be some at home, or at a party or might be that asked, like totally different than it sounded there, right? or we can imagine that it is august 28th, right? it is really hot, it's alabama, it's miserable out there, and people are out in the field working and trying to make sure
that nobody makes anybody else look too bad. until they might sing the song. so we can see with the, song we can think about another ways we can understand the connections between labor and politics and african american communities. so the song is important, because it is a cultural development that was shaped by the work of slavery. it was also a cultural development that allowed enslaved people to try to shape the work they were doing. so a song was a way they try to shape some of their labor. this is just one example of one of the tools that enslaved people
might use in pursuit of some control over their lives. the institution of slavery was a constant struggle between slaveowners trying to is tracked as much labor as possible from enslaved people and enslaved people looking for and finding ways, individually and collectively, ways to control their own lives. if we look back at solomon northrup's writing, we can see the struggle play out. the lashes flying from morning to night the whole day long. the prevalence of whipping was a response to enslaved people seeking power over their own lives. slaveowners and overseers used the web because they understood they needed to force enslaved people to do the things they wanted them to do. before we wrap up, i want to talk about one more piece of solomon northrup's narrative.
after he describes the violence of the plantation and writes about the hardship of being forced to learn how to pick cotton, he leaves readers with what i think is a stunning observation. he writes, "there are few sites more pleasant to the eye than a wide cotton field when it is in bloom. it presents the appearance of purity, like an immaculate expanse of light, new fallen snow. " it is compelling to me that solomon northrup could reflect on the beauty of this landscape at the same time he is thinking about the horrific circumstances that shaped it. the cotton crop he described as beautiful was violently extracted from enslaved people forced to work. so what
northrup suggests here is that it is critical to think about the conditions that produced cotton and the crop it became. to think about the horror and the beauty embodied on a plantation. in the same way i think it is important to think in complex terms about the wealth and power of the united states in relation to the institution of slavery. the u.s. became a wealthy nation and a global economic power in large part because of brutal violence perpetrated against people like this, used in forced enslaved people to produce cotton. the violence used to extract that labor never made enslaved people less than human even as people were treated as property and bought and sold, they were always negotiating and struggling for control over their lives. even
as slaveowners tried to use them as tools to generate wealth for themselves. i want to wrap up there and turn to our big questions and make sure we are all on the same page. broadly, a couple of things to think through that we thought through today, how did labor shape the lives of enslaved people in the u. s. south and how can we understand the power struggles between enslaved people and slaveowners? what do we know? >> with the growth of cotton in the south, we especially saw a lot of families broken up. you said one third of marriages were broken up. i would think that could be pretty traumatizing for a family, especially with kids
separated from their families. a lot of tough times for people in the growth of cotton. >> so the demands and power of slaveowners could move people around, and it broke families and communities among enslaved people. other thoughts? >> labor innocence developed communities in a culture for them to be able to i guess not only cope with but create power about how they saw themselves in relation to their environment and each other. >> i like this. community is really critical for enslaved people, but it is not just a way for people to cope, not just a way for people to deal with slavery, but to strategize, to develop tools and tactics, to run away for a little while, that would enable them to feel some kind of power
over their lives. other thoughts on power and its manifestations? what are some of the things slaveowners did that empowered them? what were some of the things slaveowners did that empowered them? >> you mentioned how they would punish slaves that would get out of hand or try to run away not only to punish them but to show an example to other slaves so they would be less likely to do what they did. >> violence is critical. violence was the means of trying to repair this fence that was punctured by enslaved people. also the tools of wealth and political power. in some ways we will see, tools of the law, the way slaveowners deployed the state to enhance their strength and secure title
to human property. so broadly what you have gotten out here is the reality that to reiterate, slavery was a constant struggle between slaveowners and enslaved people. they wrestled every day over control over and enslaved persons body and time. we will see in the weeks to come some of how that struggle developed and some of the other tools and techniques and release some more interested and vivid stories about how that struggle played out. cool? that's what i have for today and i will see you guys next week.