A Slave’s Attempt to Return Home
By LA Hall
African Americans arguably have had the worst case of homesickness, due to the manner in which their migration, or leaving of the home, was performed. Opposed to whites, who voluntarily left their homes for better work, to provide for their families, or for religious passage, or Native Americans, who were pushed out of their homelands to the West, blacks were taken against their own will from Africa, “faced dreadful life-threatening conditions on the over packed ships that transported them across the Atlantic” (Matt 21), and enslaved in unknown territory. After being taken from their land, they were separated from their families during the slave trade. Slavery was a “cultural genocide against [Africans which] physically, ideologically, and emotionally removed [Africans/ from their [native land, sense of community], and tribal[/spiritual] affiliation” (Away From Home, 19). “Slaves expressed a mix of emotions. Including anger at the injustice of their situations, despair at their lack of control, and fear of the future, but a recurring theme in the writings of and about those sold away from their families and their native lands was the desire to return home” (Matt, 21). Slaves lives were in jeopardy as soon as they left their native lands and/or communities, and they “suffered psychological trauma. Separated from their communities and families, many succumbed to a condition called the ‘fixed melancholy,’ a state of such dependency that they could not eat and soon died.”
How could one even suggest that African Americans didn’t “[posses] true emotional sensitivity and doubted that they loved their homes and families enough to experience much pain at separation from them,” (Matt, 42) when they wanted to return home so badly and longed for their families that they didn’t have patience to wait for their natural deaths. They committed suicide to speed up the process in returning home (Matt, 24). Blacks so wanted to go back to their native lands that many chose death as an option to grant their wishes. Many slaves had the belief that, “after death, individuals were reincarnated in Africa and would be free. Without liberty or income, [their] best hope for returning home lay in death” (Matt, 13). Slaves did all they could to return home. If death was too extreme they would attempt to “to return to Africa,” by fleeing plantations and becoming runaways or fugitives (Matt, 22). Slavery not only created a severe case of homesickness, it presented a whole new definition of home. “… [E]nslaved people began to define home not only as a place in Africa from where they or their parents had been taken from, but as the spot where their immediate family lived.” Before one would try to escape for Africa he/she would attempt to find their family making it even more difficult to return “home.” The word “home” now meant where one’s family might be held captive, where one was taken/traded from, as well as a place in Africa.
When death wasn’t an option, many enslaved chose to run away to freedom or home. The symbolic depiction of the fugitive slave appeared regularly in newspapers from the early days. The runaway was generally represented by a man (rarely by a woman) who carried a bundle on his shoulder in which he had presumably put food and a change of clothes. The slave would be either trying to escape and get away from the treatment he/she was receiving, attempting to find his/her family, or trying to find “home” any way possible.
I think it is important to show actual evidence that Slaves did try to run away, numerous times and most failed, but they were persistent to get away. The memoranda presented from the In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience archive gave a deeper look into the act of running away from the slave owners’ view. To the slave owner it was business; to the slave it was a means of survival. The slaves felt they could not live being enslaved and, with great heart, many attempts were made to free themselves. The description by the slave owners that wrote these memoranda were very precise, including what clothes the slaves were wearing, where they were going, what drove them to try to escape, etc. Slave owners knew that what they were doing was wrong and knew that the slaves were homesick, but never the less, they still did all the could to recapture the slaves, punish them publically, and/or attempt to trade them off again. Slaves’ knowledge of the consequences for attempting to escape and failing was not enough to hold them back from getting away.
This is an oil-on-canvas painting by Ron Brown. This visual gives an illustration of the terrible conditions slaves faced as they were taken from their homeland to a new land of enslavement. This is a visual representation of a description of a vessel by Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua: “We were thrust into the hold of the vessel in a state of nudity, the males being crammed on one side and the females on the other; the hold was so low that we could not stand up, but were obliged to crouch upon the floor or sit down; day and night were the same to us, sleep being denied us from the confined position of our bodies, and we became desperate through suffering and fatigue.” The excerpt with the visual gives you a sense of how “homesick” one might be when confined in these conditions/holds.
This image depicts the story of a slave looking to return “home.” John Thompson, born in Virginia, was sold “down the river” to Alabama. Wanting to reunite with his family, he decided to escape in 1857. He traveled at night on top of train cars, hiding in the woods during the day. He finally reached Virginia, where he was caught and sold again. He managed to escape once more with the help of the Underground Railroad and settled in New York. Learning that his former owner was in town to arrest him, John sailed to London. The persistence of slaves to return “home” was risky, but those that had the strongest desire risked it all.
This post was completed as an assignment for the American Studies course, “The Concept of Home.” A list of the readings that informed this assignment can be found here.