The Restrictions of Freedom Upon a Former Slave

by Kathryn Bauer

Even after achieving freedom in America, enslaved persons continue to face immense restrictions.  Former enslaved persons utilize very personal narratives, to voice the truth of their harsh realities to the great public.  In his bibliography, A Narrative of Thomas Smallwood, the former enslaved person of thirty years, focuses his narrative on the constraints inflicted upon enslaved persons.  Thomas Smallwood illustrates how paternalistic enslavement restricts enslaved persons’ teachings, the unjust cost of freedom for the enslaved persons, and the dangers fugitive enslaved persons fear.  

To begin, Smallwood exposes the adverse truth about paternalistic enslavement by conveying his purposely limited schoolings from his master:

“my master, and his wife, learned me the English alphabet, and to spell in two syllables…This may afford the reader a glimpse into the abyss of intellectual darkness into which the African race in America has been so long purposely confined”(14).

By leaving the passage dotted with Smallwood’s grammatical errors, the audience is shown the ineffectiveness of Smallwood’s master’s lessons, debunking the idea that enslaved persons’ masters are sufficiently educating their enslaved persons.  In this passage, Smallwood suggests the behavior of the enslaved persons’ masters are immoral, for they are not acclimating the enslaved persons into American life, the main ideal of paternalistic enslavement.  In Race, Republicanism, and Domestic Service in the Antebellum United States, this immoral act of restriction is further illuminated.  Mary Cathryn Cain confirms the reality of this racial logic still in effect for free, Black American servants:

“that domestic employers increasingly viewed their servants through a prism of race, so as to protect their own ideological interests” (65).

This passage additionally highlights the fact that this “intellectual darkness” is done purposely to act as a “confinement”, as a result of the domestic employers’ “own ideological interests”, stemming from their firm beliefs of White supremacy.  This fact informs readers that White Americans are not trying to better accustom their enslaved persons and servants as they claim to.  The domestic employers’ “ideological interests”,  in which they feel they must “protect” themselves, ensuring White men remain dominant, is achieved by guaranteeing Blacks are never to be completely free or equal to White men.  One way this is ensured is through restricting the lessons of the enslaved persons, depriving them of ample knowledge necessary to excel in American life.


Becky Coleman, is pictured with a book in-hand, suggesting she is taking it upon herself to further her education as a Louisiana Freedwoman.

Moreover, to further restrict enslaved persons from easily achieving freedom, masters demand the value of their enslaved person in exchange for their release.  Smallwood,  expands on the wrongful act:

“…if it is just for slaveholders to compel men and women to work for them without pay, because they are black… then it is equally just for them, or their friends, to deprive their masters of such labour without pay ” (19).

Smallwood aims to shock his audience with the fact that free enslaved persons, are not in the slightest bit “free”, by depicting the illogical notion of the act of requesting pay from enslaved persons.  Smallwood, to acquire his own freedom must pay five hundred dollars to his master.  He suggests, that this is an obscene amount for an enslaved person to earn while under his master’s control, making it nearly impossible for the enslaved to gain their freedom in their lifetime.  Moreover, Smallwood depicts the immorality of requesting money in exchange for the freedom of former enslaved persons.  Enslaved persons should have no obligation to buy their way out, considering the fact they never sold themselves into slavery.

Once free, Smallwood dedicated his life to attempting to free other enslaved persons.  Smallwood uses detailed descriptions to recount a gruesome failed account:

“… we had to make speed in making our own escape and leave the poor creatures to the mercy of the bloodhounds…I heard the clanking of the chains, and shrieks of the poor souls…they were in the claws of the lions” (39).

The appalling imagery Smallwood creates in this passage by utilizing the sense of hearing, inflicts fear upon his audience.  As an author, he successfully attempts to horrify his audience with the cruelty that accompanies capturing fleeing enslaved persons, highlighting his disapproval of the maltreatment of the enslaved under the institution of enslavement.


Here is a visual representation of the brutality of capturing of fugitive enslaved persons.   Take note of the sizable chains being placed on the enslaved person to the left.

Smallwood, in his narrative, recounts the confinements of paternalistic enslavement, his unjust acquirement of  freedom, and the troubles he faces as a freedman assisting in the release of other enslaved persons.  He does so in order to depict to his audience the restrictions of freedom upon a former enslaved person that result from the immoral institution of enslavement.

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