Trials and Tribulations of Enslaved Motherhood

 By: Melissa Wilson                    slave picture 2
MARTHA PAYNE  Mother of Daniel A. Payne Founder of Wilberforce University

        To fully understand the extent of severity slavery inflicted upon the enslaved individuals is to read their narratives remembering their enslavement. Reading and studying slave narratives are “essential to the study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history and literature” because they enhance historians’ knowledge on slavery through first-hand accounts. It is to be noted that many enslaved persons were unable to read or write and had someone annotate their story as an enslaved person. Therefore there is room for ambiguity on events that may or may not have taken out of context. Historians cannot fully depend on a slave narrative to be an adequate form of understanding the true evil of slavery, but it’s a start. As slave narratives were formed there were also a variety of historical fiction slave narratives that drew upon autobiographical slave narratives. One common theme amongst them was the function of the enslaved mother and her position and integrity in the story. Whether she enslaved mother was an effective caring mother or unable to handle slavery and being a mother that she made questionable decisions that might not have been beneficial for her family.

         There is an argument to be made that the modern-day African American family roots stem back all the way from slavery. The family structure and dynamics of a matriarchal household with sometimes an absentee father resembles how families were set up during slavery. There are obvious differences, for instance, families nowadays do not deal with their master, but there are similarities in oppression African American families deal with on a day to day basis. On the top of this family structure is the mother who, in many slave narratives, only wants her family safe and tries to keep them together as long as possible. Due to families being separated through the internal slave trade in the United States family members were scattered all across slave states. In various slave narratives I read, the mother always functioned as the “glue” to keep the family together and when she fails to do so, she finally would break down, opening up the dark truth of slavery. These families were treated as cattle being sold from one owner to the next not thinking they would mind being separated from their other family members. Yet, these people are not cattle, they had a voice and they used it when they felt they lost all hope. Reverend Josiah Henson autobiography when he separates from his mother is similar to many slave narratives of family separation.

          Reverend Josiah Henson was an enslaved person in 1789 in Maryland. His autobiography influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe used for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a template slave narrative. Henson tried to buy in his freedom in 1828 but his master raised the price after he was able to afford his freedom. He then escaped and was “involved in the underground railroad” helping other ex-enslaved persons escape slavery. He eventually wrote a biography of his life while residing in Canada. The scene that I am focusing on is the last moment he had with his mother at the slave auction when they were separated. This separation from his mother violated the family’s social constraints that society placed on families. Slavery for Henson’s mother broke her integrity to be an effective mother yet from an outsider perspective they did not think the slave auctions were cruel and brutal for the enslaved persons.


“Whose worth can never be measured/ Her moral and mental and physical life” (viii)


Slave Picture                     “O, Master, just buy my baby; all the rest are gone, and I will go anywhere, and do anything for you.”

        Henson’s mother pleaded her life just to be with her “baby”. It comes into question if motherhood is what breaks a slave mother from being so strong throughout. Henson remarks after he was sold to another master he remarks ” I heard her sob out, “Oh, Lord Jesus, how long, how long shall I suffer this way?””. This narrative furthers the idea of how powerless the slave mother truly was during this time period. In society’s view mothers are seen as the sole caretakers of their children, and when they are seen to be failing at that task, society begins to question the mother’s integrity. 


“…can it be believed that this man, thus appealed to, was capable not merely of turning a deaf ear to her supplication, but of disengaging himself from her with such violent blows and kicks…” (18)


This is not the first case of questionable decisions enslaved mother’s made during their enslavement. The autobiography of Henson is said to have influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where the mother in that novel has questionable integrity. Eliza was crossing the river with her infant, and she almost killed their child in the process. Immediately, society’s view of Eliza is that is was an unfit parent and ineffective mother. Eliza was desperate to save her child from being sold and she did everything in her power to protect her child. Just as Henson’s mother pleaded her life away just to stay with her children.

Henson and Stowe depict these women as heroic characters sacrificing their lives to better their child. These women were depicted as single mothers trying to make due to their situation. Yet the difference between nowadays and then were they were in enslaved and stripped of all their rights to their children. The narratives serve as empathy for the enslaved mothers the shed light on their cruel situation. The mothers were not horrible mothers at all, but are deemed as heroic and placed on a pedestal.

Both authors chose to write about the enslaved women where the reader would have empathy and sympathy for the mother who dealt with these horrific circumstances. The narratives give context as to why enslaved mother’s made decisions that seemed absurd to white folks. The norm of slavery and slave auctions were debunked through these narratives where the reader can empathize with the enslaved mothers. These narratives were mostly written for white folks and widely read across the country. These narratives served as a foundational platform for unveiling the true evil of slavery and what it does to a human being under those circumstances. 

Brown, Hallie Q.Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. First edition, 2000. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The Aldine Publishing Company 2000.

 John Lobb “Uncle Tom’s Story of His Life.” An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson  (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s”Uncle Tom”). From 1789 to 1876.First edition, 2006. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2006. 

Stowe, Harriet Beecher.Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. PUBLISHED: Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1852.

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