By Benjamin Nechmad
People take autonomy for granted. In many countries today, people have the ability to decide where to live, what to eat, and what clothes to wear, along with countless other choices. North American enslaved persons had no agency over the trajectory of their lives. They lacked the opportunities to set goals for themselves or to even dream. The enslaved people were considered property and deprived of the basic human right to have agency over one’s own life. This lack of humanity was a governing force in many of their behaviors and attitudes. It caused anger, depression, hopelessness and even religious fervor.
An example of this horrid deprival of control was the separation of enslaved families. Often times, family members were sold to different owners and could be sent great distances away from their loved ones. Even if a family stayed together, they did not have a say on when they would be able to see each other or even on how they would interact when together. John S. Jacobs discusses his father’s lack of control over his family in an account of his life as an enslaved individual.
“To be a man, and not to be a man—a father without authority—a husband and no protector—is the darkest of fates … His wife is not his: his children are not his; they can be taken from him, and sold at any minute … A slave’s wife or daughter may be insulted before his eyes with impunity. He himself may be called on to torture them, and dare not refuse. To raise his hand in their defense is death by the law” (85).
John Jacobs’ father is most likely one of the many fathers who were unable to protect their families from the whim of their masters. This lack of control can cause anger and depression, as was the case with John’s own father.
“…my father’s violent temper, although, in justice to him, I must say that slavery was the cause of it…The knowledge that he was a slave himself, and that his children were also slaves, embittered his life, but made him love us the more” (86).
This issue was especially sensitive due to the gender roles that males held in nineteenth-century American society. Men were the breadwinners, they ventured into the cruel world, (especially in the case of the enslaved male,) and expected to come home to the peace and serenity traditionally provided by his wife and children. If these emotional assets are not under his control, the nineteenth-century male can become bitter and paranoid. They would have lost their coping mechanism that got them through the harsh days.
In the Johnson reading, “Turning People into Property,” we clearly see that African Americans were largely viewed as property. Property is normally under the full control of the owner. Unfortunately, when people are placed in this classification, they too, are stripped of all agency. Slavery was an established aspect of the American South and there was nothing that the enslaved people could do to improve their circumstances and fate. This unending cycle of depression and uncertainty only had one remedy—faith. By believing in God, many enslaved people were able to overcome their terrible situation by engaging with agency over their internal lives. They may have lacked agency over their external choices, such as what to eat and where to live, but by having faith they were able to feel comforted and loved, carrying those feelings with them regardless of their circumstances.
In her narrative, “Old Elizabeth” passionately describes how God was the only one in her life that she could count on.
“I had none in the world to look to but God, I betook myself to prayer, and in every lonely place I found an altar. I mourned sore like a dove and chattered forth my sorrow, moaning in the corners of the field, and under the fences” (4).
Elizabeth painfully came to the realization that she was physically alone in the world after being separated from her family and sold to another slave owner. She could turn to none but God in her search for companionship and meaning.
The physical bondage and torture of enslaved African Americans is usually at the forefront of the American slavery experience. However, these narratives provide a personal window into the lives of enslaved persons. They play a crucial role in helping us understand the emotional and mental struggle that was part of their daily lives.