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.

Liberty or Death

by Jimmy Lu


A White slave master whips his Black female slave while she is chained to a pole.

Powerless in antebellum America, Black slaves resolved to make their voices heard through their writings. They wrote about their sufferings and their desire for liberty. Harriet Jacobs in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl presents a narrative about her escape from slavery. Jacobs reveals her courage during her emotional and physical journey of escape; she would rather die pursuing liberty than to remain enslaved.

As a fugitive slave, Jacobs revealed her courage by rebelling against slavery. Jacobs’ attitude toward slavery is revealed:

“. . . my relatives. . . . advised me to return to my master . . . But such counsel had no influence on me. . . . ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ was my motto” (151).

Here, Jacobs refuses to submit to paternalistic slavery, in which the master knows what is “morally right” for his slave. Jacobs would rather die than to re-experience slavery. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville suggests the same desire for liberty among slaves:

“Slavery, now con- fined to a single tract of the civilized earth, attacked by Christianity as unjust . . . cannot survive. . . . If liberty be refused to the Negroes of the South, they will in the end forcibly seize it . . .” (40).

The morality of slavery was questioned by Christians who used theological arguments to oppose slavery. Slavery is implied as a backwards institution. As slaves like Jacobs resisted and desired liberty, Tocqueville suggests that they could overcome slavery and become agents of change. Although relatively powerless, slaves would rebel by outwitting their masters.

Subjected to paternalism, Jacobs rebelled and escaped using her cunningness. Jacobs views cunningness as a weapon:

“I went to sleep that night . . . I thanked the heavenly Father . . . Who can blame slaves for being cunning? They are constantly compelled to resort to it. It is the only weapon of the weak and oppressed against the strength of their tyrants” (154).

Jacobs reveals her religiosity, which gave her hope as a fugitive slave. Despite their weakness, slaves attempted to outwit and escape from their masters, who underestimated their intellect. However, Jacobs would feel trapped along her journey and felt powerless.


A Black female slave wears iron horns and bells that wrap around her neck. Slave owners would make their slaves wear them in order to deter them from running away. The bell noises would allow slave owners to track their slaves.

In her quest for freedom, Jacobs was stuck in a risky situation that revealed her emotional challenges. Jacobs reveals her fear of her master:

“. . . and I at once concluded that he had come to seize me. . . . I heard approaching footsteps . . . I braced myself against the wall to keep from falling. . . . there stood my kind benefactress. I was too much overcome to speak . . .” (158-159).

The constant suspense, relief, and her fears are significant because they show her readers the emotional challenges of escaping slavery. This scene demonstrates the high risks that fugitive slaves like Jacobs courageously took in order to pursue liberty.

In her narrative, Jacobs reveals her courage and love of liberty by refusing to return. Jacobs attached significance to liberty by overcoming the emotional challenges as a fugitive slave. Slavery was becoming outdated among civilized nations, and slaves like Jacobs rebelled against it by outwitting and escaping their masters.