How Slaves in Antebellum America Imagined Freedom

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Slavery existed in America from the early 17th century to 1865, when the 13th amendment to the Constitution outlawed the practice across the nation. Under slavery, black people lived extraordinarily oppressed lives and were treated as sub-human and bought and sold as property. For most slaves, this bondage made overt acts of resistance impossible, leading to the longstanding opinion that slaves became dull and dumb to their subservience (with more extreme opinions voicing that they even became happy in their slavery) (Morgan 1994, 74). However, recent historical research had indicated that this is in fact mostly incorrect, and slaves instead yearned for freedom and resisted slavery “in every way possible” (Morgan 1994, 74).

In light of this, this essay aims to understand how gender factored into these understandings and acts of freedom from slavery. How did gender inform what it meant to be free for slaves? Was the freedom to perform gender an important part of liberty? In order to understand these questions, this essay first seeks to understand the world of slavery through a gendered perspective, evaluating how far perspectives on gender intersected with race and class to justify the oppression of the African American race. The paper then turns to how freedom was conceptualized by slaves, and how far these ideas were gendered. Two methods are utilized to understand these conceptions: through slave narratives and through acts of resistance and the lives of freed slaves.

Finally, it is argued that although slaves held highly gendered understandings of freedom, these ideals proved impossible to live out in practice due to the racial, gendered and class restraints imposed on African Americans even after they were freed. Conclusively, then, this essay finds that slaves relied heavily on both pre-existing and new gendered roles in their understandings of freedom – however, these conceptions often conflicted with the reality of the world of the slave and the free black person. These conceptions were rarely successfully performed in the material world.

Before attempting to understand how slaves understood freedom and its relation to gender, it is first important to evaluate how the lives and oppression of slaves in America was gendered. This will allow for important comparisons to be made between the situation slaves lived in and the way they imagined their ideal lives, and how gender intersected with this. Firstly, then, it is important to note that from the perspective of function, slave owners understood slaves as essentially “sexless” (Wood 2010, 515). For the slave master, the slave was measured primarily by its economic and productive worth, and gender factored little into this – instead, strong women, for instance, would be seen as three quarters as useful as the “prime slave”, and elderly men may be seen as half as useful (Wood 2010, 515).

Nevertheless, gender differentiation did exist in the lives of slaves, but was expressed instead through the type of work assigned to men and women, as well as the discursive oppression used by white society to justify their subservience. Indeed, the experience of bondage differed between men and women (Morgan 1994, 74). Enslaved men often occupied the most skilled jobs – the mechanics, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Those men who were able to adequately meet the requirements of these skilled professions often acquired small liberties due to their value, and were allowed some freedom of movement, moving from job to job (Wood 2015, 515). Men who were “unskilled” would plough the fields and were valued for their strength and skill – however, it was overwhelmingly women who outnumbered men on the fields (Horton 1986, 53; Wood 2015, 515).

The woman slave, who was expected to “work like a man” and “breed like an animal”, thus felt the largest distance in gendered roles than their white and rich counterparts, who did no similar work and were expected to be gentile and elegant (Drake 1997, 94). Besides field work, female slaves also took on roles within white homes, such as cooking, midwifery and nursing. Central to both of these types of work in many cases, though, was the overwhelming sexual abuse conducted against female slaves by their white masters (Wood 2015, 516). Indeed, women were considered desirable purchases because they could be raped, and sexual abuse shaped the lives of many black women (Wood 2015, 518).

Thus, the working lives of the slave in America was highly delineated by gender. However, also important was the gendered discourse used against them by white society – the labels slaves were given in order to justify their bondage and subservience. Often, the gender identities constructed for blacks were often oppositional to ideal white gender roles – this allowed white society to see slaves as totally “other”, and thus dehumanize slaves and justify the slavery institution (Wood 2015, 513). Thus, men were stereotyped as “boys”, without maturity or honor, infantile and savage in comparison to the chivalry and rationality of the white man (Morgan 1994, 75). Similarly, Simms argues that women were discursively categorized according to three gendered tropes – the “mammy”, who is obedient to whites and happy in their subordination, the “Jezebel”, who is consumed by lustful passions and, and the “mule”, subhuman beasts only valued for their labour (Simms 2009, 880-883). Thus, the life imposed upon a slave was highly gendered. They worked according to gender and experienced stereotyping that was delineated in opposition to the highly gendered lives of those in white society. This is important to the present paper as it allows a basis of comparison to be formed between the experience of their slave and their understanding of what it meant to be free.

How, then, do we understand how slaves in 18th century America understood what it meant to be free? The source base is, of course, highly limited. Most slaves were illiterate and therefore unable to record their thoughts and feelings. Even those who were literate may have been too restricted in their free time to do so. Thus, much of the lives, hopes and dreams of slaves are lost to the past. Nevertheless, some source material survives. This essay uses two forms of source bases to understand (as far as we can) how slaves understood freedom: slave narratives (usually by runaway slaves) and through slaves’ acts of resistance and the lives of freed slaves.

Slave narratives are an important historical source base, allowing an illuminating (yet limited) insight into the lives and minds of slaves. As slave narratives “are attempts to speak, to rebuild the self” after the decimation of their identity and autonomy through slavery, they are important indicators of how slaves imagined themselves after slavery (Drake 1997, 91). Thus, they are of paramount importance to how far gender intersected with ideas of freedom.

Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who then became a prolific writer and orator, provides good insight into how male slaves may have imagined their freedom under slavery. Commentators argue that Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave demonstrates the importance of literacy and the written word in Douglass’ conception of freedom. As Morgan states, Douglass saw language and literacy as a “major instrument” in his freedom, and he “expressed courage” through the written word (Morgan 1994, 77).

Indeed, Douglass conceived freedom through education, and the ability to express oneself fluently and powerfully. However, what is less obvious is the masculine connotation of this conception of freedom. Indeed, educating oneself was central to the patriarchal and entrepreneurial values of 19th century America – it was believed that “education leads to social uplift, and progress is good” (Morgan 1994, 81). Education promoted ideologies of male autonomy and individualism that was tantamount to the “self-made man” ideal of white, middle-class America (Drake 1997, 94). In this regard, Douglass adopts and promotes literacy due to a desire to prove the masculinity of African Americans in the eyes of the larger white society. Indeed, this was not an uncommon tactic amongst slaves – as Rindfleisch (2012, 861) states, “black men wielded literacy… to elevate status and masculine reputation”.

The gendered contours of Douglass’ conception of freedom are only further emphasized when compared with the narrative of female contemporary escaped slave, Harriet Jacobs. Jacobs escaped slavery after torturous sexual abuse by her master. Jacobs places much less emphasis on the power of the written word than Douglass – rather than freeing her, in fact, her literacy was instead used as a further avenue to her sexual exploitation (Morgan 1994, 85). Whilst Douglass promoted individual autonomy as a route to freedom in his account, Jacobs appears to instead stress the importance of kinship and community. Indeed, as Morgan (1994, 75-84) argues, Jacobs’ autobiography primarily depicts a network of relationships on which she utilizes to reach a sense of community – her freedom is measured by her success as a friend, daughter, sister, wife, and mother. Indeed, the importance of responsibility is apparent in Jacobs conception of freedom. This, too, is a highly gendered notion. Freedom for Jacobs is expressed through the contemporary (white) American values of the “cult of domesticity” assigned to women – women were expected to look after family, childbear, and housekeep (Drake 1997, 94). Indeed, in freedom Jacobs’ attempted to reclaim her identity after the defeminisation of slavery along these gendered lines.

Evidently, a common theme shared between Douglass and Jacobs’ is the reliance on white gender tropes to express their conceptions of freedom. This is further emphasized and yet complicated when considered the third slave narrative of Ellen and William Craft. The Crafts escaped slavery through Ellen Craft dressing as an elite white man with William Craft as her personal slave. They were able to navigate through the American South and escape to Philadelphia through this act. The Crafts’ story demonstrates that the binary between slavery and freedom was in many ways a performance that was conducted on gendered and racial lines. By adopting the clothing, appearance and attitude of an elite white man, Craft successfully emulated freedom (Marshall 2010, 169). Evidently, then, the exploitation of gender and racial roles by runaway slaves demonstrates that slaves understood that the gendered notions of freedom were artificial. This casts doubt on the legitimacy of both Douglass and Jacobs’ narratives – perhaps, it must be questioned, they were expressing white gender stereotypes in their freedom in order to appeal to their mostly white audience?

Nevertheless, the literature argues that although gender was understood as a performance, the lines between acting and reality were blurry for these slaves. For instance, the Crafts and other similar gender-transgressing slaves sometimes kept their new names even after reaching the North and relative freedom – as Marshall states, “the renaming process was the final stage of a ritual of transformation” (Marshall 2010, 175). Furthermore, free slaves continued to express gender through adopting the dress of white Americans (Rindfleisch 2012, 175). Indeed, the experience of Ellen and William Craft and others similar to it presents a confusing image about how slaves understood freedom. They clearly consciously understood the falseness of the gendered lines of freedom and used this to exploit whites, and yet regardless continued to embody these principles in their freedom regardless. This demonstrates that even if freedom was a knowing performance, this does not delegitimize the significance of it, or its gendered bounds, for freed slaves.

Thus, slave narratives tell us that black people imagined slavery through a highly gendered lens. However, narratives are only one source base that can be used to understand conceptions of freedom. This essay now analyzes the subject through methods of resistance used by slaves, as well as the gendered notions of free black society, to cross-reference the findings from the narrative section.

Acts of resistance used by slaves against their masters gives the historian important insight into how the slave imagined freedom. Until recently, it was believed that slaves expressed resistance rarely and incidentally – however, recent research has indicated they resisted in “every way possible” (Drake 1997, 94). Whilst some argue that women resisted more than men through “less dramatic” acts such as providing food and supplies to runaways and resisting childbearing, it was overwhelmingly men who figured more prominently among rebels (Wood 2010, 521). Nevertheless, resistance against slavery appears to be a gendered act even within the male population. As Doddington has convincingly argued, the degree to which an individual male slave actively resisted against their master was understood as a direct correlation to their “masculinity” (Doddington 2018, 22).

Those slaves who actively resisted through the most overt and daring methods – usually utilizing violence and thus a high risk to themselves, thus invoking notions of martyrdom – were seen within slave communities as “more masculine” than slaves who were “docile” (Doddington 2018, 32). This is corroborated by Rindfleisch, who argues that the manhood of southern slaves “constituted violent resistance to slavery” (2012, 861). It is evident, then, that acts to achieve freedom (resistance) were understood on gendered lines. Thus, slaves understood freedom through distinctly gendered boundaries, where emancipation equalled the failure of gendered identity, and freedom equalled the achievement of a gendered ideal.

Slaves conceptions of freedom can also be understood through the analysis of ideals held by ex-slaves in free black society during the time of slavery. This gives reliable insight into how black society imagined the perfect free life in antebellum America and how gender factored into this. Particularly useful is the experience of free black women in New Orleans – as Hanger makes clear, these “libre” women had a relative freedom to express their gender in comparison to other free societies due to the unique and liberal attitude towards slaves and ex-slaves in the region (Hanger 1997, 218). She argues that libre women actually had more freedom in many respects than white women as they were seen to have “no honor” – thus, they could exercise greater control over their own lifestyle, economy, and practice of gender ideals (Hanger 1997, 218). Principle in their experience was the proclivity to marry across racial lines in common-law marriages – this should be seen as an expression of gendered resistance and status – by creating lasting unions with men of all races, libre women in New Orleans expressed a desire to accept European religion, language and values (Hanger 1997, 228).

Thus, it is evident that when given a relative freedom, ex-slaves in this instance sought to express their gender by ascribing to the values of white society, by emulating the experience of white, elite women. As white women and men lived within a deeply and overtly patriarchal and gender-delineated society, this demonstrates that conceptions of freedom held by slaves also existed in line with these trends.

This finding is corroborated by the gender ideals purported in other, less liberal free societies. In the free North, gender ideals were heavily influenced by middle-class black males through black newspapers, bylaws of black organizations, and black churches (Horton 1986, 56). Similarly, these ideals appeared to fall in line with white gendered society. Black organizations apparently supported the American female stereotype of the woman as the “gentler sex”, more moral, loving and caring than the man (Horton 1986, 56).

The man, in opposition, must be strong enough to protect the “weaker” woman (Horton 1986, 57). In line with the notion of the white American “self-made man”, the black man was encouraged to be financially independent and enterprising (Horton 1986, 57). Despite these similarities, however, black gender ideals differed from white in that both black men and women were expected to act for the good of their race – they must dedicate time to political activity, and the promotion of the black race “permeated all aspects of the gender conventions in antebellum black society (Horton 1986, 57). Thus, from analysis of free black societies, it is evident that conceptions of freedom held by black people in antebellum America was indeed highly gendered – in this imagined world, white society’s gendered notions were emulated, with the important difference in that blacks must also engage in racial politics in order to achieve the gendered ideal.

Thus, analysis of slave narratives, acts of resistance, and free black society all tell us that slaves imagined and expressed freedom along deeply gendered bounds. However, as a final note, it is worth mentioning that these gender ideals proved nearly impossible to live out. Indeed, in the free antebellum North, black men found it impossible to express the important masculine trait of independence and entrepreneurialism due to prevailing racism – skilled workers could not use their trade and thus had to work as common labourers (Horton 1986, 69). As a result, black women could not live up to the standard of a typical American housewife, as lack of resources forced them into work to support their families (Horton 1986, 64). Indeed, both Douglass and Jacobs understood the impossibility of their gender ideals with the knowledge that the North was not the land of freedom but instead a place of pervasive and structural racism (Drake 1997, 102). Indeed, though slave’s conceptions of freedom may have been highly gendered, the likelihood of these ideals coming to fruition was remote, if not impossible.

This essay utilized a gendered lens to attempt to understand how slaves in antebellum America imagined freedom. It firstly sought to establish that the lives and work of slaves was deeply gendered. Then, it analysed different types of sources to analyze how far gender factored into these slaves’ ideas of freedom. Through the slave narratives of Douglass, Jacobs, and the Crafts, acts of resistance by slaves, and the ideals of free black societies, this essay found that slaves conceived of freedom through a deeply gendered narrative – even if these gendered ideals were impossible to experience in reality. Indeed, in finality, gender was found to be not only a composite part of conceptions of freedom, but instead informed it entirely.

Cite this paper

How Slaves in Antebellum America Imagined Freedom. (2020, Sep 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-slaves-in-antebellum-america-imagined-freedom/



How did slaves gain their freedom?
Slaves gained their freedom through various means such as emancipation by their owners, escape to free states or Canada, and the abolition of slavery through legislation and the Civil War. Some also gained their freedom through manumission, which was the act of being legally released from slavery by their owners.
What did freedom mean to slaves?
The ability to do as one pleases without interference from others is what freedom meant to slaves. This includes being free from physical, mental, and emotional abuse, as well as having the ability to make one's own decisions.
What freedoms did the slaves have?
The slaves had the freedom to work and the freedom to rest.
What was slavery like during the antebellum era?
The biblical significance in Hurston's Sweat is that it is a story about a woman who is trying to escape her abusive husband. The story is set in the early 1900s, and the husband is a sharecropper.
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