Each time a child was born in bondage, the system of slavery began anew. Although raised by their parents or by surrogates in the slave community, children were ultimately subject to the rule of their owners. Following the life cycle of a child from birth through youth to young adulthood, Marie Jenkins Schwartz explores the daunting world of slave children, a world governed by the dual authority of parent and owner, each with conflicting agendas.
Despite the constant threats of separation and the necessity of submission to the slaveowner, slave families managed to pass on essential lessons about enduring bondage with human dignity. Schwartz counters the commonly held vision of the paternalistic slaveholder who determines the life and welfare of his passive chattel, showing instead how slaves struggled to give their children a sense of self and belonging that denied the owner complete control.
Born in Bondage gives us an unsurpassed look at what it meant to grow up as a slave in the antebellum South. Schwartz recreates the experiences of these bound but resilient young people as they learned to negotiate between acts of submission and selfhood, between the worlds of commodity and community.
Schwartz makes the original and useful point that there was an inherent conflict between paternalism...and the efforts of slaves to maintain a family life of their own. To the degree that masters took direct responsibility for slave children they undermined the authority of the parents and the unity of the slave family.
Historian Schwartz focuses on the parent-child bond in this nuanced study of the pressures that slavery placed on the families and how parents and children responded.
In Born in Bondage, Marie Jenkins Schwartz uses WPA slave narratives as well as diaries, letters, and account books left by slave holders to compare and contrast parents' and slaveowners' expectations, hopes, and meanings attached to a child born in slavery. Masters and parents both hoped to impart to the children their own beliefs about slavery, self-esteem, and the southern social system. Tracing the stages of a slave child's life from conception and birth to courtship and marriage, this book details the way that decisions were made about raising enslaved children and the way slave children learned to perceive their own lives.
Marie Jenkins Schwartz provides a masterful analysis..as she traces slaves' experiences from infancy and childhood through adolescence and into parenthood. In doing so, she adds to our understanding of the subtle power plays involved in plantation life and the extent to which children often become pawns in ongoing struggles over authority and identity...Schwartz's most original contribution lies in framing her findings in the arch of life stages from birth to adulthood.
Relying primarily on the narratives with former slaves conducted under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, Schwartz focuses her attention on slaves in Virginia, along the rice coast of South Carolina and Georgia, and in Alabama. The result is a carefully constructed monograph that manages to offer new insights about familiar subjects...Her attention to the life cycle of slave children and families offers a fresh take on these familiar arguments, helping to strengthen them and to reaffirm the impressive accomplishment of slaves' survival.
She is particularly insightful at describing 19th-century African American child-rearing practices and the relationships between slave children and their parents Schwartz makes several major contributions to scholarly understanding of the history of antebellum slavery, the slave family, and childhood.
- 2001, Winner of the Julia Cherry Spruill Prize
- 288 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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