I wonder how many people have tried to imagine what a life of slavery must have been like. I have been confronted with slavery on numerous occasion, if you have read my other post you will remember that the most visceral for me was my visit to Ghana. But even before I started blogging I would run across little thing in the most unexpected places. Even though primarily localized to the south, slavery has touched all of our past and can be found in some way all over the country.
So I approached the plantations expecting the obvious relics of slavery, but in some cases it was a bit white washed (so to speak). I primarily toured Oak Alley Plantation and for the most part the slave quarters and the environ around them look civilized. Definitely less stately than the big house, but looked almost clean and not so bad (though we all know that it was the worst of circumstances).
The contrast between the big house and the slave quarters is stark. I imagine the inhabitants of the big house never went to the slave quarters. I think this was how they could turn a blind eye to the realities of slavery. I also imagine that they took the singing and dancing forced on the slaves as a sign of happiness. Even if they were able to spit the lies from their mouths, in their hearts they couldn’t possibly believe it; I don’t know how they even slept with the knowledge that they owned people and kept them in such deplorable conditions…
There was a surprising division of labor on a plantation. Women actually did the hardest task, they dug ditches, repaired roads and maintained the levees. Men were often put in the fields. The reasoning was that women were cheaper and more easily replaced so if they died from overwork or accident then it was not as costly to the slave owner. The work given to the men would increase the value of the plantation so they enjoyed a certain amount of reprieve from hard labor. Before you start thinking house servants had it the best, you should know they had to start their work before sunrise and weren’t allowed to seek rest until all of the residents of the big house had retired. They worked the longest day on the plantation. The oldest to the youngest had a job on the plantation. The oldest residents often served to babysit the children too young to be put to work, but often even the smallest child had something to do, even if it was to wrap themselves around the feet of the slaveowners and serve as living feet warmers.
Slaves were dressed simply and weren’t often given new clothes. House servants were given the newest and best clothes, but only because it gave the appearance of wealth. If the slave owners could afford to give the slaves good clothes, then they MUST BE very wealthy. They also lived simply and often slept on pallets on the floor, this was true even of the house servants. Even if a servant slept in the big house, it was on the floor. Anywhere from 2 to 6 peope inhabited the single room cabin down in the quarter, and often multiple families would share one cabin, so privacy was nonexistent.
No one is under any delusions that being a slave was anything but terrible so it is no surprise that the punishments were worse. If a slave ran away or forgot their place or just breathed while the master was having a bad day, there was punishment. Beating being the most common form of punishment, but sometimes slaves were rendered lame, starved, or sold to notoriously “bad” plantations or to the plantations in the deep south which were known as some of the worst.
I am not sure that there is much left to say… maybe… Thank God this is in our past and it no longer has to be a part of our story,