Reading Session I:
I. "The Faces of Power: Slaves and Owners"
This section of the book documents the many ways in which owners
maintained, as the chapter introduction notes, "full command over the slaves'
labor and nearly unchecked power over their persons." It also highlights the
ways in which slaves rebelled against the masters' control.
Before reading this chapter, take some time to think, write, and talk
The chapter introduction mentions the variety of forms the struggle
between masters and slaves took, ranging from brute force to more
psychological forms of control. As you read the selections in this chapter, try
to identify and keep a list of the many ways in which the owners maintained
control over the slaves' work and lives. At the same time, also look for and list
the ways in which slaves were able to rebel against this control.
SELECTED READINGS: If you cannot read the entire chapter, reading these
particular interviews and narratives will provide an overview of the issues and
topics addressed in the chapter as a whole.
- The nature of power and control. Do a "freewrite" in which you write
for 5-10 minutes about whatever thoughts, images, and associations come to
mind when you hear the word "power." Think and write about the times in your
life when you were expected to obey someone else's rules (such as parents,
teachers, bosses, etc.). How did you learn about these rules? How were they
enforced? What was the penalty for breaking them? Have you ever been in a
situation in which you were, in your opinion, unfairly treated? How did that
make you feel? How did you react?
- The chapter introduction notes, "The long struggle between masters
and slaves, more than two hundred years old at the time of the Civil War" was
played out with "words, symbols and rituals as well as whips and guns." What
do you think that means? How can a power struggle be played out with words,
symbols, rituals, whips and guns? How do those various "weapons" differ from
one another? What do you think each one would be most effective in
- Augusta Messersmith: Describes the differences between a "good" master and
a "bad" one.
- Henrietta King: Tells of the brutal punishment she suffered as a child for
taking a piece of candy, and the permanent scar left in its wake.
- Jenny Proctor: Gives a harrowing description of the generally rough working
and living conditions for slaves and cruelty exhibited even towards
- Delicia Patterson: Describes her sale on the auction block at age 15, and
how she attempted to assert her own interests and to some extent
- William Johnson: Recounts how a fellow slave learned to read and write
without the master's knowledge and used these skills to help several
slaves escape to the North, before being betrayed by a fellow slave.
- W.B. Allen: Tells of patrollers disrupting the prayer meeting of a group of
slaves, who fought back in a surprising and clever manner.
- W.P. Jacobs: Relates how his uncle, with the help of an abolitionist and the
Underground Railroad, escaped to a new life of freedom in the North.
- Arnold Gragston: Tells how, after helping others cross the Ohio River to
freedom, he eventually made it himself.
- The chapter introduction describes how the master/slave relationship
was complicated because of the "conflicting interests and aspirations" of each
group. Based on the narratives you read, what were the specific "interests"
and "aspirations" of slaves and masters? In what ways did they conflict?
What was the result of that conflict?
- How and why did masters punish their slaves in the narratives you
read? What do you think was the rationale or motivation behind each form of
punishment? How did it further the masters' aims? What was the immediate
and longer-lasting effects of these forms of punishment on slaves?
- Review the lists you made while reading of the ways masters exerted
their power over their slaves and the ways slaves rebelled. For each one, try
to identify the factors that led to these specific actions. What do you think
each group hoped to achieve through their show of power or rebellion? What
goal was each individual action effective at achieving?
If you had difficulty identifying your own lists, you might discuss the
Forms of Control by the Masters:
Forms of Slave Resistance:
- Using brute force, such as whippings and beatings.
- Splitting up family members.
- Selling slaves to other masters.
- Hiring out slaves to other slaveholders.
- Controlling food supply and living conditions/quarters.
- Requiring passes when leaving the plantation.
- Controlling when, where, how, and with whom they worship.
- Forbidding literacy and punishing those caught reading and writing.
- Searching for and punishing fugitive slaves.
- Physical uprising/Striking or speaking back.
- Refusing to be sold to particular masters.
- Maintaining family ties, even when separated.
- Hiding in the woods to escape punishment.
- Running away to the North.
- Learning to read and write.
- Running their own religious meetings.
- Helping others escape to freedom.
- In some of the narratives, the former slaves describe how their
masters were "good" or "kind". In what ways did those "good" masters differ
from the others described in the other narratives? For what reason might a
master choose to award certain privileges and comforts to his slaves? What
might be gained from these kindnesses to slaves and what might be expected
in return? In what ways were slaves under these masters still deprived the
full rights and privileges of freedom? How were their lives still marred by
- How did the following people affect slaves' lives?
- fellow slaves
- Several of the narratives mention slaves who learned how to read and
write, an activity that was against the law for slaves in the South. Why do you
think the masters punished slaves who learned how to read and write? Why
might they want to deprive slaves of these skills? What did the slaves do with
their literacy in the narratives you read?
- Why might masters hire black "drivers" on their plantation to oversee
and punish their slaves?
- Why would masters threaten to separate family members? Why was
this so effective a form of control?
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY:
- Select one of the slave narratives you read in this chapter that
particularly interested you. Re-read the narrative and try to list all of the ways
in which the slave's life is controlled by the masters. Then think about and try
to list all of the freedoms you enjoy in your life that were denied to the slave.
- Write a short story in which you imagine you are a slave who is being
helped across the river and to freedom by Arnold Gragston. What fears run
through your mind as you make this risky journey? Why are you willing to take
the risk? How do you imagine your life changing once you make it to
- Re-write one of the narratives you read from someone else's point of
view (such as a fellow slave, a master or mistress, an overseer). What
elements of the narrative are now ignored or emphasized more? Why?
- The Underground Railroad and Abolitionist Movement.
- Slave Narratives and Autobiography.
- Slave Rebellions (such as Nat Turner or the Amistad).
- Forms of Slavery and Revolutions in Other Cultures and Historical Periods