Reading Session 3:
III. "Family Life in Slavery: 'Our Folks'"
This chapter documents the many ways in which slaves maintained and
strengthened family ties, even as owners constantly attempted to undermine
and subvert the slave family.
Before reading the chapter, take some time to think and write about:
READING GOAL: As the chapter introduction identifies, the owners and
slaves had "diametrically different views of domestic life that made the family
contested terrain." As you read the chapter, try to identify more specifically
these different conceptions of family. List the many ways masters tried to
subvert or control slave families, and the ways slaves managed to maintain
and strengthen family ties in these adverse conditions.
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 Function and Importance of Family. Freewrite for 5-10 minutes
about your family and the role it plays in your life. What does your family do
together? In what ways do family members support one another? What is the
specific role or contribution made by each individual family member? What are
the sources of unity and division in your family? What, in general, are some
of the limitations and difficulties of family life? What are its more important,
vital functions? What kind of relationship or interaction is there between your
immediate family and extended family? What do you depend upon your family
for? What does your family depend on you for?
- Tempie Herndon Durham: Remembers her wedding day.
- Caroline Johnson Harris: Describes a slave wedding ceremony merging folk
traditions and Christian beliefs.
- Rose Williams: Recalls being forced by her master to couple with a fellow
slave against her will.
- Laura Smalley: Describes collective childrearing practices.
- Martha Spence: Recounts her father's effort to take direction of her
upbringing after the death of her mother.
- Hannah Chapman: Tells of the risks her father took to remain in contact with
- J.W. Terrill: Describes being stigmatized by the master who was also his
- Robert Glenn: Tells of his father's bold effort to "purchase" his own son.
- Mattie Dillworth: Remembers being sold on the auction block, and
separated from her sister forever.
- Mary Fergerson: Tells of being sent hundreds of miles from her parents and
- Josephine Howard: Describes her mother and grandmother's endurance of
the Middle Passage from Africa, and ties it to the forced migration in her
- What functions did family ties and kinship serve during the 250 years
of slavery? What are the various ways in which family ties were relied upon
and utilized by slaves?
- What do some of the slaves do to maintain any ties they have to
family members? Why do you think it is so important to them to take these
risks for the sake of family? How and why did masters abuse or destroy those
- How did larger slave communities serve the function as family,
regardless of blood ties? Why did slaves address one another as brother and
sister, uncle and aunt, even if they are not related by blood? What does this
suggest about ways to define family?
- How does it benefit masters to present themselves as "fathers" to the
entire household and plantation? What does this indicate about how owners
defined family as opposed to how the slaves did?
- How did their connections to fellow slaves, family and non-family
alike, help slaves oppose the masters' rule and oppression?
- What aspects of slave family life did masters hold power over and
attempt to undermine and subvert? How did slaves attempt to deny this
authority and maintain their own family ties?
- Why would owners refuse to sanction slave marriages? Why would
slaves continue to marry, despite the risks and possibility of separation? Why
would those slaveholders who sanctioned marriage find it came into conflict
with their material interests? What does this indicate about the economic
motivations for the owners' dictates?
- What was the economic gain for the masters in forced couplings of
certain slaves? How did this practice also help enforce their power and
control? How did slaves attempt to subvert or deny this power?
- How and why did some slave parents attempt to maintain a hand in
raising their own children, even though they were denied any legal or formal
obligation to do so? What lessons and values did they impart to their children,
as opposed to those of the masters?
- Why was the masters' fathering of children with slave women
something that so angered the slaves and created so much havoc? What
kinds of conflicts did this practice lead to?
- Why was Robert Glenn's father's effort to "purchase" his own son met
with such hostility by the white speculators?
- Josephine Howard's interview mentions various forced migrations the
Africans and slaves suffered. What effect did forced migration have on family
structures? How were family and cultural connections maintained despite
these mass movements? How do slaves remember those family members
from whom they have been separated?
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY:
- Research and construct your family tree. Try to go back as far and
chart as many generations as you can. In addition to interviewing family
members to identify family connections, you might attempt to do some formal
research into your family tree. Try to identify the first family members to come
to America. What circumstances brought them to America? If you identify the
year they arrived and where they went to live, you can then do research into
what kind of lives they led at that time and place.
- Read more about Family/Kinship structures and rituals in African
cultures and societies before slavery. What role does family play in these
societies? How did slaves maintain these concepts of family while in slavery?
- Read more about family life for Southern whites during slavery. What
rituals did the family members participate in together? What was the expected
role of each family member? How did family life and rituals differ from that of
the slaves? In what ways was it similar?
- The Middle Passage/Slave Ships
- Westward Expansion and Migration
- Kinship and Family Structures in Different Cultures/Societies
- Rituals and Ceremonies Surrounding Marriage and Childbirth