Reading Session 4:
IV. "Slave Culture: 'honest and fair service to the Lord and all mankind
This chapter portrays the many facets of African American slave culture.
Slave culture, as the chapter demonstrates, owed much to slaves' African
heritage, but also continued to develop in response to slaves' experiences in
captivity in America, paving the way for a distinctive African American culture
that exists today.
Before reading the narratives in this chapter, take some time to think
and write about:
READING GOAL: The chapter introduction notes that slave culture was
manifested in the art, cuisine, dance, music, religion, and leisure activities the
slaves created and participated in. As you read, identify ways slaves created
and cultivated unique forms of each of these cultural activities.
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 place that your cultural heritage -- or other that of other cultures -- has in your life. Take 5-10 minutes to "freewrite" about your cultural heritage
(If you are uncertain about your cultural heritage, you might write about how
the "culture" of your school, town, state, or country influences your life).
Describe how the following aspects of your life are tied to your cultural
How does your cultural heritage play influence your sense of self? How
much of your identity is tied to your culture? Does any part of your cultural
heritage conflict with other aspects of your life? How do you cope with the
- social occasions and activities
- rituals and ceremonies
- music and dance
- Rachel Cruze: Describes such enjoyable leisure activities for slaves as corn
huskings and Christmas festivities.
- Harriet Jones: Describes varieties of songs and dances among the slave
- Fannie Berry/Vinnie Brunson: Discuss the functions and symbolic meanings
of various slave work songs and after-hours dances.
- Bob Ledbetter: Repeats the slave songs he remembers from his youth.
- James Bolton: Recalls how slaves created their own delicacies and special,
more interesting dining fare.
- Clara C. Young: Recounts joyous, energetic religious meetings run by the
- Beverly Jones/Jeff Calhoun: Recall the messages emphasized in the
preaching of white ministers and how the slaves responded.
- Silvia King: Tells of secret nighttime religious gatherings the slaves held in
- Ishrael Massie: Describes dangers faced by black ministers.
- Laura Smalley: Tells of how a slave's insistence on praying was punished
by the master.
- Mandy Jones: Describes how slaves secretly learned and taught others how
to read and write.
- What elements of slave culture as depicted in the chapter came from
the slaves' African heritage? What elements were influenced by the culture of
the American South and/or the European-American culture of their masters?
What parts of slave culture were a unique hybrid of different cultural activities?
- How was slave culture, as the chapter introduction states, a "resource
for coping with a world [the slaves] could not control"? How was it also a
"product of their ongoing conflict with their owners"? What elements of slave
culture were specifically born of and in response to their lives in captivity?
- How did aspects of slave culture specifically benefit the slaves? What
products were born of their cultural activities?
- Discuss the role of each of the following in slaves' lives:
art, music, dance, festive occasions, religious rituals, cooking.
- What did slaves do in the little time they were not working? How did
they celebrate special occasions?
- What was the importance of communal activities (like corn huskings;
harvest time; holidays) to slave life?
- Why was visiting such a highly valued activity despite risks and
dangers? Why would masters try to control or forbid this practice?
- What part did music (song and dance) play in daily life? What part
did it play in festive occasions? What were the psychological and practical
functions of work songs and after-hours dances? What do the specific images
and symbols in slave work songs convey about slaves' lives, hopes, and
- How did Christianity, as interpreted and taught by the slaveholders,
differ from how it was viewed by the slaves? What elements of Christianity did
slaves find most relevant and important? How did they merge elements of
Christianity with their own folklore and customs?
- Why would owners try to control their slaves' religious devotions and
ceremonies? What would be considered potentially subversive about slaves'
self-organized religous meetings? Why were slave preachers regarded with
suspicion by the slaveholders? Why would praying be punished by the
- What elements of slave culture did these former slaves bring with
them into their lives of freedom? Why would they hold onto these cultural
elements? What purpose did they serve for the former slaves once they were
free? What purpose might they continue to serve today?
- How does slave culture and the products it produced (art, music,
stories, etc.) serve as a link between the past and present, particularly for
- Several of the narratives describe how the slaves transformed foods
into special delicacies, an example, the chapter notes point out, of how "slaves
used their ingenuity to make something out of nothing." In addition to food
delicacies, how else did slaves "make something out of nothing," creating vital
components of their unique culture from whatever they could?
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY:
- Read about and research contemporary African American art and
culture. You might visit an art gallery or museum, listen to music, or visit a
soul food restaurant. In what ways is the influence of slave culture evident?
You might also study African art and culture, and examine ways in which slave
culture and contemporary African American culture are influenced by it.
- Imagine you are attending one of the weddings, holiday celebrations,
corn shuckings, or religious gatherings described in the chapter's interviews.
Write about everything you experience. What do you see, hear, smell, and
taste? How does the event affect you emotionally? What is your role in it?
- Write a letter to someone from another country about the best way to
learn about and experience contemporary "American" culture(s). What
activities, foods, art forms, and entertainments are essentially American? Is
there only one American culture that we all share, or are there many? Is it
possible to partake in a variety of cultures? How might one do that?
- Try writing your own work song or song of celebration. Decide upon
the central symbols and images you will include. What central message do
you want your song to convey? At what times would you sing it? What
purpose would it serve in your life? What elements of the song would be
personally relevant? What elements would speak to others?
- Folktales and the Tradition of Storytelling
- African and African American Culture and Cuisine
- Contemporary African American Art, Literature, Music, and Performance
- Southern Culture and Cuisine
- Religion and Spirituality (in Different Cultures)
- Slave Spirituals
- Southern Literature