When I started writing The Slave Have Names I knew just a very few things about slavery in the antebellum South (and the word antebellum was not one of them.) slave trade act

  • I knew where the Mason-Dixon line was because I drove across it often and read the sign.
  • I knew that black people had been slaves.
  • I knew that I lived near a slave cemetery.
  • I knew the general facts that we’re taught in school, which entailed awareness of Frederick Douglass, the Underground Railroad, and the dates of the Civil War.

Really, that was about it.  Now, I’m mortified at my ignorance and about the lack of education I received – even in a history program – about the enslavement of African Americans in the United States.

Thus, when I began writing, I had a lot to learn.  A LOT to learn.  And some things to unlearn, too.

1. It was not illegal – at least in Virginia – to teach enslaved people to read and write. In Virginia, it was legal to educate a slave but not to hire someone to do it. So a plantation master could have his wife or daughter – or as was the case where I was raised, an enslaved woman – educate slaves, but it was illegal to pay someone to do so.

2. The identity of an enslaved infant was always linked to her/his mother. Because it is almost always possible to know who the mother of a child is, and because the slave owners wanted to be sure to own the offspring of their enslaved people, law dictated that an enslaved child was “slave or free” based on the “condition” of her/his mother.  Thus, a child born to a slave woman was a slave.

3. The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808. On January 1, 1808, The Salve Trade Act made it illegal for any American to import slaves.  While this law was certainly an important step in the abolition of slavery altogether, it was not abolition. Plantation owners, instead, began to look at the increased birth rates of their enslaved communities as a way of expanding their work force. Hence, the importance of linking an infant’s status to her/his mother.

4. Our Founding Fathers were profoundly hypocritical and conflicted about slavery. While many of these men cited the horror or slavery and spoke of the need to abolish it, almost all of them were slave holders themselves.  George Washington did free his slaves upon his death, but he continued to own them while he was alive, as did Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison.  Jefferson and Madison wrote eloquently about their desire for equality but equally eloquently about their belief that black people and white people could not abide together peacefully in one society.

5. Abraham Lincoln was not the great champion of freedom for enslaved people. Like many of his colleagues, Lincoln believed that the process of freeing African Americans should be “gradual” and that colonization – the transport of freed slaves to Africa – was the best way to “handle” these newly freed people, people he viewed as inferior to whites.

I’m not sure why I didn’t know these things. Surely, some of the responsibility for my ignorance falls on my own shoulders. But I think our educational system here in the U.S. is also partially to blame. I was never taught about the full brutality of slavery – the whippings, the murders, the Middle Passage, the sales, the rapes.  I was taught a general “bad” impression that failed to help me even begin to see the true horror of that system.

And I was taught only to esteem the founders of our country, as if I would not be able to see greatness in their ideas even as I recognize the horror of their actions toward enslaved people. We need to do better.

We seem to want to make things so simple – to make broad statements about what “slavery” was or about the goodness or evilness of an individual.  But slavery as a system was complex – complex in its perpetuation, its legislation, and its oppression.  And the people who allowed it to continue were complicated, conflicted men.  Nothing is ever simple when it comes to humanity and the way we abuse one another.

I have learned so much – not just about our country’s history or about the horrible ways that enslaved people were treated, brutalized, and killed – but also about the profound strength of these people who survived the most terrible life I can imagine, who sang to keep themselves alive, who lived and loved despite all that might have turned them to suicide or isolation.

We don’t really teach much about that either.  And that’s a profound shame, too.

What did you learn about slavery in the United States when you were in school?