Sun 2 Mar, 2014 09:48 am
I'm taking an online class at Coursera on southern slavery. We had to read "50 Years in Chains or The Life of an American Slave". A slave is torn from his family and sold south, and gives a harrowing account of his trip southward and life on several cotton plantations. He consistently describes small farms, sometimes he mentions 150 acres, sometimes it is clear he is describing something much smaller. He often describes barely built farm houses with no paint, internal paneling or plaster; just wind whistling through the house, I guess. Sometimes the women manage to be finely dressed for night-time parties. Sometimes it is clear that noone in the household even has enough to eat. The slaves are always ill fed and in rags if there is enough to feed them or not, but often there plainly is not.
Now, cotton was a rich crop that fed the textile industries of several entire countries. To what degree was it grown on small impoverished farms on fields so worn and plants so stunted it is hard to see a textile manufacturer wanting to buy it? To what degree were cotton planters as malnourished and almost as poorly dressed as their slaves?
Are such stories as Twelve Years a Slave, and 50 Years in Chains, even true? These stories seem to be universally very melodramatic. I can clearly see that that was what the market they were intended to propagandize wanted, and sometimes the depiction of Blacks doesn't read true either, as in Uncle Tom's Cabin. I know that life under slavery was horrible; I've read much more realistic looking depictions of what life was like, such as "Night John" and "Sarny". But of those, Uncle Tom's Cabin is the only one that aren't outright densely packed with stories so horrible, and so melodramatically told, that one or two of them might have happened but it's hard to believe that the entire story is true. Mind you, I'm usually on the other side of this sort of an argument; I don't, for instance, think that noone died in the Salem Witch Trials or under the Nazis.
The fabric of American slavery was made up of every imaginable combination, in my view. Read Frederick Douglas's autobiography, for instance, and you will begin to see there are varied circumstances for both slave and slaveholder. Regardless, slavery was never morally acceptable.