Abstract and Keywords
Recognizing that ethnic or national cultures did not develop in vacuums but through contacts and exchanges, this chapter explores the origins and contexts of “black” song and “black” culture in America. It examines what became included in this category along with what was excluded, to examine musical expressions that would become known as white as well as black.
To Frederick Douglass, black song meant the arias of Elizabeth Greenfield, the opera singer known as “The Black Swan.” Greenfield’s singing, claimed a review from an 1851 issue of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, reflected the “divinest of arts.” The Swan could “charm and delight the most refined audience,” declared another reviewer. To members of the antebellum era’s Colored Female Reform Societies, black song meant an anthem such as “Am I Not a Sister,” from the abolitionist songster The Liberty Minstrel:
- Am I not a sister, say? / Shall I then be bought and sold?
- In the mart and by the way, / For the white man’s lust and gold?
- Save me then from this foul snare, / Leave me not to perish there.1
To William Wells Brown, black song meant ballads like “The Lament of the Fugitive Slave,” from his own collection of antislavery ballads. Or it meant whatever he liked, including the “sublime melodies of Handel, Hayden, and Mozart.”2
In mid-nineteenth-century America, black song might have had a number of meanings and references. Yet for a majority of Americans, none of these examples would fall under the category. According to dominant perspectives, the African American music of the time may be found nowhere else but in the songs of slaves. Black culture in nineteenth-century America is understood as slave culture. Reform, popular opera, and any art referred to as divine would fall under the category of elite or middle-class culture. And middle-class culture, as everyone knows, is “white culture.”
To the historian and civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois, the equation between black song and slave song reflected a paradox of black expression: if, that is, the origins of African American song lay in the hated condition of (p.104) slavery, the songs themselves, whatever their beauty, would be at best “half despised.” Still, the equation has remained one of the best-loved assumptions in American history. It follows from a set of assertions: before the Civil War, the black experience in America was that of slavery; black culture originated in slavery, and black song originated as slave song. Both harkened back to an “African musical heritage.”3
This “blackness” or “Africanness” is primarily characterized by a freedom of self-expression, by uninhibited songs and shameless yearnings. The result of this way of seeing would create an image of black culture all but indistinguishable from the blackface stage. The standard approach to exploring black song in America has been to start with essentialist assumptions. According to this idea, there have always been categories of black song and white song; there are songs that express the essence of ethnic identity, songs purely European or African, black or white, slave or free.4
A better starting point may be the recognition that ethnic or national cultures did not develop in vacuums but through contacts and exchanges. As the evidence here suggests, the boundaries of a culture are never fixed or solid. “Anglo-American” or “white” sea chanteys could contain picked-up elements of “African” or “black” song and style; in fact, they probably contained elements of style from around the world. One might find “white” songs issuing from black slaves; songs collected as examples of “natural” black expression. Finally, black people could make contributions to a perceptually “white” middle-class culture. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible for any culture to develop without these exchanges.5 A more accurate approach may be to explore the origins and contexts of “black” song and “black” culture in America, to take a close look at what became included in this category along with what would be excluded, to examine the musical expressions that would become known as white as well as black.
In 1832, Fanny Kemble, the most celebrated actress in England, came to the United States to try performing in the American theater. She soon gained widespread acclaim. Then, just as quickly, Pierce Butler took her from the stage. One of the nation’s most eligible bachelors, Butler was a Philadelphia gentleman who stood to inherit a cotton plantation on Georgia’s Sea Islands. In 1834, Kemble and Butler were married. Two years later, Butler inherited his plantation and the couple sailed for “Butler’s Island,” to a plantation with some five hundred slaves. “I knew nothing of these dreadful possessions (p.105) of his,” Kemble recalled. During the next year she would get to know these slaves, their songs, and their music.6
It would not be easy. As a foreign ingénue in the American theater, Kemble would have almost certainly heard examples of blackface songs. What she heard on Butler’s Island was something else. “I thought,” she wrote to a friend, “I could trace distinctly some popular national melody with which I was familiar in almost all their songs; but I have been quite at a loss to discover any such foundation for many that I have heard lately, and which have appeared to me extraordinarily wild and unaccountable.” Most of these songs she heard when her husband’s slaves rowed her between Butler’s Island and the main-land. She tried a description: a “single voice” chanted a melody; the rowers repeated the chant, their “voices all in unison” as they used the “rhythm of the rowlocks for accompaniment.” It was all “very curious.”7
Kemble’s account came near a dead-on description of a call- and-response work song, a pattern associated with West African traditions. Hearing songs in this pattern was a common experience for travelers in the tidewater regions of Georgia and South Carolina. In 1808, Englishman John Lambert heard a rowing song on the Savannah River, one in which a singer chanted a line followed by a response of alternating “aye, ayes” or “yoe yoes” from the chorus of rowers. Years later, another traveler described songs he heard while being rowed on rivers in South Carolina, writing that they consisted of one line sung by a “chief performer,” which was then repeated by “the rest as a chorus.” The singer, he added, “worked into his rude strain” any subject that came his way: work, the river, even the boat’s white passengers. The folklorist George Cable recognized the same pattern in rowing songs he heard on the Mississippi River and the bayous of Louisiana. One had a chorus shout of “Bamboula!” He traced the word and found it was a West African term for a type of drum.8
These songs often baffled white listeners. During the Civil War, the abolitionist Harriet Ware was nonplussed by a song she heard from the boatmen who rowed her from Port Royal to Saint Helena Island. “The Negroes,” she wrote a friend, “sang to us in their wild way as they rowed us across—I cannot give you the least idea of it.” The English visitor W. H. Russell tried a description of a rowing song for the readers of the London Times. He called it a “barbaric sort of madrigal in which one singer beginning was followed by the others in unison, repeating the refrain in chorus, and full of quaint expression and melancholy.” Fresh from the urban North, he compared the song to the expressions of a blackface group he had recently seen. The slave song was “as unlike the works of the Ethiopian Serenaders as anything in song could be.”9
(p.106) Described by white onlookers as “curious,” “unaccountable,” and completely unlike blackface, these songs fit characteristics historians and musicologists have attributed to African traditions. They also describe the “Anglo-American” sea chantey. In the mid-nineteenth century, the songs of sailors and workers in maritime industries provide evidence that African or African American culture found expression among white people. They suggest that the lines between white and black song are not as well defined as many musicologists have drawn them.
African Americans in the South certainly picked up “white” songs. Slave musicians like Henry McGaffrey, who served on a plantation in Louisiana, were expected to play the fiddle for white dances and learn a number of popular songs. McGaffrey’s repertoire included the tunes “Sally Goodin,” “The Cacklin’ Hen,” and the blackface tune “Arkansas Traveler.”10 Another “slave song” supposedly found in various Southern locales had these verses:
- One morning in May, / I spies a beautiful dandy,
- A-rakin’ way of de hay / I asks her to marry,
- She say scornful, “No.”
- But befo’ six months roll by / Her apron strings wouldn’t tie.
- She wrote me a letter, / She marry me then,
- I say, no, no, my gal, not I.
The song has been presented by musicologists as indicative of African attitudes toward sexuality, attitudes less inhibited than those of whites, more expressive and free. Yet its origins lay elsewhere. The lyrics are an almost word-for-word version of “The Female Hay-Makers,” a ballad of seduction and abandonment printed by Nathaniel Coverly and sold at his Boston shop between 1812 and 1815.11
Whites also picked up music associated with black style. Working within standard assumptions, one historian of black culture has declared that African American slaves found European dances “too sedate and formalized.”12 So did white folks. In his travels through the South in the 1850s, the reformer and future landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead ran into a Mississippi slave owner who went by the name “Old Yazoo.” Asked if “his Negroes” danced much, Old Yazoo roared out a definitive yes. Indeed, he encouraged them to dance several times a week and “all night” on Saturdays. The outburst left the abolitionist Olmstead somewhat confused; this did not fit his model of the racist white Southerner. “I like to hear Negroes sing,” he replied, lamely moving to the next topic. So did the slave master: “Niggers is allers good singers nat’rally,” he replied, adding, “I reckon they got better lungs than white folks.” At this point the subject reminded Old Yazoo of a pastime called “plank dancing”:
(p.107) You stand face to face with your partner on a plank and keep a dancin’. Put the plank up on two barrel heads, so it’ll kind o’ spring. At some of our parties—that’s among common kind o’ people, you know—it’s great fun. They dance as fast as they can, and the folks all stand round and holler, “Keep it up, John!” “Go it Nance!” “Don’t give it up so!” “Old Virginny never tire!” “Heel and toe, ketch a fire!” and such kind of observations, and clap and stamp ’em.13
If white dance was stiff and formal and black dance, as one historian has put it, “involved wild gyrations to a furious rhythm,” then plank dancing was certainly black dance. Old Yazoo, a white man and a slave owner, liked nothing better than getting on a plank and doing an energetic “black” dance.
Perhaps nowhere was this cultural exchange more pronounced than in the sailor’s chantey. There may have been good reasons for this phenomenon. Common sailors and African American slaves had several similarities in culture. Both were in the lowest ranks of society. Through the antebellum era, sailors represented a kind of “human flotsam,” writes one historian, a motley crew of deserting soldiers, bail jumpers, thieves, and runaway apprentices.14 Neither held this station by choice. Into the nineteenth century, press gangs from the British Royal Navy reserved the right to go ashore and take poor men into custody, literally kidnapping them into a life at sea.
Both occupied a world of strict hierarchy. For slaves, the order descended from the “big house” or plantation manor to the thatched huts of the quarters, moving down from master to overseer to slave drivers and slaves. For common sailors, the shipboard hierarchy ran from stern to bow or back to front, from the captain in his cabin astern, to the lower officers in their quarters amidship to the lowly foremast men in the forecastle, the tight quarters beneath the forward deck. Both sailors and slaves navigated a world of arbitrary power; both could be punished for running away; both were subject to ritualized floggings.15
Of course, slaves were slaves and sailors were nominally free. This did not mean sailors were white. The proportion of African American workers in the maritime trades was higher than in any free-labor-based industry in the United States. According to one count, on the eve of the Civil War there were some six thousand black men serving on American merchant vessels, another three thousand on whaling ships.16 Finally, the lives of both were dominated by isolation and work. Sailors’ tasks had a mundane regularity: there was the daily swabbing of decks, the endless painting of ships, the loading of goods at various ports of trade. Sailors, like slaves, were called “hands,” as if the laboring parts of their bodies were the whole of their beings. At sea there was the constant work of sailing the vessel, the pulling on lines and turning of wenches, the countless times when, as one put it, “all hands” were busy “setting up the riggin’.” There was the manning of pumps. Sailors expected vessels to leak; some barely (p.108) stayed afloat without constant effort below-decks. One captured the experience: “Pump, pump, pump all the time. My Country! I suffer for you.”17
Both developed songs to deal with the tedium and ease the completion of mind-numbing tasks. For African Americans in bondage, these have been called slave songs. For sailors, they were “chanteys.” The term is often used to cover two types of songs. One was the forecastle song, or “forebiter.” These were songs for passing away the time while not working, the tedious hours of the evening, bad weather, or becalmings. Common themes included the sailor’s ship and the officers on board, along with grog shops, brothels, and food. Many recounted tales of the good treatment of Jack Tar when he was ashore with money, the turning him outdoors when his money was spent. Others stressed the primacy of fortune in the sailor’s life, the belief, as one whaleman put it, that luck was always “the best man on board.”18
The other type of chantey, the work chantey, followed the same call- and-response pattern that scholars have identified as coming from Africa or slavery. One singer—the chanteyman—sang the verse, and the rest of the crew sang a response or refrain. The chanteyman was expected to have an array of songs for different tasks: halyard chanteys and pump chanteys with a fast rhythm to coordinate the hauling on lines, the raising of sails, or the working of pumps; rowing chanteys timed to assure that oars would rise, dip, and pull simultaneously; and finally the slower capstan or windlass chanteys, the songs sung by full crews to coordinate the pushing or heaving of mechanical winches, the heavy work such as raising an anchor that required concerted exertion and more time to recover between the bursts of effort during the refrain.19
The call- and-response pattern of these songs may be seen and heard in a typical halyard chantey. The song most likely dates from the 1830s and appeared in Richard Henry Dana’s account of his 1841 voyage to California, Two Years Before the Mast:
- Around the corner we will go, / ’Round the corner Sally
- Around Cape Horn we all must go, / ’Round the corner Sally
- If I had a little gal in tow, / ’Round the corner Sally
- I would tow her off to Callaio. / ’Round the corner Sally.20
As this song suggests, sailors picked up material for chanteys from a number of diverse sources. Indeed, if common seamen were among the lowliest workers in America, they were also among the most worldly. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, whaling and merchant vessels expanded their voyages into the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, the China trade generated stores of crockery at custom houses from Salem to Charleston. (p.109) 21 Yankee sailors had opportunity to borrow songs from African American populations along the Atlantic seaboard, in Caribbean islands, and at various South American ports of call. In the most isolated of these places, such as the Sea Islands off South Carolina and Georgia, or in Antilles ports of Saint Vincent, Grenada, and Tobago, local black populations retained pronounced traits of African culture. In these ports, songs identified as chanteys survived into the twentieth century.22
Sailors also made contact with parts of Africa. The American slave trade continued through 1807, as ships picked up human cargo at West African slaving stations on the coasts of Gabon, Sierra Leone, and Gambia.23 Even after the suppression of the trade, American ships continued to make contact with the African coast. They stopped for provisions and water at Monrovia, at Santa Cruz Island off Teneriffe, and at the Dutch fortress of “El Mina.” They picked up crewmen at “Cape Messurado,” an anchorage one American officer referred to in 1846 as “our largest Color’d Colony.” Some joined British vessels in patrolling for illegal slavers, stopping and boarding vessels off the coast to check papers and cargo manifests.24
A few took part in the illegal slave trade. This activity may have been particularly enticing for some whaleship owners. By the early 1840s, Nantucket’s whaling industry had gone into decline, a result of longer voyages, diminishing returns, and the silting-in of the island’s harbor. According to later interviews with several among the island’s old salts, the Quaker merchants who dominated the industry survived the down years, but only by entering a very literal black market. “No sir,” declared one former sailor, “it don’t do to go too deeply into how money was made here by our Quakers.” Registered whalers survived by carrying “medicines” (most likely opium) from India and China or, as one put it, by “blackbirding,” by working the African Coast and “running cargoes of slaves to Cuba and Brazil.”25
Whether made through illegal slaving or engaging in patrols to suppress the trade, such contacts had an effect on the lyrical content of sea chanteys. Consider one of the best known of these songs, the topsail-halyard chantey “Blow, Boys Blow.” With its earthy language and references to patrolling packets, the early nineteenth-century chantey attests to both the survival of slave-running and the disgust many sailors felt for it:
- Was you ever on the Congo River / Blow, Boys Blow
- Where fever makes the white man shiver / Blow, Me Bully Boys Blow
- A Yankee ship comes down the river / Blow, Boys Blow
- Her masts and yards they shone like silver / Blow, Me Bully Boys Blow
- (p.110) What do you think she’s got for cargo? / Blow, Boys Blow
- Why black sheep that’ve run the embargo. / Blow, Me Bully Boys Blow
- What do ye think they got for dinner? / Blow, Boys Blow
- Why monkey ass and donkey liver. / Blow, Me Bully Boys Blow
- Yonder comes the Arrow packet, / Blow, Boys Blow
- She fires a gun can’t ye hear the racket. / Blow, Me Bully Boys Blow
- Blow me boys and blow forever, / Blow, Boys Blow
- O Blow me down the Congo River. / Blow, Me Bully Boys Blow.26
By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, points of contact between slave songs and “Anglo-American” sea chanteys were everywhere. Sailors during these decades sang a halyard chantey called “Whiskey Johnny.” In 1862, the Union officer Thomas Higginson recorded ex-slaves in his black regiment singing a marching song with a similar cadence called “Hangman Johnny.” In the 1850s, slaves in several areas of the South sang work songs with the refrain of “Hilo.” The refrain has been interpreted as a dialect version of “holler” or “hollow,” a term common in the rural South for a small valley or mountain ravine. This might have been the case, for in 1843, the Northern poet William Cullen Bryant heard one such song on a South Carolina plantation. Bryant, perhaps with a poet’s keener ear, distinctly heard the refrain as “hollow.”27
At the same time, sailors often used “Hilo” as a chantey refrain. The term had two references. One was the island of Hilo in the Hawaiian chain. The other was the town of Hilo, Peru, an important South American whaling station and, as many sailors had it, a great place for rum and whores.28 Whatever their references, the similarities between “hilo” and “hollow,” the appearance of the term “hilo” in slave songs, and the structural commonalities of the songs themselves provide strong evidence for cultural formation through constant exchange. Examples such as these suggest that both the Anglo-American sea chantey and the slave work song reflect music that cannot be categorized as slave, black, Anglo, or even American. Instead, they reflect a broad synthesis of cultures, cultures that can be called transatlantic or even global in origin, cultures that clearly developed across lines of ethnicity.
Frederick Douglass half-despised these songs. Before his escape from slavery in Maryland in 1838, he often heard examples. There were the shouted chanteys at the Baltimore shipyards where he worked as a caulker; there were the outbursts of slaves at the “Great House Farm,” singing in exultant joy as they went to receive their monthly rations. “The hearing of these wild notes always (p.111) depressed my spirit,” wrote Douglass in his autobiography. Many, he admitted, were beautiful. Still, he could never remove them from their context: for him, they recalled the “dehumanizing character” of slavery.29 Against these songs of forced labor and joyful submission to the master’s power, he offered the contrast of his new home in the whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The port’s black sailors sang no “loud songs,” he noted; they worked “noiselessly,” with “dignity.” The town was a place of “wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement,” he wrote, “such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland.”30
From the publication of his classic narrative in 1845 to the present, Frederick Douglass has existed in the American imagination as one of the nation’s two or three representatives of “the slave experience.” His preference for “taste and refinement” has occasionally threatened this status. The problem, as a number of historians have argued, was that after 1845 Douglass ceased to speak as a slave. He became a promoter of schools, literary societies, and reform associations, an almost militant proponent of uplift and respectability. He became middle class.31
He was far from alone. One of his predecessors was David Walker. Born around 1796 along the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina, Walker was the son of a free black woman and a male slave, an accident of birth that made him free and isolated. At the time Wilmington’s population included well over a thousand African Americans. Only nineteen were free. Walker spent his youth and early adulthood in rootless wandering. He lived for a time in Charleston, South Carolina. He later claimed to have passed through Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi. In 1825, he settled in Boston. There, he opened a clothing and rag shop in the city’s North End.
He also became a community activist. He joined Boston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church and the local black Masonic Lodge. In 1826, he helped found the Massachusetts General Colored Association. He became a regular at the Association’s ceremonies, hosting its annual Abolition Day Dinner, a celebration of the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1800 and the British West Indies in 1804. Finally, he spent some of his time writing David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. When the pamphlet turned up in 1830, observers immediately characterized it as the most inflammatory abolition publication of the time. Any number of its themes outraged readers: from its criticisms of the hypocrisy of Christians who owned slaves to its hints at the need for a nationwide slave rebellion. The English abolitionist Harriet Martineau found it “perfectly appalling.” She castigated Walker for calling his “colored brethren to drown their injuries in the blood of their oppressors.”32
Among the pamphlet’s overlooked themes was a call for a more uplifting revolution. According to Walker, slavery had reduced African Americans (p.112) to the “most wretched, degraded and abject set of beings.” And so he set out to fight the institution with uplift. In his appeal, he portrayed himself as a stern teacher, stalking the streets of Boston with a copy of Murray’s English Grammar tucked beneath one arm, examining black schoolboys on rules of speech. “Not more than one in thirty was able to give a correct answer to my interrogations,” he wrote, adding that only five out of one hundred were “able to correct the false grammar of their language.” Arguing that ignorance kept slavery alive, he concluded with a call for enlightenment. “Men of colour,” he declared in the appeal, “I call upon you … to cast your eyes upon the wretchedness of your brethren, and to do your utmost to enlighten them—go to work and enlighten your brethren!”33
In the following decades, a large number of African Americans would heed Walker’s call. They would form associations of uplift and self-help. They would counter the arguments of proslavery forces by making themselves models of dignified respectability. Their names appeared regularly in the abolitionist press: the Forten and Purvis families of Philadelphia; the Remond and Douglass families of Salem and Boston; the New York City ministers Peter Williams, Charles B. Ray, and Henry Highland Garnet. They would include merchants and professionals: William Whipper and Stephen Smith, partners in a lumberyard in Washington; Macon Allen, a lawyer in Portland, Maine; William Allen, a “Professor of Belles Lettres” at Central College in New York. Their ranks would be swelled by individuals providing services to black populations that only African Americans would or could supply: by undertakers and dentists; by barbers and hairdressers like John Vashon, Pierre Toussaint, and John Peck; by doctors such as John Degrasse and J. Mc-Cune Smith.34
According to observers then, as now, they should not have existed. As one foreign observer of American habits wrote in 1836, any American, North or South, whether “rich or poor,” “ignorant or learned,” “avoids contact with the Negro as if he were infected with the plague.” A currently accepted historian puts the matter simply: racism and prejudice were “rampant throughout antebellum America.”35 In the “free North” perhaps even more than in the slave South, African Americans were shut out of the larger society. City directories had separate sections for “coloreds.” They were restricted to neighborhoods known as “blacktown” or “bucktown.” They were barred from militia duty and from carrying the mail. They had the right to vote only in certain states, and then only when they met property-holding requirements and paid their poll taxes.36
Here again was the racial state, an apparatus built on government, law, and social practice that justified racial hierarchy in the past and would try (p.113) to maintain it for the future. Yet many individuals found loopholes in the system. Their numbers were few, relative to the white population. Still, they were enough to support schools for black students, providing the students themselves along with salaries for their teachers. Free African Americans who could vote were not plentiful, but they made up one of the most solid voting blocs in the early republic, even to the point of worrying the old white-supremacist Democrats of Tammany Hall. Meanwhile, they swelled the ranks of early antislavery societies. The site for the original drafting of the American Antislavery Society’s “Declaration of Sentiments” was the home of James McCrummell, a black dentist in Philadelphia. Always present at such meetings, they contributed to the movement’s statements on black uplift, its dedication to “the right and duty of every human being to improve his mind.”37
Finally, free blacks supported some seventeen African American newspapers published before the Civil War, contributing to them as subscribers, agents, editors, and writers.38 One of the earliest was published in New York City by Samuel Cornish. The paper began as a typical abolitionist sheet, the Rights of All. In the early 1830s, Cornish changed the name to the Colored American. Like other black newspapers of the time, the Colored American was short on funds and thin on length, its pages devoted to antislavery articles, editorials, and reports of abolition meetings. Like others, too, it had plenty of filler: lifted material, articles taken from other sources, bits of fiction, and assorted anecdotes. Here, readers would find the stuff of black middle-class culture.
Cornish chose his filler carefully. Often, what he looked for was material that would expose the illogic of racial essentialism. Some of his examples consisted of conundrums, one or two lines in the spaces between longer articles. “If a colored man is brown enough to be called a Spaniard,” read one, “it matters not that every body knows to the contrary—he can be respected and well treated.” Others were short anecdotes. One told the story of a female slave in Kentucky who claimed she was white, sued her master for her freedom, and despite evidence that her mother was black, won the case when the jury decided she lacked “the characteristics of the African.” Another recounted the case of two black men who applied to a medical school in New York. The first declared he was from Connecticut and received a rejection. The second claimed he was from India, got in, and took classes with other “white” students.39
A number of these anecdotes stressed the importance of education in confusing race prejudice. One, sent in by an agent for “the Schools for Colored Children,” recounted the tale of a young man who went to New Orleans as a servant to a white gentleman. In short order, according to the article, the (p.114) man found himself dismissed from his situation, arrested as a vagrant, and taken to the city’s slave market. Mounting the auction block, he appealed to the gathered bidders “in a manner that gave evidence of a mind cultivated by instruction.” The appeal sent “the gentlemen of the fetters” into confusion, causing them to doubt if such an educated young man could really be a slave. It also had its “desired effect.” The man “was set at liberty, his shackles unriveted, and he is now free as he was born.”40
Cornish also either looked for or produced articles that provided examples of the middle-class ethos of self-improvement. “It is a privilege to live in our day,” he wrote in an editorial, when “powerful, combined efforts are making throughout the land, in behalf of temperance [and] moral reform.” Much of this content followed William Lloyd Garrison’s admonition in his standard speech to African American audiences. “Remember, the eyes of the whole nation, are fixed on you,” declared the editor of the Liberator in a speech dating to 1831. “If you are temperate, industrious, peaceable and pious,” he added, “you will show to the world, that the slaves can be emancipated without danger; but if you are turbulent, idle and vicious, you will put arguments into the mouths of tyrants.” In 1837, an antislavery convention report echoed the refrain: “Nothing will contribute more to break the bondman’s fetters than an example of high moral worth, intellectual culture and religious attainments among the free people of color.”41
In the Colored American, the result was an emphasis on temperance, female domesticity, charitable associations, and literary clubs. As one letter to the paper had it, the decade of the 1830s produced a “number of associations, male and female, devoted to the mental and literary improvement of our people.” Another explained the point:
[These associations] will tend to clear us from the charge of indolence, or indifference to our own welfare, which has been heaped upon us; and also, from that foul aspersion, as to the inferiority of our intellectual capacities, with which many have been pleased to brand us…. They show too that we are not a people, wholly given up to revelry and licentiousness, as we have been basely misrepresented, but that the leisure hours of many are devoted to thought and literary improvement.42
To be sure, the paper’s writers were not averse to criticizing members of the white middle class. One told the story of a black businessman who accepted a dinner invitation from a white philanthropist, only to be treated rudely by the man’s wife. Another recounted the tale of several wealthy abolitionists who threatened to withdraw their daughters from female seminaries if they (p.115) accepted African American girls.43 One point of these stories is obvious: even the most philanthropic members of the white middle class could be mired in hypocrisy. Another was more subtle: according to the Colored American, these behaviors were marks of bad manners. For Cornish as for his writers, racially motivated rudeness was a sign of ill breeding, prejudice a result of ignorance. Neither could be squared with middle-class standards of education and etiquette.
Did these stories attest to the growth of a black middle class? The question was of paramount interest to the paper. The Colored American regularly updated its list of agents as indicators of such growth. It also reported on the circulation of antislavery petitions. According to the paper, in 1837 nearly a thousand black men and women signed a request to repeal laws authorizing slavery “yet found” on New York’s statute books. Finally, the paper cited the latest population statistics, always making special note of the number of free blacks in the nation, states, counties, and cities. In 1820, the black population of New York City was 10,886, a majority of which were slaves. By 1835, the paper would report it at 15,120, nearly all of whom were free. The implication of this accounting was most likely clear to the paper’s readers: as the population of free African Americans increased, so grew a black middle class.44
By the early 1840s, there were signs that such a thing might crest into visibility. In 1841, a pamphlet appeared under the title Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society in Philadelphia. Using the ironic pen name “A Southerner,” its writer claimed to be a strong advocate for social distinctions. He insisted, however, that these distinctions should be based on class rather than race: on a hierarchy of difference between the “virtuous and exemplary” and the “vicious and worthless.” Philadelphia, he claimed, had countless whites who fit the lower category. It also had large numbers of African Americans whose values and behavior merited their placement in the higher designation.
The writer turned to his evidence. By the end of the 1830s, he claimed, Philadelphia was home to fifteen African American churches, four black temperance associations, three black literary societies, and three black debating clubs. Black civic associations like the “American Society of Free Persons of Color” were composed of the city’s most refined inhabitants, with gentlemen like Richard Allen, James Pennington, and Robert Purvis, with exemplars of female benevolence like Amy Cassey and Sarah Douglass. The worth of the city’s “colored higher classes,” he maintained, was not marked by wealth but by culture, by their “ease and grace of manner” in society, by their “strict observance of all the nicer etiquettes, proprieties and observances that are characteristic of the well-bred.” They were sober, industrious, and respectable: (p.116) “oppressed neither by the cares of the rich, nor assailed by the deprivation and suffering of the indigent.” These qualities, the pamphlet concluded, made “their society agreeable and interesting to the most fastidious.”45
Few Americans took these statements of uplift more seriously than Frederick Douglass. In the mid-1840s, Douglass would become one of America’s main philosophers on the radical notion at the heart of middle-class culture; the ideal, that is, that anyone could join. The only requirement was a willingness to don the mantle of “respectability.” According to Douglass’s narrative, all one needed to achieve respectable status was a public-school reader (he found his in a Baltimore gutter), a bit of etiquette (which he picked up from the black bourgeoisie of New Bedford) and, if one were born into a degraded condition, a burning will to leave the condition behind. Few would be more often cited as a living manifestation of this radical promise. As one observer had it, Douglass was “himself an argument that cannot be refuted, in favor of the capability of the negro race for the highest degree of refinement and intellectuality.”46
Along with his narrative and his personal appearances, Douglass’s primary vehicle for his democratic ideal of uplift would be his newspapers. This literary effort would herald a transition away from his early association with William Lloyd Garrison. The idea seems to have taken material form in Britain, where Douglass traveled and lectured in 1845 and 1846. He returned to America with some $2,000 in funds raised by English supporters, ready to start the business. Garrison advised against it. There were too many black papers already in circulation, he warned his former protégé; one more would make little difference in the cause and would surely fail. Douglass refused to listen. After a move to Rochester, New York, he created the first crack in his widening break with Garrison by setting up a press in the basement of Rochester’s African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Thus was born the North Star. The paper’s original masthead listed Douglass and Martin Delany, a fellow black abolitionist, as co-editors, along with William Nell as publisher. Unlisted would be Julia Griffiths, a white Englishwoman Douglass met in Newcastle. She would serve the paper as editor, fund-raiser, and writer of literary notices and book reviews. A joint production, the paper reflected Douglass’s vision. In its prospectus, he announced it would “attack slavery in all its forms and aspects.” He also declared its mission: to “promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people.” In this respect, the paper would follow the tradition of Cornish’s Colored American. Yet there was a major difference. Because of Douglass’s reputation, the paper would have a large white audience. First as the North Star, and later after the summer of 1851 as Frederick Douglass’ Paper, white subscribers (p.117) would outnumber blacks by a ratio of five to one.47 Like blackface minstrelsy, in other words, Douglass’s paper provided a black voice to a white audience.
The message would be the direct opposite. One of Douglass’s points was to promote African American schools, libraries, and reading rooms, to make visible institutions of black self-help, benevolence, and uplift. He devoted much of its space to reform, covering topics from school-board meetings to temperance to women’s rights. “The Temperance cause, we are happy to learn, is making considerable progress among colored people in the East,” claimed one of the paper’s many articles on the subject. “Let us remember,” declared the writer, “a poor white man can better afford to get drunk than a rich black man.” The article concluded with a standard warning: “every impropriety committed by one of us, is charged to the account of our whole people.”48
The paper also covered popular music. For the African American press, this was a touchy subject. Samuel Cornish at the Colored American stayed away from it for the most part. When he did mention the topic, he made sure to cite examples such as a children’s concert at “Miss Paul’s School” sent in by a “New England Correspondent.” The children’s “musical pieces,” claimed the correspondent, were marked by a “distinct pronunciation,” a “propriety of manners,” and a style of “refined society.”49 In a similar manner, the writer of Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society in Philadelphia depicted black music according to standards of polite culture. The pamphlet described music as a parlor diversion and a measure of refinement:
It is rarely that the visitor in the different families where there are two or three ladies, will not find one or more of them competent to perform on the piano-forte, guitar, or some other appropriate musical instrument; and these, with singing and conversation on whatever suitable topics that may offer, constitute the amusements of their evenings at home. The love of music is universal; it is cultivated to some extent,—vocal or instrumental,—by all; so that it is almost impossible to enter a parlor where the ear of the visitor is not, in some sort or other, greeted there with.50
Douglass provided extended coverage of the subject. He spent little time on slave expressions. He did, however, note with irony the fact that by the end of the 1850s “slave songs” were becoming popular with white aficionados. “It is remarkable,” he declared in one article, “that the only music which has been thought purely American in its origin, thus appears to have been brought over centuries ago from Africa, in the pestilential hold of the slave ship.”51 Instead, he focused on examples of musical uplift and the style of the middle-class parlor. He reprinted abolition hymns from George Clark’s The Liberty Minstrel along with William Wells Brown’s antislavery ballads. He included (p.118) accounts of performances by Jenny Lind and the opera singer Adelina Patti. He lifted reviews of “sacred music” at African American churches, concerts that, as the reviewer put it, were marked “by a propriety of manners which was perfect,” by songs that represented the “modesty” of their performers along with a “high level of musical talent.”52
In the 1850s, he focused the paper’s attention on Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, the “Black Swan” of the opera stage. Born in Natchez, Mississippi, in or around 1809, Greenfield, according to her press clippings, was taken to Philadelphia as an infant. There, she was adopted by a Quaker family. When her singing talent became obvious, her adoptive family encouraged her to study music, to make a career for herself as a singing instructor. By the early 1850s, she was singing professionally, performing concerts of operatic pieces throughout the Northeast. Her audiences were relatively small. Yet the critics who saw her acclaimed her for her powerful and rich voice.53
During these years, Douglass and the contributors to Frederick Douglass’ Paper sought to make her a representative example of black song. The first goal seems to have been to stress her blackness. “Miss Greenfield,” declared a review of the Swan’s 1851 performance at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, “is about medium height, square built, compact, and stoutly made. Her ‘color,’ (by no means unimportant in this country,) is that of a ripe chestnut, or a dark brown. She is evidently of complete African descent, and has the features which distinguish our variety of the human family.” The paper’s second goal was to establish the respectability of her audience. This audience, according to the reviewer, included a “large number” of the “refined and influential” among the black community, along with a strong presence of wealthy whites, the city’s “upper ten.” Finally, the reviewer turned to the effect of the concert itself, an effect framed by a culture of black uplift:
The moral effect of that concert will not be lost on those who attended it. It cannot fail to raise our afflicted and much underrated people in popular estimation. Our white fellow-citizens had before them a colored woman—one of that race held in slavery, and deemed only worthy by this nation to toil under the lash, raise cotton, rice, sugar and tobacco; to be bought, sold and hunted like wild beasts; and yet this woman possesses musical powers, ability to charm and delight the most refined audience.54
Greenfield herself seems to have been less concerned about the politics of her performances. In 1854, she reached the height of her career when she toured England and sang for Queen Victoria. Touring in the 1850s, she often performed before segregated audiences, a fact Douglass declared an example of “wound-inflicting conduct.” Still, his paper continued to print glowing (p.119) accounts of her concerts. Greenfield, one declared, had taken to ending her concerts in the same manner as Jenny Lind, with an encore performance of “Home, Sweet Home.” According to one correspondent, the Swan’s version provoked the typical middle-class response: “a lady of fine musical taste and accomplishments, who sat near me, burst into tears.” The correspondent concluded: “Having selected as her aim the divinest of Arts, that are requiring of the most arduous of culture, it was but a light thing for her to meet Prejudice face to face and crush it.”55
For Douglass, it was precisely this uplifting quality of music that made it so central to middle-class culture. “Music,” he would write, was a “delightful recreation,” an “innocent amusement” with a power to dispel “the sourness and gloom which frequently arise from petty disputes,” a power to prevent “evil thoughts and evil speaking.”56 For him, as for Samuel Cornish and members of a black middle class, “black song” expressed these qualities: in the singing of schoolchildren and church choirs, in the cold-water hymns of “colored temperance societies,” in the antislavery ballads of abolition meetings, and in the arias of the Black Swan. As these individuals would have it, much of black song was an expression of middle-class culture. For them, black song expressed an ideal of inclusiveness in which all Americans might meet in the middle.
Despite the efforts of individuals like Cornish and Douglass, increasing numbers of Americans would equate black song with slavery. Much of this equation would derive from blackface minstrelsy. Much would rest on the weight of sheer numbers. By the outbreak of the Civil War, there were some four million African Americans in bondage in the United States, about eighty-eight percent of the nation’s total black population. Nearly all were in the South, in states that would join the Confederacy along with Southern border states. In states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, with the largest numbers of slaves and highest ratios of slaves to the free population, slavery was almost without doubt the most visible characteristic of the society.57
In these places, particularly on Southern plantations, observers regularly claimed to see and hear slaves singing. As one expert on slave songs would put it in 1862, wherever slaves worked on a plantation, they kept time to their labors with music. Others recalled spirituals wafting up from plantation slave quarters.58 Too much can be made of these claims. One ex-slave who worked on an Alabama cotton plantation did not recall singing in the fields. The master, he declared, “did not allow his slaves to idle.” Another denied there was any singing on his tobacco plantation in North Carolina, saying simply “they (p.120) worked them too close.” Meanwhile, long hours of labor left little time for other types of song. Asked if her fellow laborers sang “spirituals” or “plantation songs” in the quarters, a former slave on a Georgia plantation said they “sang nothing.” They were too tired, and besides, she added, “we were not allowed to make noise anyway.”59
Still, the plantation seems to have produced its share of song. One of the main reasons seems to have been that plantations produced an enormous amount of work. Planters and overseers typically adhered to one of two ways of organizing labor on plantations: it was the “gang system” or the “task system.” Many planters preferred the gang system, where slaves worked in gangs from sunup to sundown. Most slaves preferred the task system. Here, overseers and drivers assigned individuals specific tasks for the day, perhaps the weeding of a certain section of field, or the gathering of firewood. They based these assignments on the physical abilities of individuals: the hardest tasks went to “full hands,” usually adult males; lesser tasks were given to “half hands” or “quarter hands,” to women, children, and the aged. When the tasks were done, one’s time was one’s own. According to Orris Harris, his fellow slaves on a Mississippi plantation “always sang when in the field at work.” Singing was an adjunct to labor, he recalled; it passed the time and made the tasks more endurable.60
The tasks went on year-round. During the off-season, planters ordered the clearing of lands to put more acreage in production. Field hands cut trees, removed stumps, drained swamps, and fertilized fields with manure, mud, and organic material. The planting season began early, usually in February on cotton plantations, with field hands furrowing the soil with hand hoes and planting seed. During the growing season they chopped cotton, hoeing the weeds between the rows. Much has been made of supposed distinctions between field slaves and house slaves. Indeed, plantation slaves might work as artisans, house servants, or at any number of tasks outside agricultural labor. Yet during the planting and harvesting seasons, masters expected to see everyone in the fields. On Alexandre De Clouet’s cotton plantation in Saint Martin’s Parish, Louisiana, servants performed at their regular stations between November and August. When the cotton bolls burst, the usual distinctions did not apply. From August through October, according to De Clouet’s diary, “all hands picked cotton.”61
As much as they would be rooted in African oral traditions, slave songs emerged out of the rhythms of this work and the discipline of labor. A single song could have a faster or slower rhythm depending on the task it accompanied. “On the water,” one observer noted, “the oars dip ‘Poor Rosy’ to an even adante; [while] a stout boy and girl at the hominy mill will make the (p.121) same ‘Poor Rosy’ fly, to keep up with the whirling stone.”62 Elsewhere, singing merged labor discipline with social pleasure. For corn-shucking, many slaves later remembered that planters tried to create an evening of social labor, offering the incentive of food and drink and encouraging the singing of songs.63
By such encouragement, masters and overseers hoped to turn forced labor into something that could be enjoyed. “Everybody loved to attend” these gatherings, one former slave from a plantation near Nashville, Tennessee, recalled, and “just so the corn got shucked, the white folks didn’t care how much fun we had.” A variation of the same approach applied to work in the fields. According to an ex-slave from Mississippi, workers in the field always “sung to keep time with the hoe, and that would make them work faster.” Another recalled that the overseer expected everyone on the plantation to sing while they worked, for it “made them work better.”64
If work structured slave song, so did white paternalism and paranoia. Frederick Law Olmstead found several fatherly slave masters during his Southern travels. “Oh, they are interesting creatures, sir,” he quoted one as saying of his slaves, “and with all their faults, have many beautiful traits. I can’t help being attached to them, and I am sure they love us.” The sunny attitude applied to sunlight hours. “In the daytime it seemed impossible to associate suspicion with those familiar tawny or sable faces that surrounded us,” recalled a young woman from Virginia years later. “We had seen them for so many years smiling or saddening with the family joys or sorrows; they were so guileless, so patient, so satisfied.” Yet “when evening came again,” she recalled, so returned the doubts and fears; and the “bolts were drawn and rusty firearms loaded.”65
Throughout the South, this pathology would have a major effect on all forms of black expression. Simply put, there were few times or places slaves were not under the loving and fearful eyes of white folks. Among the most common sites for this dynamic between surveillance and expression were the holiday celebrations that broke up the plantation season. The frequency of celebrations depended on masters. Caroline Malloy, an ex-slave on a plantation in Sumter County, Georgia, recalled that there “were a few days when the slaves were given a holiday,” generally at “Christmas time and on the Fourth of July.” Joe McMormick claimed there were no such “frolics” on his nearby plantation, again citing “too much work” as the reason.66
Harriet Jacobs’s recollection of Christmas festivities in North Carolina attests to surviving elements of African tradition. During an annual celebration that came to be known as the “Johnkannaus” or “John Canoes,” slaves marched and danced from plantation to plantation, beating a drum called a “gumbo box,” playing triangles and jawbones, and singing songs in return for money or rum. Others remembered more formal dances and dinners in (p.122) which celebrants danced “the Cotillion” or the “Pigeon Wing,” and feasted on “barbequed chicken, pork, coffee, cakes and pies.” One former slave on a plantation near Edgefield, Georgia, recalled that her master encouraged frolics on a regular basis, despite the fact that he was a Baptist minister. Others recalled being allowed to dance within earshot of the white parties at the plantation big house.67
These expressions rarely proceeded without a white presence. Robert Laird recalled that it was his master himself, a plantation owner in Copiah County, Mississippi, and an accomplished fiddle player, who provided the music for the slaves’ Christmas celebrations. According to Anna Peek, the fellow slaves on her plantation in Polk County, Georgia, would prepare all day for a holiday frolic, digging barbeque pits, baking ash cakes, and constructing tables and chairs. Just as all was ready, the event would come to a halt. Everyone had to wait until the white folks arrived. Only then, Peek recalled, could the feast begin. The rest of the day passed under seemingly benign surveillance, with singing and dancing contests judged by the white onlookers.68
The white audience was an expected part of the slave frolic. During holiday slave dances, one former slave recalled, “white people would come and watch the fun.” Another remembered that “lots of times the white folks would give them something good to eat after they’d danced.” James Lucas, a former slave on Jefferson Davis’s Mississippi plantation, recalled that during the annual Christmas dances, “white folks would look on and see who danced the best.” He added that the master and his wife “laughed fit to kill at the capers we cut.”69 Along with laughter, discerning eyes looked for confirmation of slave happiness; they kept watch for suspicious behavior, for individuals who held back, for slaves who did not sing and dance with self-forgetful abandon.
If examples of paternalism and surveillance were easy to find in the plantation South, so were signs of paranoia and cruelty. These included the ubiquitous slave patrols. First instituted in South Carolina in 1704, these police gangs were composed of small companies of men, usually five or six, who patrolled a “beat,” a certain geographical area either in town or country. They took their members from the local militias, early on offering a release from regular militia duty as their only compensation. By the nineteenth century, nearly all who served in them were paid in money. The pay created an economic incentive for poor, non-slaveholding whites to defend the master class.
Patrol tasks depended on setting. For urban patrols, they involved enforcing the slave curfews that were on the law books of most towns, breaking up gatherings of three or more slaves, and watching for signs of insurrection or arson. In rural settings, their principal duty was to keep watch on the roads and pathways between plantations, checking slaves for the written passes or (p.123) “tickets” that allowed them to travel from place to place. They also made visits to plantations with absentee owners and searched slave quarters, looking for runaways, weapons, or reading materials.70
As indicated by the ubiquity of the song “Run, Nigger Run,” the patrols would have a major influence on slave culture and song. Versions of the song appeared in practically every region of the South. Sally Brown, an ex-slave on a plantation near Commerce, Georgia, recalled that the song originated with the patrols themselves. The patrols, she claimed, “were something like the Ku Klux [Klan],” and as they rode horseback on their beat, they would sing a “little ditty” that “went something” like this: “Run, nigger run, the patty rollers’ll git you, / Run, nigger, run, you’d better get away.” Slaves learned the song, sang it, and passed it on to their children. The result was a chilling effect: “we were afraid to go any place,” Brown recalled.71
Signs of the system’s cruelty were just as common. During the Civil War, reformer and Union officer Thomas Wentworth Higginson found a device designed to produce what later torture practitioners would blandly call “stress positions” on a plantation in South Carolina. The machine, he wrote, was “so contrived that a person once imprisoned in it could neither sit, stand, nor lie, but must support the body half raised, in a position scarcely endurable.” Before the war, Northern abolitionists often charged slaveholders with cruelties, citing as evidence the anecdotes of former slaves. When defenders of the institution dismissed the stories as exaggerations, the reformers turned to printing advertisements for runaways clipped directly from Southern newspapers. In doing so, they turned the slave owner’s words against him, for here was the stark language of a system that literally marked humans as property:
Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.
One hundred dollars reward, for a negro fellow, Pompey, 40 years old. He is branded on the left jaw.
Ran away, a negro girl called Mary. Has a small scar over her eye, … the letter A is branded on her cheek and forehead.
Fifty dollars reward for the negro Jim Blake. Has a piece cut out of each ear, and the middle finger of the left hand cut off to the second joint.
Ran away, a negro man, named Ivory. Has a small piece cut out of the top of each ear.72
Easter Jones declared that in her experience, slavery was “nothing but hard work and cruel treatment.” Her overseer and master, she said, would “whip you so hard your back would bleed, then they would pour salt and water on it.” Henry McGaffrey recalled that his “Old Marse was hard on his (p.124) slaves” on his Louisiana plantation: “I saw him many times tie his slaves and strip them to the waist and beat them till the skin would break. Once I saw him whip my mammy and the blood ran down her bare back, and then he put salt on it. I cried and he said ‘if I didn’t shut up he would beat me,’ then I went behind the kitchen to cry.”73
W. B. Allen, a former slave on an Alabama plantation, recalled two common methods of whipping slaves, the “Buck” and the “Rolling Jim.” “Throwing a Nigger into the ‘Buck,’ ” he recalled, “consisted in first stripping him, … making him squat and tying his hands between his knees to a stout stick run behind the bend of his knees.” He was then pushed over and whipped, each strike causing him to convulse in agony, or “buck.” The “Rolling Jim” was equally brutal:
In the “Rolling Jim” system, a Nigger was stretched on his stomach at full length on a large log, about eight feet long. Into holes bored in each end of this log, wooden pegs were driven. The feet were securely tied to one set of these pegs … and the hands to the pegs at the other end. The victim was then ready to be worked on. [As he was whipped the] muscular contortions of the Negro on the log caused it to sway—hence the name, “Rolling Jim.”74
Surveillance, slave patrols, and punishment all exerted a force on slave expressions. Most often, they altered them by the threat of their universal presence. “White folks,” according to former slave Edward Jones, often stationed themselves near the quarters of his Alabama plantation to “eaves drop.” Accordingly, Jones recalled, “it was a habit for us to talk about white horses when we meant white folks, so if they heard us they wouldn’t know we were talking about them.” At other times, the force was more direct. Members of slave patrols often claimed they followed the sound of music in order to break up slave gatherings. “The only time I was ever whipped was for slipping off to dances,” recalled one ex-slave from a Mississippi plantation. Patrols had sanction to whip slaves found without passes. Their members also used their power in other ways. In one example recalled by a former slave, the members of a patrol discovered a group of slaves at a dance, started to whip them, then ultimately let them go “if they would sing and dance some more.”75
Within the slave system, it seems, white people had the power to force African Americans to be expressive, to sing and dance under coercion and the threat of punishment. One of the cruelest elements of the transatlantic slave trade was what a later historian would call the “joyless ceremony” of “dancing the slaves.” The practice, according to the slavers and crews, was thought to be therapeutic. The forcing of captive Africans to the deck and making them dance in irons allowed the holds to be aired out and supposedly kept (p.125) the slaves from submitting to suicidal melancholy. For this reason, slave-ship crews took the ceremony seriously. One white crew member was often tasked with circulating among the slaves with a whip, a “cat-o’-nine-tails” designed to make the human cargo jump, dance, and seem happy.76
Some former slaves recalled speculators forcing them to dance on the auction block. “I remember one gal that came from Africa,” recalled one, “she said when they put her on the block to sell, they told her to dance for them.” Orris Harris recollected no dances on his plantation in Amite County, Mississippi: “We never had dances in the quarters, and I don’t remember any dances at the big house.” He did recall that his master sometimes played the fiddle, and that on these occasions “he made” two of the household slaves “stand there and knock the back step.” According to Harriet Miller, an ex-slave on a plantation in Magnolia, Mississippi, one of the slave’s tasks was to provide entertainment for white onlookers. Occasionally, she remembered, there were white parties with “fine company” in the “big house.” On those evenings, “they would call the niggers up and have them dance for fun.”77
These recollections might be removed from their context of force; they might be depicted or even remembered as examples of an unquenchable penchant for self-expression, an innate ability to dance joyously in the direst of situations. Yet, as former slaves William Wells Brown and John Little pointed out at the time, when it came to slavery, context was everything. In many ways, Brown’s period as a slave was typical in that nothing typified his experience. During his bondage in Missouri, his master hired him out as a hotel servant, carriage driver, printer’s assistant, and steward on a Mississippi River steamboat. In the 1830s, he worked as a gang boss for a slave trader. Here, his master charged him with the responsibility of driving slaves from Saint Louis to New Orleans and, once there, preparing them for sale.78
The task involved all the elements of market hucksterism. “I was ordered,” recalled Brown, “to have the old men’s whiskers shaved off, and the grey hairs plucked out where they were not too numerous.” When there was too much gray hair for plucking, the trader gave him “a preparation of blacking to color it.” He also had to display the product, to herd his charges into the “negro pen.” Brown’s master was determined that potential buyers should see only examples of healthy self-expression. “Before the slaves were exhibited for sale,” Brown wrote later, “they were dressed and driven out into the yard. Some were set to dancing, some to jumping, some to singing, and some to playing cards. This was done to make them appear cheerful and happy.” As Brown recalled it, he “set them to dancing when their cheeks were wet with tears.”79
According to John Little, an ex-slave from North Carolina who escaped to Canada in the 1840s, slaves did sing. They did dance. Observers of the (p.126) institution along with these expressions might “think they know a great deal about it,” he wrote. And yet, he added, “they are mistaken”:
They say slaves are happy, because they laugh, and are merry. I myself, and three or four others, have received two hundred lashes in the day, and had our feet in fetters: yet, at night, we would sing and dance, and make others laugh at the rattling of our chains. Happy men we must have been! We did it to keep down trouble, and to keep our hearts from being completely broken: that is as true as the gospel! Just look at it,—consider upon it,—must not we have been very happy? Yes I have done it myself—I have cut capers in chains!80
Slavery would be characterized by paternalism and labor, by surveillance, cruelty, masking, and performance. Later recollections would be framed by all of these characteristics, by former slaves waxing nostalgic about the “good old days,” reminiscing about plantation spirituals and happy work songs. As well, there would be voices like that of Charlie Moses, an ex-slave on a plantation in Marion County, Mississippi. “When I get to thinking back on those days,” he would say later, “I feel like rising out of this here bed and telling everybody about the harsh treatment us colored folks were given.” His master was cruel. The work was ceaseless. His recollections were bitter and vivid. They were vivid except, that is, when it came to songs. “Songs?” he would reply to a question on the subject. “I only recall one right now.” His recollection could only have subverted the interview:
- Free at last,
- Free at last
- Thank God Almighty
- I’m free at last.81
(1.) “The Black Swan Again,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 18 December 1851; “From Our New-York Correspondent,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 9 March 1855; “Am I Not a Sister? By A. C. L.,” from George W. Clark, The Liberty Minstrel (New-York: Leavitt & Alden, 1845), 57.
(2.) “The Lament of the Fugitive Slave,” from The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. By William W. Brown (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1849); William Wells Brown, Three Years in Europe; Or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (London: Charles Gilpin; Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1852), 137.
(3.) W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, reprint, New York: Dover Press, 1994), 3, 155–159; For the equation of slave songs with African American music, see Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), 3–4; Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Random House, 1972), 234; Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), introduction, ix, 6–10; Shane White, “ ‘It Was a Proud Day’: African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741–1834,” Journal of American History 81, no.1 (June 1994): 13–50, 23; John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 121–122.
(4.) As Eugene Genovese has it, black songs, dances, and shouts were marked by a “clearly African” display of “uninhibited frenzy.” Shane White, writing about African American carnivals, claims that as “slaves were caught up in the performance their behavior became more African.” According to Lawrence Levine, one of the “basic characteristics of African dance” is the “concentration upon movement outward from the pelvic region.” None of these historians offer evidence for this connection between African culture and “frenzied” expression or pelvic movement. Instead, these conclusions seem taken from interpretations that have seen blackface as black or African-derived music; see Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 238; White, “It Was a Proud Day,” 23; Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 16.
(5.) Overall, this chapter is informed by Raymond Williams’s idea that the area of a culture is defined by language and understanding, and is not bounded by nation, geography, or ethnicity; it is also inspired in part by Shelly Fisher Fishkin’s recognition that the “white” middle class may not have been white; see Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780–1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958); Shelly Fisher Fishkin, “Interrogating ‘Whiteness,’ Complicating ‘Blackness’: Remapping American Culture,” American Quarterly 47, no. 3 (September 1995): 434–435.
(6.) Frances Ann Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838–1839 (1863, reprint, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), from the introduction by John A. Scott, ix–lxi, xxviii.
(8.) Lambert’s account cited in Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 13–14; the second example comes from Blassingame, The Slave Community, 118; George W. Cable, “Creole Slave Songs,” Century Magazine 31, no. 6 (April 1886): 807–828, 822.
(9.) Harriet Ware, letter from Pine Grove, Saint Helena, 21 April 1862, in Elizabeth Ware Pearson, ed., Letters from Port Royal, 1862–1863 (1906, reprint, New York: Arno Press–New York Times, 1969), 19; W. H. Russell description cited in William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (New York: Simpson and Company, 1867), introduction, 19.
(p.317) (10.) Henry Louis McGaffrey interview, in George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, suppl. ser. 1, vol. 8, Mississippi Narratives, pt. 3 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), 1399.
(13.) Frederick Law Olmstead, The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveler’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States (1861, reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 350.
(14.) Jesse Lemisch, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” William and Mary Quarterly 25 (1968): 371–407, 375.
(15.) On these characteristics, see Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
(16.) See W. Jeffrey Bolster, “ ‘To Feel Like a Man’: Black Seamen in the Northern States, 1800–1860,” Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (1990): 1183–1185; Virginia M. Adams, ed., On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier’s Civil War Letters from the Front (New York: Warner Books–University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), introduction, xxii–xxiii.
(17.) Entry for 2 March 1847, “Benjamin Cushing Journal—At Sea, 1846–1848,” G. W. Blunt White Library Manuscript Collections, Mystic Seaport Museum (MSM). Entry for 10 January 1841, “Log of Ship Jefferson,” G. W. Blunt White Library Manuscript Collections, MSM.
(18.) Glenn S. Gardiner, “Aspects of Sailor Life as Depicted in Shanties and Sea Songs: An Interdisciplinary Study,” unpublished paper, 1976, G. W. Blunt White Library Collections, MSM. Jared Gardiner to Harriet Gardner, “At Sea, June the __ 1841,” Gardner Family Papers, Folder 3: Jared and Harriet Gardner Correspondence, Manuscript Collections, AAS.
(19.) See the preface and examples in William Main Doerflinger, Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman (Glenwood, IL: Meyerbooks, 1951), ix–xviii, 1–89.
(20.) “ ‘Round the Corner Sally,” from American Sea Chanteys: La Chasse-Maree Anthology of Sea Songs, vols. 1–11, Mystic Seaport Museum, 1998.
(21.) On the expansion of the whaling industry, see Margaret S. Creighton, Rites and Passages: The Experience of American Whaling, 1830–1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); MS, “Journal of Whaleship Mercury, from New Bedford to Pacific Ocean, June 1837–April 1838,” G. W. Blunt White Library Manuscript Collections, MSM; MS, “Log Book, Brig William and Henry, manuscript collections, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA (PEM); MS, “Bouka Bay Paddles,” Charles W. Agard Collection, Folder 1, Box 3, Manuscript Collections, AAS.
(22.) For this question of the origins of chanteying, see Roger D. Abrahams, Deep the Water, Shallow the Shore (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975); Horace P. Beck, “West Indian Chanteys and Work Songs: The Afro-American Genre”; Tabitha Claypole Nelson, “The Triangle Trade: African Influences in the Anglo-American Sea Shanty Tradition,” unpublished papers, presented at the Fourth Annual Symposium on Traditional Music of the Sea, 1980, G. W. Blunt White Library Collections, MSM.
(23.) “Log Book, Brig William and Henry, 1788–1790, On a voyage from Salem to West Coast of Africa & Bengal,” manuscript collections, PEM.
(24.) “Journal of Voyage from New York Towards Africa in the Brig Packet, Kept by George R. Fielder, 1834,” manuscript collections, PEM; “John E. Taylor, Letters of Instruction to 1st Officer, While at Gambia, 1840,” G. W. Blunt White Library, manuscript collections, MSM; “Private (p.318) Journal of the United States Brig Dolphin, March 27, 1845, to November 1, 1847,” manuscript collections, PEM.
(25.) Sailors’ reminiscences: “Don’t know too much,” “Government Coal Contracts,” and “Some Old Chums,” Charles W. Agard Manuscript Collection, Box 3, Folder 3, AAS; for other anecdotes of illegal slaving in New England, see William W. Story, ed., The Miscellaneous Writings of Joseph Story (Boston: Charles Little and James Brown, 1852).
(26.) An example of an American ship on the Congo River patrol in the mid-nineteenth century is “Private Journal from Salem Towards Ambriz, S.W. Coast of Africa, Bark Goldfinch, 1857,” manuscript collections, PEM; “Blow, Boys Blow,” from Ewen MacColl and A. L. Lloyd, Blow Boys Blow, Tradition Records–Rykodisc, 1996.
(27.) Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870, reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1997); “Whiskey Johnny,” MacColl and Lloyd, Blow Boys Blow; cited in Blassingame, The Slave Community, 116.
(28.) “Tom’s Gone to Hilo,” from American Sea Chanteys, La Chasse-Maree Anthology of Sea Songs, vol. 11, Mystic Seaport Museum, 1998.
(29.) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston: “The Anti Slavery Office,” 1845), 13–14; for the classic explanation of Douglass’s ambivalence to slave songs, see W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903, reprint, New York: Dover Press, 1994), 3, 155–159.
(30.) Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 113–114; on Douglass’s having been directed to New Bedford, see William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 76–79.
(31.) For this interpretation of Douglass, see Peter F. Walker, Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).
(32.) Harriet Martineau, The Martyr Age of the United States (Boston: Weeks, Jordan, & Co., 1839), 10–11.
(33.) David Walker, David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1830, reprint, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), see the introduction by Peter P. Hinks, xv–xxv, 9, 30–36.
(34.) See Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (New York: Da Capo Press, 1969), 7, 18–26, 32–36, 60, 68, 90.
(35.) Michael Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States: Letters on North America (1836, reprint, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Books, 1961), 153, 349; David Brion Davis, “The Nonfreedom of ‘Free Blacks’ ” in Davis, ed., Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1979), 274.
(36.) See Davis, “The Nonfreedom of ‘Free Blacks,’ ” 274–278; for example, see The Boston Directory; Containing Names of the Inhabitants, Their Occupations, Places of Business and Dwelling Houses. With Lists of the Streets, Lanes and Wharves; The Town Officers, Public Offices and Banks, and Other Useful Information (Boston: E. Cotton, 1816); according to Davis, the fact that African American males could “only” vote in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and, with property-holding requirements, New York is another example of the period’s universal discrimination. Turned around, the fact that they could vote in these states in the 1840s and 1850s might be very surprising to current Americans, perhaps even evidence for an opposite conclusion.
(p.319) (37.) On enfranchised, free blacks as a voting bloc, see Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995), 75–76; Quarles, Black Abolitionists, vii–viii, 21–22; Address to the People of the United States, by a Committee of the New England Anti-Slavery Convention, Held in Boston on the 27th, 28th, and 29th of May, 1834 (Boston: Garrison and Knapp, 1834), 14–15, 4–5.
(38.) Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 20, 35, 44, 60–61; William Lloyd Garrison, An Address Delivered Before the Free People of Color in Philadelphia, New-York, and Other Cities, During the Month of June, 1831 (Boston: Stephen F. Foster, 1831), 3.
(39.) Colored American, 16 December 1837; “Interesting Case,” Colored American, 23 December 1837; “Prejudice, An Anecdote,” Colored American, 4 November 1837; “From the Boston Recorder, Read and Ponder,” Colored American, 20 January 1838.
(40.) “A Victim Rescued,” Colored American, 3 April 1841.
(41.) “Age of Reform,” Colored American, 11 March 1837; Garrison, An Address Delivered Before the Free People of Color, 3; 1837 report cited in Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 91.
(42.) “The Cause of Hard Times,” Colored American, 17 June 1837; “Female Education,” Colored American, 18 March 1837; Letter to the Editor, “Female Influence,” signed “Ellen,” Colored American, 30 September 1837; “An Address. Delivered Before the Female Branch Society of Zion, by Wm. Thompson, at Zion’s Church, on the 5th of April,” Colored American, 3 June 1837; “Take Care of Number One!,” Colored American, 27 January 1838; “Our Literary Societies,” Colored American, 11 March 1837.
(43.) “Appeal to Ladies,” reprinted from the Evangelist, Colored American, 7 October 1837.
(44.) “Agents for the Colored American,” Colored American, 11 March 1837; “New-York Petitions to the Legislature,” Colored American, 11 March 1837; “From the 1830 Census,” Colored American, 18 March 1837; “Colored Population of N.Y.C.,” Colored American, 25 March 1837.
(45.) “A Southerner,” Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Thompson, 1841), 5–6, 13–15, 22–24, 60–67.
(46.) H. G. Adams, ed., God’s Image in Ebony: Being a Series of Biographical Sketches, Facts, Anecdotes, Etc., Demonstrative of the Mental Powers and Intellectual Capabilities of the Negro Race (London: Partridge and Oakey, 1854), 112–113; Wilson Armistead, A Tribute for the Negro: Being a Vindication of the Moral, Intellectual, and Religious Capabilities of the Colored Portion of Mankind; With Particular Reference to the African Race (London: Charles Gilpin, 1848), 456; David W. Bartlett, Modern Agitators: or, Pen Portraits of Living American Reformers (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855), 54–55.
(47.) On the establishment of the North Star, Douglass’s break with Garrison, and the details of the paper, see Quarles, Frederick Douglass (New York: Athenaeum, 1968), 58–95; McFeely, Frederick Douglass.
(48.) “Colored School Meeting,” North Star, 21 December 1849; “Women’s State Temperance Convention, Seneca Falls, October 14, 1852,” “The Delevan Temperance Union,” North Star, 28 July 1848; Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 29 October 1852; “First of August Celebration at Buffalo,” North Star, 10 August 1849; “Fifth Annual Meeting of the Western N.Y. Anti-Slavery Society,” North Star, 29 December 1848.
(49.) “Selected. From Our New England Correspondent, Miss Paul’s Juvenile Concert,” Colored American [NY], 4 March 1837 [reprinted from the New York Evangelist].
(50.) “A Southerner,” Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society, 59.
(51.) Untitled editorial comment, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 25 March 1859; “The Hutchinson Family—Hunkerism,” North Star, 27 October 1848.
(p.320) (52.) “The Late Colored Concerts, From the National Era,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 1 December 1854.
(54.) “The Black Swan Again,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 18 December 1851.
(55.) “From Our New York Correspondent,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 9 March 1855.
(56.) “Music at Home,” Frederick Douglas’s Paper, 29 December 1854.
(57.) US Census figures for 1860, cited in Philip Van Doren Stern, ed., Prologue to Sumter: The Beginnings of the Civil War from the John Brown Raid to the Surrender of Fort Sumter (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Books, 1961), 19.
(58.) J. Miller M’Kim, The Freedmen of South Carolina; An Address at Sansom Hall, July 9th, 1862, To the Port Royal Relief Committee (Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazzard, 1862), 1.
(59.) W. R. Allen interview, in The American Slave, suppl. ser. 1, vol. 3, Georgia Narratives, pt. 1, ed. George P. Rawick (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), 5; Simon Hare interview, Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 3, 913–914; Easter Jones interview, in The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, suppl. ser. 1, vol. 4, Georgia Narratives, pt. 2, ed. George P. Rawick (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), 350.
(60.) On plantation work, see Robert Q. Mallard, Plantation Life Before Emancipation (Richmond, VA: Whittet and Shepperson, 1892), 31–35; T. J. Woofter Jr., Black Yeomanry: Life on Saint Helena Island (New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1930, 1978), 29–32; Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 14–34; Orris Harris interview, Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 3, 932–933.
(61.) Alexandre de Clouet Journal, Parish of Saint Martin, entries for 9 August through 19 September 1866, “Louisiana Papers,” Box 2, Folder 2, MS, AAS.
(64.) Squire Irvin interview, Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 3, 1086; Harriet Miller interview, in The American Slave, suppl. ser. 1, vol. 9, Mississippi Narratives, pt. 4, ed. George P. Rawick (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), 1502; Jim Martin interview, Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, pt. 4, 1441–1442.
(65.) Olmstead, from A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1859), cited in The Slave States, 41; “A Virginia Girl Remembers the Christmas Eve of 1860,” from Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (August 1885), cited in Van Doren Stern, Prologue to Sumter, 186.
(66.) Caroline Malloy interview, Joe McCormick interview, Rawick, The American Slave, Georgia Narratives, Part 2, 412, 391.
(67.) On the Johnkannaus, see Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 13; Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , 92; James Bolton interview, Carolina Ates interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Georgia Narratives Part 1, 84, 25; Carrie Mason interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Georgia Narratives, Part 2, 424; Malinda Mitchell interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Georgia Narratives, Part 2, 441; Virginia Harris interview, Fanny Smith Hodges interview, Prince Johnson interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 3, 942, 1026, 1172.
(68.) Robert Laird interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 3, 1293; Anna Peek interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Georgia Narratives, Part 2, 481.
(69.) Easter Reed interview, Elsie Moreland interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Georgia Narratives, Part 2, 505, 455; James Lucas interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 3, 1344–1345.
(p.321) (70.) Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 19–22, 52–59, 114, 107–111.
(71.) Sally Brown interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Georgia Narratives, Part 1, 96.
(72.) Charles Dickens, American Notes For General Circulation (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1868), 94–100.
(73.) Easter Jones interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Georgia Narratives, Part 1, 350; Henry Louis McGaffrey interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 3, 1396.
(74.) Rev. W. B. Allen interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Georgia Narratives, Part 1, 6.
(75.) Edward Jones interview, Jane Lewis interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 3, 1205, 1324–1325; examples of patrols breaking up dances or forcing slaves to dance cited from Hadden, Slave Patrols, 118.
(76.) The classic work on the slave trade and source for the “ceremony of dancing the slaves” is Daniel P. Mannix, Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518–1865 (New York: Penguin Books, 1962, 1976), 114.
(77.) Lucy Galloway interview, Orris Harris interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 3, 808, 930; Harriet Miller interview, in Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 4, 1503.
(78.) See the introduction by Paul Jefferson to William Wells Brown, Travels of William Wells Brown, Including Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave and the American Fugitive in Europe (New York: Marcus Weiner, 1991), 1–2.
(79.) Brown, Narrative of William Wells Brown, in Travels of William Wells Brown, 41–42.
(80.) Brown, Narrative of William Wells Brown, in Travels of William Wells Brown, 42; John Little interview from Benjamin Drew, The Refugee: A North-Side View of Slavery (original 1856, reprint, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1969), 157.
(81.) Charlie Moses interview, Rawick, The American Slave, Mississippi Narratives, Part 4, 1603.