The New Negro and the Black Image: From Booker T. Freedom’s Story is made possible by a grant from the Wachovia Foundation. African american slavery essay some ways enslaved African American families very much resembled other families who lived in other times and places and under vastly different circumstances. Most parents loved their children and wanted to protect them.
In some critical ways, though, the slavery that marked everything about their lives made these families very different. Belonging to another human being brought unique constrictions, disruptions, frustrations, and pain. Slavery not only inhibited family formation but made stable, secure family life difficult if not impossible. Enslaved people could not legally marry in any American colony or state.
Colonial and state laws considered them property and commodities, not legal persons who could enter into contracts, and marriage was, and is, very much a legal contract. This means that until 1865 when slavery ended in this country, the vast majority of African Americans could not legally marry. A father might have one owner, his “wife” and children another. Some enslaved people lived in nuclear families with a mother, father, and children.
In these cases each family member belonged to the same owner. Others lived in near-nuclear families in which the father had a different owner than the mother and children. This use of unpaid labor to produce wealth lay at the heart of slavery in America. Women often returned to work shortly after giving birth, sometimes running from the fields during the day to feed their infants. On large plantations or farms, it was common for children to come under the care of one enslaved woman who was designated to feed and watch over them during the day while their parents worked. By the time most enslaved children reached the age of seven or eight they were also assigned tasks including taking care of owner’s young children, fanning flies from the owner’s table, running errands, taking lunch to owners’ children at school, and eventually, working in the tobacco, cotton, corn, or rice fields along with adults.