BORN IN BONDAGE by Marie Jenkins Schwartz

BORN IN BONDAGE

Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A significant study of the hardships of raising children in antebellum slavery.

Schwartz (History/Univ. of Rhode Island) opens by surveying the previous scholarship in the field. Past studies rarely treated the issues of slave children and their psycho-social traumas—and the earliest studies even apologized for the relatively benevolent, if condescending, Southern plantation owners. Caribbean slaves had more arduous field work and were given less time off for childbearing and -raising, but Schwartz is less interested in physical conditions and pays little attention to statistical data (such as estimations of the age at which slave mothers and children were put into the fields). Her focus is inside the shacks, families, hearts, and minds of bonded parents and children. Most born slaves did have two parents, and Schwartz wants to know how much parents could counteract the prevailing slave culture. She sees that this challenge was formidable, as paternalistic owners ruled over parents in more insidious ways than the merely economic. At their very births, masters would hover at slaves’ bedsides like anxious, proud racehorse owners. The slaveholders’ meddling co-opted parental authority, denied their ability to provide necessities, and subdued their attempts to provide alternative cultural and social identities. Parents “hoped the arrival of children would encourage owners to recognize the authenticity of slaves’ personal relationships . . . [which] fostered the child’s loyalty to family and community.” So, despite the natural parental desire to foster independence in their children, they inhibited these feelings to dissuade owners from selling children and breaking up their families. Caught in a dilemma, most mothers opted for the survival of their families. Schwartz feels that slaveholders involved themselves in the lives of slave children, from cradle to marriage, largely to earn their loyalty and justify their horrific institution.

The fluid writing is enlivened by oral histories, chapter notes, and striking photos. Essential reading for all who want to understand the complex and long-lasting forces pulling at America’s antebellum slaves. (17 b&w photos)

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-674-00162-1
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2000




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