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Some slaves saw Christmas as an opportunity to escape. They took advantage of relaxed work schedules and the holiday travels of slaveholders, who were too far away to stop them. While some slaveholders presumably treated the holiday as any other workday, numerous authors record a variety of holiday traditions, including the suspension of work for celebration and family visits.

 

 

The Slave Experience of the Holidays

Christmas as an Opportunity to Escape

By DocSouth Staff

 

American slaves experienced the Christmas holidays in many different ways. Joy, hope, and celebration were naturally a part of the season for many. For other slaves, these holidays conjured up visions of freedom and even the opportunity to bring about that freedom. Still others saw it as yet another burden to be endured. This month, Documenting the American South considers the Christmas holidays as they were experienced by enslaved Americans.

The prosperity and relaxed discipline associated with Christmas often enabled slaves to interact in ways that they could not during the rest of the year. They customarily received material goods from their masters: perhaps the slave's yearly allotment of clothing, an edible delicacy, or a present above and beyond what he or she needed to survive and work on the plantation. For this reason, among others, slaves frequently married during the Christmas season. When Dice, a female slave in Nina Hill Robinson's Aunt Dice, came to her master "one Christmas eve, and asked his consent to her marriage with Caesar," her master allowed the ceremony, and a "great feast was spread" (pp. 24-25). Dice and Caesar were married in "the mistress's own parlor . . . before the white minister" (pp. 25-26). More than any other time of year, Christmas provided slaves with the latitude and prosperity that made a formal wedding possible.

On the plantation, the transfer of Christmas gifts from master to slave was often accompanied by a curious ritual. On Christmas day, "it was always customary in those days to catch peoples Christmas gifts and they would give you something." Slaves and children would lie in wait for those with the means to provide presents and capture them, crying 'Christmas gift' and refusing to release their prisoners until they received a gift in return (p. 22). This ironic annual inversion of power occasionally allowed slaves to acquire real power. Henry, a slave whose tragic life and death is recounted in Martha Griffith Browne's Autobiography of a Female Slave, saved "Christmas gifts in money" to buy his freedom (p. 311).

Some slaves saw Christmas as an opportunity to escape. They took advantage of relaxed work schedules and the holiday travels of slaveholders, who were too far away to stop them. While some slaveholders presumably treated the holiday as any other workday, numerous authors record a variety of holiday traditions, including the suspension of work for celebration and family visits. Because many slaves had spouses, children, and family who were owned by different masters and who lived on other properties, slaves often requested passes to travel and visit family during this time. Some slaves used the passes to explain their presence on the road and delay the discovery of their escape through their masters' expectation that they would soon return from their "family visit."

Jermain Loguen plotted a Christmas escape, stockpiling supplies and waiting for travel passes, knowing the cover of the holidays was essential for success: "Lord speed the day!—freedom begins with the holidays!" (The Rev. J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman. A Narrative of Real Life, p. 262). These plans turned out to be wise, as Loguen and his companions are almost caught crossing a river into Ohio, but were left alone because the white men thought they were free men "who have been to Kentucky to spend the Holidays with their friends" (The Rev. J. W. Loguen, p. 303).

Harriet Tubman helped her brothers escape at Christmas. Their master intended to sell them after Christmas but was delayed by the holiday. The brothers were expected to spend the day with their elderly mother but met Tubman in secret. She helped them travel north, gaining a head start on the master who did not discover their disappearance until the end of the holidays. Likewise, William and Ellen Craft escaped together at Christmastime. They took advantage of passes that were clearly meant for temporary use. Ellen "obtained a pass from her mistress, allowing her to be away for a few days. The cabinet-maker with whom I worked gave me a similar paper, but said that he needed my services very much, and wished me to return as soon as the time granted was up. I thanked him kindly; but somehow I have not been able to make it convenient to return yet; and, as the free air of good old England agrees so well with my wife and our dear little ones, as well as with myself, it is not at all likely we shall return at present to the 'peculiar institution' of chains and stripes" (pp. 303-304). [Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft From Slavery]

Christmas could represent not only physical freedom, but spiritual freedom, as well as the hope for better things to come. The main protagonist of Martha Griffin Browne's Autobiography of a Female Slave, Ann, found little positive value in the slaveholder's version of Christmas—equating it with "all sorts of culinary preparations" and extensive house cleaning rituals—but she saw the possibility for a better future in the story of the life of Christ: "This same Jesus, whom the civilized world now worship as their Lord, was once lowly, outcast, and despised; born of the most hated people of the world . . . laid in the manger of a stable at Bethlehem . . . this Jesus is worshipped now" (p. 203, 47-48). For Ann, Christmas symbolized the birth of the very hope she used to survive her captivity.

Not all enslaved African Americans viewed the holidays as a time of celebration and hope. Rather, Christmas served only to highlight their lack of freedom. As a young boy, Louis Hughes was bought in December and introduced to his new household on Christmas Eve "as a Christmas gift to the madam" (Thirty Years a Slave—From Bondage to Freedom; The Institution of Slavery as Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter—Autobiography of Louis Hughes, p. 13). When Peter Bruner tried to claim a Christmas gift from his master, "he took me and threw me in the tan vat and nearly drowned me. Every time I made an attempt to get out he would kick me back in again until I was almost dead" (A Slave's Adventures toward Freedom. Not Fiction, but the True Story of a Struggle. p. 22).

Frederick Douglass described the period of respite that was granted to slaves every year between Christmas and New Year's Day as a psychological tool of the oppressor. In his 1845 Narrative, Douglass wrote that slaves celebrated the winter holidays by engaging in activities such as "playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey" (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself, p. 75). He took particular umbrage at the latter practice, which was often encouraged by slave owners through various tactics. "One plan [was] to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whiskey without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess" (Narrative, p. 75).

In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass concluded that "[a]ll the license allowed [during the holidays] appears to have no other object than to disgust the slaves with their temporary freedom, and to make them as glad to return to their work, as they were to leave it" (My Bondage and My Freedom, p. 255). While there is no doubt that many enjoyed these holidays, Douglass acutely discerned that they were granted not merely in a spirit of charity or conviviality, but also to appease those who yearned for freedom, ultimately serving the ulterior motives of slave owners.

Source: DocSouth

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 Family and Friends Escape on Christmas to Prevent Separation

The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb: An American Slave

By Henry Bibb, Introduction by Charles J. Heglar

First published in 1849 and largely unavailable for many years, The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb is among the most remarkable slave narratives. Born on a Kentucky plantation in 1815, Bibb first attempted to escape from bondage at the age of ten. He was recaptured and escaped several more times before he eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan, and joined the antislavery movement as a lecturer.  Bibb’s story is different in many ways from the widely read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. He was owned by a Native American; he is one of the few ex-slave autobiographers who had labored in the Deep South (Louisiana); and he writes about folkways of the slaves, especially how he used conjure to avoid punishment and to win the hearts of women. Most significant, he is unique in exploring the importance of marriage and family to him, recounting his several trips to free his wife and child. This new edition includes an introduction by literary scholar Charles Heglar and a selection of letters and editorials by Bibb.

Henry Bibb Marries During the Holidays / Henry Bibb Escapes on Christmas Day

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Not Gone With the Wind Voices of Slavery—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—9 February 2003—Unchained Memories, an HBO documentary that makes its debut tomorrow night, provides a powerful answer to that question. It gives us, through the faces and voices of African-American actors, an introduction to a vast undertaking that took place in the 1930's: the collection and preservation of the testimonies of thousands of aged former slaves in an archive known as the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers' Project. This archive unlocked the brutal secrets of slavery by using the voices of average slaves as the key, exposing the everyday life of the slave community. Rosa Starke, a slave from South Carolina, for example, told of how class divisions among the slaves were quite pronounced:

''Dere was just two classes to de white folks, buckra slave owners and poor white folks dat didn't own no slaves. Dere was more classes 'mongst de slaves. De fust class was de house servants. Dese was de butler, de maids, de nurses, chambermaids, and de cooks. De nex' class was de carriage drivers and de gardeners, de carpenters, de barber and de stable men. Then come de nex' class, de wheelwright, wagoners, blacksmiths and slave foremen. De nex' class I members was de cow men and de niggers dat have care of de dogs. All dese have good houses and never have to work hard or git a beatin'. Then come de cradlers of de wheat, de threshers and de millers of de corn and de wheat, and de feeders of de cotton gin. De lowest class was de common field niggers.''NYTimes

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

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#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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#18 - Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter

Non-fiction

#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
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#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
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#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
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#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

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#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

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#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
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#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All

By Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock  market. True wealth has more to do with what's in your heart than what's in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America's shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, "Happy can make you money, but money can't make you happy."

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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posted 24 December 2011

 

 

 

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