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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom Slavery and Freedom – Activities

Overview Questions

  • How do racial divisions in nineteenth-century American culture exclude African Americans and Native Americans from American ideals of liberty and inclusion?
  • How do texts by African American and Native American writers expand and transform concepts of American identity and citizenship?
  • What are the distinguishing characteristics of the genre of the slave narrative? How was the genre developed, adapted, and modified by the writers included in this unit? How does the slave narrative compare to the captivity narratives written in the seventeenth century (Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, for example)?
  • How do ideals of domesticity, femininity, and sentimentality shape nineteenth-century American literature and reform movements?
  • How do the regional differences between the American North, South, and West (geographic, economic, and demographic) influence antebellum literature?
  • What is the relationship between oral expressions such as Sorrow Songs and printed literature? How did African American oral traditions influence American music and literature?
  • What is the relationship between slave narratives and captivity narratives? How did the genre of the slave narrative influence the development of autobiographical writing and the novel in America?
  • How does abolitionist rhetoric expand and transform the ideals set out in foundational national documents such as the Declaration of Independence?
  • How do black writers revise the myth of the “self-made man” to include African Americans?
  • How do both abolitionist and pro-slavery writers use biblical imagery and Christian ideals to support their positions?

Video Activities

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity?
Video Comprehension Questions: How does Frederick Douglass learn to read? Why does literacy become so important to him?
Context Questions: Why do you think Harriet Jacobs published under a pseudonym? What kinds of anxieties did she feel about making her story public? How did her narrative engage with nineteenth-century ideas about womanhood?
Exploratory Questions: How do the writers featured in the video use formulas and conventions to tell their stories, yet still manage to speak in their own authentic voices?

How are American myths created, challenged, and re-imagined through this literature?
Video Comprehension Questions: What kinds of racial stereotypes does Stowe employ in developing the characters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
Context Questions: How do slave narratives recast the American ideal of the “self-made man” to fit African Americans? How does Frederick Douglass, for example, build on and transform the legacy of Benjamin Franklin?
Exploratory Questions: How do you think abolitionist rhetoric might have influenced the civil rights movement in the 1960s? How do you think it influenced subsequent treatments of race in American literature?

What is American literature? What are the distinctive voices and styles in American literature? How do social and political issues influence the American canon?
Video Comprehension Questions: What is “sentimentality”? To what kind of audience was sentimental rhetoric designed to appeal?
Context Questions: What is the relationship between Jacobs’s account of her slavery and escape and Douglass’s account of his? How does she borrow and modify some of the conventions Douglass pioneered in his autobiography? Do you think they wrote for the same kind of audience? How are her concerns different from his?
Exploratory Questions: How do slave narratives draw on the seventeenth-century tradition of captivity narratives? How did slave narratives influence the work of later African American authors (Charles W. Chesnutt, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, or Toni Morrison, for example)?

Creative Response

  1. Poet’s Corner: Listen to and read the lyrics of several slave spirituals. Using your knowledge of African American “call and response” lyric patterns and techniques of improvisation, compose a new verse or new lyrics to one of the songs. Your version need not be about the African American slave experience, though it can be. How does your improvisation change the meaning and effect of the song?
  2. Journal: Examine the advertisements for slave sales featured in the archive. Pay attention to the descriptions of the specific people offered for sale, especially their ages, occupations, relationships to one another, and prices. Compose a short journal entry or narrative about one of the people sold at these auctions, imagining their feelings about being separated from their families and purchased as property.
  3. Journal: Imagine that you are a participant in the riot Lorenzo Asisara describes at the Santa Cruz Mission in defiance of Padre Olbes. Compose an account of the riot, expanding on Asisara’s narrative. What motivated you and your compatriots to revolt? What did you hope to achieve through insurrection?
  4. Doing History: Look at the watercolor painting The Old Plantation (c. 1800) featured in the archive. This painting was found in South Carolina without any records to clearly establish its artist, date of composition, or even its subject. Based on your knowledge of African American slave culture, what do you think is happening in this painting? What was the artist trying to depict? Who do you think the artist might have been? Why did he or she paint this picture?
  5. Multimedia: Imagine that you have been asked to speak at an abolitionist meeting in 1860 to raise public awareness about the devastating effects of slavery and to enlist others in the abolitionist movement. Even though it is 1860, you somehow have access to the American Passages archive and slide-show software, which is certain to dazzle your audience. Create a multimedia presentation that supports your argument for emancipation. Include captions that explain and interpret the images you choose within the context of your argument.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“”How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. You have been hired as a tour guide at a plantation house that has become a museum. The “big house” has been restored to its former grandeur and is now a popular tourist attraction, but the farm buildings, kitchens, and slave quarters no longer exist. You notice that many tourists focus on the beauty of the plantation house, but seem to have minimal awareness of the slave system that supported it. You are anxious to convince tourists that their romanticized notions of plantation culture are largely inaccurate. How will you structure your tour to inform them about the reality of life on a working plantation in antebellum America?
  2. It is 1862 and you are a political consultant for President Lincoln. The president has decided to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves held in bondage within the rebelling Confederate states. He has hired you to help him with public relations on the Emancipation Proclamation. Draft a plan for how the president and his staff should go about gaining public support and swaying public opinion in the North in favor of emancipation.
  3. You are Harriet Jacobs’s literary agent. Several publishers have already turned down the chance to publish Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, claiming that the book diverges too far from the traditional conventions of slave narratives, is too open about sensitive topics like sexual exploitation, and will not be interesting to the general public. You have a meeting scheduled with the Boston firm of Thayer and Eldridge (the eventual publishers of Jacobs’s narrative). Prepare your sales pitch.

The Radical in the Kitchen: Women, Domesticity, and Social Reform

[5476] Anonymous, Cover illustration for Authentic Anecdotes of American Slavery by Mrs. L. M. Child (1838), courtesy of the Library of Congress, African American Pamphlet Collection.

The lives of most middle-class white women in nineteenth-century America were structured by an ideology known as the “Cult of Domesticity,” or the “Cult of True Womanhood.” This influential ideal of femininity stressed the importance of motherhood, homemaking, piety, and purity. While men were expected to work and act in the public realm of business and politics, women were to remain in the private, domestic sphere of the home. Charged with making the home a peaceful refuge of harmony and order–a haven from the stress of the competitive economic activity of the public domain–women were encouraged to eschew an interest in business or politics and devote themselves instead to the details of housekeeping and motherhood. Writers like Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Lydia Maria Child published manuals offering exhaustive guidelines on the proper maintenance of the American home, instructing their readers in everything from the appropriate dimensions of furniture to the correct way to launder dish towels. Fastidious housekeeping was not simply a display of cleanliness or good taste; rather, a well-managed home was believed to foster good morals and Christian behavior in the people who resided within it. In tending their houses, then, women were understood to be tending the nation’s morals. Nineteenth-century proponents of the Cult of True Womanhood believed that women possessed an inherent, natural capacity for sympathy, piety, and purity that made them uniquely fit to manage the domestic sphere.

While this domestic ideology might seem restrictive or even degrading by today’s standards, it can also be understood as a method through which women asserted power in antebellum America. Rather than seeing their role as peripheral or trivial, some nineteenth-century women viewed their homemaking and child-rearing as almost revolutionary cultural work–they believed it would bring about the foundation of a new, harmonious, Christian society. In this light, it is telling that Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe prefaced their manual, The American Woman’s Home (1869), “To the Women of America, in whose hands rest the real destinies of the republic.” As critic Jane Tompkins points out, domestic ideology had far-reaching implications in its efforts to “relocate the center of power in American life, placing it not in the government, nor in the courts of law, nor in the factories, nor in the marketplace, but in the kitchen. And that means that the new society will not be controlled by men, but by women.” This “culture of the kitchen” was a powerful force in antebellum America, saturating popular magazines, advice books, religious journals, newspapers, and sentimental literature.

Domestic ideology, with its insistence on Christian morals and the redemptive power of love, was often aligned with social reform movements aimed at saving or rehabilitating the downtrodden and oppressed. Penal reform, poverty relief, women’s suffrage, and especially abolitionism were popular outlets for middle-class women’s sympathy and energy. Viewing the buying and selling of children and adults as an outrageous affront to the sanctity of family relationships, proponents of domesticity designated slavery a kind of national domestic problem for white American women to manage and settle. Domestic objects such as aprons and pinholders printed with pictures of suffering slaves functioned to remind women of the brutality of slavery as they performed their domestic work, and thus aligned that work with sympathy for slaves.

Gillian Brown has noted that slavery was particularly horrifying for proponents of domesticity because it “disregards the opposition between the family at home and the exterior workplace. The distinction between work and family is eradicated in the slave, for whom there is no separation between economic and private status.” As Harriet Jacobs makes clear in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, enslaved women could not live according to the ideology of “True Womanhood” because they could never be legally secure in marriage, motherhood, or home. Forced to labor for their white owners, they could not create private households of their own. Valued as chattel, they could be sold and separated from their children, husbands, and homes, as the advertisements from slave auctions featured in the archive make vividly clear. Even the stereotypical figure of the African American “Mammy,” an icon of nurturing motherhood and domesticity, could never really be part of the “Cult of Domesticity” because her work was forced rather than freely given and performed for her owners rather than for her family.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a clear example of domestic fiction: it uses the ideology of domesticity to mobilize a searing and powerful attack on slavery. By focusing on the slave system’s destruction of families–both black and white–Stowe was able to portray slavery as a threat to the sanctity of the American home. Stowe’s novel found its power in emotionally charged images of motherhood: an early and often cited episode portrays Eliza Harris, her child in her arms, desperately running across ice floes on the Ohio River to prevent her son from being sold away from her. Stowe’s investment in the ideology of domesticity can be indexed by her reliance on descriptions of kitchens as a means to characterize the relative virtues of particular households in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the St. Clair plantation, for example, the slave cook Dinah runs a disorganized and inefficient kitchen which “looked as if it had been arranged by a hurricane blowing through it.” According to Stowe’s logic, this badly managed kitchen is a direct reflection of the disorder and destructiveness caused by the slave system. Conversely, Rachel Halliday, the kindly Quaker woman who assists Eliza in her escape from slavery, keeps a perfectly ordered, welcoming kitchen in which every item of food seems imbued with a spirit of “motherliness and full-heartedness.” Rachel’s kitchen functions as the moral center of Stowe’s book, its harmony and warmth a perfect manifestation of maternal love and Christian salvation.

If Uncle Tom’s Cabin works by appealing to women’s capacity to “feel” and sympathize, it also depends on depicting African Americans as possessing the same qualities of sentimentality and docility that were supposed to characterize the domestic woman. Thus, we learn that Uncle Tom has the “gentle, domestic heart” that “has been a peculiar characteristic of his unhappy race,” and Stowe declares that African Americans “are not naturally daring and enterprising, but home-loving and affectionate.” In her attempts to align the plight of black slaves with the concerns of middle-class white women, then, Stowe ends up perpetuating racist and sexist stereotypes. These problems certainly make the book less appealing to contemporary readers, but Stowe’s sentimentality–however essentializing and racist–was a powerful political strategy in its own time. So successful was Uncle Tom’s Cabin that Helen Hunt Jackson adopted the same formula over three decades later. Consciously modeling Ramona after Stowe’s novel, Jackson hoped to unleash the same kind of moral outrage and social protest against the enslavement of Native Americans in California.


  1. Comprehension: Examine the announcements of slave sales featured in the archive, paying attention to the way the people for sale are described and catalogued. What qualities do slaveholders seem to value in slaves? What aspects of the slaves’ humanity are denied or ignored in the advertisements?
  2. Comprehension: Look at The American Woman’s Home’s diagram of a model kitchen featured in the archive. What qualities do Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe seem to value in a kitchen? Why do you think the kitchen was such an important room for proponents of the Cult of Domesticity?
  3. Comprehension: Examine the nineteenth-century images of motherhood featured in the archive. How are mothers portrayed? What seems to make a good mother?
  4. Context: How does Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl participate in the tradition of domestic literature? To what extent does Jacobs idealize domesticity and traditional femininity? How does her narrative also work to critique these standards?
  5. Context: Why do you think Abraham Lincoln chose the image of a “house divided” to characterize the problem of slavery in his speech of 1858? How would this metaphor have resonated with the domestic ideology of the period?
  6. Context: In disguising herself as a man and escaping from slavery, Ellen Craft seems to transgress many of the ideals of “True Womanhood.” How does William Craft’s account of his wife in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom work to reinscribe her within the confines of domestic ideology?
  7. Context: During the nineteenth century, aprons and pincushions printed with pictures of suffering slaves were popular with middle-class white women. Why do you think these domestic items were popular? What kind of relationship do these artifacts signal between the position of the domestic housewife and the plight of the slave?
  8. Exploration: The racist, stereotypical image of the African American “Mammy” has been a stock character in everything from novels and films to the packaging of pancake mix. Why has this image been so frequently reproduced? What kind of fantasy about African American women is at stake in this image?
  9. Exploration: Many of the assumptions and values that underwrote the existence of the Cult of Domesticity in the nineteenth century are no longer prevalent today. How have our values as a culture shifted? How have attitudes toward women, and women’s work, changed? Do you see any remnants of the Cult of Domesticity in contemporary culture?
  10. Exploration: In the twentieth century, critics did not generally view the sentimental or domestic novels of the nineteenth century as “literary classics,” yet they were extremely powerful and influential books in their own time. What makes a text a “classic”? Why were sentimental and domestic fiction excluded from the canon for so long? How do we determine what texts are studied in college classes?


[2498] Currier & Ives, The Age of Brass, or The Triumphs of Women’s Rights (1869),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1921].
This depiction of women suffragettes voting shows a woman in pantaloons holding a sign reading, “Vote for the Celebrated Man Tamer” and another woman scolding a man holding a baby. With its reversal of public/private roles, this scene reverses the “Cult of True Womanhood” ideal.

[5313] Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kitchen Design in the American Woman’s Home: Principles of Domestic Science; Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes (1869).
This illustration shows the Beecher sisters’ interpretation of an efficient kitchen layout. Books and manuals on middle-class women’s roles in managing households were widely popular amid the Victorian era’s new technologies and economic relations.

[5476] Anonymous, Cover illustration for Authentic Anecdotes of American Slavery by Mrs. L. M. Child (1838),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, African American Pamphlet Collection.
A white female figure of Justice reaches down to uplift a supplicating enchained black female slave. The image affirms both common humanity and unequal status among women.

[6833] E. E. Hundley, W. Robinson, and H. M. Robinson, Slave Auction Broadside Advertisement, Arkansas (1842),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division [rbpe 00103300].
In this advertisement for an auction of enslaved men, women, and children, along with animals and tools, men are described by their age and women by their skills, attractiveness, and childbearing capacity.

Resistance, Rebellion, and Running Away: Acts of Defiance in Slave Culture

[5537] William Russell, Runaway Slave Advertisement (1847), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection.

Many white slaveholders liked to think of their slaves as “happy” or “contented,” imagining that the slaves viewed the plantation as a family and the master as a benevolent father. But most slaves’ lives were far from comfortable: even owners who had a reputation for kindness used the whip; southern slave codes enabled masters to work slaves up to sixteen hours a day; and families were routinely separated when individual slaves were sold. Whatever image they chose to present to their white masters, enslaved African Americans had many strategies for registering their discontent, protesting their situation, and resisting the discipline of slave life.

Resistance could take subtle forms, such as performing assigned tasks slowly or poorly, breaking tools, or even singing songs that covertly mocked or criticized whites. Slaves could sabotage the efficiency of a plantation by stealing food that they would consume themselves, as well as commodities they could trade for money or other goods off the plantation. Resistance could take more violent forms, too. Some slaves set fire to houses, farm buildings, factories, and stores. Slaves who were pushed to their limits occasionally murdered their masters or overseers.

When a slave killed a white person, the incident tapped into slaveholders’ biggest fear: that the slaves would rise up and violently overthrow the system that oppressed them. Whites lived in terror that they would experience something like the violent slave revolt that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century in Haiti, which resulted in the overthrow of white rule and the establishment of an independent black republic there. Such large-scale revolts never took place in the American South, probably because the white population was large and had an entrenched system of domination, controlling all the resources and weapons. Still, some courageous and daring slaves did try to organize rebellions, though they rarely saw their plans to fruition. In 1800, Gabriel Prosser, a slave on a plantation near Richmond, Virginia, enlisted as many as a thousand other slaves in a plot to seize key points in the city and execute white slave owners. The conspirators were betrayed before their insurrection got underway, resulting in the execution of twenty-five slaves and the deportation of ten others to the West Indies. Similarly, Denmark Vesey’s plan to attack the white population of Charleston, seize ships in the harbor, and sail for Haiti was discovered before his operation could begin. Some historians believe that the uncovering of the Vesey plot, based primarily on rumors and the testimony of bullied and frightened slaves, really had more to do with white hysteria than with the existence of an actual conspiracy. Nonetheless, white authorities in Charleston executed thirty-five slaves as conspirators and deported thirty-four others.

At least two slave insurrections made it beyond the planning stage in the antebellum South. In 1811, a group of between three and five hundred slaves armed with farm implements marched on the city of New Orleans. They were quickly gunned down by militia and regular troops. The insurrection that attracted the most attention–and most frightened whites–was unquestionably Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831 in rural Virginia. Turner, a slave foreman and religious exhorter, believed he had a messianic calling from God to unite slaves in a rebellion against white authority. His revolt began when he and a small group of others killed the white people in his plantation household, then continued on to neighboring farmhouses where they recruited other slaves to join in. These slave rebels killed at least fifty-five whites before the militia put down the rebellion. Understandably, this insurrection left a lasting impression on white communities throughout the South, who feared uprisings among their own slaves. Although largely unsuccessful in achieving their goals of revolution and emancipation, slave revolts and conspiracies had profound effects on southern culture. They forced whites to acknowledge that their slaves were neither “happy” nor “contented,” but in fact had cause to rebel. And, as scholar Eugene Genovese comments, “they combated, in the most decisive way among both whites and blacks, the racist myth of black docility.”

If full-scale revolts were infrequent occurrences, a far more common act of defiance among slaves was the decision to run away. Some individuals and small groups slipped into the woods for short periods to protest plantation conditions, while others fled long distances to effect a permanent escape within the free states. Both kinds of fugitivism worked to undermine the slave system and assert African American bravery and independence. Running away became an increasingly difficult proposition over the course of the nineteenth century, since, in response to abolitionist activity, the slave states developed rigid laws and institutions to catch, punish, and return fugitives. Advertisements publicized detailed descriptions of runaways and offered rewards for their apprehension. Ferocious dogs and professional slave catchers tracked and captured runaways, often inflicting brutal (and sometimes fatal) injuries in the process. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made even the free territory of the northern states unsafe for escaped slaves; legally, they could be captured and returned to the South at any time without benefit of trial.

While many runaways braved these daunting impediments to successfully escape on their own, abolitionists and slaves also developed elaborate strategies like the famous Underground Railroad to aid fugitives. A system of concealed trails, hiding places, safe houses, and friendly supporters, the Underground Railroad helped spirit many escaped slaves to freedom, often in Canada. “Station masters” took enormous personal risks since providing aid to fugitive slaves was illegal. A few brave ex-slaves like Harriet Tubman even ventured back into slave states to assist runaways. Tubman made at least nineteen trips to the South to help organize escapes, reportedly using coded slave songs to transmit messages to slaves planning on running. Once they reached safety, many fugitives worked tirelessly to free their family members still held in slavery. Escaped slaves like William and Ellen Craft, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs wrote narratives about their experiences to raise awareness and inspire others.

Native Americans held in slavery in the missions and ranches of California adopted similar techniques of resistance to those used by enslaved African Americans in the South. Some of their strategies included sabotaging ranch and farm work, raiding livestock, resisting conversion to Christianity, and refusing to give up their native language. Many Native Americans fled the missions and ranches, escaping to communities of Indians living autonomously in inland California. And, as Lorenzo Asisara’s narrative attests, Native Americans also engaged in riots and revolts, sometimes killing priests and other Spanish and American authorities when they felt they had no other recourse. The stories of these enslaved people reveal the inaccuracy of racist myths about the passivity or apathy of slaves, while also exposing the limits of white hegemony. Their resistance bears witness to their extraordinary personal courage, determination, and commitment to liberty.


  1. Comprehension: What was the Underground Railroad? How did it work?
  2. Comprehension: What kinds of strategies does Frederick Douglass use to resist the degradations of slavery? How do his strategies of resistance eventually enable his escape? What kinds of strategies does Harriet Jacobs use to resist her master’s unwanted advances? How are her strategies of resistance different from Douglass’s?
  3. Comprehension: Examine the advertisements for runaways featured in the archive. What do they reveal about how slaves were treated? What do they reveal about white attitudes toward runaways and toward African Americans generally?
  4. Context: How were Sorrow Songs encoded to enable slaves to pass covert messages and aid fugitives trying to escape? How do the lyrics subtly reveal subversive intentions?
  5. Context: What kinds of strategies of resistance (if any) does Harriet Beecher Stowe advocate for abused slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin? What are the implications of her idealization of nonviolence and an ethic of sacrifice? How do you think Frederick Douglass would have felt about the description of Tom’s capitulation to Simon Legree?
  6. Context: How does Lorenzo Asisara describe the riot he was involved in at the Franciscan mission? How does his attitude toward his own act of resistance compare to Frederick Douglass’s? How might the presence of a white editor have influenced the way Asisara chose to narrate his story?
  7. Exploration: How do you think the tradition of African American resistance that developed during slavery might have influenced civil rights activism in the 1960s (for example, Martin Luther King’s strategy of nonviolence and civil disobedience, or the more militant strategies adopted by the Black Panthers and other groups)?
  8. Exploration: Why has the exploitation and enslavement of Native Americans in California in the nineteenth century received so little attention?

[1650] T. C. Noble, John Brown Lithograph (c. 1850s),
courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
This lithograph likely illustrates the moments before the hanging of John Brown after he was found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry armory in Virginia. Brown was part of a small group of radical northern abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, who by the 1850s felt that such violent insurrections were the only way to end slavery.

[2732] Anonymous, Anti-Slavery Meeting on the [Boston] Common, from Gleason’s “Pictorial” (May 3, 1851),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
This illustration depicts militant abolitionist Wendell Phillips declaiming against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

[3570] Anonymous, Mrs. Auld Teaching Him to Read (1892),
courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.
This illustration from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass depicts the northern wife of Douglass’s owner introducing Douglass to reading.

[5537] William Russell, Runaway Slave Advertisement (1847),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection.
A slave owner advertises a reward for the return of five escaped slaves.

[6574] Bow Wow-Wow (pseud.) [Napoleon Sarony?], The Secretary of War presenting a stand of colours to the 1st Regiment of Republican bloodhounds (1840),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-91404].
This cartoon attacks the use of bloodhounds to force the Seminole Indians of Florida to move to Oklahoma. Abolitionists believed another aim of using the hounds was to capture escaped slaves who had joined the Seminoles.

[6585] Anonymous, The Underground Railroad, Charles T. Weber Painting (1893),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-28860].
After 1877, African Americans faced increasing disenfranchisement, the spread of lynching, debt peonage, and scientific racism. But as this painting reflects, pro-abolitionist sentiment and a heroic view of slave resistance persisted.

Stirring Things Up: Slaves and the Creation of African American Culture

[3090] Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt (c. 1895-98), courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While it is important to understand the harshness and oppression that were inherent in slave life, it is equally important to appreciate the fact that African American slaves developed a vibrant life-affirming culture in the face of tremendous adversity. Because slaves came from many different regions of Africa–and thus brought with them a rich variety of cultural traditions–they were far from a homogeneous group. Bound together by shared labor, hardships, and joys in America, they formed what might be called a creole culture. “Creole” is a linguistic term for the phenomenon of two or more languages merging into one new language, but it can also usefully be applied to the phenomenon of two or more distinct cultures merging to form a new culture. Combining linguistic, musical, religious, and other cultural traditions from many regions of Africa with Native American, English, and other European traditions, slaves forged a dynamic culture that incorporated customs and practices from all of these places in innovative ways. The culture the slaves developed in turn influenced and transformed the cultural practices of their white masters. Slave culture was by no means homogeneous within the United States; it could vary as much as individual people do. Furthermore, slaves who lived in the low country of South Carolina might have little in common with urban slaves in New Orleans or slaves on a cotton plantation in Georgia. But everywhere, African American slaves dealt with adversity by forging communities that provided them with a sense of cohesion and pride.

Slaves transmitted jokes and wisdom through a sophisticated tradition of folk tales related to the West African legacy of “trickster tales.” Often centering on the stories of animals who are not physically strong or intimidating (such as rabbits, monkeys, or spiders), trickster tales portray these supposedly “weaker” animals consistently outwitting the stronger animals who try to oppress or control them. Such stories have an obvious significance to a people oppressed by slavery. Slaves also drew on their African inheritance of trickster tales to create “John Tales,” the stories of a slave trickster who outwitted whites.

Visitors to and memoirists of slave communities consistently celebrated the richness and beauty of the musical traditions the slaves created. Their famous spirituals, or Sorrow Songs, combined European Christian hymn traditions with sophisticated African rhythmic patterns and a “call and response” form in which a leader sings or chants a few lines and the group repeats or offers variations on the lines in response. The songs thus follow African traditions in allowing for improvisation and communal authorship. Slaves used them to transmit communal ideals and values, take their minds off their labor, covertly protest their situation, subtly mock their white masters, and secretly pass messages and information to one another. African American slaves also made music with instruments such as drums, horns, and fiddles (sometimes crafted out of rustic objects) to play lively dance tunes at parties or “balls” held in the slave quarters. Because physical movement and dance are an important part of African musical traditions, slaves frequently incorporated expressive dances into their renditions of songs. Black musicians usually provided the music at white assemblies and parties in the antebellum South, so their musical and dance traditions also had a significant impact on white culture. The slaves’ development of dance styles and songs has had an enormous impact on the character of music and dance in the United States (and indeed in much of the rest of the world) to the present day.

Some slaves gave up dancing when they “got religion” because white preachers insisted that such physical displays were sinful. But though they would forego dancing to maintain their piety, they created the “ring shout” as a replacement. Clapping and beating time, the slaves would sing religious songs and move around in a single file circle tapping their feet in the “shout step.” Although the ring shout looked like dancing to many white observers, slaves insisted that it was not. They did not cross their feet when they performed it, and, by their definition, a dance involved crossing one’s feet.

The evolution of the religious ring shout is indicative of the way slaves adapted themselves to Christianity: they absorbed what was useful and meaningful to them, combined it with African sources, and created something new. Most African slaves brought from their African religions a belief in a Creator, or Supreme God. They were thus able to graft their traditional beliefs onto the Christian figure of Jehovah. Many came to interpret Christ, the saints, and Old Testament figures within the context of the African religious system of minor, or lesser, gods. White masters usually taught their slaves about western religion in an effort to instill in them a Christian doctrine of obedience and humility, but most slaves rejected this version of the Bible in favor of a more empowering Christian spirituality. Turning to black slave preachers who celebrated the more redemptive possibilities of Christianity, slaves identified with the stories of Moses and the Israelites triumphing over those who had enslaved them. They also focused on the concept of heaven and eternal paradise as a reward for what they had endured in this world. Combined with their Christianity, many slaves maintained a traditional belief in magic and the supernatural. “Conjurers,” charms, and spells were an integral part of life in many slave communities. Because white masters did not always approve of African American adaptations of Christianity, slaves often held secret meetings where they could practice their religion free from white interference. Even today, black and white Baptists in the South often attend different churches and have very different worship practices. Incorporating rituals of singing, shouting, and movement, African American religion–like many of the other cultural practices the slaves developed–is an ecstatic, life-affirming experience.


  1. Comprehension: What does the term “creole” mean? How can it be used to analyze the formation of cultural traditions?
  2. Comprehension: What kinds of African religious traditions did slaves retain? How did they merge them with Christian traditions?
  3. Comprehension: What is a “ring shout”?
  4. Context: How does Harriet Beecher Stowe portray slave religion in Uncle Tom’s Cabin? How accurate do you think her portrait of African American spirituality is? How do the slaves on Simon Legree’s plantation exploit traditions of magic and superstition to resist Legree’s cruelties?
  5. Context: Examine the pictures of slave quarters featured in the archive. How do you think the physical environment of slave quarters might have fostered slave culture?
  6. Context: Does Briton Hammon’s text reflect “creolization”? Why or why not?
  7. Exploration: Where do you see evidence of “creolization” in contemporary American culture?
  8. Exploration: How do you think trickster tales influenced the development of African American literature and American literature generally? Can you think of texts that employ similar strategies to those of trickster tales?

[1763, 5461] Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Five Generations of Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, S. Carolina (1862),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-B8171-152-A].
This photo by a northern photographer in a Union-occupied area illustrates how enslaved African Americans maintained families when they were able to do so.

[2742] Anonymous, The Old Plantation (c. 1790-1800),
courtesy of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.
This is an image of slaves dancing and playing music on the plantation, possibly in South Carolina. Slaves used dance and music as entertainment, while drawing on and combining African cultural influences.

[3090] Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt (c. 1895-98),
courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Many slave and freed women used quilts to record their histories. Some quilts communicated messages; for example, quilts using the color black are believed to have indicated a safe house on the Underground Railroad.

[4327] Anonymous, Slave Quarters on St. Georges Island, Florida (n.d.),
courtesy of the New York Historical Society.
Slaves photographed in front of cabins on the Gulf Coast. Slave quarters throughout the South were similar in size and shape, but these cabins were built of “tabby,” an aggregate of shells, lime, and sand more common to the Caribbean region.

[7131] Anonymous, Many Thousands Gone (c. 1861-65),
courtesy of Henry Edward Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music (4th ed., 1914), Fisk University.
Sorrow Songs often referred to current events through religious language. The lyrics of this song refer partly to the slaves who crossed Union lines, often joining the Union army during the Civil War. The lyrics simultaneously look to the afterlife.

[7229] Orville Carrol, Green Hill Plantation, Virginia, Kitchen, Exterior View (1960),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Publications Division [HABS, VA,16-LONI.V,1B-2].
Large plantations resembled villages or small towns, with many outbuildings.

[7230] Orville Carrol, Green Hill Plantation, Virginia, Kitchen, Interior View (1960),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Publications Division [HABS, VA, 16-LONI.V, 1B-3].
The kitchen on a large plantation provided cooked food for those living in the main house. Slaves usually had their own fireplaces for cooking the separate rations provided them, typically corn and pork.

The Plantation: Cultivating a Myth

[6835] Berry Hill Plantation (main house) (after 1933), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS, VA, 42-BOSTS.V, 1-4].

The ideal of gracious plantation life continues to dominate American images of the antebellum South: Hollywood movies and nostalgic novels have portrayed the Old South as a land of enormous wealth and leisure, filled with beautiful white-columned mansions, gallant gentlemen, and coquettish belles in hoop skirts. In reality, life on antebellum plantations was characterized by hard work. Time-consuming household chores and backbreaking labor in the fields structured the daily lives of the slaves, and even some of the white owners, who inhabited these estates. Few plantations lived up to the standards of size and wealth generally associated with plantation mythology; in fact, in 1860 there were only about 2,300 truly large-scale plantations in operation. The planter group (usually defined as those who owned at least twenty slaves) made up just 4 percent of the adult white male population of the South. Much more common were the small farms on which white landowners lived in modest cabins and owned few or no slaves.

Despite the fact that large plantations were far from representative of the general southern experience, the ideal of the plantation came to dominate southern culture, setting the tone of economic and social life and functioning as a standard to which many white men aspired. The architecture of the great plantations reinforced their status as icons of wealth, sophistication, and grandeur. Highly formalized in their layout, large plantations usually centered around the “big house,” an imposing, often neoclassical structure designed as an expression of the good taste and prosperity of the owner. Wide terraces and long, tree-lined avenues controlled visitors’ access to the plantation house, while extensive stretches of cultivated fields and fenced land demonstrated the planter’s dominance over nature and society. Because few men even within the planter class could afford such splendor, landowners sometimes opted to dress up their modest homes with false fronts in order to emulate the plantation ideal. Many plain log cabins lay behind facades of Greek revival porches and neoclassical pediments.

Today, little remains of the landscape of antebellum plantation life besides the large mansions (many of which are still standing), but in the nineteenth century much of the work that sustained the plantation economy went on in smaller structures, or outbuildings, scattered over the estates. Detached kitchens, smokehouses, dairies, and water towers were important sites of domestic labor. Barns and mills were necessary in the production of the plantation’s staple crop, whether it was tobacco, cotton, rice, or sugar. Slave quarters housed the workers whose forced labor was central to the entire system. While some planters tried to hide the reality of the enslaved labor that created their prosperity–Thomas Jefferson, for example, constructed underground passageways so that visitors to Monticello would not see slaves at work–others placed slave quarters in prominent locations to function as a display of their own wealth and power. The long avenue leading to the Hermitage, Henry McAlpin’s Georgia plantation, was lined with more than seventy slave houses, apparently to impress visitors with a view of the inventory of his labor force. Usually small, simple, boxlike structures, slave quarters stood in stark contrast to the magnificent “big houses” they supported. Interestingly, some architectural historians have argued that slave houses may have held a different aesthetic significance for the slaves who lived in them than their masters may have envisioned. Rather than seeing their homes as inferior to and dependent upon the “big house,” slaves may have seen in their small, square dwellings a likeness to traditional African architecture.


  1. Comprehension: Examine the pictures of plantation “big houses,” landscape plans, and slave quarters featured in the archive. How were the plantations laid out? What ideals are expressed in their landscape and architecture?
  2. Context: How is plantation life described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin? In Jacobs’s and Douglass’s narratives? How do these texts critique the plantation system? What features of the plantation system are portrayed as the most destructive? Do any of these texts seem to perpetuate stereotypes associated with plantation life?
  3. Exploration: Given that only a small fraction of the South’s white population actually lived on large plantations, why do you think this image became so culturally dominant? Why do you think stereotypes of plantation life continue to loom large in the American imagination?
  4. Exploration: Recently, expensive housing developments have begun using the term “plantation” to describe themselves. Thus, twenty-first-century homebuyers can purchase a house in “Oak Plantation” or “Main Street Plantation.” What are the implications of this terminology? What associations do you think real estate developers are hoping the word “plantation” will have for potential purchasers?

[4327] Anonymous, Slave Quarters on St. Georges Island, Florida (n.d.),
courtesy of the New York Historical Society.
Slaves photographed in front of cabins on the Gulf Coast. Slave quarters throughout the U.S. were similar in size and shape, but these cabins were built of “tabby,” an aggregate of shells, lime, and sand more common to the Caribbean region.

[4735] Anonymous, Gloucester, Near Natchez, MS (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-58888].
Built in 1803, this neoclassical plantation house dates from the pioneering period of white settlement in Mississippi. The columns and hanging moss fit common images of plantations.

[5096] William F. Warnecke, Margaret Mitchell (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-109613].
Gone With the Wind, Mitchell’s best-selling 1936 novel of the Civil War South, won the Pulitzer Prize and became an immensely popular movie in 1939. Romanticizing wealthy slave owners and slavery while depicting blacks in racial stereotypes, it appealed to conventional white opinion.

[6834Green Hill Plantation and Quarters (c. 1933-60),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS, VA,16-LONI.V,1-1].
Early-nineteenth-century plantation architecture in Campbell County, Virginia. This view of Green Hill provides an alternative to the romanticized image of the Old South.

[6835Berry Hill Plantation [Main House] (after 1933),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS, VA, 42-BOSTS.V, 1-4].
Photograph of a Classic Revival mansion with octa-style Doric portico in Halifax County, Virginia, designed between 1835 and 1840. The richest planters used imposing architecture to demonstrate their wealth and sophistication.

Beyond the Pale: Interracial Relationships and "The Tragic Mulatta"

[1851] Anonymous, The Slave Sale (c. 1855), courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History.

In nineteenth-century America, interracial romantic and sexual relationships were considered taboo within white culture. Viewed by many as leading to the “degeneration” of the white race, “racial mixing” was a locus of anxiety and alarm. Pseudoscientific theories backed up racist notions that conceived of black, white, and Native American people as essentially physically and psychologically different from one another, contending that those differences were traceable to people’s blood. Antebellum Americans originally used the term “amalgamation” to describe interracial sex, but later coined the word miscegenation, with Latin roots, because it sounded more “scientific.” Many states had laws on the books forbidding interracial sex, and social stigmas everywhere categorized interracial relationships as unacceptable. When Frederick Douglass (himself the child of a white man and a black woman) married his white assistant, Helen Pitts, after the death of his first wife, even some of his socially progressive black and white associates in the North were outraged. When Lincoln’s political adversaries wanted to undermine his public approval, they accused him of endorsing miscegenation (which, in fact, he did not support).

Despite attempts to legislate against it, miscegenation has existed in America since the first settlements of European immigrants in the sixteenth century. Sexual relationships among Native Americans, blacks, and whites were far from anomalous. By the nineteenth century, sex between black slaves and their white masters and mistresses had become common enough that it was a source of intense anxiety in American culture. Some whites worried that black women were seducing white men, or that black men would rape white women. In reality, most interracial sex occurred because the powerless social position of enslaved black women left them vulnerable to rape by white men. In certain parts of the South, this kind of sexual exploitation was institutionalized; slave auctions of “fancy girls”–the term used to describe especially attractive young slave women–allowed white men to purchase concubines. The mixed-race children resulting from these sexual relationships, called “mulattos,” legally followed the condition of their mothers and were thus considered slaves. While white masters occasionally freed or gave special treatment to the children they fathered by slave women, most simply worked and sold their own children like other slaves.

The plight of these mixed-race people was of particular interest to white abolitionists. They found a special poignancy in a person who was virtually white–a person with only one black great-grandparent could be held as a slave in the South–and was still treated as a slave and subject to all the cruelties of slavery. The figure of the practically white slave woman, or tragic mulatta, became a stock character in northern antebellum stories, novels, and plays, beginning with Lydia Maria Child’s short story “The Quadroons” (1842). Beautiful, virtuous, and endowed with all the graces of white-middle-class “true womanhood,” the tragic mulatta is usually portrayed as becoming involved with a white man whom she cannot marry because of her “single drop” of “black blood.” Other popular sentimental plots explore the stories of mixed-race women who marry non-white men and then experience all the hardships and persecutions inflicted on their husband’s race (Eliza Harris in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ramona fit this paradigm). In any case, the fate of the mixed-race heroine in sentimental fiction usually involves tragedy. Although these stories stirred up abolitionist sentiment among white readers, they also had the effect of reinforcing racist assumptions. As many critics have pointed out, white readers may have found the tragic mulatta character sympathetic because she was so similar to themselves. In portraying only these mixed-race women as tragic, abolitionist authors implied that an enslaved white person was somehow more deserving of sympathy than an enslaved black person was. At the same time, the figure of the tragic mulatta also had radical, progressive potential: in mediating between racial categories, she exposed the arbitrary nature of racial distinctions. It is perhaps the radical, unsettling potential of the “tragic mulatta” figure that has given her currency in the work of later American novelists such as Nella Larsen (Unit 11) and Toni Morrison (Unit 16).


  1. Comprehension: How were mixed-race people legally categorized in the antebellum South? Why do you think southern laws took the position they did with regard to mixed-race individuals? How did the laws protect the institution of slavery and ensure white hegemony?
  2. Context: Ellen Craft exploited her nearly white looks to escape undetected to the North. How does William Craft’s characterization of her in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom engage with the tradition of the “tragic mulatta” figure? How does her story challenge the assumptions behind the cultural construction of the tragic mulatta?
  3. Context: After their escape from slavery, the Crafts raised money by selling portraits of Ellen in her white male planter disguise. How do you think antebellum audiences would have reacted to the portrait of Ellen Craft featured in the archive? Why do you think these portraits sold well in the North?
  4. Context: In Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, the title character is the child of a Native American and a European. How is her mixed-race heritage handled in the novel? How does Jackson’s treatment of a Native American mixed-race woman compare to abolitionists’ characterizations of African American mixed-race women?
  5. Exploration: How do you think attitudes toward interracial relationships in the antebellum period affected subsequent portraits of interracial relationships in American literature and film?


[1653] J. H. Kent, Helen Pitts Douglass (n.d.),
courtesy of the National Parks Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
Helen Pitts, a white woman from Rochester, New York, where Frederick Douglass long resided, became Douglass’s second wife in 1884, braving the resultant controversy. After Douglass’s death in 1895, she worked to preserve his historical legacy.

[1851] Anonymous, The Slave Sale (c. 1855),
courtesy of Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History.
The caption of this lithograph reads “The Hammer Falls . . . he has got her body and soul unless God help her.” Artists and writers used images of “white” slaves, especially young women threatened by sexual abuse, to show the evils of slavery.

[6828] Anonymous, The Death of Clotel, in William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853).
One of the first published novels by an African American, Clotel told the story of a slave daughter of Thomas Jefferson and contained Brown’s own personal slave narrative, as well as a fictionalized version of William and Ellen Craft’s story.

[6852] Anonymous, Ellen Craft the Fugitive Slave [frontspiece] (1860),
courtesy of Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860) by William Craft published by William Tweedie, London.
The light-skinned Ellen Craft escaped from slavery with her husband, William, by posing as a white man and her husband’s master, symbolizing how slavery and resistance disrupted the “normal” social order.

[6877] Anonymous, Ellen Craft (1879),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division.
In this portrait published in William Still’s The Underground Railroad, Craft is shown in conservative female dress and with her light skin.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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