Toni Morrison uses Beloved to bring to a new kind of life familiar and unfamiliar elements of slave experience. The town on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio in which the novel takes place is a through station for slaves escaping on the underground railroad and then migrating north after emancipation. The “colored community” is described, as it gathers in or avoids the house which provides the setting for most of the novel -- #124 Bluestone Road. Morrison alludes frequently to other stories of suffering in the lives of this community and the African-American community, and it seems safe to say that at least one goal of the book is to expose the awful magnitude and far reach of slavery’s effects through many interwoven stories of suffering. She alludes to sexual cruelties, chain gangs, the break up of families, the shell-shocked quality of post-slavery life, the cohesiveness of a poor “colored community” in ante-bellum Ohio, illiteracy, insanity, the Middle Passage, Fugitive Slave Laws, and Social Darwinism, all swirling around the central tableau of a slave woman killing her infant.
“The Experience of Slavery in the United States” Lecture
To clarify this historical context for students, I present a social history lecture on “The Experience of Slavery in the United States” early in our reading of Beloved. The lecture is framed by slides bearing images that encapsulate selected aspects of slave experience. The idea of a slide lecture is borrowed from the book History Alive! produced by the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, a teacher-run organization that designs history curricula. Other teachers may find it useful to create a slide show to accompany this lecture. I take images from textbooks and auxiliary materials (see bibliography) and create either slides or overhead transparencies of these images. The more people in the image, and the more emotional and drama-filled, the better job the images do of anchoring students’ attention. This historical background could also be effectively communicated in an outline format and discussed with students, or broken into research assignments for individuals or groups to present orally.
The lecture in this format takes two to three days of classroom time, with time factored in for discussion, and probably goes into more depth than necessary for the teaching of this novel. However, Morrison covers a lot of territory in the novel, through the major characters and through many side characters. Students will be better able to appreciate her references if they have a stronger knowledge of the history she is referring to. Teachers should use as much of this as seems appropriate to the context in which they are teaching the book. The common knowledge established in this introductory lecture serves the class well as they read the book and connect characters’ experiences with their knowledge of slavery.
1. The Origin of Race-Based Slavery in the United States
The original source of labor in the American colonies was indentured servants. Europeans who wished to come to America for a fresh start, but were unable to afford the cost of the sea journey, signed contracts pledging to work for a “master” once they arrived in America for a certain number of years, until they had repaid their passage. This was not an ideal arrangement. Indentured servants could be mistreated, ill-fed, and often emerged from a four- to seven-year term of indenture with no land, no money, and few skills. But indentured servitude was not a life-long condition.
The first Africans to arrive in the British colonies in North America were on a Dutch ship. Nineteen Africans disembarked in Jamestown, VA in 1619 -- one year before any Europeans arrived at Plymouth, MA. Few records remain of their status, but it is generally believed that they were treated as indentured servants.
Gradually, throughout the seventeenth century, the supply of European immigrants willing to enter into indentured servitude declined. Tales reached Europe of cruelties and abuses of servants, and discontented groups of poor people who had served out indentures were not prospering as they had hoped to in the New World.
It became more economical for employers to purchase slaves who served for life than to employ a series of indentured servants. A new set of characteristics grew up to define slavery. For the first time, slavery became a racially determined institution, in which Africans were captured, brought to America on the Middle Passage, and sold into lifelong slavery. The children of slaves were seen for the first time as slaves. Tracing slavery from the maternal side made it possible for white masters to have slave children. This leads to some interesting conflicts with the Enlightenment ideals of the European immigrants who were settling the colonies, enthusiastically asserting the rights of man.
2. The Middle Passage
During the eighteenth century, the big seventeenth century business which had grown up around kidnapping West Africans and bringing them across the Atlantic to work in the Caribbean and Central America extended into North America. European traders traded guns and other manufactured goods for human laborers. Slave traders encouraged rivalries between ethnic groups, and took the prisoners of war from local conflicts as slaves.
The journey by slave ship from Africa to the Americas was intensely frightening and dangerous for Africans. Africans were rarely allowed on deck, and they were often jammed into the hull of the ship, without enough room to stand or lie down comfortably. Some people died of suffocation, or became very ill. They were fed very little, and the food was often rotten or not nourishing.
Some Africans, in despair over conditions on the ship, unable to communicate with other prisoners because of language barriers, and unsure of what would happen to them, killed themselves by jumping off the ship. There are also many stories of mothers throwing their infants overboard to save them from the horrifying conditions on board and bleak prospects ahead. Ship crews were very watchful for suicide and infanticide attempts, and Africans caught attempting to kill themselves or others would be severely punished to discourage others from trying it.
3. Slave Trade
Once in the British colonies, slaves were sold at auctions to the highest bidder. Potential buyers would examine Africans, who were frequently required to stand naked and show their teeth or be subjected to other evaluations of their worth. At auctions, members of families would often be sold to different buyers, and would be taken to live all over the colonies, usually without hope of ever being reunited with parents, children, or siblings.
The fear of the auction block stayed with slaves throughout their lives, for at any time, if a master needed money, or died, or was displeased with a slave, he or she could sell that slave and remove him or her from family and friends forever.
4. Treatment of Slaves
The life of the majority of African slaves was that of agricultural workers. Slavery evolved to meet the demands for inexpensive labor in the agricultural southern colonies, so many Africans ended up living and working on farms with ten or more other workers. The “field slaves” on plantations found themselves performing hard physical labor for long hours, sometimes with enough food, but more often without enough food or rest. Despite the long hours and difficult work, the advantage of being a field slave could be the relative independence of life mainly with other slaves.
Slaves who worked in and around the plantation owner’s house, such as cooks, maids, butlers, and gardeners, were known as “house slaves.” These jobs were often less physically straining than those in the fields, and sometimes were accompanied with better living conditions. However, they involved negotiating a complicated series of interactions with the white family who owned the farm.
Urban slaves fared somewhat better. They were able to learn a trade, although their wages were handed over to their masters. Slaves in cities generally experienced more independence than rural slaves, and better treatment, as abuse of one’s slaves was more difficult to conceal from one’s neighbors in the close quarters of a city.
5. Nat Turner’s Rebellion and Increased Restrictions
In 1831, Nat Turner, a black preacher, led a slave revolt in Virginia. Turner’s people killed 55 whites before they were stopped. Turner and 20 others were hanged, and in retaliation, around 200 slaves who had nothing to do with the rebellion were also killed. Slave laws became harsher in many states from this time until the end of slavery, in an attempt to prevent future rebellions from succeeding. Laws were passed throughout the South, preventing slaves from reading and writing, having prayer services without a white person present, gathering in large numbers, or voting.
6. Conflict over Slavery
At the same time that slavery was becoming harsher, efforts to end slavery became stronger. In 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded. Throughout the North, and to some extent in the South as well, abolitionism, or the movement to outlaw slavery, was spread through abolitionist lectures and newspapers. Two prominent leaders of the movement were William Lloyd Garrison, a white abolitionist and the publisher of the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and Frederick Douglass, the publisher of the paper The North Star, and the author of several books on his experience as a slave and a free black in Massachusetts. Sojourner Truth was another famous lecturer for the abolitionist and women’s rights causes.
Despite the growing unpopularity of slavery in the northern states and in Europe, slavery continued to be legal in the South and in some of the expanding territories of the United States. Many federal battles were fought in Congress over the laws governing slavery. As part of the Compromise of 1850, a harsh Fugitive Slave Act made it easier for slave owners to recover slaves who had run away to free states. In 1857, the Supreme Court heard the Dred Scott Case, in which a slave whose owner traveled with him in a free state argued that he should no longer be enslaved. The Court’s decision was that African-Americans were not citizens of the United States, and did not have “any rights which the white man is bound to respect.”
After the official abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War, African-Americans faced a new series of challenges. The new governments of the South tried to rebuild or “reconstruct” Southern society. There were many opportunities for positions of power to be held by African Americans during this time, and for large-scale reforms of slavery-based society.
8. Northern Migration
However, many of these reforms were short-lived, and a lack of land, unresponsive government, and white hate groups began to restrict the possibilities available to free blacks in the South. Many blacks chose to move from rural southern communities to urban northern communities, searching for jobs and increased freedom.