Trauma ≠ Identity
by Kaila McGinty
Recent years have seen a significant push for using the term “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” to refer to enslaved African Americans. This change reminds us that Black Americans weren’t solely white people’s property—they had identities larger than that, and this new, much-deserved focus on their humanity is what I add on to. I first look at how the trauma from enslavement seeped into their senses of self, using stories from enslaved people themselves. Following that is an examination of different methods of resistance, with which African Americans conveyed that their bondage and its concomitant horrors were neither their culture nor their identity. I then step into the present and reflect on how proud, how loudly Black, the descendants of these enslaved people are, and how amazing it is that, because of our relatives’ repeated assertion that their identity and humanity were their own, we are here today. In America, racism and slavery are discussed in a manner that tiptoes around white people’s feelings, which comes at the costs of not giving enough gravitas to Black people’s very real pain and of rejecting historical fact and present reality. As living proof of enslaved people’s victory, I, the continuation of my enslaved relatives, cannot and will not water down the evils white people committed. In this paper, I tell the stories of enslaved people honestly and unapologetically to validate them and contribute to anti-racist work.
Enslaved, people, identity, resistance, torturer
Even now, I grieve for the enslaved Black people. The victims of a dehumanizing system, their eyes were peeled back by their torturers to watch their brothers whipped, sisters raped, and children sold, all while their self-worth and precious ethnic identities were being ripped away. This was not the treatment these deceased relatives—because “ancestors” is too old a word for people who lived less than two hundred years ago, a not-insignificant number of whom died in the mid-20th century—deserved. However, recent years have seen a growing movement to acknowledge their humanity. To contribute to this movement for the people who were my relatives, I first examine how the white-imposed identity of “slave” was real. I then look at how the use of resistance, a form of left-hand power, undermines the Eurocentric theory that the “slave” identity was all-consuming. Although enslaved African Americans lived under heavy, white-given trauma, their employment of left-hand power exhibited that they had their own identity and mind.
Enslaved people were the body and tool of a system—consciously controlled and exacerbated by white people—whose deep-digging claws on their minds were inescapable. Torturers created an identity and pushed enslaved people into it “to justify the ill-treatment” (Shelby, 2002, p. 250). Speaking on freedom seekers—still called “runaway slaves,” a term which validates their enslavement—the formerly enslaved person Edward Lycurgas writes that each enslaved person longed “to see what it was like to own [their] own body” (Forbes, 1992, p. 44). After being sold, a man named Charles Ball lamented that he was unable to commit suicide, “because of these chains” (Baptist, 2014, p. 22). Following years of torture, a woman named Sophia broke down and lamented that “she was no longer Sophia, but Sophia Nobody” (Baptist, 2014, p. 148). Another woman discarded her name completely and branded herself Silence (Baptist, 2014, p. 148). Many others also silenced themselves, decaying internally until spiritual, emotional, and mental death comforted them in its clutches. Being a “zombi,” a hollow shell of a shell, was an alternative; this way, they may not have cried oceans thinking about the 9-year-old child William Hayden, who, after he was sold, found solace at the new plantation “watching the reflection of the rising sun every morning in a pond, just as he had done with his mother back in Virginia” (Baptist, 2014, p. 15, 145-6). Unfathomable horrors like these communicated to many that they were nothing but a body cut deep by white greed and inhumanity; the experience was crushing. But enslaved people were not crushed—instead, they were resourceful.
Successful freedom-seeker Harriet Jacobs writes in her 1860 memoir, “‘though one of God’s most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered’” (Forbes, 1992, p. 42). Jacobs’s statement and many enslaved people’s actions invoked Martin Luther’s idea of left-hand power, “the strength of the poor and the weak” (Baptist, 2014, p. 112). A big way in which they employed this power was through resistance. Wielders of this power often slowed down the production of systems and enterprises they knew they played a critical part in (Cochran, 2021, p. 5). Enslaved people might “[move] slowly, ‘[misunderstand]’… instructions, [break] tools,” which they sometimes hid in storage pits dug in their homes, and leave things needed for farming behind (Cochran, 2021, p. 5; Singleton, 1998, p. 8). In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright complained that white men’s property had the audacity to “break, waste, and destroy everything they handle[d]… , tear, burn, or rend their own clothing,” and “cut up” crops (Forbes, 1992, p. 49). Yet, in a display of white arrogance and supremacy, Cartwright says that though these actions seem to have been done on purpose, they actually are just signs of the African Americans’ stupidity, since they had no “cause or motive” (Forbes, 1992, p. 49). Sadly, some captive women thought of slowing the production of the future in their resistant actions, by keeping themselves from getting pregnant and sometimes killing the babies they did deliver (Forbes, 1992, p. 48).
Another way in which Black people who were enslaved expressed their senses of self was by creating and engaging in cultural activities, many of which had roots in African traditions. These activities were performed in their living quarters, away from the violent eyes of the masters and overseers, and sometimes further away from the property, such as in the woods (Cochran, 2021, p. 7). Some of these practices, which “includ[ed] ritual, dance, drama, dress, folktales, and religious beliefs,” were ones that the torturers had forbidden, meaning that African Americans performed them knowing the high stakes involved with doing so (Singleton, 1998, p. 8; Cochran, 2021, p. 7). Items associated with these activities included “cowrie shells, beads, pierced coins,” and others, often “used in conjuring, divining, or healing activities” (Singleton, 1998, p. 8).
An integral part of culture as a method of survival was community. In a system where families were regularly separated, Black people had to create new understandings of family to survive. In short, they were not just “slaves”; the torturous system whites forced them to live in was not as “all-powerful and debilitating” as their captors told themselves it was (Forbes, 1992, p. 51). Instead of dissipating in the ashes of their demolished selves, the enslaved people built new ones. They forged new links with those they bled with. Raised children from different wombs. Lifted every voice and sang together. It was through these forms of resistance and others that enslaved African Americans, with innumerable odds against them, kept alive their humanity and identity. This preservation took intelligence, strategy, and courage. Carrying the support of others and the individuality that their captors had not beaten out of them, they developed ways to grow as individuals, care for each other, and live. My favorite excerpt from Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told (2014) tells of their senses of self:
I am more than a hand, said the little money-making tobacco patch that Jimmy planted in the Tennessee woods owned by his enslaver. I am more than what the law says, more than a body to be sold, beaten, raped, and divided from my children at the will of whites, said Myra, who wanted a calico coat so she could “show out” on Sundays. I am not cheap, worn-out, identical to a thousand others, I am unique, said the umbrella old Toby carried under his arm when he walked to town…hoping to meet his next wife.(p. 152)
Though the enslaved people were conventionally powerless, they kept themselves alive, as this passage shows. Today, many of their descendants are proud of their Blackness, as we should be! In 1968—towards the end of the Civil Rights decade—James Brown, with a song, prompted fellow African Americans to “say it loud—I’m [B]lack and I’m proud!” (National Museum of African American History & Culture). That same year, Hoyt Fuller wrote that “young [B]lack men and women… are saying, ‘We are black and beautiful’” (National Museum of African American History & Culture). Many Black women, myself included, are going back to their natural hair after centuries of being taught to hate it (Booker, 2019). It is increasingly common to see Black people donning pro-Black attire, such as shirts that read “Black Lives Matter.” In fact, my inspiration for this paper, which my title draws on, is a shirt I saw this past summer that said “Trauma ≠ Culture.” Black people have taken to social media to celebrate their Blackness.
Hashtags like Black Girl Magic and Black Boy Joy are common on Black people’s Instagram and Facebook posts. Though both are slightly problematic—the former for asserting that Black women can only have otherworldly powers to accomplish what we do and for referring to grown women as “girls,” and the latter for calling grown men “boys,” a loaded term on its own—they are still important for their celebration of Black accomplishments. It is currently November 2021, 158 years since Lincoln first issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the past is still present (American Battlefield Trust). I have lost something I never had. I do not have the privilege of knowing their names or even the smallest detail about their lives. I may bear the last name of the man who forced them to bear his illegitimate children.
All I know, all America has taught me, is that Black people were property. But by resisting, whether in terms of slowing down production or performing cultural activities, African Americans showed that their identity was not “slave.” Readers may be wondering, then, what was their identity? While it is difficult to determine exactly what that was, this is what we can say: their identity was their OWN. They were not “slave,” “boy,” “sold!”, but their OWN; their hiding of tools, singing of songs, creating of families exemplified that. And so I am living in the world they assembled for me, crafted by their OWN hands, sung into existence by their OWN tongues, traveled to on their OWN feet, and built upon by their OWN seed. This world, with love and hope as its core, is so real and enduring that it has produced living proof of victory. I can write this essay for them; I exist and can make my own decisions and am literate and look from the vantage point they gifted me with. Sophia, you are a person. Silence, speak, because you are valuable and your words are valued. And each enslaved person was valuable, even though almost every aspect of the world they lived in told them they were not. They were valuable, intelligent, courageous; artistic, creative, clever. They created small flickers of light and built themselves up, declaring I am not a slave! I am not conquered! Because of those efforts in the midst of spilling blood and crying children, other African Americans and I stand, proudly, upon the bricks of their triumph today.
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