How did slaves form their own identity and culture in the Cotton Kingdom during the early 1800s?

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In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass documents some of the ways in which slaves developed their own identity and culture. Spirituals were a part of this identity. By singing about themes from the Bible, including the liberation of the Jews from Egypt in the Old Testament, slaves expressed their own hopes for freedom. While white slaveowners often felt that slaves were happy when they sang, slaves themselves knew that their spirituals often expressed their sadness. Spirituals at times also contained coded information about escape routes, such as the instruction to "follow the drinking gourd," which meant to follow the stars to go north. Slaves such as Harriet Tubman might have used this instruction to escape north.

Other forms of slave culture include their own set of spiritual beliefs. In his narrative, Frederick Douglass describes believing in a root that confers power, as much as he states that he does not believe in such superstitions. The root, however, gives him the psychological power to fight against the cruel slave overseer who is tormenting him. These beliefs were often a mixture of traditional beliefs and Christianity.

Slaves also developed extended kinship and friendship networks that were not always based on blood relations. Frederick Douglass, for example, describes befriending people on his plantation and regarding them as family, as he was separated from his mother most of the time and his father might have been his white owner. As slave families were usually separated, they developed their own rituals around marriage and kinship. For example, many slaves celebrated their marriage by jumping over a broom, as they could not marry legally. This tradition is often part of some African American wedding ceremonies today. 

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Slaves created their own identity and culture in many ways during the time of the Cotton Kingdom.  In doing this, they were resisting the dehumanizing effects of slavery.  Some of the most important things that the slaves did included:

  • Music.  Slave music kept alive African influences.  It also gave slaves a secret language (as in some “Negro spirituals”) that could be used to convey messages without the whites understanding.  It also gave slaves a way to relax, socialize, and try to forget the hardships forced on them by slavery.
  • Family.  Even though slave families were not honored by law or in practice, slaves continued to form families.  They wanted to create their own communities in which they could live as much like free people was possible.
  • Fictive kinship.  This is the practice of using terms of kinship (like “brother” or “sister”) when addressing people who are not related to you by blood.  When slaves addressed one another in these ways, they were emphasizing their common bond and creating a community and identity for themselves.
  • Religion.  Slaves created their own version of Christianity in the face of white attempts to control their religion.  They emphasized, for instance, Moses more than Jesus since Moses was a major figure identified with freedom from slavery.  They played down the aspects of Christianity that demanded obedience from subordinates to superiors. 

By doing things like these, the slaves created their own communities and identities as one way to resist what slavery and slaveowners did to them.

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