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Randal M. Jelks


Slavery and Broken Souls

Frederick Douglass summed up the physical cost of being a slave in the starkest of terms: slaves "were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of day than of the night." The slaveholder had only one desire, which was to work the slaves as hard as possible to clear the land and plant and harvest crops. "The longest days were too short for [the overseer], and the shortest nights too long for him," Douglass wrote.

But the psychic toll weighed even more heavily on Douglass: "I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute!" The transatlantic slave trade and its subsequent evolution in the history of the United States was a spiritual and social holocaust for African Americans.

American sociologists have been keen to assess how the slave system and its outgrowth—Jim Crow laws and the sharecropping system of the deep South—affected the behavior of African Americans. From W.E.B. DuBois's late-nineteenth-century studies of the Negro family, to the 1930s writings of E. Franklin Frazier and Charles Johnson, to the 1960s Moynihan Report, many thinkers have pondered the link between agrarian slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the struggles of African Americans in modern, urban America. The sociological debate has been accompanied by fierce debates within American historiography about the slave family, personality, culture, and community.

American slavery has also inspired theological reflection. This tradition began in the eighteenth century with The Interesting ...

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