“To be a slave. To be owned by another person, as a car, house, or table is owned. To live as a piece of property that could be sold — a child sold from its mother, a wife from her husband. To be considered not human, but a ‘thing’ that plowed the fields, cut the wood, cooked the food, nursed another’s child . . . To be a slave was to be a human being under conditions under which that humanity was denied. They were not slaves. They were people. Their condition was slavery.”
— Julius Lester
According to Howard Zinn, “The United States government’s support of slavery was based on an overpowering practicality.” In 1790, a thousand tons of cotton were being produced annually in the South. By 1860, we were producing a million tons of cotton. In the same period, 500,000 slaves grew to over 4 million. In order for the South to give up building its success and privilege on the suffering of others in this deeply entrenched system, it would take a full-scale war. Using Julius Lester’s award winning book as our anchor text, we have spent several weeks absorbing the historical legacy of slavery and accepting our responsibilities as Americans to not only know the truths of our history, but to actively work towards undoing the attitudes, assumptions, and fear that allowed an abomination like slavery to proliferate in our homeland for hundreds of years.
Student writing on Julius Lester’s To Be A Slave . . .
“The softest couches in the world are not to be found in the log mansion of the slaves. The one whereon I reclined year after year was a plank twelve inches wide and ten feet long. My pillow was a stick of would. The bedding was a course blanket and not a rag or shred beside. Moss might be used, were it not that it directly breeds a swarm of fleas. The cabin is constructed of logs, without floor or window. The latter is altogether unnecessary, the crevices between the logs admitting sufficient light. In stormy weather the rain drives through them, rendering it comfortless and extremely disagreeable. The rude door hangs on wooden hinges. In one end is constructed an awkward fireplace.”
Northup, pp. 170-171
This description of an enslaved person’s cabin shows the terrible conditions that they lived in, and reveals the reality of daily life as an enslaved person. I read this quote while sitting on my West Elm couch in my spacious living room with a big fluffy pillow behind my couch. Often when we hear about such horrible stories we don’t think about what it would actually be like to live them. I stopped after reading this and tried to picture myself there, and I got a really clear picture of what that cabin must have been like. I’m not saying that I knew what it was like to be an enslaved person, but this description is as close as I’m going to get.
It is important to hear these stories because it is important to study the lives of the people who came before us. America wouldn’t have gotten to where it is now without the legacies left behind by our ancestors. A huge section of American history is slavery; it’s America’s ugliest scar. It is extremely crucial to learn about this through primary sources like this one, so we can really know what happened.
In the 1850’s, almost all of the events in America were somehow connected to slavery. Years of tension and fights surrounding slavery had piled up, bringing America to her breaking point. The relations between the South and the North were ugly beyond imagination. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, but not without a long, hard fight prior.
— Mina Aronczyk
This quote highlights just how bad conditions were, and compares them to what a free person would expect. There is barely anything there, it’s extremely uncomfortable, and on top of that, it’s not even properly constructed! They had to sleep on a wooden plank and then go do backbreaking work for six, sometimes even seven days a week. It shows how little the slave owners cared for their slaves’ well being. They only cared if they were healthy enough to work. They can’t really be called complete structures, because they only provide partial shelter due to the crevices in-between logs. They were made as cheaply as possible, and mistakes in the construction of these almost-huts of almost any degree were acceptable in the builder’s and master’s eyes. The South wanted to expand slavery as to get more support as they could see tension with the North rising. If slavery was banned in the new states, it would quickly be eradicated in the South with little Southerners who profited off slavery could do about it.
— Alexander Atanassov
This information is important to know as it is about the lives of people. This quote describes the living conditions of an individual, or a group of people that expresses that they lived in some pretty harsh conditions. Their bedding was “a coarse blanket and not a rag or shred beside,” they lived in cabins with no windows of floors. This quote shows their perseverance, their will, and their bravery that allowed them to survive even though their living space was anything but comfortable.
The issue of slavery likely played a large roll in the events of the 1850s. Leading up to the Civil War, tensions were high between the pro slavery and anti slavery groups. In September of 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act stating that slaves must be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. In addition, the act made the federal government responsible for capturing escaped slaves and returning them.
— Skye Mcarther
This quote’s historical importance is shown in how it explains the rough conditions for the slaves. It explains it by saying that slave “mansions” don’t have soft couches. Instead, they’re more like benches you’d find in parks except made with unpolished and splintered wood. It reveals how bad people treated these slaves. In around the 1850s, the newly acquired land from the Mexican-American war prompted slave owners to want to use the land and put more slaves on it.
— Darnell Muyeeb
“In the slave holding South, the more slaves a man owned, the more respected he was. In other words, the more human beings he held by force and against their will, the more highly regarded he was.”
— Julius Lester
When I read this quote, I wasn’t surprised, but I was shocked at the way it was written. This quote is important for people to recognize so that they understand how slaves were treated. Slaves were like money. The more money you have, the richer and more respected you are, same thing for slaves. The more slaves you have, the more respected you get. Slave owners used slaves to make themselves look better. This quote reveals a lot about the life of an enslaved person. It shows us how much slaves were being used and that according to slave owners they’re useless. In 1850, slavery was still horrible. It was still happening. There were over 3 million slaves at the time, and let’s not forget new ones were brought in all the time.
— Kelly Vaysman