Amazing Resilience and Enduring Cultural Gifts Of Slave Communities

Updated: Aug 9, 2021


Black spirituality, communal caring, family strength and a collective quest for freedom undeterred by oppression became the enduring legacy of slave communities. Deep appreciation for Black resilience grows from contemplating the horridness of slavery. Imagine the torturing of your loved ones; or, having them stand sold out from your family. The strength to not be overcome by these agonies has its foundation in African spirituality, where Life is pervasively sacred. In this religiously experienced context, tribal and community bonding provided the foundation for enduring family relationships, adversities notwithstanding. C. Eric Lincoln, eminent Black sociologist and historian of Negro culture, describes this African heritage and its subsequent adaptation to the conditions of slavery and racism, as the basis for what he calls the Black Sacred Cosmos. Herein is the seedbed of Black Culture resilience in America.[i]

Not always visible, the Afro-Spiritual underpinning of Black resilience is often noted or is just below the surface, continuing to present time.


o

Tellingly of how personal and cultural history intertwine, Langston Hughes’ first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,”[ii] was written when he was 17, crossing the Mississippi River on a trip from Harlem to Mexico to see his father. He wrote,





I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. n

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,

and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


Musing further on the African heritage experienced as flowing through his veins, Langston Hughes wrote, “Afro-American Fragment,”[iii]

So long, So far away Is Africa. Not even memories alive Save those that history books create, Save those that songs Beat back into the blood— Beat out of blood with words sad-sung In strange un-Negro tongue— So long, So far away Is Africa.


The African roots of Black spirituality, the enduring sense of the world as sacred, were evolved under the conditions of enslavement into a belief system consistent with Christianity. But it was a process of adaptation rather than assimilation, giving Black Christianity its own characteristics. The musical rhythms, the ecstasy of emotional expression that carries worshipers into extraordinary consciousness (overcoming the agonies of the day plus enhancing personal communication with the divine) and the emphasis on freedom, all distinguish African-American churches from mainline American Christianity. Freedom was, first of all, freedom from slavery, but subsequently it is also freedom to respond to God’s calling, without selective interference by other persons or institutions. This is the “freedom” that echoed through slave revolts, through the Civil War, fueling the runaway exodus from plantations, and cascading through history to the civil rights movement.





This is the expanded concept of freedom, of liberty, that James Weldon Johnson exhorts through song in the Black National Anthem,[iv]








Lift ev'ry voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring. Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise, evening meeting High as the list'ning skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.

Are you bowed down in heart? Do you but hear the clashing discords and the din of life? Then come away, come to the peaceful wood, Here bathe your soul in silence. Listen! Now, From out the palpitating solitude Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains? They are above, around, within you, everywhere. Silently listen! Clear, and still more clear, they come. They bubble up in rippling notes, and swell in singing tones. Now let your soul run the whole gamut of the wondrous scale Until, responsive to the tonic chord, It touches the diapason of God’s grand cathedral organ, Filling earth for you with heavenly peace And holy harmonies.


The weaving together of Black resilience includes a tapistry of nature, community or church and family. Familial resilience is captured by Paula Giddings, in her forward to the book, Climbing Jacob’s ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families by Andrew Billingsley. She describes how Black family cohesiveness survived against all odds through the tribulations and separations of slavery.


Black culture scholars have attributed this remarkable feat to their African heritage and their churches, both visible and invisible, that formed even during slavery.

The determination of Black families to live their lives together (wrote Giddings), despite involuntary separations is evidenced by the large numbers of slave couples that lived in long marriages. Mothers and fathers were most often coequal heads of the household. Union soldiers noted that Blacks whose wives and husbands the rebels had driven off firmly refused to form new connections and declared their purpose to keep faith with the absent ones. Those who had married as slaves often exercised their 1st social act as freed men and women to marry again under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau.[v]

Children too had to be recovered. Apprenticeship laws in many Southern States allowed former slave Masters to expropriate children of their former slaves, if the courts determined that they would be better off apprenticed to Whites than remaining in their own families. Freedmen's bureau records document numerous and extraordinary efforts by both fathers and mothers to get their children back.[vi]


In the early days of reconstruction, women with the cooperation of their husbands - refused to work Southern cotton fields so that they might spend more time with their families. Boston cotton brokers, analyzing the disastrous cotton crop of 1867 – 68, concluded that the greatest loss resulted from the decision of growing numbers of Black women to devote their time to their homes and children. When it became impossible to sustain their position as a non-wage earners, Black women’s undiminished determination was the reason sharecropping took precedence over other kinds of a collective labor because it allowed the whole family to work together.[vii]


Giddings describes these resilient Back families as forming dual-headed households in which fathers and mothers played equally important partnership roles. Langston Hughes poem in praise of “The Negro Mother,”[viii] captures the sense of spiritual history that contributed to their endurance.


The Negro Mother Children, I come back today To tell you a story of the long dark way That I had to climb, that I had to know In order that the race might live and grow. Look at my face—dark as the night— Yet shining like the sun with love’s true light. I am the child they stole from the sand Three hundred years ago in Africa’s land. I am the dark girl who crossed the wide sea Carrying in my body the seed of the free. I am the woman who worked in the field Bringing the cotton and the corn to yield. I am the one who labored as a slave, Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave— Children sold away from me, husband sold, too. No safety, no love, no respect was I due. Three hundred years in the deepest South: But God put a song and a prayer in my mouth. God put a dream like steel in my soul. Now, through my children, I’m reaching the goal. Now, through my children, young and free, I realize the blessings denied to me. I couldn’t read then. I couldn’t write. I had nothing, back there in the night. Sometimes, the valley was filled with tears, But I kept trudging on through the lonely years. Sometimes, the road was hot with sun, But I had to keep on till my work was done: I had to keep on! No stopping for me— I was the seed of the coming Free. I nourished the dream that nothing could smother Deep in my breast—the Negro mother. I had only hope then, but now through you, Dark ones of today, my dreams must come true: All you dark children in the world out there, Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair. Remember my years, heavy with sorrow— And make of those years a torch for tomorrow. Make of my past a road to the light Out of the darkness, the ignorance, the night. Lift high my banner out of the dust. Stand like free men supporting my trust. Believe in the right, let none push you back. Remember the whip and the slaver’s track. Remember how the strong in struggle and strife Still bar you the way, and deny you life— But march ever forward, breaking down bars. Look ever upward at the sun and the stars. Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayers Impel you forever up the great stairs— For I will be with you till no White brother Dares keep down the children of the Negro mother.


Enslaved Blacks were hungry to learn, for educational resources that would help them understand and surmount their challenging environment. Sociologist, Andrew Billingsley, traces how the Blacks in Savannah, for example, turned to education with a vigor matched only by their allegiance to their churches and their families. Indeed, in little more than a month after they had helped Sherman capture Savannah, Blacks had established 10 schools, with some 500 students enrolled. There had been a strong history of Black participation in education in Savannah even during slavery, despite laws and custom which tried to thwart it. Sometimes Blacks were taught by sympathetic Whites, sometimes by free Blacks, and sometimes they taught themselves.[ix]


Before reconstruction was abortively ended by White violence, it seemed that Black families would outdistance the legacy of slavery, the abolitionist, Frances Ellen Harper wrote after her tour of the South. In 1870 Blacks were getting homes for themselves and putting money in the the bank.


Throughout the 1st half of the 20th century, heroic efforts to keep extended families together were required when driven by disenfranchisement, lynching, economic depression, and sexual exploitation in the South and economic opportunity in the North, hundreds and thousands of families trekked there to urban cities. There too, when possible, the labor force was bent to family needs. Domestic workers for example, asserted their determination to work day jobs instead of live-in work so that a more coherent family life could be maintained.[x]


Welfare, initiated by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, was welcomed by African American women for the same reason; with it domestic workers, the majority of Black women workers, could stay home with children instead of leaving to work and having the hours that they could spend there being subjected to the whims of White employers. The North with its fickle and discriminatory employment practices, housing covenants and violent response to economic competition from Blacks, was not the hoped-for promised land. Nonetheless, numerous studies of Black migrants in the North revealed that families managed to ride out the vagaries that placed disorganization pressures on family life.[xi]


[i] C. Eric Lincoln, Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Duke University Press. Kindle Edition. [ii] Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [iii]Ibid [iv] James Weldon Johnson, [v] Paula Giddings, Forward, Andrew Billingsley, Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families, Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (February 1, 1993) [vi] Ibid. [vii]Ibid. [viii]Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics) (p. 288). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [ix] Andrew Billingsley. Mighty Like a River: The Black Church and Social Reform (Kindle Locations 634-636). Kindle Edition. [x]Paula Giddings, Forward, Andrew Billingsley, Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families, Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (February 1, 1993) . [xi]Ibid.


I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,

and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


Musing further on the African heritage experienced as flowing through his veins, Langston Hughes wrote, “Afro-American Fragment,”[iii]

So long, So far away Is Africa. Not even memories alive Save those that history books create, Save those that songs Beat back into the blood— Beat out of blood with words sad-sung In strange un-Negro tongue— So long, So far away Is Africa.


The African roots of Black spirituality, the enduring sense of the world as sacred, were evolved under the conditions of enslavement into a belief system consistent with Christianity. But it was a process of adaptation rather than assimilation, giving Black Christianity its own characteristics. The musical rhythms, the ecstasy of emotional expression that carries worshipers into extraordinary consciousness (overcoming the agonies of the day plus enhancing personal communication with the divine) and the emphasis on freedom, all distinguish African-American churches from mainline American Christianity. Freedom was, first of all, freedom from slavery, but subsequently it is also freedom to respond to God’s calling, without selective interference by other persons or institutions. This is the “freedom” that echoed through slave revolts, through the Civil War, fueling the runaway exodus from plantations, and cascading through history to the civil rights movement.

This is the expanded concept of freedom, of liberty, that James Weldon Johnson exhorts through song in the Black National Anthem,[iv]


Lift ev'ry voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring. Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise, evening meeting High as the list'ning skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.

Are you bowed down in heart? Do you but hear the clashing discords and the din of life? Then come away, come to the peaceful wood, Here bathe your soul in silence. Listen! Now, From out the palpitating solitude Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains? They are above, around, within you, everywhere. Silently listen! Clear, and still more clear, they come. They bubble up in rippling notes, and swell in singing tones. Now let your soul run the whole gamut of the wondrous scale Until, responsive to the tonic chord, It touches the diapason of God’s grand cathedral organ, Filling earth for you with heavenly peace And holy harmonies.

The weaving together of Black resilience includes a tapistry of nature, community or church and family. Familial resilience is captured by Paula Giddings, in her forward to the book, Climbing Jacob’s ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families by Andrew Billingsley. She describes how Black family cohesiveness survived against all odds through the tribulations and separations of slavery.


Black culture scholars have attributed this remarkable feat to their African heritage and their churches, both visible and invisible, that formed even during slavery.

The determination of Black families to live their lives together (wrote Giddings), despite involuntary separations is evidenced by the large numbers of slave couples that lived in long marriages. Mothers and fathers were most often coequal heads of the household. Union soldiers noted that Blacks whose wives and husbands the rebels had driven off firmly refused to form new connections and declared their purpose to keep faith with the absent ones. Those who had married as slaves often exercised their 1st social act as freed men and women to marry again under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau.[v]

Children too had to be recovered. Apprenticeship laws in many Southern States allowed former slave Masters to expropriate children of their former slaves, if the courts determined that they would be better off apprenticed to Whites than remaining in their own families. Freedmen's bureau records document numerous and extraordinary efforts by both fathers and mothers to get their children back.[vi]


In the early days of reconstruction, women with the cooperation of their husbands - refused to work Southern cotton fields so that they might spend more time with their families. Boston cotton brokers, analyzing the disastrous cotton crop of 1867 – 68, concluded that the greatest loss resulted from the decision of growing numbers of Black women to devote their time to their homes and children. When it became impossible to sustain their position as a non-wage earners, Black women’s undiminished determination was the reason sharecropping took precedence over other kinds of a collective labor because it allowed the whole family to work together.[vii]


Giddings describes these resilient Back families as forming dual-headed households in which fathers and mothers played equally important partnership roles. Langston Hughes poem in praise of “The Negro Mother,”[viii] captures the sense of spiritual history that contributed to their endurance.


The Negro Mother Children, I come back today To tell you a story of the long dark way That I had to climb, that I had to know In order that the race might live and grow. Look at my face—dark as the night— Yet shining like the sun with love’s true light. I am the child they stole from the sand Three hundred years ago in Africa’s land. I am the dark girl who crossed the wide sea Carrying in my body the seed of the free. I am the woman who worked in the field Bringing the cotton and the corn to yield. I am the one who labored as a slave, Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave— Children sold away from me, husband sold, too. No safety, no love, no respect was I due. Three hundred years in the deepest South: But God put a song and a prayer in my mouth. God put a dream like steel in my soul. Now, through my children, I’m reaching the goal. Now, through my children, young and free, I realize the blessings denied to me. I couldn’t read then. I couldn’t write. I had nothing, back there in the night. Sometimes, the valley was filled with tears, But I kept trudging on through the lonely years. Sometimes, the road was hot with sun, But I had to keep on till my work was done: I had to keep on! No stopping for me— I was the seed of the coming Free. I nourished the dream that nothing could smother Deep in my breast—the Negro mother. I had only hope then, but now through you, Dark ones of today, my dreams must come true: All you dark children in the world out there, Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair. Remember my years, heavy with sorrow— And make of those years a torch for tomorrow. Make of my past a road to the light Out of the darkness, the ignorance, the night. Lift high my banner out of the dust. Stand like free men supporting my trust. Believe in the right, let none push you back. Remember the whip and the slaver’s track. Remember how the strong in struggle and strife Still bar you the way, and deny you life— But march ever forward, breaking down bars. Look ever upward at the sun and the stars. Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayers Impel you forever up the great stairs— For I will be with you till no White brother Dares keep down the children of the Negro mother.


Enslaved Blacks were hungry to learn, for educational resources that would help them understand and surmount their challenging environment. Sociologist, Andrew Billingsley, traces how the Blacks in Savannah, for example, turned to education with a vigor matched only by their allegiance to their churches and their families. Indeed, in little more than a month after they had helped Sherman capture Savannah, Blacks had established 10 schools, with some 500 students enrolled. There had been a strong history of Black participation in education in Savannah even during slavery, despite laws and custom which tried to thwart it. Sometimes Blacks were taught by sympathetic Whites, sometimes by free Blacks, and sometimes they taught themselves.[ix]


Before reconstruction was abortively ended by White violence, it seemed that Black families would outdistance the legacy of slavery, the abolitionist, Frances Ellen Harper wrote after her tour of the South. In 1870 Blacks were getting homes for themselves and putting money in the the bank.


Throughout the 1st half of the 20th century, heroic efforts to keep extended families together were required when driven by disenfranchisement, lynching, economic depression, and sexual exploitation in the South and economic opportunity in the North, hundreds and thousands of families trekked there to urban cities. There too, when possible, the labor force was bent to family needs. Domestic workers for example, asserted their determination to work day jobs instead of live-in work so that a more coherent family life could be maintained.[x]


Welfare, initiated by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, was welcomed by African American women for the same reason; with it domestic workers, the majority of Black women workers, could stay home with children instead of leaving to work and having the hours that they could spend there being subjected to the whims of White employers. The North with its fickle and discriminatory employment practices, housing covenants and violent response to economic competition from Blacks, was not the hoped-for promised land. Nonetheless, numerous studies of Black migrants in the North revealed that families managed to ride out the vagaries that placed disorganization pressures on family life.[xi]



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[i] C. Eric Lincoln, Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Duke University Press. Kindle Edition. [ii] Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [iii]Ibid [iv] James Weldon Johnson, [v] Paula Giddings, Forward, Andrew Billingsley, Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families, Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (February 1, 1993) [vi] Ibid. [vii]Ibid. [viii]Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics) (p. 288). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. [ix] Andrew Billingsley. Mighty Like a River: The Black Church and Social Reform (Kindle Locations 634-636). Kindle Edition. [x]Paula Giddings, Forward, Andrew Billingsley, Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families, Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (February 1, 1993) . [xi]Ibid.

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