To slaves, it was clear that slavery existed for two reasons: free labor and the money that was gotten from the fruits of that free labor and from selling slaves. (Lester, p. 32)
This is a major point in Julius Lester’s, To Be a Slave. This is a book of short quotes and stories of people that had been slaves and were now free. Three of the main topics of the book are the living conditions of slaves, the rebellion of slaves, and the songs that slaves sang. Here are some excerpts that show what different parts of slavery were like and some connections to what I have seen, read, and watched about the slave experience.
We entered some negroes’ huts for their habitations can not be called houses. They are far more miserable than the poorest of the cottages of our peasants. (p. 62-63)
These are the words of a Polish poet who spent two weeks at George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon and described the houses of the slaves that worked there. During the time of slavery, the living conditions of the slaves varied. Some would have little cabins with one family each and others would have one room for 10-15 people. When we went to Mount Vernon we saw the quarters that the slaves lived in. In many of them, multiple slaves would sleep on the ground or on planks of wood. Some of the rooms had rags that the slaves were using as blankets and a small fireplace. Overall, I think that the description of the slave quarters are accurate and I would not want to live there for even a day let alone my whole life.
It was not uncommon for escaped slaves to hide out in the woods. Sometimes they did so for years. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many slaves ran away and livd with the Indians. Others escaped and created their own settlements. (p.121)
When slaves would run away, many times it was to the North, but sometimes they would create their own small settlements in the swamps or on the coast. Here they could live free and create their own culture. They also would face many difficulties like slave catchers and storms. In The Patriot, a movie about the revolutionary war, the main character and his family go to live in a settlement on the coast with escaped slaves. While they are there they see how the escaped slaves fished and hunted for food and built houses out of the things that they had around them. Today we can still see evidence of the Gullah culture on the coast of the South East.
The big bee flies high,
The little bee makes the honey.
The black folks make the cotton
And the white folks get the money. (p.114)
This was a song sung by slaves while they worked in the fields picking cotton. In the slave culture a big part of work was singing. Singing would help them to pass the time and to connect with other people. One example of this was in the movie Glory, which is about the 54th Massachusetts regiment (the first black regiment). Before they go to battle at Fort Wagner in South Carolina the whole regiment gets together and sings songs around the campfire thanking God for the opportunity to fight for their people. The soldiers would also sing when they worked cutting down trees. I think that all of these show how important singing was to them as a way of entertainment and passing time and of following their religion.
Overall, I think that this was a great book that really shows what the different aspects of slavery were and what it was all together. I think that one of the reasons that this book is so accurate is that all of the quotes and stories are told by real slaves. I would recommend this book to people who want to learn more about slavery because this is a book of what the slaves said after they became free and they were the only ones who really knew what slavery was and how it felt to be a slave. As you read this book you might feel infuriated by the treatment of the slaves, but you should still read this to understand the history of our nation.