Guest Blogger: Cami Herring, AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration

After multiple class sessions introducing our archival and manuscript collections and oral history best practices, students in Dr. Nneka Dennie’s Spring 2019 AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic course produced a documentary using oral histories created throughout the semester. These materials will be donated to the Archives.

In addition to this main project, students were tasked with identifying primary sources from local archives, historic sites, and/or repositories that shed light on the lived experiences of enslaved women or women enslavers. The following series of blog posts are authored by these students upon the completion of this archival research process and serve as reflective pieces.

Thank you for your submissions-and a wonderful semester of fruitful collaborations!

“Primary Source Analysis”

written by Cami Herring

Being able to tie the horrific nature of American slavery to today’s manifestation of mass incarceration is no hard task. It is well known that slavery did not end, it just transformed. It is for this reason we see more of our black and brown men and women being thrown into jail for petty crimes or wrongly charged based off of false accusations. The corrupt criminal justice system manifest itself daily, changing not only the makeup up the prison system, but the individual lives within it as well. The correlation between recidivism (the tendency of a convicted person to reoffend) and the poor treatment of “criminals” post-release is extremely high specifically for black women in the United States according to a Prison Policy Initiative study. In no way, however, do I strive to suggest that these women seek to be behind bars once again, but rather factors that work against formerly incarcerated people (specifically women) such as housing or poor living conditions keep them within this cycle. Freeing people from jail does not negate the possibility of returning.

Screen capture of the Prison Policy Initiative homepage.
The Prison Policy Initiative homepage.

Through my archival research, similar themes arose based off of North Carolina archival source I found. The source is from 1867 from an assumed former slave who contracted an agreement to work for a woman named Margaret Torrance for two years on the Cedar Grove Plantation in North Carolina. In it, you can find information about what sort of provisions, shelter, and “care” she will be given under the new bondage of this woman. She states “I, Vina do solemnly bind myself and my four children […] to do anything that she wants me to do.” In it she also hints that she is primarily doing this for her children so they will have sufficient resources for survival, specifically clothing. Although the contract is only for two years, as we know, bondage would often extend for much longer based off of changing circumstances within the contractual agreement. This could be anything from a minor breach in the agreement to simply being uninformed about exactly what they were agreeing to. Either way, it was entirely dependant on what the white person felt to enforce. This means Vina was likely enslaved past these two years. Regardless, the cycle was never broken as a result of the dependency black people were forced to have on whites due to being subdued physically, emotionally, and intellectually for so many years before abolition. Because of this, we see a woman asking to be enslaved, not because she wanted to subject herself to this, but because it was a means of survival. While this source does not provide much more than a committed statement to live at the calling of her enslaver, the implications of it reach into ideology today. Black people don’t want to be incarcerated, but often times the odds are stacked so far against them, that it becomes the one of the only options.

This is a sentiment that is often considered unfathomable to many modern day white Americans as they often attempt to equate their white “freedom” to black freedom. They think “if black people wanted to be treated with equality they should stay out of prisons.” Trust me, I don’t believe the 46,000 youth incarcerated annually want to be behind bars. But, when surrounding living conditions make it more realistic for you to survive in prison than in your own community, it can happen. There has been a significant difference in equity between black and white people. Because of this, freedom for whites was (and continues to be) drastically different to “freedom” of blacks.  

In the 1800s, mere physical freedom did not equate to the mental and emotional freedom whites always had to become educated or learn social literacy to be successful in a world not confined within the fences of a plantation. Freedom of the body is not enough. Vita’s freedom of her body was not enough. She was not equipped to survive in a world that had been functioning without her public existence for so long, and she had never had to opportunity to learn how to do so. Freedom from bondge does not suddenly mean you can be an equal part of society, there is some major catching up that must be done.

This is something that we take for granted and has skewed the way many people (specifically white) view black people in terms of their mere status to be without bondage in America. Just because the chains come off, whether it is through slavery or incarceration, it is senseless to believe that is where the work can end. Similar to how Reconstruction era programs attempted to incorporate formerly enslaved people into society, significant strides are needed to ameliorate programs for previously convicted people so as to break one part of the cycle of incarceration.

Work Cited

“New Report, Nowhere to Go, breaks down the housing crisis among formerly incarcerated people.” Prison Policy Initiative, August, 2018.

Sawyer, Wendy and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019,” Prison Policy Initiative, March, 2019.

“Vina’s Contract” J. Murrey Atkins Library Digital Collections, January, 1867.

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