From John Hennessy:

Fredericksburg slave John Washington spent the first years of his life hired out (with his mother and siblings) to a farmer in Orange County. In his memoir, he remembered Christmases there.

At Christmas time the Slaves were furnished with their new cloths Hats or caps Boots and shoes.  From the oldest to the little children they would be summoned to the “Great House” as they called it (the owners) and each man and woman would receive their Christmas gifts namely Flour, Sugar, whiskey, Molases etc. according to the number in the family and they would go their cabins and for the next six days have a holiday and make thing lively with egg nogg, opossum, Rabbit coon and Everything of the kind.

On its face, this description bespeaks of good treatment, even happiness.  Indeed, at no point in Washington’s memoir does he describe physical abuse or rebellion. Frequently, fond memories tinge his narrative. In fact, when amidst war he was forced to leave Fredericksburg for the final time–the place where he was enslaved for most of his first 24 years of life–he admits that he cried.

John Washington, early 1870s.

It is an easy thing to shop John Washington’s memoir–or the historical record as it relates to slavery–and pluck out passages that would allow the uninquisitive to conclude that slavery wasn’t such a bad thing (people do that regularly.)  But to do that with Washington or slavery at large requires the complete ignorance of context:

– State law forbade John Washington from attending school, from learning to read and write.

– John Washington’s birth was not recorded. His marriage in 1862 was not recognized legally. And, had he died in slavery (he did not), his death would not have been recorded. In fact, it’s likely his name would not have appeared anywhere, except as it related to his value on the open market at the time of a change of ownership.

– Once married, he could not visit his wife without permission.

– Town law required him to move off the sidewalk when a white person approached.

– Had he  been emancipated, state law required him to leave the state of Virginia within one year (leaving behind family members in the process).

– Prior to 1855 (when the African Baptist Church came into being), John Washington was required to sit with all other slaves in the balconies. The floor of the church was reserved solely for white congregants.

– After 1831, gatherings of all African Americans (including at church) had to be supervised by a white man.

– Town law forbade John Washington from being on the street at night or on Sundays in order to “preserve the good order of the town.”

– When his grandmother committed some transgression in the 1820s, her owner was able to hire a man in town for $1.34 to whip her. The punishment of slaves helped support a small industry of trade and punishment entirely dependent upon the institution.

– From at least the 1820s on, the town had at least one man whose primary business was the buying and selling of human beings; the sale of slaves was a regular occurrence in Fredericksburg, with its attendant destruction of families and communities.

– If John Washington ran away, not only would he have to contend with local slave patrols intent on preventing his escape, he would also have to circumvent the power of federal law, which likewise mandated his capture and return to bondage.

Slavery was more than the relationship between master and slave. Beyond the master stood the authority of government (national, state, and local), which imposed control, denied freedom, and ensured that slaves remained largely nameless and silent.

The great power of John Washington’s narrative is in its description of his struggle against the constant drumbeat of dehumanization. His is a constant quest for freedom within the bonds of slavery–for time and space, for choice and initiative. That he did not run away bespeaks not of happiness. That he did not rise in violent rebellion does not imply contentedness. Rather, his choice to endure slavery in anticipation of a brighter day was a reflection of the heaviness of the bonds that held him. His determination to wring what joy he could from life despite his condition is a testament to the human instinct (possessed by Washington in huge measure) to find joy and happiness wherever and whenever we can, no matter the circumstances.

Indeed, most slaves found joy where they could–with family, in song, in faith, or in slight bits of extra time or space to be more free. But to suggest, as many still do, that slaves who were occasionally happy were “happy” as slaves  is to betray a misunderstanding of both history and humanity. If you doubt that, read John Washington. He clearly loved life–and found joy wherever he could, including and perhaps especially at Christmastime.  But just as clearly he abhorred slavery. The distinction between the two is worth noting, both as historians and people of conscience.

Merry Christmas.

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