As I noted in prior weeks, I’m sharing a series of reflections after visiting the Whitney Plantation (aka Habitation Haydel) during a four-week road trip this summer. On the late-June day we visited, the sun was hot, the humidity was high, and I couldn’t imagine being out in the fields working all day long. We could barely manage the 90-minute tour! Yet literally millions of enslaved Africans and African Americans toiled under such brutal conditions in the southern US less than 200 years ago.
How do we know what the enslaved life was like? Most formerly enslaved people didn’t want to talk about it after the Civil War, even with their families. That was the past, and they were focused on a freer future. However, we do have some narratives because of a little-known (to me anyway!) project of the New Deal’s WPA (Works Progress Administration). People were employed not only to build roads and bridges. Writers were also hired to write down American folklore. When formerly enslaved people began talking about their experiences, someone realized that this was literally a legacy in danger of dying out and began to focus intentionally on first-person accounts of the enslaved experience. The result was Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1938, which “contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.”
However, as our guide pointed out when we toured Habitation Haydel, these formerly enslaved African Americans didn’t tell much to the white interviewers except what they thought the whites wanted to hear. Still, these interviews provided previously unrecorded windows into the enslaved persons’ experiences and perspectives.
Two phrases that came out of these stories refer to the seasons of life for enslaved people in the antebellum South. The worst part of the sugarcane growing season was harvest, from September to December. It was called the “cutting season” because of both the process of cutting down the sugarcane and how the mature sugarcane leaves would cut through human skin like knives. Enslaved people were worked for even longer hours, and masters purchased additional slaves to obtain the necessary human labor for this hectic, hellish season. (As I noted two weeks ago, this was also the only time many masters actually lived in their fancy homes on the plantations. The rest of the year, they lived in the more “civilized” cities and relied on overseers to run their plantations.)
After the cutting season came the “wailing season.” This was when the master sold off the excess slaves he no longer needed after the harvest. Since this also provided him with an opportunity to reassess his entire workforce, this often involved the splitting up of families—hence the wailing.
Next week, I’ll conclude this series on the enslaved people’s experience with some personal reflections on my day at the Whitney Plantation. For now, I invite you to reflect on the impact of so much trauma on the lives of African Americans—then and now. The more I learn, the more I believe generational trauma is real. What is our responsibility to those whose ancestors endured such an incredibly harsh life?