By Wilma King From Victoria's Past:
Oh, child! thou art a little slave: And all of thee that grows, Will be another's weight of flesh,–But thine the weight of woes Thou art a little slave, my child And much I grieve and mourn That to so dark a destiny My lovely babe I've borne.
– The Slave Mother's Address to her Infant Child
If childhood was a special time for enslaved children, it was because their parents made it so. They stood between them and slaveholders who sought to control them psychologically and to break their wills to resist. Parents also looked out for their children's physical well-being. Frederick Douglass recalled how his mother came to his rescue after the cook Aunt Katy refused to give him bread. His mother's intercession taught him that he “was not only a child, but somebody's child.” He remembered that being upon his mother's knee, at that moment, made him prouder than being a king upon a throne.”
Enslaved parents had an unusually heavy responsibility, for they not only had to survive, but they also had to ensure that their children survived under conditions that were tantamount to perpetual war between slaveholders fighting to control their chattel while the bond servants were struggling to free themselves from the control of others. The African heritage was an important factor in how enslaved mothers and fathers guided their children through the strife. This chapter examines the place of children in the slave family and community, the conditions surrounding their birth, the attitudes of enslaved children toward their parents and siblings, and the attitudes of slaveowners toward their youthful chattel.
Child-rearing practices among African Americans had roots in their traditional customs; motherhood, however, took on two unique characteristics for enslaved women in the United States, First, because of an accepted pattern of matrilineal or matrifocal families in traditional African societies, many African women reared children without help form the Fathers. Moreover, the disproportionate number of men taken by salve traders left many women with dependent children to care for and a grater portion of the work, ordinarily completed by men, to perform. The women managed with the help of other women. Like their sisters in Africa, many American slave women adjusted to patenting without spouses due to circumstances beyond their control such as imbalances in the sex ratio and the propensity of slaveowners to sell men separately. Second, motherblood–an honorable status in African society–was no longer an exclusive matter between a woman and her partner once enslaved in North America. Parents viewed their children as family, while owners often saw them as chattel with profit-making potentials.