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The impact of slavery on the black families in the United States has been a debatable issue for decades. William Dunaway believes that slavery had a detrimental effect on the state of black families. On the other hand, Eugene Genovese was opposed to this belief as she was inclined to the idea that slavery did not ruin African-American families. In this article, the debate will centre on the impact of slavery on the black family, whether it destroyed the family institution or not. In addition to views by the above two intellects, the paper will also focus on the ideas presented by other scholars regarding the effects of slavery on the black families.
To begin with, it will be necessary to look at the destruction caused by slavery to the African-American families. Dunaway pinpoints that there is much evidence to authenticate that the permanence of black families depended on the size of the slaveholding they were in. She also shows in her work that disintegration of black families, sexual and physical abuse were common in areas where slave masters controlled smaller groups of slaves.
Slave families could be owned by one or different slave masters. Therefore, a family unit could have the father, mother and children belonging to different masters. In cases where this occurred, working on the plantations and doing other related chores took priority over the personal commitments of the slaves. A father was forced to walk several miles from his plantation to where his family was in order to see them mainly on weekends.
Slaves used to work for long hours with little or no pay at all. The conditions under which men and women worked on the plantations called for endurance. Pregnant women and those who subsequently gave birth were only allowed to stay home for a very short time. Sometimes, they would have a few minutes to suckle their children and then get back to work on the plantations. Regions with relatively large plantations called for one of the enslaved women to take care of the infants as their mothers worked. By the time the young children were seven years of age, they were assigned minor duties by the slave masters such as taking care of their children. Later on, they would gradually be introduced into the plantations to work alongside their parents.
According to Dunaway, most of the large farms had slave quarters where enslaved families interacted with each other. A lot of activities were carried out in the slave quarters, since they were out of reach by the whites. These cabins were confined places where prayer meetings and parties were conducted by enslaved people. Parents would teach their children lessons of loyalty and their family genealogy. Children also learnt how to make drug portions from plants with medicinal value among other greatly informative lessons.
One of the most disturbing and fearful impact of slavery among enslaved people was family separation through the sale of one or several members of their family by the slave masters. This activity was a constant threat since everyone was equally vulnerable to being separated from his people. It is worth noting that the wealth of the slave masters was to a great extent determined by the number of slaves he owned. As a result, slave-masters used to buy and purchase slaves as much as they could.
Nevertheless, slave owners also encouraged marriage among their slaves for their own selfish benefit. This is because they believed that having a family would make a man or a woman to settle down in the farms easily. This translated to the increased property for the slave masters since the children who would be born subsequently were a part of his assets. Sometimes they used to give incentives to those who married. In other cases, they would forcefully enter their slaves into marriage. Sometime slave owners took advantage of their slaves sexually abusing them. This gave rise to many children being brought up without knowing of their fathers who were mainly their masters.
On the contrary, Eugene Genovese believed that slavery did not destroy black families. Instead, he analyzed the community of slaves within a paternalism perspective to illustrate how slavery helped to strengthen family institutions. Paternalism is defined as the intrusion of an individual’s life by another person mainly against their will. The interference is done with the allegation that the person will be secluded from harm, which would otherwise affect him in case the intrusion is not done. Eugene Genovese, therefore, sited paternalism at the heart of the correlation between slaves and their owners. According to this scholar, both the slaves and their owners welcomed paternalism although for different motivations. For the masters, they perceived themselves as compassionate and, therefore, their slave’s labour was justified.
On the other hand, slaves acknowledged that the concept of paternalism could be very beneficial to them since it gave them better working and living conditions. Genovese further argues that the slaves imposed great effort to change the gifts offered to them by their masters as a traditional right which they could not contravene. This implies that these incentives played a crucial role in the formation and definition of a family unit among the enslaved people. Genovese also suggests that the slaves believed that through paternalism, they could be able to claim better treatment from their owners.
Genovese also applied the idea of Marxism in interpretation of the system of slavery in the south. Marxist ideologies focus on materialistic analysis of history or an institution. Therefore, according to him, slave masters were more materialistic and capitalist in nature. The vast plantations owned by slave masters and poor working conditions for the slaves were a form of capitalism, where even basic necessities of the workers were sometimes neglected.
Furthermore, Genovese gained interest in the importance of religion among the slaves. He argued that the slaves used religion as a form of resistance in their daily lives because it offered them a sense of humanity. It allowed them to survive and thus played a crucial role in their social management. According to Genovese, both the slaves and the slave masters were happy with the institution and perpetuation of slavery. Prayers that were made by enslaved families helped to strengthen their bond. The slaves had accepted and adopted the system of slavery and were contented with all that transpired on the plantations since it worked for their own benefits.
The above analysis of the works by Eugene Genovese and William Dunaway depicts two contrasting views regarding slavery and black families. The debate shows how slavery influenced both extremes in a family institution of black families. Although both sides of the debate attract evidence to support their claims; the belief by Dunaway that slavery contributed to the destruction of black families holds more weight. There is a lot of evidence beyond any reasonable doubt that slavery was a major factor that destroyed African-American families especially through separations caused by slave trade and other related unethical acts. The morally unacceptable activities done against slaves by their owners formed in one way or another the genesis of the great social reformations including anti-slavery activism. These reformations led by to the abolition of slavery at the end of the nineteenth century and, subsequently, the end of racial discrimination in the twentieth century in the United States.