The Wit And Witticism Of Slaves

For those keeping track, I'm reading Weevils In The Wheat: Interviews With Virginia's Ex-Slaves. This is part of the bounty I brought back from Petersburg. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, as it's really specific, but I'm enjoying the hell out of it.

One of the challenges of writing about slavery is to get the reader to not see slavery as a static, unchanging thing which affected every black person, every where in the same way. Slavery changed depending on the time. It changed depending on the state. And it changed depending on the plantation, the master, or the disposition of the slaves themselves.

For instance:

De history books is wrong. 'Twas Abe Lincoln an' Jeff Davis dat met under de ole apple tree. Lincoln stuck a shot-gun in Jeff Davis' face and yelled, "Better surrender, else I shoot an' hang you." Davis tole him, "Yessir Marse Lincoln, I surrender."

Hmm, well I guess that's the abridged version. That's Jimmie Green, born in 1845, of , Lawrenceville, Virginia. I got a kick out of reading that. I got an equally perverted kick out of the slaves who praise their masters and talk about how well they were treated. Yesterday, I was reading about Mildred Graves, a slave-woman who was a midwife to a lot of the white people in her area. Her master made a fortune hiring her out, and would give her a small cut. In this story, a prosperous white woman who lives a few miles away is in child-birth and about to die. Graves is summoned in the middle of the night and...

I went and when I got dare she had two doctosr f'om Richmond, but dey won't doin nothin fer her. Something was very wrong wid Mrs. Leake dey say, an' dey want to call another doctor--min' you dere was two dere already. I tol' dem I could being her 'round, but dey laugh at me an' say, "Get back darkie, we mean business an' don' won't any witch doctors or hodoo stuff."

Mrs Leake heard dem and she said 'tween pains she want me; so dey said if you want her fer your doctor we would would go. I stayed an' wulked f'om bout one o'clock to eight o'clock. I tell you dat was de toughest case I ever had. I did ev'ything I knowed an' somethings I didn' know. I don' know how I done it, but anyway a son was born dat mornin' and dat boy lived. Even de doctors dat had called me bad names said many praise fer me.

De baby was named Andrew and he was my chile. After he got older hee us to steal over to Mr. Tinsley's to see me. He would bring me things--eats, money, candy, an' purty earrings. One I wore in my ear 'till de Yankees come an' stole em. He use to teach me to write my name 'an I learn lots o' things f'om dat boy. He tol' me his father tried to buy me, but Mr. Tinsley wouldn' sell me. Den he went to war an' dat blessed chile was kilt; I knowed he died fightin.

Now I hate how they transcribed this stuff--I think the dialect conceals more than it reveals, on the page that is. There's a way of capturing the rhythm of how people speak without going there. But that said, I loved this story. I just thought it said so much about the weird intimacy between whites and blacks in the South back then, and maybe even now. Language says so much about us.

And then there is this from Robert Ellet. His father refused to be whipped, but his whole family, by his testimony, were high value slaves because, despite their refusal to submit to abuse, they all worked really hard. The master wanted to sell the Ellet family. But they actually belonged to his wife, who'd inherited them. A clause in the will said they couldn't be sold, except to other family members. So the master was stuck. He couldn't sell them. He couldn't whip them. And he couldn't kill them--they were too valuable.

Anyway, here's Ellet's account of himself as a boy, and then as a young man:

I grew up with the young masters. I played with them, ate with them, and sometimes slept with them. We were pals. Because of my unusual strength and spirit, I would let none of them beat me at any game or in any wrestle...

My master was a Garett and an old devil. He was the meanest man out, but father wouldn't let him beat him. I've seen him time and again try to beat my father and I always heard my father say, "I'll die before I'll let you beat me!" I was the same way and still am, even though I am lying here in this bed. No white man or black man ever beat me. No sir. I could just get these two fingers in his throat and wham him with this fist once, down he goes to the ground, and I walk on him...

At that time I was the strongest man in this state. Ask these people around here. They can tell you. I could almost beat a horse running and could make ten miles anywhere inside an hour. I could lick any two men....I sailed in the Peabody Firm for two years. I remember the time when I stood on the levies at New Orleans and took a cotton hook and stuck it in a bale of cotton and raised it chest high alone....

A little bit of an MC, no? But he has such a beautiful voice. I think it works better without the dialect.