Come on; I couldn’t leave posting on that kind of downer. Maybe, just maybe, Adam did what countless people in his situation did. Maybe he, in the words of Frederick Douglass on slave experience, “endured.”
Perhaps it was only inevitable that as a whole slaves wouldn’t just “endure,” but actively fight back. For why I raise the possibility of inevitability we will need to pop by the parlors of 18th century London society. Wear a tie.
The year is 1789. A somewhat remarkable figure has become a fixture of the social and intellectual scenes. Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who had become a figurehead of the abolitionist movement in England, is one of the most talked about individuals in London. This year he has published a memoir of his experiences as a slave. He has married Susan Cully, a white Englishwoman from the Cambridgeshire town of Ely. He discusses slavery in visceral yet erudite terms, asserting that when you enslave you rob people of “half their virtue.” Rather than modeling proper Christian behavior you provide “an example of fraud, rapine, and cruelty.” In fact, you do nothing put “compel them to live with you in a state of war.”
John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, hallmarks of social contract theory, had already been published almost exactly a century earlier. Friendly with many educated and politically inclined Englishmen (including the Parliamentarian William Wilberforce) Equiano may well have had him in mind when he used the turn of phrase state of war. If one remembers Locke (and why would one?) one might recall that in the chapter “On Slavery” it is clear that an enslaved person is justified in — nay, is obligated to — fight back against the enslaver due to the permanent “State of War” that exists in such a situation. Slavery therefore flies in the face of what it means to live under a social contract.
One might also recall that John Locke also drafted the alliterative Carolina Colony Constitution which specifically covered the particulars of chattel slavery. One might also think that I’m getting a tiny bit didactic using the word “one” as a pronoun and should just switch to “you” because it’s getting kind of tiresome. Anyway. Point being that we should take Locke’s writings on slavery with more than one grain of salt. “Slavery” was frequently used during the Enlightenment — as it is used by the Tea Party now — as a piece of political slang. The halls of Parliament regularly echoed with it, particularly during debates on republicanism versus aristocracy versus the monarchy, and who was feeling underrepresented this week.
Equiano may have been giving Locke’s perspective a fresh twist. It would have been apt, after all; the American Revolution had awoken on the Continent a fair amount of abolitionist fervor. Meanwhile, a series of slave rebellions in the West Indies had already begun, to culminate in the Haitian revolution in 1791 (two years after Equiano published his memoirs). The canny Equiano may have decided to just go with it. He certainly was sharp enough to do so.
Meanwhile again, in New England, Alexandra Chan writes that slaves were holding onto part of their identity as Africans and that this would be a vital piece of their future identity as African Americans. Sartorial flourishes such as combs, “fanciful aprons” and “finery” were used to bedeck oneself for public occasions such as church. Runaway slave advertisements often specified the escapee’s fineness of dress. Rituals from the homeland were also used to protect oneself from harm, as evidenced by the charms and jewelry unearthed during Chan’s dig. A slave named Henry Bibb wrote about sprinkling powder in and around his master and mistress’ bed in order to convert their anger at him into love for one another.
The most famous example of a surviving African tradition would have to be, of course, the oral tradition. African-American folklore, such as the tales of Br’er Rabbit, have already been written about extensively as a form of indirect resistance. Br’er Rabbit, a likely composite figure of the Akan spider god Ananse and the Cherokee Hare trickster, exemplified qualities such as cunning, deceit, and feigned ignorance. It behooved the slave to include these skills in her or his mental survival kit. Notably, Br’er Rabbit is one of the only tricksters to not possess supernatural powers. This perhaps reflects the status of the enslaved.
So yes. Adam probably didn’t slowly die inside. It’s more likely that he “endured.”