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Are your slaves rebellious or continually trying to escape? Can’t seem to get them to settle down and honor their masters and mistresses like the Fifth Commandment says? They may be suffering from drapetomania. Any slave that wants to escape must be mentally ill, and drapetomania’s one and only symptom in slaves is the desire to escape.

Drapetomania can also affect slave masters, too. In the master, the illness manifests as weakness of discipline, sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Thus, a good whipping solves two cases of drapetomania: the slave is cured by being whipped, and the master is cured by doing the whipping.

These are the sorts of things that happen when religion, politics, and science get together. The influences of one poison the others. Bad politics and bad interpretations of religion make for bad science, institutionalized racism, and another shameful item in 19th (and 20th and 21st) century race relations.

I’ve just finished Dunaway’s Slavery in the American Mountain South. If her conclusions can be trusted (I’ve already noted a few errors), then most slaves who went missing from their owners weren’t attempting to escape. More often, they were temporarily missing, to visit spouses, children, and other relatives from whom they’d be separated, or to go courting or participate in religious services. These slaves had every intention of returning — not, of course, because they enjoyed their captivity, but because permanently escaping would separate them from other relatives or expose them to retribution.

To the patrollers and other slave catchers, temporarily missing was just as bad as trying to permanently escape. But a little literacy could help slaves combat these patrollers. I’d thought that restrictions placed on education and literacy among slaves was meant to prevent slaves from communicating / coordinating and being exposed to notions of freedom (perhaps abolitionist tracts or the actual Bible). But there was another motive as well. The poor whites who staffed the slave-catching patrols were themselves illiterate; if they were presented with a leave pass or excuse letter by a slave, the patrollers often couldn’t tell if it was legitimate or a forgery. If slaves could easily generate these documents, escape (whether temporary or permanent) would have been easier. Many slaves did use forged papers (prepared by a literate slave or sympathetic white ally) to aid their escape.

Written by timwestover

September 3rd, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Posted in folklore