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African American Struggle: The Historical Perspective

African American Struggle

The fate of African Americans in the US is complex. No race and no nation, except perhaps the Indians, have gone through so much pain, hardship, and trials. Moreover, numerous myths about the African Americans distorted the already intolerable perceptions and served as an entirely deliberate slavery policy. African American slave labor, abducted and transported by ship to plantation work in Virginia, South Carolina, and other southern states, was a major part of the planned economy of the early to the mid-19th century. This paper aims to discuss the obstacles and incentives that African Americans faced before forming an independent community of black people capable of holding high positions in government and running independent businesses.

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Myths about the Origins of African Americans and the Potential for National Awareness

Among white Americans in the 19th century and even today, there was a myth about Africa as a continent where there was no significant advanced civilization, consisting mainly of tribal settlements that, at best, were engaged in agriculture. The reason for such a myth must have been obvious to those who invented it, but from the point of view of African Americans, this idea is absurd and fundamentally wrong. Therefore, many African American writers, including those who have submitted autobiographical literary works, turn to the theme of their roots and describe life on the African continent.

The most interesting example in this regard is the description of the homeland of Olaudah Equiano Brycchan Carey in his autobiographical The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. In the book, the author begins the story with a description of the geographical features of the province of the kingdom where he grew up, the state structure and government of the kingdom, the rules and norms of the community, as well as the ways and nature of daily life. The author writes “That part of Africa, known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along the coast above 3400 miles, from Senegal to Angola, and includes a variety of kingdoms”.Later in the text, describing the work of his father, who served as head of the province, the author introduces the reader to the developed concept of citizenship of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Benen and presents evidence of a strong civic consciousness of Africans, no less self-evident than among Europeans.

Olaudah Equiano then describes the kingdom of Benen, representing the scale of the country. The author writes: “The kingdom of Benen… extends along the coast about 170 miles, but runs back into the interior part of Africa to a distance hitherto I believe unexplored by any traveler; and seems only terminated at length by the empire of Abyssinia, near 1500 miles from its beginning”. He also notes that this kingdom was the most significant among its neighbors “as to the extent and wealth, the richness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its king, and the number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants”. Interestingly, the geographical and ethnographic elements of the first chapters of the novel, where it is about the author’s journey through many neighboring countries, deserve special attention, since they represent a real picture of the life of Africans.

In the following chapters, when the author gets on a ship with slaves and sees white people for the first time, he is amazed that they eat without washing their hands before eating, touch the corpses, and do not bring offerings to the spirits of their deceased ancestors. He was also particularly surprised at the cruelty of white people towards slaves, and, at the same time, already upon arrival in England, by the fact that whites did not hunt each other for sale into slavery. Given the above, autobiographical novels such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano were probably a necessary source of truth about African Americans and their historical heritage.

White Americans created many myths to deprive African Americans of their past and reduce them solely to the position they were forced into – the position of slaves. In this regard, Olaudah Equiano’s view of the surrounding reality is of particular interest, and at first may seem surprising to white people, since this is the view of a person endowed with deep self-respect, freedom of spirit, compassion, and a philosophical attitude to the hardships and deprivations of life. Quite a striking difference from the myth of blacks, content with the fate of slaves and initially lacking some spiritual qualities characteristic only of free and wealthy Europeans. Therefore, when answering the question about what African Americans were escaping from and what they were working toward as a union of people, Olaudah Equiano presents the book about himself as a man, striving for the very same things that any man strives for – safety, respect, and the life filled with meaning.

Particularly Violent Practices against Slaves – The Importance of Understanding Their Absurdity

Two other autobiographical books are The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. In the first autobiographical novel, special attention should be paid to the description of how the author was separated from his mother because of the secret of his paternity. He lived with his grandmother, but was separated from her at the age of six, and left on the plantation of an old master. Such cruelty to family ties has never been fully understood by African Americans. Familiar with the practice of slavery, since bandits from neighboring kingdoms or provinces often kidnapped people for sale into slavery, African Americans, however, could not understand the particular cruelty with which white people treated slaves.

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For example, in the novel Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the first in the Frederick Douglass Autobiographies trilogy, the author also describes sexual harassment and beating to bloody back scars by the master of the most beautiful girl living on the plantation. Douglass also describes the custom of beating slaves who had the imprudence not to hear the signal from the overseer’s horn to wake them up. Also, the more brutal overseers tended to beat slaves with cowhides for more or less significant offenses, beatings resulting in bloody scars.

The author was particularly impressed by the songs of the slaves who were going to the neighboring farm for their annual rations of food and clothing. These songs were filled with such despair and sung with such feigned gaiety that they caused severe melancholy and tears in any person whose heart is from the flesh. It seemed to the author particularly cynical that the slaveowners tried to use these songs as evidence of the satisfaction of slaves with their lives. This was an extreme degree of the lie, since, despite the sometimes uncomplicated lyrics that the authors wrote themselves, they put their whole soul into the melody, letting the words sound and unleash all their pain and despair. Therefore, according to the author, these songs were the most living evidence that slavery cannot be recognized by any God on earth.

The author considered casual talks of masters with their slaves as another sign of sophisticated cruelty. Douglass describes situations where the master might meet his slave while going about his business and ask about how he is living on the plantation, and if the master is a good one. If the slave was dissatisfied with something, after a couple of weeks he could be resold for the edification of others. Also, the planters sent out spies who asked the slaves about their attitude to their masters, and in the case of negative reviews, the outcome was the same.

However, the life of female slaves was even more excoriating than the life of bastard children or ordinary male slaves. Harriet Jacobs in her autobiographical novel Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl describes the difficulties of growing up with hate, contempt, and envy on the part of the mistress and her daughters. The author also describes his grief over sexual harassment by her master Mr. Flint, which prevented her from dating her beloved, a colored free person.

Harriet Jacobs presents a dialogue with her master who aggressively abuses her with words and slaps her after knowing she has a lover. She writes: “Do you love this nigger?” said he, abruptly. “Yes, sir.” “How dare you tell me so!” he exclaimed, in great wrath. After a slight pause, he added, “I supposed you thought more of yourself; that you felt above the insults of such puppies”.Harriet subsequently loses the opportunity to marry her lover and gives birth to two children from Mr. Sands, who initially introduced himself as a friend but then betrayed Harriet.

The relationship, which in most cases can be characterized by the word inhuman, is what African Americans were escaping from. It should be emphasized that human relations studied by all the authors are presented as more important and painful in terms of flagrant injustice than problems associated with physical hardships. African-Americans were in a state of constant stress and feelings of loss of control over their lives, their present, and future. They were also constantly facing the cruel tendency of whites to sever any family ties between them. This state of affairs probably left an imprint on the perception of whites and could undermine faith in themselves and a better future, which became one of the problems that the descendants of slaves subsequently faced as free people.

The Normal Society through the Eyes of African Americans

The examples presented above describe well the realities in which African Americans lived before and long after the abolition of slavery. However, many members of the elite among African Americans did not agree with either propaganda myths about slaves or with the status quo. Martin Robison Delany in his pamphlet The Condition, Elevation Emigration and Destine of the Colored People of the United States, published in 1852, provides an even more complete answer to the question of how African Americans saw their place in the US society.

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In particular, he talks about the opportunities for their contemporaries, who became free people, having left for the north, but could not find a worthy occupation. Martin Delany writes “In our own country, the United States, there are three million five hundred thousand slaves; and we, the nominally free colored people, are six hundred thousand in number; estimating one-sixth to be men, we have one hundred thousand able-bodied freemen”. According to the author, these people were responsible for their destiny and had to make every effort to become not only free but also independent members of society.

In his opinion, American society did not create equal opportunities for African-Americans, and as a rule, offered work as servants in the homes of white gentlemen. Nevertheless, Delany presented an exhaustive list of stories and biographies of colored people who broke this stereotype and achieved success in their chosen field, be it business, medicine, pastorship, education, working with technology, or farming. The author was convinced that the children of free people should strive to become something more than their fathers, and not take for granted the secondary roles. Delany also provided an exhaustive argument with examples from US history where soldiers of color proved to be brave warriors in the struggle for state independence. Equally important, the author critically analyzed the “Fugitive Slave Law” signed after the initial abolition of slavery by another law.

Thus, the aspirations of African Americans, their vision of their role in US society, and the difficulties that all participants in the slave system went through were discussed. Despite the difficult situation as slaves, and the hardships in gaining freedom and self-realization after the first attempts to abolish slavery, African-Americans eventually formed a nation within a nation. The most significant obstacles they had to overcome were the consequences of a life in slavery, with its inhuman attitude and harsh living conditions. It was no less uneasy to overcome the myths about black people and become independent participants in American society.


Delany, Martin Robison. The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States. Black Classic Press, 1993.

Douglass, Frederick, and Rayford Whittingham Logan. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Courier Corporation, 2003.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Written by Himself. The Floating Press, 2009.

Jacobs, Harriet, and Julie R. Adams. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. ProQuest LLC, 2002.

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