The Other L-Word
They have been together for a millennium -- or at least look as if they have. They are seated beside each other, arms touching, him shoeless and her head wrapped in cloth and God only knows what they've seen. They are barely past the bitter years of slavery and to tell the truth, it's still hard to tell the difference. The photograph is grainy and slightly out of focus, but you can still make out the weathered lines of years and experience on their faces. And you can still sense the connection forged of those years.
The picture speaks of a quiet fortitude, togetherness in the crucible of slavery, an intimacy that is rarely seen in our discussions of black history.
It's ironic that Valentine's Day takes place during Black History Month, but those two events manage to overlap without ever coinciding -- as if there were no love or romance within our collective history in this country. We know of husbands sold away from wives and wives taken from husbands to face the sexual exploitation of white overseers. We know of black men and women who were bred like livestock.
But what we rarely speak of is love in the context of adversity.
The question goes loudly unasked: Who needed love more than the enslaved? Beyond the uprisings and the daily resistance, outside of the escapes, arsons and thefts, the most subversive act committed by enslaved black people may have been daring to love each other. The ten-plus generations of black men and women who lived through the ordeal of slavery went to extraordinary lengths to give meaning to their own lives, to construct relationships that might, if only momentarily, dull the pain of forced servitude, to care for others in a society which sought to make black love a contradiction in terms. And that reality is all but lost in our present love deficit.
Filtered through lens of popular media, it seems like there's a civil war going on between black men and black women. African Americans are the least likely segment of the population to marry and have a divorce rate that exceeds fifty percent. We are also far less likely to remarry after a divorce than members of other groups. Black radio's airwaves are congested with loveless ballads; rappers boldly declare themselves love-proof -- and thereby pain-proof -- and disgruntled sirens sing songs of fiscal obligation. In an era where baby-daddies and baby-mamas replace husbands and wives, it's easy to see the destructive legacy of slavery, segregation, incarceration playing itself out. But that's only half of the history -- and we've never needed to hear the other side of the story more urgently.
The truth is that marriage and family were extremely important to enslaved black people -- despite the obvious difficulties that confronted their relationships. Slave marriages were given no legal recognition, but slaves constructed binding traditions of their own. In addition to "jumping the broom," they also presented each other with blankets whose acceptance indicated that they were now considered married within the community. Others, who could not find a willing clergyman or who had been denied permission to marry, simply married themselves. Still, recognition of their union was important enough that ex-slaves besieged the Freedman's Bureau with requests for marriage ceremonies after emancipation. Three Mississippi counties accounted for 4627 marriages in a single year. The end of slavery also brought with it literally thousands of black people wandering throughout the South in search of husbands and wives who had been sold away from them.
Prior to emancipation, individuals went to great lengths to maintain their relationships. One of the most common causes of slave escapes was to see loved ones on distant plantations. One man set out before sunrise each Sunday morning and walked the entire day to spend a few hours with his wife before having to walk back in time to begin the next day's work. George Sally, enslaved on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, ignored the slaveholder's demands and left to visit his wife -- an offense for which he was arrested. (He later stated that he did not mind being arrested for seeing his wife.) Others risked their lives to protect their spouses. While sexual exploitation of married black women by overseers was a constant concern, it was not unheard of for husbands to kill whites who had attacked their wives. One unnamed slave attacked an overseer who had attempted to whip his wife and was himself forced to flee into the woods for eleven months.
William Grose, a slave in Loudon County, Virginia, married a free black woman -- against the wishes of the plantation owner, who feared that she might help him escape. William was sold to a widower in New Orleans,who demanded that he take another woman as his wife. He wrote in his autobiography, "I was scared half to death, for I had one wife whom I liked and didn't want another." The couple managed to remain in contact and his wife travelled to New Orleans and found work as a domestic in the family that had bought William. When their relationship was discovered, she was forced to leave New Orleans. Incredibly, William devised a plan to escape and fled to Canada where he and his wife were reunited.
Some black couples managed, despite all odds, to construct long, close-knit unions. In the 1930s, Barbara, a woman who was born into slavery in North Carolina, told an interviewer the story of how she had met her husband Frank:
I seen Frank a few times at the Holland's Methodist Church... After a while Frank becomes a butcher and he was doing pretty good... so he comes to see me and we courts for a year. We was sitting in the kitchen at the house when he asks me to have him. He told me that he knows that he wasn't worthy, but that he loved me and that he'd do anything he could to please me and that he'd always be good to me. When I was fourteen when I got married and when I was fifteen my oldest daughter was born. I had three after her and Frank was as proud of them as could be. We was happy. We lived together fifty-four years and we was always happy, having only a little bit of argument.Lucy Dunn, who had also been a slave in North Carolina, told a similar tale:
It was in the little Baptist church where I first seen Jim Dunn and I fell in love with him then, I reckons. He said that he loved me then too, but it was three Sundays 'fore he asked to see me home. We walked that mile home in front of my mother and I was so happy that I ain't thought it was even a half mile. We ate cornbread and turnips for dinner and it was night before he went home. Mother wouldn't let me walk with him to the gate, so I just sat there on the porch and said goodnight.
He come over every Sunday for a year and finally he proposed. That Sunday night I did walk with Jim to the gate and stood under the honeysuckles that was smelling so sweet. I heard the big old bullfrogs a-croakin' by the river and the whipper-wills a hollerin' in the woods. There was a big yellow moon and I reckon Jim did love me. Anyhow, he said so and asked me to marry him and he squeezed my hand.She told her suitor that she would have to think about his proposal. She and her mother spent the week discussing the seriousness of marriage. Lucy told her mother that she understood but, "I intends to make a go of it anyhow."
"On Sunday my mother told Jim and you ought to have seen that black boy grin." They were married a week later. "We lived together fifty-five years and we always loved each other... we had our fusses and our troubles, but we trusted in the lord and we got through." The old woman wiped away tears as she spoke of her husband. "I loved him during life and I love him now, though he's been dead for twelve years. I thinks of him all the time, but it seems like we're young again when I smell honeysuckles or see a yellow moon."
One hundred and thirty-nine years past slavery, we may have something left to learn from those enslaved generations. Near the end of her interview, Barbara spoke a truth that may be more valid now than when she first said it: "My mother died near twenty years ago and father died four years later. He had not cared to live since mother left him. I've heard some of the young people laugh about slave love, but they should envy the love which kept mother and father so close together in life and even held them in death."
Special thanks to Stephanie Wright and Tiffany Gill for their insights into slave relationships.
William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of 'The Essential Harold Cruse.'