February 20, 2015
Major and Classification
American Studies and Ethnicity
- Terry Seip, Ph.D.
“Leisure and Slavery: Surviving Life as an African American Slave in Mississipp”
While African American slaves endured a miserable existence at the bottom of antebellum society, constantly suffering exploitation, punishment, humiliation, and substandard material conditions, they still had some leisure time. By discovering and critically examining slaves’ leisure activities and the time they chose to spend away from work, one can gain a fuller understanding of how African Americans grappled with the demands slavery exerted on the body, mind, and spirit. This project seeks to explore several questions. Initially, how much free time were slaves typically given and what kinds of things did they choose to do during that time? Most importantly, to what extent did leisure activities serve as a survival mechanism for slaves? Scholars have analyzed African American slave survival mechanisms, especially family/kinship network, religion, folklore, and music, but have granted little attention to how they otherwise chose to spend their time outside of work. To investigate this neglected area, my project turns to a seldom used body of primary source material, the Mississippi Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave Narratives–interviews with ex-slaves during the late 1930s. While the WPA Narratives must be used with caution due to certain biases, they offer both a broader and more individualistic database for analyzing slave leisure time, thus broadening our understanding of slave culture and patterns of life. Ultimately, in capturing the voices of individuals at the grassroots level, these interviews show that private activities, communal events, celebrations, and any attempts at having fun significantly supplemented slave lives in the field and with their master.