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Life In Bondage

June 2024
1min read

STOLEN CHILDHOOD
Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America


by Wilma King , Indiana University Press, 269 pages, $27.50 softcover . CODE: IND-1

DESPITE GENERATIONS OF SCHOLARSHIP , the record of everyday life under slavery remains frustratingly thin next to that of plantation-owning families. How the slave children lived is especially hard to reconstruct, even though they made up over half the U.S. slave population by the eve of the Civil War. It is debatable, in fact, whether young people born into this system knew any kind of childhood at all. That is the subject of Wilma King’s book. “If childhood was a special time for enslaved children, it was because their parents made it so,” King writes. “The purpose of this study is modest. Its aim is to extricate enslaved children and youth from the amorphous mass of bond servants.” She reviews children’s games like “In The Well” and “All Hid,” and compares black and white versions of nineteenth-century girls’ songs. In the chapters “Temporal and Spiritual Education,” “Traumas and Tragedies,” and “Play and Leisure,” she draws on dozens of studies, memoirs, and WPA interviews with former slaves to patch together as full a picture as possible of childhood without freedom. “When necessary, they donned the mask of compliance to hide their will to resist. As the children of slaves matured and became the parents of free boys and girls, they would realize that their role was no different from that of their parents . . . to provide the salve, kindle hope, and maintain the love to insure that their children survived.”

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