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Modern Voices
Nell Irvan Painter on soul murder and slavery
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Nell Irvan Painter

Nell Painter, historian, has pioneered a new field in the study of slavery. In her work Soul Murder and Slavery, Painter examines the psychological impact that the institution has on both black and white people. She looks at the effects of slavery-produced trauma on children especially, and at the culture that is created in a world based on domination and ownership. Her work is also excerpted in a book entitled Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to Be White, ed. by David R. Roediger.

When we think of family in the United States, we tend to think along biological lines. But we also have a world, a psychological world, which does not necessarily stop and begin everything at the color line. I'm not saying the color line is not important. The color line is extremely important for understanding American identity and American institutions and American history. But it's not the only thing.

Let's take, for instance, a large plantation household. There we would find the owning family and probably more than just one or two generations, and probably more than just the nuclear family. But we'd also find working people, enslaved working people who then would be called servants. Some of them would actually sleep in the bedrooms of their owners, and they would be in very close contact.

So we have families that are made up of people who are not necessarily biologically connected, but because they're together so much, they get psychologically connected. And you can be connected to someone whom you hate, but that person is very important in your life. And that's the kind of relationship that thinking "black-white color line" completely obscures. So we need to be able to see how, across the color line as well as within the color line, we have psychological dynamics and sometimes physical dynamics as well.

And when we talk about this terrible thing of violence in slave society, we need to think of many people, many kinds of people as victims and as perpetrators, for that matter, because violence can be inter-generational, and violence can spread to people who in one situation are victims but in another situation may be perpetrators.

So for instance, let's take the very common scene of whips and beating of someone because they have not done their work properly, according to their overseer or their owner. So the master beats the worker. "You didn't do your work right." Tch-tch-tch-tch. But seeing this are perhaps that slave's children and that master's children.

And psychologists talk about triangles. So you have the person being beaten, the person doing the beating, and the observer. And the observer needs to identify with one or the other. Slave children would tend to identify with their mother, their father, their uncle, and think of themselves as victims. And they would be victimized in their turn. Slaving children can go either way. And southern society, at least, was set up in such a way that girls could identify with the victim and could identify with victims as women. We have a whole stereotype of the mistress who is the nurse on the plantation, who takes care of people. But the boy must learn to identify with the beater. If he doesn't, then he's not fully a man. So that makes the ability to inflict violence an integral part of one's manhood.

John Nelson was a Virginian who spoke in 1839 about his own coming of age and this system of triangles. He says, when he was a child, when his father beat their slaves, that he would cry and he would feel for the slave who was being inflicted with violence. He would feel almost as if he himself were being beaten, and he would cry. And he would say, "Stop, stop!" And his father, "You have to stop that. You have to learn to do this, yourself." And as John Nelson grew up, he did learn how to do it. And he said in 1839 that he got to the point where he not only didn't cry; he could inflict a beating himself and not even feel it.

Someone who can do that is going to cut off a whole world of feeling, and make the larger system of obedience and submission into one of the great values, one of the great moral values. Obedience and submission are hallmarks of slavery. They're also hallmarks of patriarchy, because the patriarch has people below him who owe him obedience and submission: people in his own family, his slaves, his poor relations, his wife. And then there's also Christianity, in which pious people owe obedience and submission to God. So if you put together slavery, patriarchy, and evangelical Christianity, you've got a lot of violence and submission.

One thing I found very interesting when I started working on soul murder and slavery is that we have a new literature of trauma that's come out of the Vietnam War. But none of that sees slaves as people who endured trauma. In American history, those people are the perfect victims of trauma, and we can now learn a great deal about what they were likely to feel, or want to do, or try to get away from, or their symptoms, for instance, because we know about what trauma can do to people.

Within this plantation household, little kids would be learning lessons. Little kids learn lessons all the time. That's how they grow up. And so a white child would learn lessons, as well as black children. A white child seeing the violence that goes on between owners and slaves learns: "Well, I can do that. I have power too." And I've read many an anecdote from slaves and from slaveowning families about the point where the white child no longer plays with the black children as an equal, but begins to give them orders - around 5, 6, 7. And so the child, the white child learns that he can give orders and that she can give orders, but not quite in the same way. But the great lesson is that I (child) can inflict violence, can give orders, must be obeyed, and I am someone to whom others owe submission.

One of the figures who appears over and over again in fiction and non-fiction about the slaveholding South is the jealous mistress. And in fact, Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent) has a chapter in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl entitled "The Jealous Mistress". So we have a triangle between the master and the enslaved woman whom he forces or to whom he is linked sexually. And then we have the mistress, the jealous mistress. And we realize the dynamic between the jealous mistress and the master. She's jealous. But there's also another dynamic going on (another kind of attachment, if you wish), that the slave woman, who's usually quite young, may feel that the mistress has abandoned her, in the way that young women who are incest victims tend to blame their mother more than their father or stepfather or uncle. So you have a dynamic between the two women that we don't usually focus on.

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of working on a large journal that a plantation mistress in Georgia [Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas] had generated between 1848 and 1889. So it's a big document. And in that document I found: She was aware that her husband was involved with a woman of color, probably over the generations, and that the husband and the slave woman had had a child, about the same age as her son. The mistress never wants to admit that she knows about this relationship and that it troubles her. But the issue of competition between women appears over and over and over in the journal.

And at one point, after the Civil War, she's looking out on a field and she's seeing her son (whom she feels, of course, should be in college) plowing. And he's plowing with the slave woman's child. And the slave woman's boy, he's not in college either. But the mistress feels that there's a competition between these two boys, and the fact that they are both in the field plowing shows how her son has fallen and this other woman's son is poised to rise. So she has a complicated psychological dynamic that comes out of this kind of complicated family.

This same woman tried to erase a story out of her journal. It's a moment when she really is most tortured. And in this moment, she realizes that not only she is involved in adulterous triangle, but also her mother had been. That is, her father had a slave woman, and had had children by another woman. So in 1864, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas (known as Gertrude Thomas) is reading the will that her father has left. He'd just died in 1864. And she realizes that she stands to inherit her half-brothers and sisters. This woman is a devout Methodist, realizes all the terrible Biblical problems here, and the moral issues. And she's completely destroyed by the idea that she could own her brothers and sisters. But this kind of monstrous situation was one that came out of the dynamics of slavery time and time again.

Nell Irvan Painter
Edwards Professor of American History
Princeton University

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