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Modern Voices
Deborah Gray White on the importance of family
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Q: Please discuss the importance of family for enslaved people.
Deborah Gray White

A: What the family does, and what the family did for African Americans, was create a world outside of the world of work. It allowed for significant others. It allowed a male slave to be more than just a brute beast. It allowed him to be a father, to be a son. It allowed women to be mothers and to take on roles that was outside of that of a slave, of a servant. And in that way, even though on the one hand, you see, the slavemaster wanted this family because he wanted the slaves to reproduce and to do it in a rather natural way. But in allowing for that, they allowed for a whole world to develop, because out of families came communities. And with communities came a world that the slavemaster hardly ever knew, didn't know, and didn't venture into.

And they do every single thing that they can to maintain these communities. It is sacred because these are people who one eats with, one worships with, one commiserates with. They are people to whom one can take one's sorrow to. They are people who take care when slavemasters whip. These are people who will soothe and administer. It's from the slave community, and particularly from the women of the community, that most of the health care comes from. Women working as nurses. So where the slavemaster interrupted and oppressed, the community soothed and helped.
Deborah Gray White
Professor of History
Rutgers University

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