African American Slavery and Disability in the American South

African American Slavery and Disability Book Cover

Reading with My Ears Book Review

For many years I have been curious about the life of the disabled slave. My first exploration was learning about Blind Tom, the Georgia slave who was never emancipated. But that was not good enough and I wanted to learn more. Through digging a little deeper, I found a book at one of my favorite libraries, Bookshare.   The book is titled, African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property, and Power in the Antebellum South, 1800–1860 by Dea H. Boster. The summary says that, disability is often mentioned in discussions of slave health, mistreatment and abuse, but constructs of how “able’ and “disabled” bodies influenced the institution of slavery has gone largely overlooked. This volume uncovers a history of disability in African American slavery from the primary record, analyzing how concepts of race, disability, and power converged in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The book was different than others I have read on slavery because it seemed more academic in tone but I thoroughly loved the historical context and the numerous real examples of disabled slaves. The book is broken down into three parts: Bodies, Property and Power.

Part I Bodies

This book shows slavery as a disability in and of itself. I never saw slavery in that light before but as I read the book the more, I saw what the author was saying. When you think of the word disability it means lack of control of a particular bodily function and the slavery of African Americans reflected that. One side said that slavery was best suited for African Americans because of their mental and physical state but then the institution of slavery debilitated them as well. Normal was viewed as controlled, healthy, moral, male and strong whereas disabled was viewed as the total opposite. Disability was considered a mark of dishonor except from war wounds.

Disabled slaves were used as the poster children to help eradicate slavery because many of the slaves became disabled from cruelty not from birth. Abolitionist used the testimonies of disabled slaves as part of their programs against slavery. Slaves would share about floggings, attacks by blood hounds and other bodily harms that caused them to become disabled. They would display their bodies during presentations or testimonies.

Another point under the part about bodies is that disabled slaves didn’t look at themselves as others did. Disability could come from mental, physical and sexual abuse. It could also come from unsafe work conditions, meager food and clothing, repetitive stress and punishments for infractions. They didn’t see themselves as week or useless. Much like today people with disabilities don’t see themselves the way society does. We view ourselves in a positive light and feel we have much to contribute. Disabled slaves would exhibit endurance and transcendence which was displayed in animal folktales. These stories displayed a weaker or powerless animal using their mental wit to overcome the more physically stronger one, like in Br’er Rabbit.

Soundness of a Disabled Slave

masters evaluated the soundness of a slave by three things: ability to perform manual labor, face value as a commodity and individual health. A slave’s overall health was low on the list and disease didn’t factor in on soundness, but things like epilepsy could because of its unpredictability. Poor diet, lack of suitable clothing and shelter caused disability. Rheumatism and blindness were mention often as debilitating conditions. Whippings were a form of punishment and didn’t render the slave physically disabled but it did have psychological affects whereas a branding was to totally humiliate the slave. Proper medical attention was hard because of lack of knowledge by owners, lack of compassion, or lack of medical doctors to provide care. As a result, slaves relied on each other or a conjurer or root worker for natural healing remedies.  This was a part of the slave’s identity and resistance.

Part II Property

Disabled slaves were sometimes labeled useless because of their inability to perform at peak levels. Their monetary value was decreased, or not able to be fully controlled or disciplined by their masters. Disabled slaves performed duties such as cooking and other house duties, nursing, child care, gardening and watching livestock. Owners wanted to get the most out of their slaves as humanely possible but slaves could negotiate as to how much of that labor, they could actually perform. You might think that duties of disabled slaves were light and less strenuous than an abled bodied slave but that is not true. For instance, the work of a cook was one of the most laborious because they had to rise early and stay late, prepare lots of meals, grind meal and gather firewood. Watching small children was also hard work for a disabled or elderly slave. Children ranged from small infants to 5 years old and a slave could be responsible for many children at one time.

Some disabled slaves were hired out and also learned specialized skills or trades because it made it easier on the body. If a disabled slave worked as a tailor or shoemaker, they could find some relief and still be found useful. The contributions that disabled slaves made on the plantation were important but owners viewed them as useless. This was evident in their printed records, journals, insurance policies and other documents. Unfortunately, this perspective still holds true today. People with disabilities add value and contribute greatly but mainstream society doesn’t always see, acknowledge or reward it. We are seen as less than and devalued solely based on our disability and therefore treated as such.

It was documented that some owners showed benevolence to their old and disabled slaves by allowing them to stay with their families as they aged and debilitated. But according to the author these examples are rare.   Disabled slaves received abuse and punishment just like abled bodied slaves. The most common was not completing an assigned task or duty. The idea of reasonable accommodation in the workplace was not a concept in the arena of American slavery.  Owners didn’t always take into account that a disabled slave would perform at a slower rate or that the task might be more difficult or complicated to do.  So, if a task was not done, regardless of disability punishment would be delivered. Depending on the degree of punishment some slaves died as a result. One would consider this murder although owners did not. Besides punishment disabled slaves suffered neglect. Many would get reduced food rations, no new clothes or poor shelter. Some slaves were even abandoned to fend for themselves getting no assistance from family or the slave community.

Disabled slaves were also used as part of medical experimentation.  According to the author the most well-known procedures that were done were on slave women. It was understood back then and even today that African-Americans feel less pain making them better candidates for medical experimentation. Doctors would perform surgery without anesthesia, test remedies and use disabled slaves in medical hospitals and schools for educational purposes. These were ways that an owner could recoup the cost of a disabled slave since the slave couldn’t perform hard manual labor.

Documenting Disability  for Estate Planning and Sale

A stack of four books on a table with one book closed next to a cup of coffee and saucer.

Since disabled slaves were property it was important for owners to document their disability for estate planning and sale. Owners had to walk a fine line with being honest about a slaves mental and physical condition but not sharing too much or the slave might not be saleable.  They were documented in slave records with their particular kind of disability or if they were aged. Records would show slaves labeled as “gets fits”, “blind in one eye”, “hand injured”, “old Betty” or Old John”. They also gave them names of endearment such as “uncle” and “auntie” to indicate that the particular slave was aged. At the time of sale slaves were thoroughly examined to help determine retail value. Tests for hearing, eyesight and physical movement were performed. Slaves were required to disrobe to inspect their bodies for burns, scars and injuries. Scars from whippings were scrutinize more severely as a sign of a difficult or unruly slave. Bad teeth were a sign of poor health. Slaves were asked questions about their overall health and disability along with the examination. Owners would give a guarantee or warranty of health during the sale but, of course, there was no true absolute guarantee that a slave was totally healthy or sound.

To prepare a disabled or older slave for sale many owners would go through great lengths of disguise. Grey and white hair would either be plucked out or colored black to create youthful appearance. Scars, urns and injuries were greased over. Slaves were strongly encouraged and/or threaten to answer questions quickly, cheerfully and with a smile on their face. Some slaves were given large portions of food prior to sale and/or better clothing to wear. Slaves were aware of the transaction taking place in their sale and sometimes would hide or embellish their disability if it would help prevent their purchase, punishment or separation from family. One thing I found interesting    about this whole thing is that disabled slaves saw the lower value placed on them as a benefit because if ever it came time to purchasing their freedom, they knew the price would be more obtainable than an able-bodied slave.

Part III Power

Many times disabled slaves would use their disability to negotiate or manipulate their bondage. They were not totally powerless. By over exaggerating their condition the slave could get out of hard or uncomfortable work duties while still being in good favor with their owner. Many owners relied on medical doctors to help treat their disabled slaves. They did not rely or trust their slaves with the diagnosis of their medical condition. This feeling was mutual as slaves would sometimes hide their physical ailments and seek treatment among themselves. . .  Regardless doctors treating disabled slaves on a plantation was quite a lucrative business. Doctors could make multiple visits and administer various remedies, surgeries or treatments.

Some owners decided to forgo medical attention for their disabled slaves and allowed the condition to linger for months and even years.  It was directly connected to the financial value of the slave. The relationship between the owner, doctor and slave was a complicated one. Owners wanted their slaves cured and back to work. Doctors wanted financial compensation, good reputation and remedies that worked. Slaves wanted relief from pain and suffering. Yet many times these outcomes didn’t always happen in the way that was satisfying for everyone.

Another aspect of disabled slaves’ power on the plantation was faking or malingering their disability. A slave could embellish their pain or discomfort, tipping the scale to their advantage. Female slaves were more likely to fain their medical condition because it was directly connected to their reproductive ability. As a result, owners and doctors took their pleas of pain more seriously. Female slaves might complain of menstrual pain. She might fain repeated miscarriages to gain sympathy, lighter work load or more food rations. Additionally, a female slave’s ability to reproduce was directly connected to the soundness of the plantation and its owner. If a female slave was treated well by her owners then there would be no reason for multiple miscarriages or abortions. In some extreme cases a slave would intentionally injure or mutilate themselves to become disabled to get out of work, prevent a sale or removal from family. All of this was an important method of resistance however small.

This Was an Emotional Read

This was an incredible book and it took me a minute to read through it. I got quite emotional as I read the various examples of disabled slaves. My feelings ranged from distressed to anger to amazement. Slavery is a difficult topic already but reading about disabled slaves was even more trying. But I have no regrets because I took this journey willingly and am glad for it. I am grateful  for their examples of strength, endurance and resistance.

3 thoughts on “African American Slavery and Disability in the American South

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