Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century

By Libra R. Hilde

As Americans grapple with the most recent spate of deaths of Black men and women at the hands of the police, we are once again confronting damaging stereotypes about the Black family and Black masculinity rooted in the legacy of slavery. My book, Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty, explores the masculine hierarchy of slavery that continues to influence current attitudes. In the Old South, public masculinity was available only to white men, but enslaved men could at times exercise masculine authority within the private boundaries of the slave quarters and in relation to other enslaved people, so long as they remained under the domination of the white patriarch. If your worldview defines women as subservient by their very nature, keeping Black men in a subordinate place takes care of Black women by default. A patriarchal conception of the world and human hierarchy assumes that to control Black men is to control Black people, hence the focus on overt control of Black men and the deep repugnance and fear of “insolent” and doubly transgressive Black women. Even as the world has changed, these attitudes about human hierarchies have remained deeply entrenched and continue to inform public policy.

Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty builds on the recent scholarship that posits multiple masculinities in slave communities. One consistent ideal of manhood in African American communities was that of caretaker. Often unable to openly exhibit the hallmarks of 19th century masculinity, to provide and protect, enslaved men found covert ways to support and influence their loved ones through what I define as ideological provisioning, a form of subtle resistance. Slaveholders could never entirely control the exchange of cultural goods and ideas, and caretaking fathers regularly couched their authority in the mantle of religious counsel. I also argue that in order to appreciate the flexibility and multiplicity of the enslaved family, scholars should focus on how kin units functioned rather than on the structure of households. To fully understand fatherhood within slavery, it is critical to think about multi-local kin units and assess the contributions of non-resident, but engaged fathers.

My examination of slave narratives produced in different times and under different circumstances reveals a robust and enduring vision of paternal duty and the ways that enslaved fathers often shaped the identity-formation of their children, even in cases of limited contact and forced separation. Enslaved fathers faced brutal conditions and agonizing choices and yet many valiantly tried to implement their understanding of paternal honor. This book refutes misperceptions of African American families and missing Black fathers, arguing that because enslaved and post-war freedmen lacked access to recognized patriarchal power, their hidden caretaking behavior has long been overlooked.

Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty considers not just enslaved fathers, but sexual abuse and the white fathers of slaves, tracing the reactions of mixed-race children to their parentage and enslaved women’s feelings about the white fathers of their children. Sexual exploitation complicated identity and family formation in the slave South and could strengthen children’s identification with their enslaved mothers, or in the rare cases when white men offered preferential treatment to their mixed-race children, could erase Black mothers. Evaluations of white fathers tended to map onto how these men treated their offspring. African American communities expressed particular disdain for white fathers who violated paternal duty by abusing or selling their own children. White people might have a monopoly on concrete power, but that did not mean they had honor.

Enslaved and freedmen lacked publicly-recognized patriarchal privilege and yet they figured prominently in the minds and lives of their children and communities. Interrogating fatherhood allows us to flip the script of slavery and illuminate the obscured caretaking of these men. It reveals the adaptability and resilience of African American families and points to the inadequacies of family typologies developed for free people. Finally, it further reveals how the sexual violence of slavery reinforced the paternalist power of slaveholders even as most white fathers of slaves swept their actual paternity under the proverbial rug.

Libra R. Hilde is a professor of history at San Jose State University. Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century has just been published by UNC Press: