Love and Marriage in Antebellum African America
by Lana Goldsmith, Intern
Frances Smith Foster is Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Women’s Studies and Emory University‘s 2006 Scholar/Teacher of the Year. In her new book, ‘Til Death or Distance Do Us Part, Foster draws from an array of documents to reveal a new picture of love and marriage for African Americans in the antebellum South. In this excerpt, she explicates evidence found in Freedom’s Journal to unearth African Americans’ own feelings on love and marriage within their community. We thought it would be fun to share with Valentine’s Day this weekend.
SPEAKING FOR (AND TO) OURSELVES
We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly…
-Freedom’s Journal (March 16, 1827)
The front page of the first edition of Freedom’s Journal contains a description of the paper’s purpose. It says that African Americans have no formal medium in which they can counter the stories coming from other quarters with the stories they tell and know themselves. Freedom’s Journal proposes to fill this void. Organized by a committee of African Americans from several cities and states, the paper will be “devoted to the dissemination of useful knowledge” and to facilitating the “moral and religious improvement” of African Americans. The editors invite African Americans to subscribe and to contribute. They vow the paper will not advocate any particular religious or political views but will communicate “whatever concerns us as a people.” The first issue contains many different elements, including the first installment of the serialized “Memoirs of Capt. Paul Cuffee”; a poem–”The African Chief”; and a variety of news, fiction, and essays. Later editions display a similar variety of forms. Virtually every issue discusses love, marriage, sexual morality, gender roles, family, and community ethics. Produced for African Americans by African Americans about their own stories as they were– or as they wanted them to be known. And clearly, family relationships were a central concern.
Like Jacob’s narrative, Freedom’s Journal and the magazines and newspapers that followed it are treasure troves of ideas, experiences, and ideals that can have a great impact on twenty-first-century readers’ understanding of the history of marriage in African America. Much of the earliest writing by African Americans for themselves portrays marriage as natural, necessary, and of “God’s design.” The pages of black newspapers and magazines illustrate that contrary to popular belief, African American marriage, even during antebellum times, was frequent, that family ties were strong, and that love was both an adolescent fantasy and a fulfilling adult reality.
The details sketch the whole. An 1828 article in Freedom’s Journal argues that love can compensate for many deprivations and much oppression. The writer suggests that a loving marriage may be more important than financial gain or possibly even “freedom”:
And without domestic peace and harmony, what are any, or all of the blessings of life?… When love unites hearts and gracious principle is the guardian of conjugal love, how many of the comforts of life may be wanting, without being much missed; and how many of the trials of life borne without being much felt?
In spite of slavery and legal restrictions, and in spite of the stories we’ve been told, in African America mature men and women were expected to marry, and marriage was understood as the prerequisite to parenthood. The February 9, 1861, issue of the Christian Recorder, a weekly newspaper published by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and circulated internationally among people of African descent, carries W. D. W. Shureman’s declaration that “marriage is the union of sexes, under matrimonial obligations. It is the proper mode to carry out a Divine mandate.” Numerous other African American writers make it clear that this Divine mandate is to “replenish the earth” with “doers” of “God’s word.” Antebellum African American writings praise beautiful women and urge them to judge men by their character and not their appearance. Newspapers and magazines offer tips for courting and keeping the object of one’s affections. They tout love as desirable and matrimony as the enabler of emotional, spiritual, and physical endurance and transcendence, even as they imply that economic sufficiency and social respectability are perhaps more important benefits. These writers repeatedly declare that love and marriage are especially important for enslaved African Americans. For example, Frances E. W. Harper’s poem “The Fugitive’s Wife” begins:
It was my sad and weary lot
To toil in slavery;
But one thing cheered my lowly cot–
My husband was with me.
This book shows that slaves could and did marry, that slave marriages were valued, that strong self-esteem was possible, and that love among slaves could and often did last despite distance and beyond death. It reveals that men were not inevitably emasculated nor women routinely raped. At the very least, it shows that these familiar notions are not the full picture of African American’s antebellum past. Although the familiar stories contain some truth, the testimonies of African Americans often contradict them. There is ample evidence that slavery and laws wounded people of African descent and that these experiences inform the self-definitions of their descendants. However, such evidence is just one part of a much bigger and more complex narrative. Antebellum African Americans, weather enslaved or free, created a culture for themselves and of themselves, a culture influenced, but not determined by, others.