Up from Childhood: When African-American Enslaved Children Learned of Their Servile Status
There came a moment in enslaved children's lives when they perceived that they were ‘different’ from their white playmates: they became cognisant of being slaves. This moment was part of a three-part process, which must be studied collectively in order to understand its full impact on child-slave identity formation. The first stage comprised a period of ‘blissful ignorance’ and many children spent several years unaware that they were chattel. The second stage of development forced children to confront their servile status. This realisation could be an instantaneous recognition; however, the full repercussions took children much longer to understand. In the final stage, enslaved children questioned their identity; they had to ‘learn’ that they were racially different from others, and that by virtue of being different, they were inferior. This study further tests David Bailey's findings that the slave autobiographies portrayed a more ‘traumatic’ childhood experience than did the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews [David Bailey, ‘A Divided Prism: Two Sources of Black Testimony on Slavery’, Journal of Southern History 46, no. 3 (1980): 381–404]. But the sources do not necessarily tell two conflicting stories; rather the data collected by the WPA concur with the autobiographies. The age at which former slaves realised that they were enslaved greatly shaped their memories. Applying the three-stage theory to Bailey's findings suggests that many of the WPA interviewees were too young to have experienced stage two before Emancipation. Thus, their renditions of slavery correspond to the step one blissful memories from the autobiographers, suggesting that the two sources are perhaps not so antithetic when employed together.
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