A Meditation on Natural Light and the Use of Fire in United States Slavery

Flickr: Trevor Hurlbut

In her September 16, 2019 post for Black Perspectives, “Race and the Paradoxes of the Night,” cultural anthropologist Celeste Henery examined the connections between racist oppression, darkness, and artificial light, arguing that lighting and the geographies of illumination reflect the “racial regimes and social circuits of segregation that … configure the place called the inner city.” Throughout the essay, Henery meditates on the multifaceted conditions of illumination that negatively impact marginalized, urban communities, but it is her statement on “darkness” and the nighttime that most grabbed my attention: “I cannot help but think of the conditions of darkness that have persecuted Black people … the night, not as the domain of rest, sleep, or dreamtime, acted as a zone of mortal racial danger.”

Though her essay primarily investigates such questions through the framework of twentieth and twenty-first century urbanization, Henery’s comments on darkness and its oppressions are relevant to those who resisted slavery in the nineteenth century. Specifically, it provides a novel vantage point for analyzing the landscapes of slavery in both the core and peripheral zones of the antebellum South. “How did enslaved people confront the darkness after the sun set?” By perusing the available narratives of the formerly enslaved, I found many harnessed the natural light from fire as a mechanism for resistance. Upon further reading, it was also apparent that fire was a central tool for white southerners to enact violence and confirm racist subordination. To contextualize the many meanings fire held for enslaved people in the antebellum South, this essay uses frameworks provided by environmental scholars like Celeste Henery, J.T. Roane, and Kevin Dawson who contextualize the experiences of Black people through their interactions with their environments, be they rural, industrial, or aquatic.

Torture and the Weaponization of Natural Light

In many respects, fire ignited the torturous brutalities of plantation slavery. It heated the irons that branded enslaved people, disfiguring their skin and outwardly stripping them of legal personhood. Fire lit the torches of slave hunters chasing fugitives in the rural periphery, and they provided light to the slave traders who conducted nightly raids in the quarters. If an enslaved person failed to build the overseer a satisfactory fire, they could be thrown down, stripped, and given “one hundred and fifty lashes” as a punishment. One man, formerly enslaved in Alabama, was forced to light a fire to prepare a mixture of salt, pepper, and water used to punish a man caught fleeing the plantation. Such mixtures were a sadistic method in “treating” the wounds of the enslaved, as testimonies throughout the diaspora note such a concoction was poured over the backs of enslaved people who acquired their wounds through corporal punishment. As he stood by the fire and watched the mixture boil and churn in the large iron pot, the prospect of such “dreadful torture” was enough to motivate his own escape, as he could not bear to witness the pending violence.

For others, the flames were in closer proximity. Reports surfaced throughout the abolitionist movement that enslaved people were burned alive, and those who survived were forced to live with the physical marks of the slaveholder’s flames. After an unsuccessful escape, one man recounted how an enslaver rubbed his face with tar and lit a match over it: “he put it out before it did me very great injury, but the pain which I endured was most excruciating, nearly all my hair having been burnt off.” It is impossible to know how one might interpret “great injury” in this context, but just as dog bites and lash marks forever reminded victims of slavery’s physical violence, the scars acquired through such burns were doubtlessly etched in the memories of their victims, be they enslaved or free.

Resistance Through Destruction and Rebellion

Though weaponized for both symbolic and physical manifestations of violence, enslaved people used fire and the light it provided for defensive and offensive forms of resistance. Arson provided the most threatening strategy for those who challenged the system. Bereft of projectile weapons designed for maximum damage, enslaved people used arson to destroy the buildings that reflected the slave owner’s material wealth. From Haiti to the US Gulf Coast, revolutions throughout the Black Atlantic held this commonality. Setting fire to a symbol of white supremacy struck at the enslaver’s material wealth, and the smoke emitted from the flames signaled to other rebels that the revolution had commenced.

White populations feared the devastating consequences of mass arson attacks by a united population of enslaved people. In 1864, a frantic plantation mistress wrote her husband of a massive conspiracy among the enslaved, in which they would arm themselves “and set fire to the houses and murder the people as they rushed out.”1 In reflecting on the failed raid of the white abolitionist John Brown, one commentator determined the outcome would be different had they placed “a box of matches in the pocket of every slave,” for only then “slavery would be set right.” Arson was often a predetermined and coordinated step toward wide-scale revolt, but at certain points individual captives surely chose to engulf the slave owner’s property in flames to fulfill their personal desire for vengeance.

Beyond its destructive capabilities, fire provided a natural light to aid freedom fighters in various ways. To prevent detection from slave hunters, those who fled the plantation were cautious in using too much light, though one memoir notes that enslaved people did carry torches bound together by a “bundle of small sticks or splinters” when roaming the grounds after sunset. In the narrative of Bethany Veney, formerly enslaved in Shenandoah County, Virginia, she remembered using a torch to find her way to a clandestine meeting that took place at night, noting she could barely see one step ahead of her as she trekked through the muddy terrain.

Apart from its use in aiding self-emancipators, fire was a crucial tool for emotionally supporting those entrapped by the plantation’s far-reaching tentacles. It provided access to recreational activities for captive people who labored from sunup to sundown, using torches to hunt game after their labor requirements ended. From a practical perspective, the embers of the fireplace kept them warm as they slept in substandard conditions. The smoke emanating from the flames also drove away the potentially deadly gnats and mosquitoes who invaded the region during the warmer months.

Survival Through Fellowship, Knowledge, and Ritual Practice

Illuminating the darkness of nighttime, enslaved people remembered how the campfire symbolized a space of joy despite their confinement in a landscape of suffering. As one man recollected, “I saw my fellow-slaves seated by a warm fire, merrily passing away the time, as though their hearts knew no sorrow.” The natural light provided an opportunity for human-to-human interactions that took place outside white surveillance, providing some psychological rehabilitation for an oppressed, captive people.

Though popular history understandably celebrates those who physically rebelled through combat or by escaping the plantation’s borders, it obscures the covert methods that enslaved people undertook during nightfall. Even the smallest flickers of light were formidable allies in resisting the system. The light provided by a candle was especially important to those restricted by literacy laws, as William J. Anderson recollected, “I had no schooling except what I stole by fire and moon light.” Anderson’s technique for knowledge acquisition embodies a desire that resonated throughout the enslaved community, though such references are easily glossed over if one is not considering the importance of the environmental paradigm. Enslaved people covertly studying letters and numbers subverted white supervision by combining their hand-crafted lighting with the natural illuminations of celestial bodies scattered throughout the darkened firmament.

Though slavery was predicated upon the destruction of ancestral cosmologies and social disconnection, access to torchlight enabled captives to continue the mourning rituals that were central to their psychological survival and sense of purpose. The plantation’s labor requirements precluded burials from occurring in daytime, requiring that enslaved communities navigate the funerary process while enshrouded in darkness. Observers noted how enslaved funeral processions sang hymns, chanted, wailed, and carried “light-wood torches” to guide their direction, and the guiding light always delivered the deceased to rest with the ancestors.

Conclusion

In returning to Celeste Henery’s thoughts on the oppressions of darkness in the absence of light, the multifaceted uses of fire and illumination in the antebellum era provide one way to contextualize environmental and elemental resistance and subjugation. By harnessing the flame’s capabilities for illumination, enslaved communities developed and preserved cultural traits that proclaimed their minds were free, even if they were physically enslaved. They subverted the restrictions imposed upon them by illuminating their rural space. Conversely, flames often reflected the sadism of white supremacist violence and confinement. By exploring the juxtapositions between darkness and light, we can use Henery’s proposal to more fully explore, and appreciate, how Black people in the nineteenth century shaped their socio-cultural environments by using sources of illumination that are too often rejected by city-dwellers engulfed in the artificial lights of urbanization.

  1. December 23, 1864, Artemus Darby Goodwyn Papers, South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, SC.
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Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.