How Enslaved People Found A Pathway to Self-discovery

Close-up of Harriet Tubman Statue in Boston’s South End neighborhood (Shutterstock).

In 1837, Charles Ball published a memoir recounting his experience as one enslaved for forty years in the states of Maryland, Georgia, and South Carolina. His lengthy memoir disclosed a first-person perspective of enslaved people’s societies, remembering how they maneuvered within the antebellum South’s underground economies, the rituals they used for physical and psychological survival, and his own (multiple) attempts at self-emancipation. Ball’s framework of resistance is especially illuminating when he discusses his time in Maryland, the state in which he was born, and the associations he held with his father and grandfather. Separated from his mother at four years old, these two men remained a consistent presence for him at a young age. Though they lived on separate plantations, the proximity of their locations allowed him to fraternize with his father and grandfather with some frequency during his youth. Though his reflections on both men are rather brief when considering his narrative is five hundred and seventeen pages, both men held an important approach in their path toward self-discovery and in subverting the psychological and emotional violence wrought by chattel slavery.

Though quite young when he was separated from his mother, Ball remembered the event was traumatizing for both of his parents. As his new enslaver carried him away, Ball’s mother ran toward them, took Ball down from the horse, clung to him tightly, and wept bitterly at their parting. The slave-driver who purchased his mother abruptly beat her with a whip when she refused to return the child, snatching Ball and handing him to his new enslaver. Her lamentations were the last time he ever heard his mother’s voice. “Young as I was,” he wrote, “the horrors of that day sank deeply into my heart, and even at this time, though half a century has elapsed, the terrors of the scene return with painful vividness upon my memory.” He was not alone in experiencing such trauma. Ball noted that his father, a man who once possessed a “gay social temper” and sang songs, brought gifts, and told stories to his children every Saturday, experienced forms of post-traumatic stress following his wife’s sale. His personality and sociability radically changed, as he “never recovered” from this moment and became “gloomy and morose in his temper” and indifferent to his surroundings.

Due to this shift in personality, his father’s enslaver, whom Ball described as a “hard penurious man,” was determined to sell him. But his father’s mental health was salvaged by “Old Ben,” Ball’s paternal grandfather, who in 1730 was taken from Africa and sold to a slaveholder in Calvert County, Maryland. Seeking solace from his trauma, Ball’s father spent his leisure time talking to Ben, and though readers are not given specific details of these discussions, they evidently functioned as therapy sessions. Ball’s grandfather talked openly of his kinship with African royalty and noted his prowess as a warrior before his capture. Importantly, he never surrendered his spiritual beliefs to the Christians, paying homage to the God of his ancestors and religion of his homeland for the rest of his life. Ben’s discussions of his homeland and the power he felt worshipping his ancestral God were surely absorbed by Ball’s father as he sought regain his sense of self. Knowing he was to be sold, Ben provided his son with a few provisions, said a prayer “to the God of his native country,” and beckoned him to abscond from the plantation and never return. Though he never discovered father’s actual fate, he noted the likelihood that he escaped North and lived the rest of his days in Pennsylvania as a free man.

Ball only provides his readers a few paragraphs that describe the crucial period between the moment of his mother’s sale and his father’s escape, leaving one to ponder the conversations his paternal elders held in the interim. Though specifics are not disclosed in these exchanges, Ball later reveals his own conversations with Old Ben that provide clues into how his grandfather used a non-Christian belief system to challenge white slaveowners. His grandfather demonstrated his allegiance to divine things through nightly prayers and reflections upon sacred doctrines. Though Ball does not provide a name to his grandfather’s beliefs, some scholars propose that he likely practiced Islam, as he noted that his people read from a small book delivered by a man who was called by the one true God, and “delivered up to heaven for that purpose.” Ben condemned the Christian religion, noting it was a “altogether false” and a “mere invention of priests and crafty men” who sought to align their pockets through ministry. Ball admired his grandfather’s independence, and noted he maintained fond recollections of their time together after he was sold from Maryland to Georgia. During the march to his new location, Ball found solace in such memories: “I…thought of my grandfather, and of the long nights I had passed with him, listening to his narratives of the scenes through which he had passed in Africa.” If such memories resemble the meetings between his father and grandfather, one can surmise that this form of multi-generational male bonding had a deep impression upon each man and fostered a deeply independent spirit among them. Similar to his father, Ball would not only escape to the North, but write a memoir that was a crucial early addition to the growing abolitionist movement. Old Ben’s instruction surely laid the seeds for Ball’s own physical and mental liberation.

Charles Ball’s process of self-discovery was initiated by his introduction to a religious praxis in opposition to that of the enslavers, a theme that runs through many narratives written by the formerly enslaved. Williams Wells Brown, once enslaved in Kentucky and Missouri, recounted a conjurer named Dinkie who lived on a plantation near St. Louis, Missouri. In many ways, Dinkie lived a remarkable life, garnering fear from both the white and Black populations of the area due to his allegiance to “voudooism.” Dinkie was never forced to work, he was never punished, and he wandered in and out of the plantation as he pleased. His power was respected by the entire plantation community, and it allowed him a freedom of mobility that was highly unusual within the plantation’s carceral borders. Though Brown was skeptical of Dinkie’s powers, attributing belief in such divinations as relics of an ignorant population, his account does divulge a possible motivation for Dinkie’s commitment to his anti-Christian beliefs.

Though Dinkie guarded his privacy and rarely communicated with anyone on the plantation, he shared a cabin with an elderly man named Old Ned, who knew more about the conjurer than anyone else within the community. One night Ned claimed he heard Dinkie engaged in a prayer to the devil, thanking him for the power that he provided. Seeking to overcome his trauma and regain his self-worth, Dinkie’s apparent conversion to devil worship was a practical shift in his path to redemption and self-discovery. For during the years he was a faithful Christian he witnessed his family forcibly sold from him; he was whipped repeatedly, and his enslavers nearly starved him to death. Consequently, Dinkie rescinded his belief in Jesus Christ and discovered the devil’s true power in antebellum society: “de white folks don’t fear de Lord. But dey fears you, an’ ever since I got into your service, I is able to do as I please.” Since this account was given secondhand it is impossible to know if Dinkie was actually committed to the devil as understood within the Christian tradition, or if his surrounding community was applying that label to all practices that were considered heathenish by Christian standards. In other words, Dinkie may have been praying to a god within the vodou pantheon, but it was interpreted by Ned, and others who aligned with Christianity, as a prayer to the Devil. Regardless, Dinkie knew that his allegiance to the Christian God was insufficient to protect him or the ones he loved. That god had already failed him, so he drew upon alternate traditions more closely aligned with those of his ancestors across the Atlantic ocean to secure fear among both the white and Black populations of his area.

The recollections from Charles Ball and William Wells Brown reveal how a few enslaved people regained their dignity by seeking traditions that were in opposition to the Eurocentric Christian standards of their enslavers. This is not to say that opposition to Christianity was the only way to gain mental and physical liberation, as resistance leaders like Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman embraced revolutionary versions of Christianity based upon prophecy and liberation. But the stories of Dinkie, Old Ben, and Charles Ball’s father provide important examples for the many distinct ways that people acquired a confidence that Eurocentric Christianity did not provide. They should encourage scholars to continuously pursue the influence that non-Christian religions held among the enslaved, and how their messages provided a pathway to self-discovery, free thought, and a renewed sense of self-worth after suffering a traumatic event.

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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.

Comments on “How Enslaved People Found A Pathway to Self-discovery

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    Good Morning,
    What is the name of the book that Charles Ball published in 1837? Am very interested to read his first hand account.

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