Juxtaposin’: The Peculiar Institution

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


The city of Savannah abounds in parks, as they are called—squares, fenced in, with trees. Young children and infants were there, with very respectable colored nurses—young women, with bandanna and plaid cambric turbans, and superior in genteel appearance to any similar class, as a whole, in any of our cities. They could not be slaves. Are they slaves? “Certainly,” says the friend at your side; “they each belong to some master or mistress.”

In behalf of a score of mothers of my acquaintance, and of some fathers, I looked with covetous feelings upon the relation which I saw existed between these nurses and children. These women seemed not to have the air and manner of hirelings in the care and treatment of the children; their conversation with them, the degree of seemingly maternal feeling which was infused into their whole deportment, could not fail to strike a casual observer.

Then these are slaves. Their care of the children, even if it be slave labor, is certainly equal to that which is free.

“But that was a freeman who just passed us?”

“No; he is Mr. W.’s servant, near us.”

“He a slave?” Such a rhetorical lifting of the arm, such a line of grace as the band described in descending easily from the hat to the side, such a glow of good feeling on recognizing neighbor B., with a supplementary act of respect to the stranger with him, were wholly foreign from my notions of a slave. “Where are your real slaves, such as we read of?”

“These are about a fair sample.”

“But they seem to me like your best quotations of cotton; where are your ‘ord., mid, fair to fair, damaged, and poor’?”

Our fancies with regard to the condition of the slaves proceed from our northern repugnance to slavery, stimulated by many things that we read. The every-day life, the whole picture of society at the south, is not presented to us so frequently—indeed it cannot be, nor can it strike the mind as strongly—as slave auctions and separations of families, fugitives hiding in dismal swamps, and other things which appeal to our sensibilities. Whatever else may be true of slavery, these things, we say, are indisputable; and they furnish materials for the fancy to build into a world of woe.

Without supposing that I had yet seen slavery, it was nevertheless true that a load was lifted from my mind by the first superficial look at the slaves in the city.

It was as though I had been let down by necessity into a cavern which I had peopled with disagreeable sights, and, on reaching bottom, found daylight streaming in, and the place cheerful.

A better-looking, happier, more courteous set of people I had never seen, than those colored men, women, and children whom I met the first few days of my stay in Savannah. It had a singular effect on my spirits. They all seemed glad to see me. I was tempted with some vain feelings, as though they meant to pay me some special respect. It was all the more grateful, because for months sickness and death had covered almost every thing, even the faces of friends at home, with sadness to my eye, and my spirits had drooped. But to be met and accosted with such extremely civil, benevolent looks, to see so many faces break into pleasant smiles in going by, made one feel that he was not alone in the world, even in a land of strangers.

How such unaffected politeness could have been learned under the lash I did not understand. It conflicted with my notions of slavery. I could not have dreamed that these people had been “down trodden,” “their very manhood crushed out of them,” “the galling yoke of slavery breaking every human feeling, and reducing, them to the level of brutes.” It was one of the pleasures of taking a walk to be greeted by all my colored friends. I felt that I had taken a whole new race of my fellow-men by the hand. I took care to notice each of them, and get his full smile and salutation; many a time I would gladly have stopped and paid a good price for a certain “good morning,” courtesy, and bow; it was worth more than gold; its charm consisted in its being unbought, unconstrained, for I was an entire stranger. Timidity, a feeling of necessity, the leer of obliged deference, I nowhere saw; but the artless, free, and easy manner which burdened spirits never wear. It was difficult to pass the colored people in the streets without a smile awakened by the magnetism of their smiles. Let any one at the north, afflicted with depression of spirits, drop down among these negroes, walk these streets, form a passing acquaintance with some of them, and unless he is a hopeless case, he will find himself in moods of cheerfulness never awakened surely by the countenances of the whites in any strange place. Involuntary servitude did not present itself to my eye or thoughts during the two weeks which I spent in Savannah, except as I read advertisements in the papers of slaves for sale.

How the appearance of the colored people in villages and plantation districts would compare with that of city household servants, was a question which was reserved for future observation.

Nehemiah Adams, 1854

— Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, 1971

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Movies, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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