True Agency
Jamaal, Age 16, Oak Park, IL

‎There have been many stories about slaves. Ones about how they were whipped, ones about how they were worked day and night with no vacation time, ones about female slaves being raped by their masters, and just ones about the mistreatment of the African American race as a whole, but then there’s also the stories of how slaves would trick their masters and steal from them, thinking, “I stole only what's rightfully mine to take!” To some extent people admit that this was a slave's way of having some level of agency, but that’s not you would call true agency. For slaves, true agency would be having freedom, being your own man or woman.

The first example of this lacking of true agency is in Document 6: Sarah Fitzpatrick (1938). In this document, a former slave at the age of 90 is interviewed on her days as a slave. In her story she tells of how they were barely fed and had to steal their food from their masters, which she said was rightfully owned by the slaves. Instead of saying freedom is rightfully owned by slaves and not just by their masters or the white man. Ms. Fitzpatrick also talked of how they would need passes just to go to church, and those passes would even be as specific as to list which church that they would be visiting. This was more evidence of how little agency slaves had, even when it had to do with the things slave owners themselves introduced them to. But even so there was another point in the story where they had a bit of agency. After they went to the white man’s church (which some slaves were forced to go to) they would find a safe place that was private enough for them to use as a place for their own church services.
In Document 4: Charity Bowery (1847-1848) there are some similar problems in this story. Bowery was a slave who had a multiple amount of children (16 + the ones she raised) but never got to keep them with her (on the same plantation). So she decided to raise money to try and buy her own children back. Which shows agency, but even though it might not have been morally right, she could have used her time in a way to plan to get her way to freedom. At the time she probably didn’t even know that running away to gain her own liberty was even an option.

Document 7: A Slave’s Letter to His Former Master (1844) is a perfect example of a slave getting his true agency. Not only had this slave escaped from bondage, he had become a successful man and was able to hold down a proper life by himself. He then proceeds to antagonize his former slave owner on the matter. He tells him of how he’s free and tells him that he’s forgiven him for beating his wife and children, and that he would like to host him for dinner some time.

There were a lot of points in these documentaries where the slaves had absolutely no power/agency at all! They were treated so inhumanely that all they were probably able to think about was how to get to the next day without being whipped more than five times or how to even get to the next day alive. Some maybe even didn’t want to make it to the next day and wanted it all to end right then and there because the treatment was so bad.

In Document 1: Leaves from a Slave’s Journal of Life (1842), Lewis Clark, a slave, talks about patter-rollers (patrols) on the plantation and how ruthless they were to the slaves. They did everything in their power to provoke and harm them (mentally and physically). They did this knowing the slaves wouldn’t and couldn’t retaliate without having major consequences, regardless of whether they were right or wrong. The slaves had absolutely no agency when it came to these patrols, and if they tried to get that agency their consequence would be getting whipped.

In Document 5: Uncle Ben (1910) a slave talks of how his former slave counterparts were excessively whipped for the simplest of things. He mentioned a story of how a man was too exhausted and spent to continue working, so the slave owner decided to whip him till he started to bleed (this obviously didn’t help the man who was clearly still exhausted) and sent him back to work. The man’s flesh was exposed under the sun and flies would come and land on him until he had maggots in his skin. This is what Ben refers to as a fly bow. Incidents like these would go on and on until those same men decided to run away and get the true agency that were rightfully theirs, but at times they would be caught and brought back to their old plantation and chained up.

In the autobiography of Frederick Douglas there are many examples of no agency, agency, and true agency. A story of how slaves had no agency would be how his own aunt Hester was brutally whipped just because she went to see a slave from another plantation that her master had forbidden her to see for reasons unknown to her. There was a great example of agency; Frederick Douglas had gotten completely fed up with how his life was going as a slave, so he decided to beat up his master instead of letting his master whip him for earlier bad behaviour. “I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me. From this time I was never again what might be called fairly whipped, though I remained a slave four years afterwards. I had several fights, but was never whipped” (pg. 83). The only reason this did not qualify as true agency was because he never made it to freedom after his amazing act of agency over his master. “I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself....I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate” (pg. 112).

This was true agency for Frederick Douglas; he was finally a free man after all he had gone through. He had slowly been going through levels of agency that became more and more common/second nature to him and the tumbling snow ball became larger and faster, until it had reached the oppressor and completely crushed him with all the agency built up from over the years.

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