RCC Honors History Project

Mental Slavery

Posted by nrohr on November 16, 2008

In class we began to discuss the great burden of slavery on the minds of both black and white. Here is a related quote I recently came across from Thomas Jefferson:

“There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

This psychological burden of slavery is a theme that has become increasingly apparent to me. The institution of slavery and the lengths taken to protect it created an American society that not only told people of color that they were property, but forced white people into treating them as such. Now obviously, there are white people behind the creation and perpetuation of slavery, so we shouldn’t feel too sorry for them. But still, there is a sense in which everyone was in entrenched in mental slavery and burdened by the expectation of cruel superiority. White people were reduced as humans and as Christians by being brutal and violent to their fellow man, by turning their backs on close companions to sell them at an auction block, by destroying families, and by being selfish, concerned only with their own interests. Again, they made these choices, they should have known better. But they did live in a society that reinforced white superiority and a legal system that asserted that black people were entirely without rights. The system also limited the rights of white people to be too nice–white people were punished for teaching slaves to read or write, for being too lenient. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe writes that slavery is “a system equally bad for oppressor and oppressed.” White people were entrenched in a mindset that said they were better and had every right to be cruel, and while it is sometimes the easier thing to do to be mean, I think being asked to be mean all of the time, denying humane impulses, is burdensome. Black people, of course, were taught that they were property, an aspect of production, for buying and selling. They were taught they were inferior and always would be. They were enslaved not only physically, economically, and politically, but mentally.

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5 Responses to “Mental Slavery”

  1. dnsom said

    You are right that the white slave masters, by enslaving the blacks, also enslaved themselves mentally.What I find ironic is that after the abolition of slavery the whites kind of healed themselves from this ‘mental slavery’ and then subjected that blacks to it. By continuing with nagative stereotypes and prejudices against the blacks, white supremacy basically subjected the blacks to mental slavery even up to this day. If you don’t believe just listen to most of those who argued against a Obama becoming the US president. Most of the arguments had racial undertones embedded in them.

  2. nrohr said

    I think that the institution of slavery effected American society, race relations, and the mindsets of both black and white in a way that is almost too deep for words. Those effects are long lasting. So I think that even following emancipation, the mindsets of slavery remained and were difficult to dismantle. The mental slavery may have ended, but I think its reverberations continue.

    Here is an excerpt from Barack Obama’s Speech on Race that I think fits our discussion:

    As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

    You can read the full text of the speech here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/us/politics/18text-obama.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

  3. katchtwentytwo said

    As the previous two commenters stated above, slavery was largely a mental prison than a physical one, simply because when you think about it from a mental standpoint, both sides were effected. The effects of these types of acts lasted much longer and were much more damaging to the mental mind than to the physical body. Wounds could be healed, but wounded spirits could not. This is why you see the aftermath of slavery around you everyday. There are still tensions between races and cultures. Whites are constantly being looked upon as “the man” who tries to keep all others downs. And we are still trying to make those different than us seem like they are less that human beings by denying them basic rights. The mental effect of slavery on society is much more withstanding and a lot stronger.

    Mental slavery was all about making sure the person below you felt a lot more worse than you did. I’m sure many of the white masters felt some sort of guilt for owning another person, but they most likely softened that guilt by mentally telling themselves that, by some divine right, these blacks were less than human. This would make keeping them enslaved easier and more well accepted. Of course, they probably were effected mentally by this as well and I’m sure that some whites still have those mindsets of those during the time slavery.

    Mental Effects = Lasting Effects.

  4. blooney said

    Thomas Jefferson’s quote, if I understand it correctly, is ridiculous. He is talking about himself. How can he denounce slavery and slave owners yet he owned slaves? How can he speak on the manners of others, when he is taking part in the same type of relationship? Maybe we need to take Mr. Jefferson to Luke 6:42.

    He can’t even plead ignorance on the issue of slavery. He is the saddest kind of slave owner; he knows better yet still does not do what is right. Jefferson puts himself in mental slavery, his bondage is chosen.

  5. ookpo said

    Naturally, a person cannot last very long with anxiety. Sooner than later, they have to find a resolution or a compromise. I can only imagine the tension in the country where each person almost has to ascertain that the air he or she is breathing is truly meant for their race. Regardless of the fact that whites were in charge, they probably harbored fears of the capability of slaves especially after events like Nat Turner’s rebellion. Laws could not be passed without extra measures to ensure the satisfaction of both slave and free states while balancing the portrayal of blacks as less than humans along with support for their position. Wow! It’s hard enough passing a law, how much more when the country’s economy and stability is at stake? So, I agree with nrohr. In fact slavery was a national plague that affected the entire American population.

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