Family  /  Retrieval

Enslaved People and Divorce in the African Diaspora

Restoring agency to enslaved people means acknowledging not only that they created marriages, but that they ended them, too.
Library of Congress

Numerous books and articles analyze the concept of “slave marriage,” but other than a few exceptional works, the historical literature severely lacks analyses of slave divorce. This current state is understandable for a few reasons. First, most slave testimonies discuss the contours of marriage under slavery but rarely mention divorce procedures. If slaves ever separated, it was a forced split caused by the master’s interference. Former slaves naturally preferred to disclose how enslaved people fought for marital dignity to critique the hypocrisy of “Christian” slaveholders who severed their marriages. Admitting that enslaved people willingly separated from one another potentially damaged the abolitionist cause, as it could fuel the perception among racist whites that people of African descent did not respect the bonds of Eurocentric matrimony. Secondly, the cultural turn among scholars of slavery in the 1970s and 1980s contested past histories that rendered slaves docile and cultureless, preferring to view the familial unit through the vantage point of resistance, and some scholars asserted that enslaved people, against all the odds, formed solid and supportive domestic structures despite the slaveholder’s encroachments. The narrative of resistance proved immensely popular, and some viewed the slave family as a unit fostering psychological survival.

Though recent histories of slavery and capitalism caution historians against romanticizing the durability of slave communities, often citing the “domestic slave trade” as an example of Black people possessing no agency in experiencing familial separation, the narrative of resistance remains popular for those seeking to reclaim slaves’ human dignity. After all, the violence associated with forced separations, as frequently happened in the antebellum South, would surely encourage one to maintain their domestic structure and all available systems of support. But viewing the enslaved through this limited lens is a disservice toward understanding the emotional histories of those trapped in bondage. Like any other group, enslaved people acted upon their feelings and passions. Willingly severing the marital tie was one way to express dissatisfaction with a partner and dictate the terms of enslaved people’s relationships.

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