Stolen Childhood (Children & Slavery): A Review on Chapter 1

September 29, 2007 at 5:50 am 3 comments

Jeremiah 31 (NIV):
16 This is what the LORD says:
“Restrain your voice from weeping
and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the LORD.
“They will return from the land of the enemy.

17 So there is hope for your future,”
declares the LORD.
“Your children will return to their own land.”

Title: “Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in 19th Century America”.
(This post is a review of Chapter 1, which is posted at the site below in its entirety).

Author: Wilma King, 1995.

Source: The Washington Post


“Stolen Childhood” by Wilma King is a moving testimony to the hardships slave children faced, and the heroic efforts of parents to provide not only survival but a sense of childhood. King argues that slave children had their childhood stolen from them by being born into slavery, a system where parents were sent to work in the fields and forced to abandon their children. During the times of slavery, if childhood was to be enjoyed it was because of extraordinary efforts, even sacrifices made by the parents (or related caregivers). Not only did the parent provide for the slave child, at a time when their life meant so little that they endured constant deprivation as well as physical and mental abuse–but often the parent stood as a gateway, offering insight, praise or love where no other shelter could be sought. Indeed the very act of loving a slave child as a human being, was in itself tantamount to rebellion; to slave holders these children were no more than property, and good only as long as they held their value. Women were especially valued for their ability to reproduce, and create more slaves. It is remarkable how the spirit of enslaved Africans were able to survive and find ways to flourish under such harsh conditions, “Despite the tumultuous nature of chattel slavery, many bond servants formed binding relationships, established families, and developed lives for themselves within the confines of bondage. “(King). I highly recommend “Stolen Childhood” as being a valuable source of historical information as well as rich with oral storytelling and revealing of the life of African slaves from the intimacy of their own experiences.

Chapter 1 of “Stolen Childhood” is posted online at the Washington Post site and discusses the following subjects:

*Miscarriage and Infant Mortality among pregnant slave women. Slave children often died due to harsh working conditions, poor nutrition and lack of medical care. Further, ” In a study of deaths among the African American population in seven slaveholding states in 1849 and 1850, Kenneth and Virginia Kiple found that 51 percent of the deaths among the nonwhite population occurred among children nine years of age and under. Slave children in that age group constituted 31 percent of the sample. These statistics suggest that slave mothers needed and extraordinary amount of fortitude to adjust to the large number of deaths among their children.” (King). Slaves often relied upon herbal remedies and folk cures to address health concerns. Religious beliefs also played a part in ministering to the sick and addressing grief after the death of a child.

*Attitudes of slave holders towards the death of slave children. Many slave mothers were blamed for causing the death of a child, and made to feel they were at fault by the condemnation of the slave holder.

*Naming traditions among surviving children. I found this to be especially revealing in consideration of naming traditions evident within my own family,”American slaves probably did not hold a celebration, but they followed the African tradition of naming children in honor of close relatives, thereby placing the child firmly within the kin network.” (King),

*The value of enslaved children to slave holders. Another interesting fact from this article, “Slaveowners intervened silently in the naming process with their own surnames, which reflected ownership rather than kinship. It was not uncommon to refer to slaves as John Newton’s Sally or Sarah Willingsley’s Osborne.” (King) “Stolen Childhood” also discusses the conflicts slave parents faced knowing their children were considered property to the slave holder, and discusses the different attitudes slave parents had towards children. Some parents, King claims, ignored children or used them as bargaining chips. Others grieved the loss of their children and fought to ensure their survival.

I see strong paralells with this to modern life, especially to poor families. Caught in cycles of poverty and dysfunction, some children are ignored or neglected. Their worth may be dependant on street hustling, caretaking the parent or just staying out of sight. Other parents fight to raise healthy children amidst poverty and crime ridden neighborhoods, they face emotional turmoil and make great sacrifices to ensure the survival of their children, whose fate remains uncertain–the lure of the streets is a very real, constant threat.

*Caring for children while a parent was working. This statement reminded me of recollections from my own family lore, “The children of field hands sometimes accompanied their parents to work. If mothers did not strap the smallest children who could not keep up on their backs, they left them on pallets at the end of rows, near fences, or under trees away from the hot sun.” (King). Some plantations required that the old, sick or infirm watch the children. In many instances, the number of children far exceeded the help available to ensure proper care.

*Relationships between children and caregivers. Again, I see a similar pattern repeated in the early generations of my family, “The extended family, no doubt, existed on financially stable households which did not undergo major transitions upon an owner’s death. In the absence of relatives, surrogates of fictive families were valuable. Related or not, older slaves often showed kindness to children. The plethora of “aunts” and “uncles” indicates that children learned early on to show deference to their elders in keeping with a traditional African custom.” (King). Relationships with family helped children endure slavery and family customs helped children cope while creating a unique existence forged in the midst of constant hardship.

*Care of slave children (food, clothing and basic necessities).

I would love to hear any thoughts on this article or any thoughts from anyone who has read “Stolen Childhood”. And I would like to extend my gratitude to Wilma King for authoring this incredible testimony, which reveals a side of history, often discarded and gives the respect, long overdue, to the enslaved Africans who have worked, bled and made tremendous efforts to give our generation a better life and help build the America we now enjoy today. Namaste.


Entry filed under: Historical Information & Tidbits. Tags: , , , , .

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