The Impact of Slavery on Identities of African-Americans in the Run-Up to the Civil War

Subject: History
Pages: 5
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Study level: Bachelor

Slavery is a system of relations between people in which it is allowed for an individual to be owned by another person, a group of individuals, or the state. Slavery is one of the oldest forms of interaction between people that already formed in ancient times. However, in the United States of America of the 18th century, it acquired incredible volumes. The slave system that existed before the American Civil War had a substantial impact on all society sectors. While the North and the South of the country competed in economic development using different methods and models, the African-American community faced a complete lack of rights and inequality. The increasing pressure on people of color among the southern states’ large landowners only strengthened the forced people’s national and racial identity. The widespread use of slave labor in the South was one of the main reasons for the Civil War outbreak. After Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States, he sent all his forces to end slave relations in the South, which led to secede from the state. Slavery and widespread injustice have become fundamental factors in shaping the social, cultural, political, and economic identity of African-Americans during the run-up to the Civil War.

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Throughout the 18th century, the southern states were considered the wealthiest regions in the United States due to the wide range of agricultural opportunities. Over time, this factor turned the economy of the South into a backward one in comparison with the northern states. According to Williamson and Lindert (2011), in 1774, per capita income in the southern colonies was twice that of the North’s countries. However, by the beginning of the Civil War, the South had a significantly lower income than the northern states.

First, slave labor slowed down industry development, the agricultural sphere, urban planning, and the transport system. The extensive farming method forced planters to look for new territories to continue their businesses. In this regard, the slave owners sought to seize new parts. Active resistance from African-American slaves further slowed economic growth in the region. In addition to regular uprisings, escapes were a common form of resistance from oppressed workers. As a result, the slaves’ productivity was low, and the planters were forced to maintain a large staff of overseers to continue working. As slaves, African-Americans received no pay for forced labor.

Moreover, slave owners often perceived them not as people but as goods. Sojourner Truth (2000), in her narrative, describes the process of the auction where “slaves, horses and other cattle were to be put under the hummer” (p. 579). Due to the long period of American history, in which slavery in the southern states was encouraged by large landowners, African-Americans were in artificial poverty conditions. They also lacked the leverage of economic influence to gain independence. Moreover, it is not entirely ethical to talk about people’s financial identity, deprived of rights and freedoms. In the run-up of the Civil War, existing in such inhuman conditions, the African-American community could identify itself in social terms, clearly aware of the difference between themselves and their enslavers.

Second, skin color difference was the main factor for the transformation of a person into a slave. While in the South, only a small fraction of the African-American community was independent, in the northern states, the percentage of people of color free from oppression was higher. In the run-up to the Civil War, many Afro-Americans opposed the southern slave system. In turn, the slaves of the South made massive attempts to escape to the North to gain their freedom and begin to fight against the planters. Given that physical violence was the primary tool for coercing workers to keep doing the job, African Americans sought to achieve freedom and fight together against racial inequality and injustice. While describing his time in slavery, Henry Bibb (2000) often adds to the narrative stories about family and friends, with which he manages to overcome life’s difficulties. The ideas of mutual help, unity, and solidarity firmly entered the consciousness of these people. Such attitude became the basis for the further formation of a healthy community, whose members were ready to fight for common ideas during the civil war and throughout the XX-XXI centuries.

Third, despite the U.S. Constitution’s adoption in 1787, political tolerance was universally inferior to regional separatism, the result of which is called the Civil War. The armed confrontation between the North and the South of the country became an indicator of many social and cultural problems inherent in the new state. The ubiquitous expression of xenophobia and racism became integrated into American society. In such conditions, representatives of the African American community were undoubtedly in a losing position. As slaves, people did not have the opportunity to use political mechanisms to achieve their own goals. The peculiarities of their life of that period include the absence of any rights and freedoms, gender, and property discrimination. James Albert (2000) was born into the family of the king of Nigeria. After his enslavement, his status was no different from that of hundreds of thousands of other slaves brought overseas to the South’s plantations.

Fourth, the cultural community of African American society is determined by the customs and traditions of their region of origin, which, for the most part was the continent of Africa. Finding themselves disenfranchised society members in the United States, African American culture, manifested in folk art and folklore elements, has become a unifying link for forming their identity. Slave labor was massively used on agricultural plantations. The song tradition developed, which a century later transformed into separate musical genres, such as jazz, soul, and gospel. Besides, Christianity influenced the formation of African American culture during this period. The idea of the equality of all human beings before God has strengthened the community members’ desire to gain freedom and independence. In conditions of slavery and the complete suppression of all expression elements of the will, cultural identity allowed people to continue the struggle for their existence.

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It should be noted that not only the Afro-American society turned to Christianity. James Albert, also known as Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, often speaks to God in his story. In his autobiography (2000), he tries to answer the question “In what Manner will God deal with those benighted Parts of the World where the Gospel of Jesus Christ hath never reached? “(p. 3). The vast majority of planters were also Christians, many of whom justified their actions through their own called rotation of the Bible. A split in the church characterizes this period of American history as a whole. While some priests widely and publicly condemned slavery, some believed that this form of relations between people was allowed by God.

To sum up, inequalities characterized the period in the history of the United States before the Civil War among society members in the emerging state. The economy of the South, based on agriculture with massive use of slave labor, could no longer compete with the North, which was using ever more new technological solutions. Dissatisfaction in society grew relentlessly, and the percentage of people advocating the complete abolition of slavery and the granting of equal rights to all American citizens began to increase. Although some African American people lived in the northern states of the country were free, their percentage was negligible compared to the number of enslaved people in the South of the country. Slavery has become a defining factor in the process of shaping the identity of the African American community.

The ideas of xenophobia and racism flourished everywhere around the country on the eve of the civil war. People were treated as goods, reselling them at auctions and sharing them with families. In these conditions, the African American community’s socio-cultural identity began to form and strengthen, becoming a powerful force in the era of war and after it. Ethnic traditions that people adopted from generation to generation became the basis for self-identity and later became the basis not only for the development of local culture. Over time, these folklore traditions will become the basis for and for world culture.


Gronniosaw, U. J. A., Equiano, O., Turner, N., Douglass, F., Brown, W. W., Bibb, H., Truth, S., Craft, W., Craft, E., Jacobs, H. A., & Green, J. D. (2000). Slave narratives. Penguin Putnam.

Wlliamson, J.G., & Lindert P.H. (2011). American incomes before and after the revolution. The Journal of Economic History, 73(5). 725-765. Web.