In my book, Old Age and American Slavery, I explore perceptions of old age and attitudes towards “old” people in the US South. I focus on the experiences and identities of enslavers and enslaved alike and reveal the implications of aging on the institutional and ideological structures underpinning US slavery. In revealing how enslavers and enslaved people negotiated pressures associated with aging, and how their communities addressed these issues, this book develops vital and ongoing debates on power, resistance, and survival. In doing, it deepens our understanding of the structures of American slavery, and the most personal experiences of those enmeshed in it.
For the quant-fans out there, I do provide some information on the numerical and chronological dimensions to old age in the nineteenth-century US but this is deliberately limited. I am more interested in considering intersubjective perceptions of the aging process and intergenerational dynamics – in other words, showing how people understood embodied time in a relational and functional context, used temporal language to position themselves and others in social hierarchies, and considering the consequences of such positioning. Nineteenth-century Americans clearly viewed – and used – age in such ways. People may have been considered “old” in some settings, and by some observers, but not in or by others; these unstable categorizations could inspire reflection or, indeed, tension. Nathanael Emmons, an influential antebellum theologian, noted, “How many have been startled the first time they heard themselves called old, or the first time they realized themselves to be so!” Contemporaries used terms such as “old” or “elder” fluidly, and so do I. As Emmons pithily put it: “Children always think their parents are old.” Such subjective elements of perception – both personal and public – are critical to this book and to wider understandings of embodied time. I examine age as a functional category, metaphor and symbol, as a means of comparatively constructing identities, and ultimately as a relation of power. In delineating the contexts and consequences of assessments of “old age” among enslaved people and their enslavers, I underscore how far age factored into the conflict and negotiations within enslaved communities, and between enslaved people and their enslavers.
The book developed organically from questions arising from my first monograph, Contesting Slave Masculinity in the American South. I could not move past the case of Moses, “a feeble old man,” who was murdered by King, a fellow slave, in Richmond, 1848. During the beating Moses tried to protect himself by making explicit reference to his age: “King I ain’t fit to die. I don’t want to go to Hell King, don’t kill such an old creature as I.” Moses even offered King “every cent of money I have got.” Neither these pleas nor his advanced age saved him. King taunted and beat his elder before drowning him in a puddle of muddy water. I was struck by the cruelty of the assault, during which King repeatedly mocked his over-matched opponent, interspersing the beating with the pointed request Moses acknowledge “how come his name was King.” The terror and sadness in Moses’s cries led me to critically reappraise existing work on old age in enslaved communities. From the pioneering social history of the 1970s that emphasized enslaved resistance, kinship, and culture, scholars have overwhelmingly emphasized communal support, even reverence, for Black elders. There has been a wave of important new scholarship on age in slavery which emphasizes the exploitation of slavers, but which equally argues that in the face of this violence enslaved communities respected their aged and lauded their guidance.
I kept confronting material, however, that suggested peers viewed enslaved elders in more complex ways than some of this historiography allows, and that elders themselves did not always believe due reverence had been granted. Moreover, “respect” granted on account of advanced age could seem condescending, being based on a perception of reduced abilities or accommodation on account of age. On Solomon Northup’s Louisiana plantation, “Old Abram… [was] a sort of patriarch among us.” Northup also emphasized, however, that “age and unremitting toil” had “somewhat shattered [Abram’s] powerful frame and enfeebled his mental faculties.” Northup’s respect for Abram was predicated on pity, not parity. Indeed, he later used the trope of aging to reflect his own fear of remaining enslaved and desire to avoid transitioning into the “patriarch” of the plantation: “The summer of my life was passing away; I felt I was growing prematurely old; that a few years more, and toil, and grief, and the poisonous miasma of the swamps would accomplish their work on me—would consign me to the grave’s embrace, to moulder and be forgotten.” Associations of old age with physical decline, social isolation, and even submission to bondage, shaped personal identities and community dynamics in slavery. Enslaved people perceived as old by others sometimes resented or resisted such reasoning, and this led to tension in enslaved communities.
White slavers also understood age was a vector of power, and the exploitative culture of slavery turned its talons on those who abused enslaved people for as long as they were able. Enslavers, men and women, were animated at the personal and political levels by the pursuit of profit. In this quest, they sought domination of those they enslaved. But against their deepest-held wishes, elderly enslavers were not always able to command the control they craved. In revealing the limits to the dominion of elderly enslavers, we are able to reject their self-image of total “mastery,” just as we reject their claims of benevolence. The pressures associated with aging, whether real or imagined, could wreak havoc on enslavers’ public and private claims of dominance. The “inexorable hand of time,” in North Carolina slaver William Pettigrew’s phrase, rendered some enslavers wretched and pathetic; recognition of this fact shaped interpersonal relationships and the dynamics of power and resistance in the antebellum South.
Ultimately, the exploitative nature of slavery structured interactions between white southerners. As they grew older, enslavers struggled to find their place within a society that prized autonomy and expressions of dominance. Rather than respect one another as “masters” or “mistresses,” white southerners could see in elders weakness to exploit and “dependents” to master. Even in hierarchical white southern society, “time’s relentless hand” diminished slavers’ hopes for control and their presumptions of mastery, whether over enslaved people or other whites. One enslaver’s motto was “to keep all I have got and get all that I can,” and such ideologies helped to shape southern social interactions. Elderly enslavers once at the pinnacle could be forced to fight against the rising generation who did not fear or respect them. These old slavers are not the object of pity, but their fates further reveal the all-encompassing effects of the culture of exploitation that drove life in antebellum slavery.
Ultimately, Old Age and American Slavery reveals how antebellum southerners adapted to, resisted, or failed to overcome changes associated with age, both real and imagined, and the extent to which these struggles intersected with wider concerns over control, exploitation, resistance, and survival in a slave society. In doing so, it asksfuture scholars to rethink static hierarchies among Black and white southerners, to incorporate age into their work as a category of analysis and as a relation of power, and to address the contingent and contested networks of solidarity and support among enslavers and enslaved in the American South. Age shaped slavery, both as a system of economic exploitation and a contested site of personal domination, in crucial ways. Albeit never on equal terms, both Black and white southerners had to grapple with the realization that “old age [was] creeping on me so fast,” and their efforts to do so were entwined in the wider struggles within and against slavery. The ravages of time came for all; recognition of this simple fact shaped the dynamics of American slavery, and the lives of enslaved people and enslavers alike.