A SONG by Billie Holiday called ‘Strange Fruit’ gave us one of the most graphic and tragic images of lynching and how black men were murdered during slavery.
The words are captured below:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from polar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and twisted mouth
Scent of the magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange bitter crop.”
This song by Billie Holiday was sung many years after slavery had ended, but it captured the images and the meaning of how black African people lived during slavery.
‘Strange Fruit’, remains a haunting critique of lynching and murder of African people in the American South.
In real life, the image of the man who was being hanged was a son, brother, father, husband, brother, cousin or friend to someone.
He would have been a proud African who belonged to a family and a community. He would have worked and slaved for the white European slave master.
Then one day, he met the Ku Klux Klan or the KKK, the white lynching racist lynching mobs and he was murdered by being hanged on a tree.
Although history has provided us with many images of slavery, we do not have enough analysis into how the black family survived slavery.
Was there a family life at all during such a harsh turbulent time when Africa lost many of her people to the slave trade?
The first part of this column will look at the background to the historical background of the slave trade then move on to the family life of slaves.
The trade in African slaves began with the Portuguese and Spanish traders.
The ‘Middle Passage’ was the triangular trade in which millions of people from Africa were forcibly shipped to the ‘new world’ as part of the Atlantic slave trade.
Many ships left Europe destined for African markets with manufactured goods, which were then traded for captured or kidnapped Africans, who became slaves transported across the Atlantic.
It is estimated that between nine and 12 million Africans were taken into slavery and transported to America, although it is very difficult to know the exact number.
Throughout the 18th century, at least a third of the slaves were taken on British ships.
Many of the people were smuggled in order for the slave captains to avoid taxes, duty and regulations.
During the journey, over one million Africans died on the way to the American colonies.
More than 40 percent were shipped to the Caribbean, USA and the Spanish-speaking colonies.
Another 40 percent of Africans were taken to Brazil.
Research done by Patrick Manning calculates Africa’s population in 1850 to be roughly half of what it could have been given a five percent growth rate over the previous 150 years.
Another research done by Joseph Miller on the Angolan slave trade concluded that half the number of slaves died in capture or during transportation and the other half was transported through the Middle Passage.
Of the African slaves transported to the Americas, males outnumbered females by a ratio of 2:1.
This means most of those taken into slavery were African men between the ages of 15 and 35.
These years were the most productive in a man’s life.
The slave traders also took into slavery 15-20 percent of the males under 15 years of age and transported them to the Americas.
These were children or the youths who left Africa and were never to return.
When the Africans arrived in the ‘new world’, life on the slave plantations was very harsh and brutal.
On some plantations the owners would provide the slaves with basic housing, but in most cases, the slaves had to build their own homes.
Housing resembled what the slaves had back home in Africa.
They lived in wooden huts, cramped in unpleasant and cold conditions.
For cooking, they had few pots and pans.
Due to the long hours they worked in the fields, they had little free time to build better living conditions for themselves.
The slaves worked on the rice, sugar and tobacco plantations and sometimes the work was in swamps.
The average slave work day on the slave plantation was from dawn until dusk.
They sometimes worked longer periods during harvests.
They had no free day as they had to work in their own fields at weekends to survive. Throughout their lives, slaves worked.
They were not treated as human beings and they had no rights at all.
In the American colonies, as Peter Thompson, has noted, “A slave was chattel — an article of property that could be bought, punished, sold, loaned, used as collateral, or willed to another at an owner’s whim.
“Slaves could not legally marry, own property, vote, serve as witnesses, serve on juries, or make contracts.
“The offspring of female slaves also belonged to their owners, regardless of whom their fathers were.”
The everyday life of a slave in America requires a more in depth analysis to give us a full picture and to compliment the hidden history of Africans stolen from Africa.
The next columns will examine how the black man, woman and child lived and survived slavery at different times.