Although it may seem as though the ideology that was responsible for and propagated by the institution of chattel slavery in the United States existed quite some time ago, in all actuality, this epoch in the history of this country did not occur that long ago. The sesquicentennial (150-year) anniversary of the Civil War -- which was fought over a variety of issues and of which slavery happened to be a central one -- occurred earlier this decade. Many African-Americans can trace their ancestry to slaves and/or freedmen, and there are a number of relics that still exist within the country that are silent testimonials to one of the most turbulent time periods in U.S. History. Subsequently, these relics have taken on immense significance for the fact that they speak so plainly to this epoch, and oftentimes played vital roles in the lives of slaves, or in their pursuit of liberation. Some of the more eminent of these keepsakes are patterns, designs, and the actual stitching of quilts that were readily employed by slaves both during and prior to the time of the Civil War, as well as so-called slave drums, which were in all actuality African drums. In addition to their historical value, many of these works are now considered to have artistic value, as well.
The quilts that were created by and disseminated by slaves during their subjugation served a variety of purposes. There was a definite utilitarian aspect of these blankets, as they could provide warmth and help sustain one's sleep throughout the night. More interestingly, however, they also had another utilitarian aspect, in which they could be used as a form of communication between Africans or African-Americans. During the time period of chattel slavery in the U.S., it was widely illegal to teach slaves to read or write. Some domestic servants were fortunate enough to overcome this law, while a handful of notable other servants (some of whom became famous authors) were able to learn how to master illiteracy as well. However, due to the fact that slaves were not supposed to read and write and communicate with each other as such, they utilized certain designs and patterns on quilts to express certain ideas. Quite frequently, these designs alluded to ways to escape the perils of bondage. In fact, a number of these patterns have been assembled and identified today as the "quilt codes" of the Underground Railroad, an illicit route out of the southern United States to the north where slavery was largely prohibited. The actual meaning of these symbols was designed by a variety of sources including both Blacks and whites, freedmen and slaves. The following quotation illustrates how these quilts and their insignias on them were able to aid slaves find freedom.
The quilt patterns, used in a certain order, relayed messages to slaves preparing to escape. Each pattern represented a different meaning…Quilts slung over a fence or windowsill, seemingly to air, passed on the necessary information to knowing slaves. As quilts hung out to air was a common site on a plantation, neither the plantation owner nor the overseer would notice anything suspicious (No author, 2004).
Some signals included on quilts included patterns of flying geese, which indicated to slaves to follow geese' flights north, and a sailboat, which implied that there was a body of water nearby or that small boats might be of use.
Another artifact that remains from the time of slavery (and which was actually created and implemented within the culture of African people considerably earlier) was the so-called slave drum, which was really a plethora of different types of drums that were created and initially used in Africa. Significantly, these drums were used as covert methods of communication between slaves, and were quite possibly discerned by freedmen who were familiar with their sounds. In fact, such drums would eventually become notorious for disseminating messages among Africans and those of African descent, as the following quotation largely implies.
In America, slaves played drums of all shapes and sizes in tradition of both eastern and western Africans. The drumbeat not only accompanied chants and dances, but was also used to send messages. By striking and holding the drum in certain ways, drummers could replicate tones of speech almost exactly. Fear of slaves communicating through these uncanny sounds led whites in several regions to outlaw slave drumming (No author, 2004).
This quotation is demonstrative of the efficacy that Africans had in utilizing these musical instruments to communicate with one another. By creating sounds that were reminiscent of "speech," slaves could disseminate information and ideas to one another. It is significant to note that even when drums were appropriated by slave owners and slave drivers, salves continued to innovate varying techniques to continue to drum -- and quite possibly to continue to communicate. In certain instances, slaves would improvise by drumming on different parts of their body (such as their chests, arms, and on parts of their legs). Another alternative would be to clap their hands rhythmically to simulate the feel and the beat of a drum. More creative slaves would actually recreate drums by using what materials that could be found, such as cans, containers, boxes and whatever else might be at hand. As with most of the artifacts that still exist from the epoch of chattel slavery African drums served two purposes -- one of which was aesthetic, the other of which was more pragmatic.
Another type of artwork that exists today and originated during the time period in which chattel slavery was present in the U.S. And was being marketed throughout other parts of the world is the bian figure. Although these figures may still be created in contemporary times, they were particularly popular approximately 300 years ago, and were primarily sculpted by the Baule people, who inhabit parts of the Ivory Coast and parts of Ghana. What is most interesting about these bian figures is that they are indicative of a belief in the blolo, which is a conception of the spiritual world or an otherworld on the astral plane. Furthermore, these sorts of figures also serve more than a simple aesthetic purpose, although the alternative purpose of these figures is not quite as pragmatic as those of African drums or slave quilts, particularly for effecting escape from the dangers of chattel slavery. Interestingly enough, these figures presented more of a psychological or spiritual aid, as the following quotation evinces.
These figures represent an ideal of man or womanhood, embodying not only physical perfection, but social, moral and intellectual achievement. Spirit spouse sculptures can be seen as a kind of opposite sex alter ego and are a fascinating case of the use of art in Africa for individual psychological relief (Vogel 1997, 36).
Essentially, these sculptures were used to invoke the image of one's spiritual partner in the world, who was believed to have a significant impact on the lives of the living. Any sort of issues regarding sex or the opposite sex (bian's were spirit husbands, blas were spirit wives) could typically be resolved by assuaging these spiritual partners, which is what these representations -- that were often times sculpted out of wood -- were essentially used for. Baule people also sculpted and created art in other media such as brass or gold.
Another artifact that remains from the epoch of slavery in America is a painting entitled The Westwood Children. It was completed at the beginning of the 19th century (in approximately 1807), and was rendered by an artist by the name of Joshua Johnson. Jonson is widely regarded as the first ever African-American painter who was largely able to support himself by the means of his artwork. This particular painting of Johnson's, like many of his others, depicted the sons of a wealthy family of note (headed by John and Margaret Westwood, the former of whom manufactured stagecoaches for a living) who lived or worked within the greater Baltimore metropolitan area. In many respects, this particular painting is representative of Johnson's style -- which largely belongs to the genre of painting known as naive art -- as the following quotation proves.
Johnson is known for his skillful use of design and balanced composition, as seen in The Westwood Children. His portrait style is distinguished by the oval faces, thin lips, and only slightly modeled figures of his subjects. Johnson's method of applying thin layers of color makes the boys' features particularly sweet and delicate (No author, 2012).
What is most significant about Johnson's art (aside from its aesthetic value and the fact that he was the first professional African-American painter) as it pertains to this paper is the fact that he was a slave. He was born in bondage in approximately 1763 to a mother who was a slave. The Caucasian George Johnson is believed to be his father, and purchased Johnson from a Baltimore farmer by the name of William Wheeler. Johnson eventually…