The Many Faces of Slavery

An analysis of the journey behind the conceptions used to understand the practice of slavery

By: Hallvard S. Velure 



In 1845 a man named Frederick Douglass published a book about his life and endeavors. Douglass was born an American slave, with an African-American mother and unknown father. During the 1800s, slavery in the US was institutionalized in the southern states and upon its peak[1]. The background for this institutionalized phenomenon was the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which by its end in 1808 had resettled multiple millions of Africans as slaves in the European colonies of America, thus creating a system where privileges followed skin color and race. In Douglass´s autobiography one don’t need to read far, before the reality of slavery materializes. Already in his first chapter he compares his childhood in a slave farm with the life of a horse, where whippings, abuse, and overwhelming work days was just a part of the ordinary weekday[2].

Put into a modern context, the tales of Douglass is utterly heartbreaking and completely unacceptable. Yet, Douglass´s stories are nothing but a mere sample of something completely normal only 150 years ago. Naturally, this makes one wonder. How could the slaveholders of the American south, treat other human beings like this? In this article I aim to look at established academic research to provide some answers to this question. Through a brief look on the field, I will provide different viewpoints of slavery, freedom and ideology which together constitutes the fundament of what materialized as the practice of slavery.

Theory and Method

Through this article I will show how the terms of slavery and freedom, have embarked on a journey where they might not be understood as implicit as one might think. While doing this I will firstly provide an argument that the practice of European colonialism and slavery, was anchored in the contemporary ideologies about race and human value practiced by the contemporary people in power. These ideologies looked upon slavery as something completely natural, which made slavery ultimately a normal practice. In the core of this view I will argue, lies an understanding of human beings as different in terms of value. Secondly, I will highlight viewpoints of freedom, as a key factor to see what slavery was and vice versa. Violence was important in that manner, because the nature of captivity is highly centered around physical abuse or other forms of limitations. Though, as I will further highlight, ways of practicing freedom might still be possible in the strongest of shackles. Building on these views, I will then proceed to include some personal views on the topic and draw some parallels to modern society, before summarizing and concluding the article.

Though, as I will further highlight, ways of practicing freedom might still be possible in the strongest of shackles.

The literature of the article will be centered around the already established academical works of the field.  This includes Ira Berlin´s groundbreaking work on understanding slavery; Many Thousands Gone, Gunnar Myrdal´s theoretical framework of racism in America; An American Dilemma and Jessica Marie Johnson´s interesting reconceptualization of freedom in Wicked Flesh. In addition other authors will be briefly brought in through their expertise on certain topics. Examples here are Stephanie Smallwood´s Saltwater Slavery, and Fredrick Douglass`s autobiography.


The Ideological Foundation of Slavery

To start of the article, the natural question to ask would be what makes a slave? Then, the obvious answer to this question, is by all means a person which is owned by another human being. However, the idea of owning another human is quite extreme in a modern context. A necessary question if one wants to explore American slavery is therefore: how could this be normal? The American Union is a rather young nation on the international theatre and, most of its people are today descendants of immigrants from some other continent. This constitutes a multicultural society, with people possessing different physical appearances and attributes. One of these attributes are skin-color, which as I will highlight played a major part for contemporary European colonists.

A Racial Hierarchy

Ira Berlin points this out, and regards that the key of understanding slavery is the ideological presumption of race. He argues that the Antebellum period in American history completely changes the concept of slavery from being a question of freedom, to become a question of race. Easily put, this means that a black man never will be able to reach the same levels of privilege as a white man, just based on his appearance as a black man[3]. Furthermore, Berlin points out that race does in fact not exist. It´s is just a mere social construct comparable to classes, or money. It only exists because enough people believe in it[4]. How this could happen is rooted in the ideological framework which for the masters were completely common and natural. I will attempt to show this in greater detail.

Through the initial meeting and exploration of the newfound continent Europeans traded and hired slaves. This was not by any means exclusive to the European colonial effort in the Americas, but it culminates down to the basic understanding of human nature. In my view there are some good indices that Europeans didn’t understand American natives in this time period as equal. For example, Robbie Ethridge tells the story about Hernando de Soto´s exploration voyage in the south east of what later became the US[5]. Here it is quite clearly pictured that the early conquistador´s endeavors in this region, never saw the Natives as anything but someone they could use for their benefit[6]. Soto heavily relied on raiding the Native´s fields and storages to provide resources for his men, killing and raping in the process[7]. This says a fair amount about his attitude, and therefore his ideological believes as superior compared to the American Native.

(…)the idea of owning another human is quite extreme in a modern context. A necessary question if one wants to explore American slavery is therefore: how could this be normal?

This presumption of human lives as different values is key to further understand the conception of race and then slavery. As is well known, French and English colonies established itself in addition to the Spanish during the 1600s, and as the European colonies settled, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade dawned reaching its peak in the mid 1700s[8]. Author and Historian Forrest G. Wood, argues that the colonial powers based their basic understanding of race upon Conservative Christianity, where people are literally understood of different values. Following this view, men are worth more than women, and good Christian Europeans are worth more than pagan Indians or Blacks[9]. This perspective is further strengthened by Douglass´s own notes as a slave, when he with great irony states; “…God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right”[10].

The Ideological Exclusiveness of European Slavery

It is in fact, quite sensational that even though both American and African natives would trade slaves before and even together with the colonists, the European slave trade were the only tradeline exclusively following race. For example, Ellis argues that native chiefdoms such as the Chickasaws would raid and plunder native towns, capturing men, women and children and sell them to the Europeans in order to survive as a people[11]. This was done because the European demand for slaves were high, and is therefore rather a consequence of the European presence in the area, because it allowed the Chickasaw to come on good terms with the newcomers. Also the Africans practiced internal slaving in the period after initial contact with Europeans. Johnson highlights people like Signora Catti who established trade connections with the French colonists of West-Africa, and sold them native slaves, sex and hospitality[12].

While these examples indeed show slaving, they show it in a slightly different manner. Through the arguments of Ellis and Johnson, it seems to be quite clear that these native people did this slaving in order to promote self-interests. The Chickasaws would have an easier time surviving as people, and Signora Catti would live a life of respect and relative wealth. This then clearly express how the Europeans had premise-giving powers over the natives, and therefore it is quite remarkable how Europeans did capitalize on the slaves. While these actions committed by the natives was done out of self-interest, it still shows no awareness of race. On the contrary European actions however show great awareness of race, as they only traded in native Americans and Africans. This perspective certainly strengthens Berlin`s point, that race in itself is a European concept.

Europeans didn’t see slaves as fully humans, therefore allowed themselves to treat them like cattle. This clearly proves how race is highly relevant towards American slavery.

Smallwood provides some key elements to highlight this notion further, when she talks about the logistics of the voyage between Africa and the Americas. Her point is that after Africans were captured in Africa, they got treated like any other cargo[13]. The Europeans shoved them in overcrowded forts or ships, expressing how these people were nothing but merchandise. Here lies a key concept of the ideological framework concerning race. The conditions on these forts and ships was as is well-known today absolutely horrendous. But, in my mind it is extremely important to fully comprehend this misery that the Europeans created. They didn’t necessarily wish any explicit harm towards the slaves through purposeful torture and cause of suffering. However, they were treated as merchandise because they could never be a human the way the colonist viewed humans, and this in my view anchors the whole idea of slavery. Smallwood adds credibility to this view through highlighting the fact that the suffering were inflicted exclusively to maximize economic efficiency[14]. This stands as a remarkable picture of the ideological framework discussed in this section; Europeans didn’t see slaves as fully humans, therefore allowed themselves to treat them like cattle. This clearly proves how race is highly relevant towards American slavery.

Connections to the Framing of the Union

All of this is most interesting, because not only does it excuse slavery in the contemporary eyes of the colonists, it also makes the fundament of the ideological basis the American Union was built upon. As the first line of the Declaration of Independence promises a life of liberty and happiness to all men because they are equal, it is possible to understand the meaning of “all men”, different from modern day “all men”. In fact, there are clear indices upon “all men” actually just meaning “all white men”, as slavery continued in the US almost a hundred years into the 1800s, in a society where white men clearly was favored. In fact the Founding Fathers of the American Union did not mention slavery with specific words in the Declaration of Independence, despite Thomas Jefferson writing a larger passage on it. The reason for this was that the topic of slavery were such a contested area of discussion that it was seen as better to leave the slaves out of it[15]. However, slaves were still mentioned in the Constitution in a more subtle matter, where they were lawfully defined as three fifths of a white man[16]. Astride Zolberg strengthens this argument that the American Union were purposefully created to favor the white man while arguing that the Founding Fathers knew what they were doing, and shaped the nation to secure power and prosperity for themselves and their peers[17].


The Concept of Freedom

To further understand the phenomena that slavery was, it is key to get a grasp on the concept of the term freedom. This is a word that at first perhaps looks quite self-explaining, but quickly gets more complicated after a deeper look. The whole idea of slavery, is that one person owns another person in order to provide services to the owner and his family. When someone owns another person, that person is not free. This is representative for the traditional understanding of the concept of freedom.

Freedom in a Racial Society

As shown in the section above, race as a concept mixed with institutional slavery creates big complications for the term freedom. The entire idea of freedom is built upon the notion of a person being able to do whatever they want with their life. In this period, in order for a black man to be free, he had to have documents that proved it. In my view, just this limits the alleged freedom this person possess because, if one have to prove to be free, this surely will limit the amount of activities one can participate in. Author and Academic Warren Eugene Milteer provides some good evidence of this point. In his book Beyond Slavery´s Shadow there are some good examples of what this alleged freedom consists of. The stories of prominent white men John D. Barnes, and David Hamilton in the 1810s, testifying in court to prove the freedom of black families Clark and Cook[18] pictures this in good fashion.

The fact that these black families needed support from renowned white men to keep their status as freed, tells a story about a system where freedom of black people are completely different from the freedom of whites.

The fact that these black families needed support from renowned white men to keep their status as freed, tells a story about a system where freedom of black people are completely different from the freedom of white people.

Following Milteer´s point, one easily recognize Berlin´s core argument of race when one encounters actions like this. In my mind, this wears down the understanding that slavery and freedom is contradictions to each other. Instead, it launches a question if the promise of freedom ever got fulfilled. I think one quite easily can argue that even though slavery got abolished in 1865, freedom for black people never prevailed. There was deep complications for black people´s freedom during the Jim Crow regime, and slave like plantations are reported to have continued all the way through the 1950s[19]. I mean don’t get me wrong, the institutionalized slavery practiced in the early 1800s is of course different from the Jim Crow South, however my point is that the practice of slavery seems to have laid the basis for a understanding of black people as inferior. Jim Crow certainly testifies to that. In context with freedom, this therefore creates a new spectacle of the term, as freedom from slavery clearly is different than general white freedom. In that way one can be free without being free, and one can be unfree while being free. This makes the concept complicated.

The Freedom of Slaves

A different, but equally important view on how freedom and slavery are contradictions can be found in Jessica Marie Johnson´s Wicked Flesh. Here she argues that African women were able to redefine their freedom through friendship and intimacy towards each other and white men. Through the term Black Femme Freedom Johnson argues that through the forced slave trade, black women and girls redefined the meaning of freedom while showing that true freedom is the ability to belong fully to themselves[20]. This they did by connecting to each other, in a world who already alienated them.

The assumption that these sexual relations was exclusively not wanted by black women, is false in Johnson eyes. Rape and sexual violence did of course happen, but Johnson argues that sex also was a way for black women to pleasure and empower themselves, thus practicing Black Femme Freedom.

For example, the racial consciousness of the colonists made them fear interracial relations. The French government provided fines for fathering a child with a slave woman, in an attempt to stop sexual relations between slaves and masters in the American colonies. Regarding race this is definitely interesting. For the colonists it was quite convenient that slaves were black and masters was white. Interracial offspring however complicated this notion. Because children of a white man and black woman was hard to define as one or the other.

Different practices of how to legally approach this children then emerged throughout the Americas. For example in the Caribbean if born by a slave woman and a European man, some were free from their birth, some were freed after they turned twenty, and some were never freed[21]. Considering these practices then shows how interracial offspring was a complicated matter, and not particularly wanted by the colonists. Nevertheless it was an ever returning field of discussion, as interracial relations seems to be quite common[22]. The assumption that these sexual relations was exclusively not wanted by black women, is false in Johnson eyes. Rape and sexual violence did of course happen, but Johnson argues that sex also was a way for black women to pleasure and empower themselves, thus practicing Black Femme Freedom.

Furthermore, children born between slave women and free men on US soil would inherit their mother´s status as Douglass cruelly experienced in his childhood[23]. This meant that slave women didn’t necessarily wish to mother children with European men, or any men for that matter. In this way abortion, and infanticide was quite common between women of African descent. Though this might sound like an awful, and not beneficial situation to be in, which it indeed was not, it was also a way for these slave women to connect and help each other out. The practice of abortion is a way for women to take control of their bodies and decide what to do with them. Even though the act in itself must be quite unpleasant, Johnson still argues that it felt liberating and empowering for these women to be able to decide this for themselves[24].

Following Johnson´s argument, this is a clear way of practicing one´s own way of freedom. There are also good evidence that slave women did form sexual relations with each other, which strengthens this picture of control and power of own sexuality[25]. These views on the concept of freedom is extraordinary, because at the end of the day these are women which mostly where extremely underprivileged in the world they resided. In any juridical way they did not own anything, not even their own children if they chose to have some, and they were by no traditional way free. Still, with this reconceptualization done by Johnson the term freedom changes. By taking control of their bodies, lives and relationships, many slave women were able to practice freedom on their own terms. This shows how complex the concept of freedom is, and paints a remarkable picture of slavery in itself.


Closing Thoughts

What do these perspectives tell us then? First and foremost it tells a story about extreme expression committed towards a very specific demographic group. The colonists of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the white Americans of the American slavery only saw blacks as just that; namely Black people from Africa, who was uncivilized and pagan. There is obviously no doubt today that black people from Africa never was or are just that. Firstly, Africa is enormous and cultural differences between regions the same. Africans are more than just Africans. However, the worldview of the Europeans in these periods are still incredibly important because they settled millions of destinies, and even formed the world we live in today.

Modern Connections?

As discussed above, it is quite evident that the framing of the American Union was done with the interest of white people, and even more specifically white men´s interests in mind. While contemporary ideology and moral standards gave some of these men the perfect reasoning to do this framing, I think it is important to acknowledge how much of an impact the vestiges from these decisions plays in American society going forward. The history is full of examples of racism, xenophobia and nativism like, The Chinese Exclusion Act[26], Roosevelt´s Executive Order 9066[27] and Jim Crow. In my mind the perspectives on race grew to become a decisive factor for the American Union during the time of slavery.

As I have discussed, the concept of race doesn’t really exist other than in people´s mind. That the Europeans implanted the racial consciousness of both contemporary and future Americans seems to be quite evident. However, where this becomes increasingly interesting is when race becomes a factor outside of the slaver’s shackles. Even though slavery as an institution in the end got abolished, these perspectives on race and freedom I have discussed in this article endured. In 1944, 80 years after slavery was abolished, Gunnar Myrdal wrote this on American society:


He can criticize, but only as a Negro defending Negro interests. That is the social role awarded him, and he cannot step out of it. He is defined as a “race man” regardless of the role he might wish to choose for himself.[28]

This still tells a story about a demographic group restricted to a basic understanding of racial hierarchies, where freedom is not free in the way anticipated. It’s quite easy to draw parallels from this quote to multiple of the authors discussed in this article. Even though Myrdal talks about a society a century later than the periods I have discussed, one recognizes Berlin´s viewpoints on race and Milteer´s viewpoints on freedom. That these connections are possible shows how the heritage from slavery still makes itself relevant in the bigger picture, and I think these perspectives are easily summarized by the US only Black President to date Barack Obama; “…throughout American history, politicians have redirected white frustration about their economic or social circumstances toward Black and Brown people”[29].



In this article I have discussed the various conceptions of race and freedom thus showing how the terms have and are understood differently. Thereby highlighting the journey these terms have embarked on in context with American society and political history. With a baseline provided through American slavery, I have taken a look at the established academic field and looked upon how race and freedom follows each other in American society. From Ira Berlin´s conception of race being a social construct created by the Europeans, I have shown how this racial understanding excused the practice of slavery, thus sealing millions of destinies and limiting freedom. This was all possible due to the Europeans contemporary ideological believes on racial hierarchies with themselves on top.

Through the institution that American slavery once was, the term freedom gave different meanings, to different people. As Milteer points out, a free Black man in the 1800s lived in a different reality than a white man. Also Fredrick Douglass´s remarkable testimony, says this. However, Johnson has brought further depth to the term freedom, when she argues that especially enslaved Black women worked well to redefine the term. She provides exciting insight towards the fact that these women were able to practice freedom through sexuality, intimacy and motherhood despite being enslaved. In a way this puts the term freedom outside the reach of the masters, which in my opinion is an important look on a complicated matter.

In the end I provided some lose thoughts upon how the framing of the American Union where highly influenced by the institution of slavery, and its ideological fundament. My argument here is that the same ideas that once constituted slavery, is still highly relevant towards modern US society, even though slavery has been abolished for approximately 150 years. This shows just how important this topic is.


With these factors in mind I think it is quite evident that the established academic field provides important looks and nuance towards both terms race and freedom. Furthermore, these nuances are key to even understand slavery as a phenomenon to begin with. However, moving on from this there seems to be no doubt that the vestiges from this particular period of American history, is increasingly important as the years go on, and is something which has to be further researched and reconceptualized in order to understand and learn from it. Through this journey, the terms are different now, and are likely to further reconceptualize in the future. Imagine then how we will address these matters fifty years from now. With this I conclude this article.



Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone. Cambridge MA: The Belknab Press of Harvard University Press, 1998

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications 1995, org. 1845

Ellis, Elizabeth N. The Great Power of Small Nations, Indigenous Diplomacy in the Gulf South. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 2023.

Ethridge, Robbie. From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010. VitalSource Ebook[%3Bvnd.vst.i dref%3Df02_titlepage]!/4/4/2/1:47[%20of%2C%20th

Gaines, James, R. The Fifties, An underground history. New York: Simon&Schuster, 2022.

Johnson, Jessica Marie. Wicked Flesh. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

Milteer, Warren Eugene Jr. Beyond Slavery´s Shadow. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021

Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma, Vol 1. New York: Harper&Row Publishers, 1944 (rev.1962)

Obama, Barack. A promised land. New York: Penguin Random House, 2020.

Wood, Forest, G. Arrogance of faith, Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990

Smallwood. Saltwater Slavery. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007

Smyth, Noel E. Lecture Note. Slavery, Resistance and Freedom in the Colonial South, From 1619 to the American Revolution, Week 9.

Smyth, Noel E. Lecture Note. Fighting Slavery in the USA, Cotton, Anti-Slavery, and Abolitionism, 1780-1840. Week 9

Wood, Forest, G. Arrogance of faith, Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990

Zolberg, Astride. A Nation By Design, Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of

America. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006


[1] Data from lecture note: Smyth, Fighting Slavery in the USA, Cotton, Anti-Slavery, and Abolitionism, 1780-1840, UCSC 2023

[2] Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. (New York: Dover Publications 1995, org. 1845), 1-5

[3] Berlin. Many Thousands Gone. (Cambridge MA: The Belknab Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 358-365

[4] Ibib, 1-15

[5] Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010) Vitalsource Ebook

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Smallwood. Saltwater Slavery. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 20

[9] Wood. Arrogance of faith, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 237-242

[10] Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. (New York: Dover Publications 1995, org. 1845), 3

[11] Ellis. The Great Power of Small Nations. (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 2023), 33-50

[12] Johnson. Wicked Flesh. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 18-31

[13] Smallwood. Saltwater Slavery. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 22-30

[14] Ibid, 34-36

[15] Lecture Note, Smyth, Slavery, Resistance and Freedom in the Colonial South, From 1619 to the American Revolution, UCSC 2023

[16] Ibid

[17] Zolberg. A nation by design, (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 1-9

[18] Milteer. Beyond Slavery´s Shadow. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 115-117

[19] Gaines. The Fifties. (New York: Simon&Schuster, 2022), 116

[20] Johnson. Wicked Flesh. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 10

[21] Ibid, 45

[22] Ibid, 42-49

[23] Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. (New York: Dover Publications 1995, org. 1845), 1-3

[24] Johnson. Wicked Flesh. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 133-137

[25] Ibid, 133

[26] Dinnerstein. Reimers. Ethnic Americans, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 90-98

[27] Ibid, 111-115

[28] Myrdal. An American Dilemma, (New York: Harper&Row Publishers, 1944), 28

[29] Obama, Barack. A promised land, (New York: Penguin Random House, 2020), 145


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