Follow the Drinking Gourd:
Adult Books and Stage Play – Notes
Parks heard the song sung by a black boy in Hot Springs, North Carolina in 1912. The boy's "grandfather, who had been sitting on a block of wood in front of the cabin, slowly got up and, taking his cane, given the boy a sound lick across the back with the admonition not to sing that song again. This excited my curiosity and I asked the old man why he did not want the boy to sing the song. The only answer I could get was that it was bad luck."
There surely may have been sadistic or enraged owners and overseers who blinded their slaves for perceived infractions. Dr. Tonea "Tommie" Stewart, Alabama State University, recounts that when she was a little girl of five or six, she asked her great-grandfather Papa Dallas how he was blinded. He explained that one day the overseer caught him learning the alphabet, "and he called out for all the field hands (saying), 'Let this be a lesson to all of you darkies. You ain't got no right to read!' And then daughter, he whooped me, and...as if that wasn't enough, he turned around and he burned my eyes out!" (Remembering Slavery, Berlin, Favreau & Miller, p. 280. Dr. Stewart related to me separately that Dallas Johnson was actually her great-grandfather [not grandfather, as stated in the book.] He died around 1953, aged roughly 107 years old, in Leflore County, Mississippi. This would put his year of birth at around 1846.)
Aside from this horrific account, I know of no other examples of blinding as a punishment for literacy. Totally blinding a slave would have led to a huge reduction in his or her value and turned them into a virtual ward of the plantation. Instead, the most commonly reported penalty for learning to read and write was amputation of the forefinger above the first joint, recounted by former slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi. (When I Can Read My Title Clear, Janet Duitsman Cornelius, p. 66. The book also describes other punishments, including one reported hanging. The same hanging is mentioned in Self Taught, African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, Heather Andrea Williams. Neither book mentions blinding as a punishment for literacy.)
The sanctions outlined in Kentucky law for "Any slave, for rambling in the night...or running away" are also illustrative. The slave could "be punished by whipping, cropping, and branding in the cheek, or otherwise, not rendering him unfit for labor." (Karolyn Smardz Frost, I've Got A Home in Glory Land, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, p. 51. Emphasis mine. )
Hays was an ardent Whitman devotee. The title is from "A March in the
Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown", Leaves of Grass, Walt
for more details about Whitman's war service.
Copyright 2008 - 2012, Joel Bresler.