The Punished Self: Surviving Slavery in the Colonial South

The Punished Self: Surviving Slavery in the Colonial South

The Punished Self: Surviving Slavery in the Colonial South

The Punished Self: Surviving Slavery in the Colonial South


The Punished Self describes enslavement in the American South during the eighteenth century as a systematic assault on Blacks' sense of self. Alex Bontemps focuses on slavery's effects on the slaves' framework of self-awareness and understanding. Whites wanted Blacks to act out the role "Negro" and Blacks faced a basic dilemma of identity: how to retain an individualized sense of self under the incredible pressure to be Negro? Bontemps addresses this dynamic in The Punished Self.

The first part of The Punished Self reveals how patterns of objectification were reinforced by written and visual representations of enslavement. The second examines how captive Africans were forced to accept a new identity and the expectations and behavioral requirements it symbolized. Part 3 defines and illustrates the tensions inherent in slaves' being Negro in order to survive.

Bontemps offers fresh interpretations of runaway slave ads and portraits. Such views of black people expressing themselves are missing entirely from,other historical sources. This book's revelations include many such original examples of the survival of the individual in the face of enslavement.


The few portraits I have discussed remind us of how difficult it is to “be yourself” while posing or sitting for a painting without appearing self-conscious about being closely observed. Some of the artists, and some of their subjects, handled this problem better than others. Yarrow is especially interesting in that regard. in Peale's portrait, his awareness of holding a pose, although not obvious at first glance, becomes clear when one observes the painting closely. He even seems to be slyly observing others and his surroundings while he is posing.

To be a slave in the colonial South was to be under close observation and scrutiny. Slaves, like subjects sitting for a portrait, were expected to present themselves in a certain way, to maintain the image that others imposed on them. Unlike the subject of a portrait, however, a slave was an object devoid of subjectivity and thereby incapable of participating in a meaningful recognitive relationship with other human beings. When one considers that nothing is more fundamental to human development than the process of mutual recognition between individuals who are involved in a relation of interdependence, the effects of representing blacks as objects and so perceiving them on a routine basis can be easily imagined. Similarly, it is not hard to understand why the protocol developed in the colonial South governing how and when, or whether, blacks could look at others. the effect on blacks of being denied recognition by those who controlled so much of their lives would have been mitigated by the recognition . . .

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