UNMARKED ON THE SKIN, MARKED ON THE HEART
To me personally, the most disturbing fact about the history of slavery is the horrible violence that was used to maintain the racial slavery system in the United States. People who were dragged from their own land to an unfamiliar environment involuntarily were tortured physically and psychologically. During this time, numerous ways of punishment were created to hurt the slaves more effectively in the most horrific way possible. For example, there was flogging. African slaves were forced to take their clothes off and were whipped in public. This degradation and humiliation was to remind them they were no more than the property of their master. There was also the metal neck collar to limit their physical activities, which sometimes forced the slaves to wear for months. However, one of the most troubling methods of punishment that lingered in my mind for a really long time is paddling.
The cultural artifact I present is the drawing of paddling. The picture is titled as ‘Common Mode of Whipping with The Paddle’ (Walker, p. 28). In the picture, one man is whipping an African man with a paddle while two other men and a little black child are watching. I came across this picture while I was searching the internet with the keyword ‘whipping with the paddle,’ and as soon as I found this picture, I was relieved that I finally found a relevant picture for the blog, but at the same time, I was heartbroken to learn the message that it holds. A white man is whipping the male slave with the paddle while two white men are watching with a smile on their face. The slave’s face is filled with fear and sorrow while he holds himself with a stick so his abuser can hit him efficiently. A black child next to them is looking away from the scene with his or her arm around the face as if that will help the child to escape from this cruel reality.
What is paddling? It is a punishment practiced against African slaves with a paddle. It might seem a little safer than a whip which could cut into the skin of slaves, but it troubles me so much because of the background history of this torturing tool. From taking the American Ethnic Class with Professor Connie So at the University of Washington, I learned that paddling was specifically created not to leave scars on the slaves because scarred slaves meant they were the troublemakers who would disobey the orders (Professor So, Connie. American Ethnic Studies 150 Course Lecture. Oct. 28, 2015). No masters would want to make a purchase of the scarred slaves because they would not want to invest their money on the stubborn slaves who would not follow their instruction. Paddling not only reveals the cruel reality of slavery as a social system, which puts the slave’s’ position at the very bottom of social hierarchy, but also tells us that slavery was a business, which money and slavery are linked inextricably and one of the driven motives of slavery was about making a profit.
In movie 12 Years a Slave, there is a slave auction house where the Africans are forced to be undressed and displayed as products. There is warranty on slaves. Slaves work constantly, and the money came from slavery labor paid off their master’s debt on purchasing them. To many White slave holders, slaves were not human beings, but property and a tool for their financial well-being.
This drawing is one of the illustrations in a book named ‘Trial And Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker.’ Jonathan Walker was a White abolitionist who helped slaves escape in the early 1840s. According to his book, he was arrested and was sent to jail for “aiding and inducing two slaves to run away, and stealing two others” (Walker, 32) and as a result, his right hand was branded with the letters SS, which meant Slave Stealer. During his time in prison, he wrote in his daily journal about the life of slaves. When explaining what paddling is, Walker starts by describing how long and strong the paddle was, and further explains that “the victims are made naked from the waist down … he [the master] applies to the backside of his helpless fellow-creature … After a requisite number of blows with the paddle are given, which is generally from ten to fifty, … , the raw-hide switch is next applied to the bruised and blistered parts” (29). He also explains that it did not matter if the subject was a man or a woman. Both genders had to face the same punishment.
his experience of incarceration, Walker had lectures on slavery in the northern states. Jonathan Walker’s writing and drawing of the brutal history of slave experience not only informed the reality of slavery to people of his time, but also provides vivid stories and pictures to us in 2015.
Walker’s book was originally published in 1848, which was seventeen years before Emancipation proclamation. It was the dynamic time that opposing ideas were fighting each other. During this time, slavery was practiced with a strict legal system and abolitionist movement was at its peak. Slavery was a total institution which challenged slaves to resist against oppression. According to Dr. Pittman’s lecture, it was challenging for slaves to resist because the slave’s activities were closely monitored to the point where their resistance result in brutal punishment in public. During this time, the slave codes was enforced, which limited any black person to travel without a pass given his master and carrying arms was strictly restricted (Professor Pittman, LaShawnDa. African American Studies 101, November 3, 2015).
We also learned in Dr. Pittman’s class that it was also the time when the abolitionist movement was making a progress despite the obstacles. There were individual abolitionists, such as Harriet Tubman, who rescued more than 700 African slaves during her lifetime and Richard Allen, who founded the first African American church in the United States. Christian argument against slavery was gaining power over time and anti-slavery organization such as American Anti Slavery Society(AASS) was established (Professor Pittman, LaShawnDa. African American Studies 101, November 3, 2015). In addition to the black abolitionists, White abolitionist like Jonathan Walker fought alongside them.
We might not have such inhumane torture against African Americans in 2015. However, I believe this picture is significant because there still is institutional and structural racism lingering in this society. Policies, laws, organizations, and institutions are still reproducing racial inequalities on this so-called “land of the free.” There is mass black incarceration which may not leave a mark on the African American’s physical skin, but it certainly leaves a mark on their heart and brand them with a criminal record just like what paddling did to their ancestors. Just like in the picture, there still are scared black children who are forced to watch the way their parents are treated by the authority. Maybe African Americans are not forced to undress themselves before others like in the picture, but they still need to take off their hood in the dark to prove their innocence.
About 200 years have passed after Emancipation Proclamation. However, I still see the marks of paddling in this country. Many African Americans are still a slave of the system that their opportunity for higher status is limited because the U.S. needs them to provide cheaper labor. They are paddled to jail so they cannot participate in political decision makings for their family. They are paddled to drop out of school. They are paddled to be silent. I do not know the solution for still-existing torture against African Americans. However, the first step would be acknowledging the truth that the society is invisibly marking on the back of black people to maintain racial inequality for the dominant racial group’s economic gains and power.
12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. 20th Century Fox, 2014. Film.
Walker, J. (1970). Trial and imprisonment of Jonathan Walker, at Pensacola, Florida, for aiding slaves to escape from bondage. With an appendix containing a sketch of his life.New York: Negro Universities Press.