In the age of slavery, white American society considered African people to be benighted heathens with the other skin color, body structure, and inappropriate traditions and culture. Such conclusions were drawn mostly upon the widespread idea about the superiority of Whites and the absence of Christianity in Africa. American society prevented the assimilation of African-American slaves even after the generations of their presence on the American land and repudiated their equality to Whites even when they started to adopt Christian way of life. For Americans, African people had continued to be barbarians who had come to America to be only the property. So, which of the societies was crueler? This paper compares and contrasts African and American societies and the gap between them in terms of culture, religious views, and attitude to other people and proves that in their strive to be better than others, Americans became crueler than any African heathens could have ever been.
One could contrast African and American societies through primary text published in the days of slavery. One of the first autobiographies that tell a story of an African man who was sold as a slave and then became free is A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America. Related by Himself. The autobiography tells a story of Venture Smith (born as Broteer), the oldest son of Dukandarra prince in West Africa. The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the life of a boy till he became a slave and gives some insights into the African society. The first distinction between African and American societies that arrests the readers’ attention refers to marriage. Smith writes, “My father had three wives. Polygamy was not uncommon in that country, especially among the rich, as every man was allowed to keep as many wives as he could maintain” (Smith 5). Moreover, he notices that according to the customs, the man could marry each next wife only with the consent from his other wives (Smith 5). Such pattern was unacceptable for the American Christian society that did not allow having more than one wife and established marriage or Holy Matrimony as a sacred institution aimed for lifelong relations. Then, Smith tells that opposing the decision of his father to marry his third wife without the agreement of others, his mother took the children and traveled away (Smith 5). In five days, she left him at the house of a rich farmer, where he joined the business of tending sheep and had a personal flock he kept with the help of the other boy. Smith remembers that his new guardian had a lot of cattle, and the main occupations of people in his new place of living were the soil cultivation and the care of the flocks (Smith 7). He writes, “During my stay with him [the guardian] I was kindly used, and with as much tenderness, for what I saw, as his only son, although I was an entire stranger to him, remote from friends and relations” (Smith 7). Thus, one can conclude that farming and cattle breeding were flourishing in Africa, but the business was done with the hired help. Before slavery, the American society also used wage workers, but the number of rebellions that demonstrated dissatisfaction with the conditions of work led to the spread of slavery. At the same time, the attitude of Whites towards their slaves was completely different; despite the fact some masters treated their slaves well, American people were obsessed with their superiority and demonstrated it in every way. For instance, Smith writes that despite the respectful attitude of his first master, he still behaved obedient and submissive, and the failure to complete the task was followed with the punishment regardless of the task complexity (Smith 15).
The other interesting distinction between African and American societies is religion. As it was mentioned above, African people were not Christians and did not follow Christian rules and values; however, when Venture Smith writes about the traveling with his mother, he mentions Almighty protector, “Though there were many noxious animals there; yet so kind was our Almighty protector, that none of them were ever permitted to hurt or molest us” (Smith 6). Smith became familiar with Christianity after becoming a slave as well as lots of other Africans. In one of her poems, Phillis Wheatley writes, “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too: / Once I redemption neither sought nor knew” (Wheatley 1-4). Here, Pagan land is Africa, pre-Christian land for the author, and benighted soul means the absence of Christian education and spiritual enlightenment. One could suggest that the words ‘Pagan’ and ‘Savior’ written in italics suggest the irony of the author; indeed, African society had its own religious views and lived well without being brought to the American land and Christianized. However, the superiority of Whites and superiority of Christian religion aligned with each other. In the opinion of American and European societies, everybody who did not confess Christianity was a heathen and a barbarian who did not know God and would never be saved, while African felt comfortable with their own religion. Moreover, Wheatley highlights the attitude of Americans to African people, “Some view our sable race with scornful eye, / "Their colour is a diabolic die."” (Wheatley 5-6). Once again writing about the superiority of Whites, the author places emphasis on the attitude of Americans to the dark skin and the comparison of Africans with sables, commercially valuable animals with dark fur. She derides the attitude of Americans to Africans and the lack of their empathy and respect for people who are different from them.
Despite all the contrasts that aim to highlight that African society was the society of barbarians and American society was enlightened, the superiority and lack of respect of Whites towards other races resulted in the rise of the excessive cruelty. In his appeal, Walker states, “the white Americans having reduced us to the wretched state of slavery, treat us in that condition more cruel, than any heathen nation did any people whom it had reduced to our condition” (Walker 9). He compares the relationship between Africans and Americans to the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians but states that the first ones are even worse (Walker 12). African and American people lived on the same land, but American society deprived Africans of any rights and even forbade interracial marriage that could hardly take place to exclude the possibility of a mixture of White blood with the blood of “Monkeys or Orang- Outangs” (Walker 12). Moreover, Walker wonders how Jefferson, being such an open-minded and smart man, could proclaim the inferiority of African people to Americans (Walker 12). One could note that Walker demonstrates more understanding of the proper relation between two societies than highly educated Whites. Also, he supports Wheatley and expresses the ideas regarding the forceful Christianization of African people. Being Christianized, Africans obtain the same God as Whites and become equal with them in his face, “if ever the world becomes Christianized . . . it will be through the means, under God of the Blacks . . . and be reconciled to us, and reconcile us to them, and by that means have clear consciencies before God and man” (Walker 21).
In conclusion, one should say that American society consisted of the representatives of European countries who came to the American land seeking for better life and freedom, and its primary characteristics included the superiority of Christianity over other religions and the superiority of their race over other races. African and American societies differed in their cultural values, customs, marriage, and, what is more important, in their attitude to other people. The idea of domination that had followed Whites for many years led to the appearing of the excessive cruelty; Americans thought that it was appropriate to treat other human beings as animals only on the basis of racial and religious differences. Surprisingly, Africans had a better understanding of the proper relations between two societies and held Whites in contempt for their attitude and behavior. The superiority of Americans made them blind despite higher level of education, and thus, one can conclude that Christian American society was crueler than the Pagan African one.
Smith, Venture. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America. Related by Himself: Electronic Edition. New-London: C. Holt at Bee-Office, 1798.
Walker, David. Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829: Electronic Edition. Boston: David Walker, 1830.
Wheatley, Phillis. On Being Brought from Africa to America. London: printed for A. Bell, 1773.