Did Dogs Really Eat Slaves, Like in 'Django'?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Plus, whether slaves rode horses or had Mandingo death matches.

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Still, subjecting a film about the black experience, such as Spike Lee's canonical Malcolm X or one of my favorite films, Miracle at St. Anna, to higher standards of historical accuracy than, say, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List, would simply be wrongheaded, given the nature of the genre of feature filmmaking. 

So, with these necessary caveats, let's look at Django through an historical lens. Three things about the film fascinated me, as a scholar of the slave narratives. The first was its claims about slaves and their access to horses; the second, the use of bloodhounds not merely to track slaves, but to devour them; and third, sadistic rituals of wrestling to the death, which Tarantino calls "Mandingo fighting."

They Rode Horses, Didn't They?

The short answer is yes, of course, slaves rode horses, and some famously so. Several times during the film, either Django or Stephen or some white racist purports to be shocked to see a black man riding a horse. Django says, "They ain't never seen a nigger on no horse," while the Ultimate House Servant Stephen (played brilliantly and flawlessly by Samuel L. Jackson) wonders incredulously, "Who dat nigger on a horse?" And a few times a white character, outraged, demands, "What's that nigger doing on that nag?" as if seeing a black man on a horse was a bit like seeing a pig fly.

The truth, though, is that this contrast between slaves on foot -- and often barefoot -- versus a free man riding a horse-drawn carriage was a narrative device that Frederick Douglass himself used as one of the key binary oppositions to demonstrate the distinctions between a slave and her or his master. In the first chapter of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845; pdf), Douglass says that he only saw his mother "four or five times," and only at night, because she was a slave for a Mr. Stewart, who lived about 12 miles away. But most importantly, he stresses that his mother was relegated to "travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day's work. She was a field hand …" 

By contrast, his master -- whom he suspects to be his father -- seems to have had something of a horse fetish, his "riding equipage" consisting of "three splendid coaches, three or four gigs, besides dearborns and barouches of the most fashionable style." And "in nothing," Douglass stresses, was his master "more particular than in the management of his horses." Nevertheless, the care and feeding of the horses, including, presumably, their exercise, was the responsibility of "old Barney and young Barney," two slaves, father and son. And of course, the Barneys would have ridden the horses, just like countless other attendants to their masters' horses would have. So, the care, feeding and exercising of horses was part and parcel of plantation life.

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 Horses and horsemanship played an interesting role during slavery. The most famous black horseman in the Revolutionary period was our old friend, William "Billy" Lee, George Washington's slave and personal attendant, the only slave whom Washington freed upon his death. Billy Lee was, by all accounts, a superb horseman, and rode just behind his master.

In the black abolitionist Henry Bibb's famous slave narrative of 1849, horses compose almost a leitmotif: Before finally attaining his freedom, he is captured, handcuffed and tied by his feet to a horse and returned to slavery, but he effects his ultimate escape by stealing another horse ("the best looking of them") from a large plantation, and riding him "not less than forty miles that night, or before sunrise the next morning," to gain his freedom. Bibb, a famous newspaper editor whose narrative was extremely popular, tells us, "I thanked God, and thanked the horse for what he had done for me, and wished him a safe journey back home." 

And then there is the famous 1862 painting titled "The Fugitive Slaves," by Eastman Johnson, which depicts a slave family fleeing to freedom on a stallion, suggesting that horses were used by slaves to make their escapes.