It is 1857 and Kanye, a carpenter, has finally saved up enough money to buy his freedom from Massa West. Trouble is, he has to leave his wife, Kimba, and five children on the plantation until he can buy them out of slavery as well.
Kanye is free from the constant threat of the lash and being forced to labor to enrich someone else, but he isn’t free from discriminatory laws designed to trap freed blacks and place them back in bondage. At any moment, just for being black and free, he can be arrested for “strolling about”—walking peacefully on the roads and minding his business; or for being “idle”—looking like he has no job; or for being “immoral”—whatever that meant to the white person reporting him and the police responding to the call.
If convicted of any of these infractions, he will once again become the chattel property of a random white man.
Prejudicial laws like these were common in the slave-owning South to snare freed blacks and force them back into slavery. Some states, like the state of Georgia, passed expulsion laws that required blacks who were manumitted to leave the state within a year of their emancipation.
Expulsion laws were a sinister ploy created by whites to reinforce white supremacy and eradicate the free black population perceived to be a threat by their very existence in a slaveholding society. They knew that giving freed blacks 365 days to find a place to live, get a job and save enough money to retrieve their families was destined to fail because it takes many years for an enslaved person to save money to purchase his or her own freedom. So Kanye’s dilemma was to move far away from his wife and children or voluntarily submit himself to re-enslavement and keep his family together.
Black people in this predicament often pleaded for the mercy of the court to grant them exemptions from the expulsion laws and allow them to remain near their families in their home states, only to be told to evacuate immediately and leave their families behind. Out of sheer desperation, many felt they had no choice but to choose to go back into slavery.
The willingness to return to slavery signified how much they were prepared to prioritize their families at any cost.
Percy Ann Martin, a free woman married to an enslaved man in North Carolina, petitioned the court to “reduce her to slavery” because “she was attached to her husband and does not wish to be separated from him.”
One man forced out of the state of Virginia moved to Ohio after being freed, but grew to regret it. He decided to make a horrifying reversal back to Virginia because he “would prefer returning to slavery to losing the society of his wife.”
Even some freeborn men submitted petitions to put themselves into slavery in order to remain with their wives and children.
Proslavery advocates exploited freed blacks with strong familial bonds to further their political aims. Relations of blood and marriage that were otherwise unacknowledged in the law proved beneficial to them as a basis for pressing black family members back into the fold of bondage, and when those people succumbed to the pressure, they said that it proved blacks were unfit to be free, because what could be more perfect evidence of their incompetence for self-governance than their willingness to give up their liberty?
Freed blacks re-entering slavery were a gift to less-wealthy whites who benefited from the system as it enabled them to purchase black people for little money. Erstwhile free people of color were sometimes appraised and put on the auction block at absurdly low prices, requiring prospective owners to pay only half the fee plus court costs.
Southern lawmakers used this not only as a way to extend slavery, but also to subsidize ownership for a broader cohort of whites, further sharpening the racial dichotomies of black vs. white, slave vs. free.
Abolitionists had difficulty reconciling the perverse coercion the system induced. Many were disappointed, puzzled and appalled by the idea that anyone would “choose” to be slaves, but African-American dreams of freedom were largely not individualistic, and their aspirations were often defined by how much they benefited the collective. They asked themselves: How could they be genuinely free if they left their spouses, their children, their relatives and their communities behind?
Defending black lives has always mattered to the advancement of the race because it has been necessary to our survival in this country since we were forcibly brought here.
Kanye, the free-thinking carpenter, may have decided to go at it alone and never see Kimba and his children again, but most rejected that notion and “chose” to re-enter slavery and stay with their families.
Their “choice” was not a racially neutral action; rather, it was one that was bound by the parameters of an insidious system that juxtaposed the constriction of black rights with a black love that was so strong, the only choice was to choose family over an illusory kind of freedom.