“The Temporalities of Enslaved Childhood”

By Sarah E. Chinn

What is the temporality of slave childhood? Depending on whom you ask, the answers are quite different: enslaved people in the United States were never children, or always children (at least under the law). The enforced, unpaid work and chattel status of enslaved children meant, in Wilma King’s words, “enslaved children had virtually no childhood, because they entered the workplace early and were subjected to arbitrary authority, punishment, and separation, just as enslaved adults were” (2011, xxii). At the same time, enslaved adults were often imagined as perpetual children, unable to care for themselves or sustain the rational thought inherent to real maturity. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson articulated a view of Africans and African Americans that was reproduced again and again: “to give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed by slavery is like abandoning children” (1904, 447).

Thinking about the time of childhood through the lens of American slavery forces us to rethink both phenomena. According to many of the people who lived through it, enslaved childhood was a shifting, episodic phenomenon that had multiple points of definition. Throughout the nineteenth century, as their adult selves looked back on their early years, formerly enslaved people adopted a number of different strategies to understand and narrate how they came to be who they were and what their formative experiences meant in terms of the trajectory of their lives. They wrote within a literary culture that was itself partially responsible for creating (and certainly instrumental in promoting and perpetuating) the temporal understanding of childhood as unidirectional, progressive, and only tangentially connected to material reality. But they also described quite different temporal patterns for slave childhood.

The rhythm of enslaved time, of enslaved childhood, is not a smooth progress narrative, but one characterized by moments of explosion and long stretches of tedium and exhaustion. Enslaved time is punctuated in the sense of its Latin roots – it is pierced and punctured by violence, paused and marked by massive changes that take place over a brief period. These moments resemble Roland Barthes’s definition of the punctum (although in the very different context of photography), “the accident which pricks me (but it also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (1980, 27).  Enslaved childhood, in the accounts of formerly enslaved writers, more often than not consists of a short undifferentiated period of racial unconsciousness followed by a sharp puncture of that time by the realities of slavery.

At the same time, this punctum is not a stop. Childhood does not exactly end, but it doesn’t continue under the same conditions. Indeed, enslaved childhood is a series of sharp blows that presage but don’t constitute full initiation into the subjectivity of enslaved person.  The piercing violence of slavery stops time temporarily, but after that punctuating moment, everything continues as it has, even if the enslaved child’s experience of him- or herself in the world has changed radically. The punctum ruptures the child internally and intensely, even as it weaves him or her into the larger extensive fabric of slavery, in which childhood is constructed by context.

The logic of the punctum, of the incident, is that it places the narrator in a present moment that stands out from and even erases past and future. It’s not surprising, then, that narratives of enslaved childhood focus on specific moments rather than trajectories of development: they have to carve out a place for childhood, a state that presupposes a future self, within the structure of chattel slavery, which precludes thinking about the future. Slave narratives help us understand childhood as and in relation to others, to structures of power, to modes of utility and productivity. Enslaved childhood is resistant to even as it cannot escape the relations of power. It claims space out of time, in interstitial moments like the lines in the copy-book between which Douglass writes. It resists the domination of white bourgeois figurations of child time, and imbricates and implicates it with slave time.

These strategies are masterful in their simultaneous critique of the atemporality of slavery and the teleology of white nineteenth-century childhood. But at the same time, we might ask what are the costs of being excluded from the narrative possibilities of teleology, both in terms of the significance of a foreshadowing past and the eventual result of a future resolution? That is to say, what are the long-term affective and material burdens of having to inhabit the punctum?

Ironically the narratives of formerly enslaved people offer an unrepresentatively utopian answer to this question. Beyond the lived experiences of enslaved children, I would argue that the adults who narrate these childhoods lay claim to the futurity that defines actual freedom through the act of putting their stories into print. These representations of childhood come to us in texts written by those same people who lived through their early years enslaved. In the final analysis, they did have a future, which is the present of writing for them, and the present of reading for us, a future present that represents a past beyond which they could not see when they were living within it. While this mélange of tenses allows us to see a way out of the punctum and out of slavery – a conceptual necessity for abolition, after all –  we can never forget that it was available to only an infinitesimally small percentage of enslaved people, for whom childhood came in fits and starts.

Sarah Chinn teaches in and is the chair of the English department at Hunter College, CUNY. She is the author of several books, including Inventing Modern Adolescence: The Children of Immigrants in Turn of the Century America.


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