A Vigorous Affirmation of Life: Slaves in the Face of Dehumanization

  • Danielle Nista
Keywords: slavery, African-American, humanities, Spring 2015, history


For a slave living under the system of chattel slavery in the American South during the nineteenth century, avenues of self-expression were extremely limited. One of the few ways slaves could exert control over their own lives was through singing and dancing. These arts gave slaves a chance to relieve stress and establish a culture through the creation of musical instruments, songs, and dances. All of these contained hints at the true nature of slaves’ feelings towards the system that oppressed them, feelings that they had to frequently repress. However, despite slaves’ efforts to make this culture entirely their own, masters tried to find ways to use it to their advantage instead of to the slaves’ benefit. The resulting covert power struggle sometimes ended in favor of the masters, taking the form of regulations on slaves’ dances, requirement of the performance of songs and dances for the masters’ entertainment, and even abuse of slaves by using their own arts. Ultimately, however, slaves emerged victorious because of the hidden messages in their songs and dances. Though this method of coping could not erase all the masters did, it was at least one glimmer of hope.

Author Biography

Danielle Nista
Danielle Nista is a junior, double majoring in History and French. She is a member of Alpha Sigma Nu, the National Honors Society of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, and Phi Alpha Theta, the History Honors Society. She is also a choreographer for BC Full Swing, Boston College’s swing dancing team. In high school, a combined interest in tap dancing and postbellum southern history led to a research paper on the connections between minstrel shows and Hollywood musicals of the 1930s. Following this article, Danielle’s interest was piqued to continue to combine two of her passions: dancing and studying the history of America before, during, and after the Civil War. She hopes to one day write a book about the full history of tap dancing.
How to Cite
Nista, D. (2015). A Vigorous Affirmation of Life: Slaves in the Face of Dehumanization. Elements, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.6017/eurj.v11i1.8814