‘A White Man Took Her’: Trauma, Loss, and Grief among the Enslaved

tags: slavery, African American history, Antebellum South

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.

In November 1864, a formerly enslaved man named Peter Bumper and his fiance Bucinda Nelson had their marriage registered with the federal government. Long denied access to a legally-recognized, protected union, Bumper and Nelson pursued a path to freedom taken by many formerly enslaved people during the Civil War era. Their heroism in escaping Confederate-controlled territory and finding a Union minister is compelling enough, but the brief information provided on their marriage certificate reveals the trauma such couples endured before they sealed their commitments through legal matrimony. To prevent the spread of bigamy, governing officials required formerly enslaved registrants to disclose information about their previous relationships, usually phrased in two parts: “lived with another woman/man ___________;” and “separated from him/her by ___________.”1 In many respects, this requirement was a naïve maneuver by Union officials, in that they were forcing people to revisit the trauma of slavery, in which their spouses, children, friends, and relatives were taken from them at the slaveowner’s whim. As they considered their answers, one can imagine they relived these moments of violent separation and they were reminded of the precarities of being Black in America, whether enslaved or free.

Most registrants preferred brevity, answering with a single word for how they were separated: “force,” “sale,” “Master,” or “death” are among the most popular descriptions. Nelson was one of the registrants never previously married, allowing her to skip the question by placing a “—” through the question. Bumper, however, crammed five words into the space, and his statement even spilled into the certificate’s predetermined typeset questions. “A white man took her,” he wrote, with a specificity not commonly found in these short certificates. His decision reflects one of the realities African Americans confronted as they transitioned from enslavement to freedom toward the close of the Civil War. Liberty brought unprecedented opportunities for those once defined as chattel, but the requirements of citizenship now necessitated that they relived the traumas of their past. In this regard, Bumper’s decision reveals how he wanted his trauma to be remembered as he pointed the finger toward a system predicated upon the exploitation of his own body, and that of his former wife. “A white man took her” was more than a simple explanation; it was a method through which he assured that the record accurately revealed the violence of white supremacy, while simultaneously manifesting the grief and pain he was forced to confront each time he was asked about his past. At 44 years old, Bumper had experienced a lifetime of abuse, and while freedom certainly tasted sweet, the bitterness of his past required him to constantly grieve. Perceiving an opportunity to record his grief, Bumper ensured that his descendants had a documented record of his trauma, and while he was happy to marry Bucinda, he never forgot, nor was he required to forgive, the injustice done to him.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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