The Enchanted as Means of Social Control

18 07 2011

“Don’t you know the white man taught them all of that about ghosts. That was a way of keeping them down – keeping them under control.” Then she describes her grandmother’s account of the overseer riding through slave quarters covered with a white sheet, tin cans tied to his horse’s tail, in order to keep the slaves indoors at night…

This is the seminal quote that begins Gladys-Marie Fry’s book, Night Riders in Black Folk History. The premise of Dr. Fry’s book is that ghost stories and other tales of hauntings in the night were employed by slave owners as a means of social control. There is a common prejudice that we may have under which a slave society is seen as relatively closed when it came to the movement of slaves. Fry dispels that particular myth, and proves that slaves were particularly mobile, especially at night. Religious and secular gatherings were often held by slaves in the woods, and their masters feared that such gatherings might be a prelude to another slave revolt like the successful one in Haiti. Because of a sheer lack of manpower, they had to devise other ways to make the slaves stay on the plantations, and one of those ways was to make up ghost stories of the forest being haunted by evil spirits. In this vein, the overseer and others would dress up as ghosts and ride through the slave quarters at night, trying to reinforce the master’s myth.

After the Civil War, similar tactics were used by ex-slave owners to keep their former slaves on the plantation and working. One tactic was to show up late at night dressed as the ghosts of Confederate soldiers. To be more convincing, such antics were employed as putting large bags under the costumes, so when they asked for water, they could “drink” extraordinary amounts of it, giving the guise of being souls returning thirsty from hell. As one could already surmise, such character acting also played a major role in the formation of what would later be known as the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently, these types of ghost stories were central to the ideology of white supremacy in the pre- and post-bellum South. The slaves and ex-slaves were objects of domination because they would “fall for” such obvious acts of costumed bullying.

Fry portrays most slaves as not “falling for it”, but as being afraid of the very real violence of the slave system nonetheless. Often, such disguises were not well done, and it was known that such-and-such a ghost was really the overseer or master in disguise. If these types of subterfuges were effective, it was in that it added a psychological aspect to the threats of violence that hung over these African-Americans in their daily lives. It also added doubts as to whether the slaves should flee north to freedom. One popular story was that the Yankees up north were really horned beasts who kill slaves. Such myths further extended even to cities like Washington D.C., where urban legends of night doctors killing black people for their organs were spread through the streets to keep loiterers inside.

In any case, Fry’s book is an interesting work in the field of American history and merits much reflection in terms of its investigations into racism, folk religion, and social control.