The deep-seated impact that slavery had on enslaved populations is best captured in the concept of “social death,” popularized by sociologist Orlando Patterson and familiar to scholars but perhaps not as recognizable beyond the academy. Enslavement disrupted and severed social and familial ties.
The annihilation of family bonds took place in the violent acquisition of Africans from the interior of West and West Central Africa, the physical and agonizing separation of captives from their life, family, and community, and the anguish of their Middle Passage journey to the Americas. African people became outsiders because they no longer belonged to or were a part of the social networks and communities of their African homeland.
Although much scholarly work has shown the incredible ways in which captive Africans forged a deep sense of kinship with others, created close-knit communities, and fought to secure their familial ties, enslaved people’s existence was subjected to arbitrary change and profound loss. In this respect, this was a life of living death. At any given moment, familial and community bonds could be disrupted at masters’ behest...
Declaring that “all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother,” this 1662 Virginia law alienated Black women’s fertility from the reproduction of kinship and family. Instead, it inextricably bound Black women’s reproduction to the perpetuation and the maintenance of slavery, as their offspring were assigned to be consumed by slavery’s political economy. The Black woman’s body was legally codified as the site where more slaves were produced. This law made slaves’ status inheritable through mothers and installed and institutionalized a racialized hierarchy...