“Slave Fighting in the Old South”
by Sergio Lussana
Issue – Winter 2013
A while ago, I waded through Kyle Onstott’s famous “blaxploitation” novel, Mandingo. The novel sensationalized plantation life in the Old South, and led to a series of books and two movies, Mandingo and Drum. Part of Mandingo focuses on the fights that slaveholders would stage between slaves. After reading Mandingo, some of the vivid fight scenes stay with the reader.
Therefore, as an Alabama Heritage subscriber, I was interested to see the article on slave fighting by Sergio Lussana in the Winter 2013 issue. Lussana researched slaves’ lives in the Old South as part of his requirements for a Ph.D. in history at University of Warwick in the UK. He establishes that the fights were not a figment of author Onstott’s imagination by examining 1930s interviews that Works Progress Administration (WPA) writers conducted with elderly former slaves. In fact, the interviews reveal that slave fights were common.
Lussana quotes an old slave named Finnely on the brutality of the fights –
“De fight am held at night by de pine torch light. A ring am made by de fo’ks standin’ ‘roun’ in de circle an’ de n—— git in dat circle. Days fight widout a rest ‘til one give up or can’t git up. Days ‘lowed to do anything wid dey hands, head, and teeth. Sho, dat’s it. Nothin’ barred ‘cept de knife an’ clubs.
Surprisingly, the former slaves did not always have a negative opinion about the fights. Some ex-slaves found the fights to be empowering and noted that skilled fighters gained status among other slaves and also were better able to resist control by slaveholders. Also, evidence suggests that slaves often organized “secret” fights among themselves, though slaveholders strongly disapproved of these fights because injured slaves would lose their financial value. (The notion that slaves were able to find value in the potentially-dehumanizing fights is consistent with the thesis that Eugene D. Genovese developed in his landmark book, Roll Jordan Roll. Genovese discusses the ways that slaves developed their own culture, despite the brutal conditions).
This article will appeal to anyone who takes an interest in the Old South. Author Lussana deserves much credit for shining a light on a part of history that remains hidden because of the pain associated with the Old South and racism. It’s a good piece that deserves a wide readership.
Unfortunately, the full text is (to my knowledge) unavailable online, but a short preview is available on the Alabama Heritage website at –