Documents from the Slaves’ Civil War: “A storm am brewin’ in de Souf”

Rice
Antebellum Georgetown was key to South Carolina’s lucrative rice industry: like much of the Carolina lowcountry it was home to large slave majorities

In his Life in Dixie Land, or the South in Secession Time, ‘Edmund Kirke’ (pen name for the New York journalist James R. Gilmore) records the following conversation he had with a slave teamster in 1862. According to Kirke, his driver was African-born, and had been brought to the Carolinas at a young age via Cuba, eventually ending up working as a porter on the streets and wharves of Georgetown, 65 miles north of Charleston. Kirke remarks that “three days with him (a ‘remarkable negro’ of ‘superior intelligence’) banished from my mind all doubt as to the capacity of the black for freedom, and all question as to the disposition of the slave to strike off his chains when the favourable moment arrives. From him I learned that the blacks, though pretending ignorance, are fully acquainted with the questions at issue in the present contest.” As an example Kirke recalls the response he received (rendered ‘in dialect’) when he suggested that the war would leave the slaves “no better off”: “No, massa, ‘t won’t do that. De Souf will fight hard, and de Norf will get de blood up, and come down har, and do ‘way wid de cause ob all de trubble–and dat am de nigga…. When (the South) fight de Norf wid de right hand, dey’ll hev to hold de nigga wid de the leff.”

Bright Side
Winslow Homer’s “Bright Side” (1865) depicts black teamsters at rest in a Union Army camp

As an example of the slaves’ familiarity with the essence of the war, Kirke recalled the words of a song “then current among the negroes of the district.” Its content is the more remarkable for the fact that it seems to have foreseen enlistment of black northerners in the Union Army:

Hark! Darkies, hark! It am de drum

Dat calls ole Massa way from hum,

Wid powder-pouch and loaded gun,

To drive ole Abe from Washington;

Oh! Massa’s gwine to Washington,

So clar de way to Washington–

Oh! wont dis darky hab sum fun

When Massa’s gwine to Washington!

Ole Massa say ole Abe will eat

De niggas all, excep’ de feet–

De feet, may be, will cut and run

When Massa gets to Washington.

Dis nigger know ole Abe will save

His brudder man, de darky slave,

And dat he’ll let him cut and run

When Massa gets to Washington.

The next is in similar vein:–

A storm am brewin’ in de Souf,

A storm am brewin’ now,

Oh! hearken den and shut your mouf,

And I will tell you how:

And I will tell you how, ole boy,

De Storm of fire will pour,

And make de darkies dance for joy,

As dey neber danced afore.

So shut your mouf as close as deafh,

And all you niggas hole your breafh,

And I will tell you how.

De darkies at de Norf am rise,

And dey am comin’ down–

Am comin’ down, I know dey is,

To do de white folks brown!

Dey’ll turn ol’ Massa out to grass,

And set de niggas free,

And when dat day am come to pass

We’ll all be dar to see!

So shut your mouf as close as deafh,

And all you niggas hole your breafh,

And do de white folks brown!

‘Den all de week will be as gay

As am de Chris’mas time;

We’ll dance all night and all de day,

And make de banjo chime–

And make de banjo chime, I tink,

And pass de time away,

Wid ’nuff to eat and ’nuff to drink,

And not a bit to pay!

So shut your mouf as close as deafh,

And all you niggas hole your breafh,

And make de banjo chime.

Oh! make de banjo chime, you nigs,

And sound de tamborin,

And shuffle now de merry jigs,

For Massa’s ‘gwine in’–

For Massa’s ‘gwine in,’ I know,

And won’t he hab de shakes,

When Yankee darkies show him how

Dey cotch de rattlesnakes!

So shut your mouf as close as deafh,

And all you niggas hole your breafh,

For Massa’s ‘gwine in’–

For Massa’s ‘qwine in,’ I know,

And won’t he hab de shakes,

When Yankee darkies show him how

Dey cotch the rattlesnakes!*

*symbol for the state of South Carolina

Source: Edmund Kirke, Life in Dixie Land, or The South in Secession Time (London, 1863), 14-16.

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3 thoughts on “Documents from the Slaves’ Civil War: “A storm am brewin’ in de Souf”

  1. Can you comment on how you view the matter of the faux dialect reproduced here? How do you understand Kirke’s choices about how to represent the words alleged to have been spoken by his informant? Without some context, reader’s might conclude that this text reflects what Kirke’s “heard.”

    1. Thanks for your important questions, Martha. They call attention to an issue which we should perhaps have addressed in the introduction to this document, but also one which presents itself frequently to scholars working with a limited range of source materials on slavery and its aftermath. In the introduction to our Learning Resources section on the main After Slavery site, we include a “Note on Spelling, Punctuation and Racially-Charged Language” which reads, in part:

      “In many of the documents that we have selected, individuals use language that is racially offensive. Often they did this deliberately; at other times their language simply reflects the deeply-held racial prejudices common at the time. We have opted to retain such language in order to faithfully convey the original meaning. Readers should understand that in doing so we in no way condone such usage.”

      This does not directly deal with the issues you raise but it does capture the basis of our approach. Historians are ambivalent, and divided, about how to deal with slaves’ and freedpeoples’ speech rendered “in dialect”–and for understandable reasons. Some opt to convert text into standard (American) English. Others–ourselves included–prefer to retain the original rendering. Neither approach is completely satisfactory. In the “Note on Black Dialect” that accompanied his Black Culture and Black Consciousness, historian Lawrence W. Levine observed that “The language employed in…quotations…is not invariably the language actually spoken by black Americans but representations of that language recorded by observers and folklorists, the great majority of whom were white and a substantial proportion of whom were southern. The language I have been forced to rely upon is a mélange of accuracy and fantasy, of sensitivity and stereotype, of empathy and racism.” He recalled that the “temptation to delete the most obvious distortions from the documented dialect has been great but in the end I have resisted it…”

      One of the most commonly-used sets of source materials for which this is a real problem is the Slave Narratives compiled by the Federal Writer’s Project (and used effectively by Levine and others). Project editor John Lomax instructed interviewers that “truth to idiom [was] paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation secondary,” but this could hardly serve as a definitive guideline. In his Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery, John Michael Vlach reproduced “[a]ll quotes, even those rendered in obviously caricatured version of black dialect…exactly as they appear in the original sources.” His reasoning was the same as Levine’s, who argued that “Any attempt to standardize [rendered dialect] into some ideal form of Afro-American dialect would have the effect of distorting it even more….”

      I’ve approached Kirke’s document with the same reservations, concluding that on balance it offers us some very important insights into thinking among a section of the South’s slave population during wartime. I have to say that I was skeptical for a long time about the basic veracity of Kirke’s recollections: what tipped the balance for me was the fact that he submitted the manuscript for publication in late 1862, and must have finished the section quoted here sometime earlier–before black military service seemed an immediate possibility. Kirke’s rendering of events (his impression of the slaves he met in the South, in particular) are contradictory. On one hand he is quite explicit, and complimentary, about the leadership qualities and taste for rebellion he finds among them; on the other his “rendering” offers up an otherwise stereotypical and demeaning impression of the slaves. So yes: problematic, but on the whole I think much of value in his observations, which need to be treated critically.

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