While the last few years have witnessed an upsurge of studies into enslaved motherhood in the antebellum American South, the role of the enslaved father remains largely trapped within a paradigm of enforced absenteeism from an unstable and insecure familial unit. The origins of this lie in the racist assumptions of the infamous “Moynihan Report” of 1965, read backwards into slavery itself. Consequently, the historiographical trajectory of work on enslaved men has drawn out the performative aspects of their masculinity in almost every area of their lives except that of fatherhood. This has produced an image of individualistic masculinity, separate from the familial role that many enslaved men managed to sustain and, as a result, productive of a disjointed and gendered genealogy of slavery and its legacy. This paper assesses the extent to which this fractured genealogy actually represents the former slaves’ worldview. By examining a selection of interviews conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s (the WPA Narratives), this paper explores formers slaves’ memories of their enslaved fathers and the significance of the voluntary paternal presence in their life stories. It concludes that the role of the black father was of greater significance than so far recognised by the genealogical narratives that emerged from the slave communities of the Antebellum South.
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