People are raised to harbor a natural thirst for power and control and develop a strong sense to protect that authority and preserve their ways of life. With these internal motives and desires, southerners of the newly-formed United States of America were comfortable with the power established within the patriarch and unwillingly to surrender their newfound independence, freedom, and supremacy after breaking ties with Great Britain and signing the Declaration of Independence. Although declaring that all men were created equal and were endowed with unalienable rights, including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” racism flourished among the antebellum south, and slavery became a part of the white American Dream. As illustrated through Melton A. McLaurin’s biography, Celia, A Slave, “slavery was an institution fundamental to the existence of southern society, a permanent part of the southern way of life” (18.) Through Celia’s eyes, one is enabled a unique view of the hidden secrets and conflicts of slavery that empowered white males and conserved the power of the master.
An ordinary slave, Celia was purchased in 1850 at the age of fourteen by Robert Newsom, a successful, sixty-year old farmer living within Callaway County, Missouri. Although instructed to cook and help his daughters with the daily household operations, Celia’s primary purpose was not to lighten the housework, however. Having been a widower for nearly a year, Newsom required a sexual partner and had deliberately purchased Celia in order to fill that role, just as one of every five female slaves was expected to. For the next five years, Celia would endure continuous sexual exploitation and abuse and even give birth to two of Newsom’s children. While pregnant with a third child, however, Celia’s ordinary slave life would no longer remain common and unnoticed, but enter history through dramatic trials within court.
Becoming romantically involved with another of Newsom’s slaves, George, Celia found herself within a conflicted triangular relationship, still suffering continuous sexual intercourse with her master, yet spending nights with her personal love. Faced with a common dilemma among slaves, George and Celia found themselves “powerless to protect their most basic humanity from the predations of the master” (137-138.)
Also hindered by the Southern white male, white females were denied their sexual integrity and lowered to a similar status as black females, with no legal right to refuse sexual demands. Because of their economic and legal dependence on the male master, white women chose to support slavery and simply vent their anger and resentment of the abuse of slave women towards the slave, rather than the man. This deemed the cooperation between black and white women based upon gender-specific issues impossible, leaving slave women alone and helpless (139.) Confronting Newsom’s two daughters of his continuous sexual abuse of her, Celia was met with contempt and ignorance, forced to face her troubles in solitude.
After facing an ultimatum presented by George, Celia was left either to physically end her sexual exploitations with Newsom or her relationship with George. Physical resistance was uncommon among slaves, although some resorted to violence or murder in order to end their toil. Unprotected by laws, however, resistant slaves were met with physical retaliation and even death. Alone, troubled, and desperate, Celia collected her courage and faced Newsom. After receiving denial of her sexual integrity from her master, she then armed her bed and awaited nightfall. On cue, her master arrived asking of sexual favors, only to meet the blunt end of a hefty stick to which he was struck with and killed. Aware of the consequences she would face, Celia frantically disposed of her master’s body within the fireplace, attempting to conceal any evidence that would trace the crime to her. Despite her efforts, however, she was interrogated to submission, Newsom’s remains were found and Celia was sent to jail with a court date.
Supplied with an able and determined defense attorney, Celia stood before Judge William Augustus Hall and awaited her punishments. Because Celia was clearly guilty of the murder of her master, her defense attempted to convince the judge to condemn her guilty, but undeserving of the usual death penalty because of her innocent intentions. Not meaning to kill Newsom, Celia acted purely in self-defense, a motive that the defense saw deserving of exception, but because female slaves lacked legal protection against rape and other violence, Celia was not granted the right to self-defense and was convicted to hang for her crime.
Celia’s life and death narrated throughout Melton A. McLaurin’s biography, Celia, A Slave, clearly demonstrate the nature of the moral choices individuals faced because of the institution of slavery. Inhibiting female slaves, male slaves, and even white women, slavery empowered the white male and lowered all others into submissive and dependent states with few rights and stripped them of their unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” In the patriarchal society of the newly-founded United States of America, all were slaved into submission by the unlimited power of the white master, the lord of the manor, the King of the antebellum south.