Today, we watch slaves reshaping Virginia. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
America's slave population
leveled off at 250,000 before the Revolutionary
War. Those slaves were heavily concentrated in
eastern Virginia, where they outnumbered the free
population three to two. America in general, but
Virginia in particular, was strongly changed by
this African presence.
Mechal Sobel's compelling book, The World
They Made Together, tells us how this ethnic
interweaving affected Colonial America. Think about
the way we deal with time. The white Protestant
population had the time-regulated mind of
18th-century rationalists. Time was elastic for the
Africans. It stretched out in summer and shrank in
winter. Time had different meanings in different
activities. Heaven was slow and Hell was fast.
Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential Virginia
rationalist. He fixated on time. It was something
to be penny-pinched. Clocks ticked in every room of
Monticello. A contemporary hymn caught that mood
when it told us,
Thy precious time misspent, Redeem,The slave majority had a lesson to teach
these people. Before they were done, they'd laid an
African rhythm on Virginian life.
Each present day thy last esteem:
But they did much more than that. The arts and
crafts of the South reflect strong African
influences. Techniques of African
house-construction were carried into the new world.
Colonial toys, dolls, quilt-patterns, musical
instruments -- they all show African forms,
viewpoints, and craftsmanship.
Slaves also held Christianity up to the light of
their native belief in highly interactive gods. It
made sense to them. They took it up with startling
intensity. Negro spirituals were only the most
visible part of what proved to be serious
theological influence. And they turned the heat of
their conviction on their white masters. One of
Jefferson's slaves wrote to him when he was ill:
I was sorry to hear that you are so unwell ...
but I hope as you have been so blessed in [your
illness] that you considered it was God that done
it and no one other ...
We're startled to see the slave of a
United States president so openly invoking the ideas
of St. Paul in calling him to repentance. But the
institution of slavery, in such a uniformly mixed
population, resulted in this sort of intimacy between
blacks and whites. Thomas Jefferson showed curious
ambivalence on the subject of slavery. And we're
beyond being surprised when we learn that his death
was announced by flying a white flag. White -- the
African color of mourning.
By then, of course, our nation's culture had been
taken very far from England. By then we'd been
significantly -- and permanently -- reshaped in the
direction of African views and values.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds