A Child's Song: 'Mother, Don't Grieve After Me'


By Wilma King

Indiana University Press

253 pp., $27.50

With moral authority and appreciation for the telling anecdote, Wilma King takes up the neglected story of black slave children in the American South. ''Stolen Childhood'' mines the major American archives in order to present the ways in which enslaved men and women created a semblance of family life and cultural heritage.

As the story recounts, the legal status of children was determined by the status of the mother. Name selection was often shared between parents and slave holders. In the 17th and 18th centuries, children frequently received an African ''day name.'' Slave owners imposed their last name, which signaled ownership, not kinship.

Young children often augmented the work of adult laborers. And much of their leisure time was spent looking after personal needs. Still, boys and girls played with homemade marbles and hobby-horses. Children for whom education was often forbidden learned to count playing hide and seek.

Perhaps the greatest trauma of slave youth was separation from family. At the end of the Civil War, many of America's 2 million children of African descent were seeking reunification with their families. Some white landowners renewed their control of black children by forcing them into apprenticeships.

The book poignantly relates stories of parents who found the strength to ease the pangs of frightened children with soothing tales of long journeys. Black folk songs resonate with the anguish of children crying, ''Mother, don't grieve after me.''

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