Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Nov 10 13:29:12 MST 2000

NY Review of Books, November 2, 2000

The Skeleton in the Closet

Slave Narratives
edited by William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
1,035 pages, $40.00 (hardcover)
published by Library of America
(order book)

Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South
by Marie Jenkins Schwartz
272 pages, $35.00 (hardcover)
published by Harvard University Press
(order book)

Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market
by Walter Johnson
283 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
published by Harvard University Press
(order book)

One hundred and thirty-five years after its abolition, slavery is still the
skeleton in the American closet. Among the African-American descendants of
its victims there is a difference of opinion about whether the memory of it
should be suppressed as unpleasant and dispiriting or commemorated in the
ways that Jews remember the Holocaust. There is no national museum of
slavery and any attempt to establish one would be controversial. In 1995
black employees of the Library of Congress successfully objected to an
exhibition of photographs and texts describing the slave experience,
because they found it demoralizing. But other African-Americans have called
for a public acknowledgment of slavery as a national crime against blacks,
comparable to the Holocaust as a crime against Jews, and some have asked
that reparations be paid to them on the grounds that they still suffer from
its legacy. Most whites, especially those whose ancestors arrived in the
United States after the emancipation of the slaves and settled outside the
South, do not see why they should accept any responsibility for what
history has done to African-Americans. Recently, however, the National Park
Service has begun a systematic review of exhibits at Civil War battlefields
to make visitors aware of how central slavery and race were to the conflict.

Professional historians have not shared the public's ambivalence about
remembering slavery. Since the publication of Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar
Institution in 1956 and Stanley Elkins's Slavery in 1959, the liveliest and
most creative work in American historical studies has been devoted to
slavery and the closely related field of black-white relations before the
twentieth century. In the 1970s, there was a veritable explosion of large
and important books about slavery in the Old South.1 But no consensus
emerged about the essential character of antebellum slavery. What was
common to all this work was a reaction against Stanley Elkins's view that
slavery devastated its victims psychologically, to such an extent that it
left them powerless to resist their masters' authority or even to think and
behave independently.2 If slaves were now endowed with "agency" and a
measure of dignity, the historians of the Seventies differed on the sources
and extent of the cultural "breathing space" that slaves were now accorded.
For Herbert Gutman, it was the presence among slaves of closely knit
nuclear and extended families; for John Blassingame, it was the distinctive
communal culture that emanated from the slave quarters; for Eugene
Genovese, it was the ability to maneuver within an ethos of plantation
paternalism that imposed obligations on both masters and slaves.3

Clearly there was a difference of opinion between Blassingame and Gutman,
on one hand, and Genovese on the other, about how much autonomy the slaves
possessed. Genovese conceded a "cultural hegemony" to the slaveholders that
the others refused to acknowledge. But even Genovese celebrated "the world
that the slaves made" within the interstices of the paternalistic world
that the slaveholders had made. At the very least, slaves had their own
conceptions of the duties owed to them by their masters, which were often
in conflict with what the masters were in fact willing to concede. Although
all the interpretations found that conflict was integral to the
master-slave relationship, the emphasis on the cultural creativity and
survival skills of the slaves tended to draw attention away from the most
brutal and violent aspects of the regime-such as the frequent and often
sadistic use of the lash and the forced dissolution by sale of many
thousands of the two-parent families discovered by Gutman.4

There was also a tendency to deemphasize physical, as opposed to cultural,
resistance by slaves. Relatively little was said about rebellion or the
planning of rebellion, running away, or sabotaging the operation of the
plantation. From the literature of the 1970s and 1980s, one might be
tempted to draw the conclusion that slaves accommodated themselves fairly
well to their circumstances and, if not actually contented, found ways to
avoid being miserable. Out of fashion was the view of Kenneth Stampp and
other neo-abolitionist historians of the post-World War II period that the
heart of the story was white brutality and black discontent, with the
latter expressing itself in as much physical resistance as was possible
given the realities of white power. Interpretations of slavery since the
1970s have tended to follow Genovese's paternalism model when
characterizing the masters or analyzing the master-slave relationship and
the Blassingame-Gutman emphasis on communal cultural autonomy when probing
the consciousness of the slaves. Tension between the cultural-hegemony and
cultural-autonomy models has been the basis of most disagreements.

Beginning around 1990, however, a little-noticed countertrend to both
culturalist approaches began to emerge. The work of Michael Tadman on the
slave trade, Norrece T. Jones on slave control, and Wilma King on slave
children brought back to the center of attention the most brutal and
horrifying aspects of life under the slaveholders' regime.5 Tadman
presented extensive documentation to show that the buying and selling of
slaves was so central to the system that it reduces any concept of
slaveholder paternalism to the realm of propaganda and self-delusion.
"Slaveholder priorities and attitudes suggest, instead, a system based more
crudely on arbitrary power, distrust, and fear," he wrote.6

What kind of paternalist, one might ask, would routinely sell those for
whom he had assumed patriarchal responsibility? Building on Gutman's
discovery of strong family ties, Jones maintained that the threat of family
breakup was the principal means that slaveholders used to keep slaves
sufficiently obedient and under control to carry out the work of the
plantation. There was no paternalistic bargain, according to Jones, only
the callous exercise of the powers of ownership, applied often enough to
make the threat of it credible and intimidating. Like Jones, Wilma King
likens the master-slave relationship to a state of war, in which both
parties to the conflict use all the resources they possess and any means,
fair or foul, to defeat the enemy. She compared slave children to the
victims of war, denied a true childhood by heavy labor requirements,
abusive treatment, and the strong possibility that they would be
permanently separated from one or both parents at a relatively early age.
She presented evidence to show that slave children were small for their
ages, suffered from ill health, and had high death rates. The
neo-abolitionist view of slavery as a chamber of horrors seemed to be
reemerging, and the horror was all the greater because of the
acknowledgment forced by the scholarship of the Seventies that slaves had
strong family ties. What was now being emphasized was the lack of respect
that many, possibly most, slaveholders had for those ties.

A recent book that eschews theorizing about the essential nature of slavery
but can be read as providing support for the revisionists who would bring
the darker side of slavery into sharper relief is Runaway Slaves: Rebels on
the Plantation by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger.7 This
relentlessly empirical study avoids taking issue with other historians
except to the extent that it puts quotation marks around "paternalistic."
It has little or nothing to say about slave culture and community. Its
principal sources are not the many published narratives of escaped slaves,
such as the ones now made available by the Library of America, but rather
newspaper accounts, legal records, and the advertisements that describe
runaways and offer a reward for their return.

The latter sources are especially useful because they contain candid
descriptions of lacerated backs, branded faces, and other physical evidence
of cruel treatment. Few runaways actually made it to freedom in the North.
Most remained in relatively close proximity to their masters' plantations
and were eventually recaptured. It was generally young men who absconded,
but they did so in huge numbers. Few plantations of any size failed to
experience significant absenteeism. Franklin and Schweninger are unable to
determine "the exact number of runaways," but conclude very conservatively
that there had to have been more than 50,000 a year. Slaves ran off for a
variety of motives-to avoid being sold or because they wanted to be sold
away from a harsh master, to avoid family dissolution or to find kin from
whom they had already been separated, to avoid severe whipping or as a
response to it. The picture that emerges from the many vivid accounts of
individual acts of desertion is of an inhumane system that bears no
resemblance to the mythical South of benevolent masters and contented
slaves. It is even hard to reconcile with the more sophisticated view that
most slaveholders conformed to a paternalistic ethic that earned a
conditional acquiescence from many of their slaves.

The masters found in this book are cruel and insensitive and the slaves
openly rebellious. Although it rarely brought freedom, the mode of
resistance described in Runaway Slaves could have positive results for the
deserters. In some cases, they successfully made their return contingent on
better conditions, or at least avoidance of punishment. In other words,
running away could be a kind of labor action, the closest approximation to
a strike that was possible under the circumstances. Very well written,
filled with engrossing narrative, and exploiting valuable sources that the
historians of slave culture and consciousness have tended to neglect,
Runaway Slaves is a major work of history.

Full review at:

Louis Proyect
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