Plantation Blues

John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger announce at the outset of their study of runaway slaves that “even today important aspects of the history of slavery remain shrouded in myth and legend.” The myths and legends are not only those that still romanticize the old plantation but also the contrary ones that demonize it. Like other myths they have only a remote resemblance to fact, but historians who seek to dispel them, an enterprise that has engaged some of the best of them in the past fifty years, have found that in the study of slavery myth clings stubbornly to fact. Every exposition of what actually happened on the plantation carries implications, frequently unintended, that echo the myths. And this is particularly the case with attempts to recover the facts of what slavery did to slaves, where a long tail of implication sometimes seems to wag the dog.

Stanley Elkins argued in a seminal work in 1959 that slavery reduced its victims to mindless “sambos,” comparable to the brainwashed inmates of concentration camps.1 This indictment carried the unintended implication that slaves lacked the character or strength of mind to resist the destruction of their self-respect by heartless masters. The implication gathered new significance in a 1965 Department of Labor report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which drew on Elkins to argue that “the slave household often developed a fatherless matrifocal (mother-centered) pattern,” a pattern which continued into the twentieth century with disastrous consequences.2

Moynihan’s report, aimed toward a national effort to break that continuity, made its appearance just at the time when many black leaders of the civil rights movement were tending toward a separatism in which they cherished a positive continuity with slave culture and resented any deficiencies that whites might find in blacks, slave or free. In 1974, in a work ostensibly designed to reveal “the record of black achievement under adversity,” Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman used a statistical economic analysis to portray the plantation as an enlightened business enterprise: under masters guided by cost-effectiveness, slaves enjoyed somewhat better conditions of life than free workers, and lived in nuclear families headed by husbands.3 This went way beyond any refutation of Elkins or Moynihan; and other historians immediately challenged it, not only in its benign statistics but in its seeming “return to a very old-fashioned concept of the acquiescent slave, and to all of its potentially racist implications.”4 A large number of more detailed studies, avoiding any such implications, have explored the slave culture of resistance, and portrayed the building of nuclear families within it as acts of defiance rather than compliance.5 Now Orlando Patterson, as we shall see, returns to the view of the Moynihan report in dismissing such families as not families at all but mere “reproductive units,” at the service of their masters.

That serious scholars could arrive at such conflicting conclusions testifies to the inconclusiveness and malleability of the multitude of surviving sources—ledgers, laws, letters, diaries, newspapers, books—all written…

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