Among the many humiliations of the American Negro, not the least burdensome has been the various characterizations he has had to undergo in the eyes of the white man. It is hardly an ex-aggeration to say that before World War II It the predominant image of the Negro was that of the New Yorker cover of around 1935, which in a cartoon by Rea Irvin depicted a rotund and very black man in the act of chicken thievery: against a background of midnight blue the chickens are squawking their panic while the Negro, pop-eyed and comically aghast, tries vainly to shush them with a finger held against his blubbery lips. This caricature of the Negro as a pilfering but likeable scalawag was dominant from slave days until the early 1940’s, and one is bemused by the fact that it appeared on the cover of the same magazine which this year published James Baldwin’s now celebrated essay. Since that New Yorker cover, of course, reaction has set in with a vengeance. Yet though the situation has virtually reversed itself, the characterizations—the caricatures—persist. With the help of sociology and anthropology and hipster romanticism, Stepin Fetchit has been transformed into a sexual carnivore of superhuman capacities. The New Yorker cover was thoughtless and vapid enough—even though a fair reflection of the times—but the concept of “the white Negro” is equally preposterous; both arise from an imaginary notion of Negro life, both are lampoons and vulgarizations, and both are products of wish fulfillment.
The historiography of the American Negro, especially that of Negro slavery, has likewise suffered from a career in which genteel apology has been supplanted less by perceptions than by extremist revisionism. First published in 1943 and reissued now, Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts is an attempt to repudiate such old-school apologists for the ante-bellum Southern plantation system as Ulrich B. Phillips, who saw in slavery a generally genial institution, the victims of which were more or less content with their lot and in any case so docile by nature as to be incapable of rebellion. Certainly it seems clear now that the Phillips viewpoint, shared by many other historians, was befogged by Southern pride and often by frank racism: and when Aptheker’s book first appeared (during the same general period as Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, a period of leftist-oriented anthropology and sociology), the reaction had begun to move into full tide. Negro slaves, according to the new canon, were not happy, servile, childlike; they were instead intractable, seething with unrest, forever chafing in the bonds of slavery. As Aptheker stated this position: “The evidence…points to the conclusion that discontent and rebelliousness were not only exceedingly common, but indeed, characteristic of American Negro slaves.”
As a matter of fact, if we can accept Aptheker’s evidence—and on the whole his book seems well documented—it would appear that unrest and discontent were considerably more widespread than earlier historians would grant, with sporadic outbreaks of violence occurring throughout the South for many years. Relying heavily on contemporary newspaper accounts and documents overlooked or ignored by other authorities, Aptheker traces the course of slave unrest from early colonial times until the Civil War, and makes a good case against the theory of universal content and docility among the slaves. A considerable number of plots and conspiracies arose among the Negroes—most of them aborted or otherwise unsuccessful—and the incidents of murderous violence which abounded from Delaware to Texas are both too numerous and too striking to be shrugged off; thus, Aptheker offers convincing proof that some slaves, at least, were not only discontented, but through courage and out of desperation found opportunity to make their forsaken bids for freedom.
Yet the title American Negro Slave Revolts is badly misleading Signs of Slave Unrest might have been more exact), and it is a measure of Aptheker’s extremist “either-or” position that, in the Preface to this new edition, he is forced to protest: “Generally speaking, this book has weathered some heavy attacks launched by individuals to whom white supremacy and the magnolia-moonlight-molasses mythology that adorns it were sacred.” But one does not have to be a white supremacist to note that Aptheker fails almost completely in his attempt to prove the universality of slave rebelliousness. Save for two enthusiastic but localized conspiracies—that of Gabriel in Richmond in 1800, and that of Vesey in Charleston in 1822, both of which were nipped in the bud—there was only one sustained, effective revolt in the entire annals of slavery: the cataclysmic uprising of Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831. To say, therefore, as Aptheker does, that “…disconent and rebelliousness were not only exceedingly common, but, indeed, characteristic of American Negro slaves,” is not just to indulge in distortion, it is once again truly to fall into the trap of “characterization.” Of unrest and disaffection there seems to have been a natural plenty; of true rebelliousness on any organized scale there was amazingly little, and in his eagerness to prove the actuality of what was practically non-existent, Aptheker, like those latter-day zealots who demean the Negro’s humanity by saddling him with mythical powers of eroticism or other attributeshe neither wants nor needs, performs only a disservice to those who would understand American Negro slavery and the meaning it has for us.
It may be impossible ever to tell for certain, but it would now seem apparent that it was the monolithic structure of the institution of chattel slavery itself which generally precluded organized revolt. In his brilliant analysis, Slavery Stanley Elkins has demonstrated what must have been the completely traumatizing effect upon the psyche of this uniquely brutal system, which so dehumanized the siave and divested him of honor, moral responsibility, and manhood. The character (not characterization) of “Sambo,” shiftless, wallowing happily in the dust, was no cruel figment of the imagination, Southern or Northern, but did in truth exist. But that the plantation slaves were often observably docile, were childish, were irresponsible and incapable of real resistance would seem to be no significant commentary upon the character of the Negro but tribute rather to a capitalist super-machine which swiftly managed to cow and humble an entire people with a ruthless efficiency unparalleled in history. Nat Turner, a literate preacher and a slave of the Upper South, lived outside the thralldom of organized plantation slavery; the success of his revolt was due to a combination of native genius, luck, and the relative latitude of freedom he had been granted. The many millions of other slaves, reduced to the status of children, illiterate, tranquillized, totally defenseless, ciphers and ants, could only accept their existence or be damned, and be damned anyway, like the victims of a concentration camp. Rebellion was not only not characteristic: to assign a spirit of rebelliousness to human beings under such conditions is to attribute to the Negro superhuman qualities which no human being possesses. Like the comic chicken thief, like the raging hipster, the slave in revolt is a product of the white man’s ever-accommodating fantasy, and only the dim suggestion of the truth. The real revolt, of course, is now, beyond the dark wood of slavery, by people reclaiming their birthright and their direct, unassailable humanity.