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Slavery, Race, and the Poor

Black History: A Reappraisal

edited by Melvin Drimmer
Doubleday, 530 pp., $6.95

American Negro Slavery: A Modern Reader

edited by Allen Weinstein, edited by Frank Otto Gatell
Oxford, 376 pp., $2.95 (paper)

White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812

by Winthrop D. Jordan
University of North Carolina, 672 pp., $12.50

Race Relations

by Michael Banton
Basic Books, 450 pp., $7.95

Often social change is imperceptible to those living in its midst. It is like water oozing through a dam—at first a faint dampness, a trickle, a spurt, the cracks multiply and either the dam crumbles or the pushing waters are sufficiently eased to create a new, if unstable, equilibrium. To the Black Panthers and other groups of activists the change in social attitudes in America toward the Negro is derisory, and when not derisory a conscience-easing fake. To WASPS, conscious or unconscious, or to ethnic groups living near black ghettos or in competition with blacks for jobs, the rushing of the waters is so deafening that they are driven toward panic and hysteria. To the uneasy liberal, the situation borders on the grotesque. He wants to be fair, to make retribution, and yet he cannot easily accept the new black contempt toward the white, and he is also conscious, perhaps over-conscious, of a hatred of white democracy, a growing insistence on authoritarian, almost totalitarian, attitudes within the black community.

The situation of the historian is equally acute. What has been the role of the Negro in American history? What have been the long-term results of slavery and deprivation of civil rights? Indeed, what was the true nature of American slavery—was it the most evil type the world has known or no better and no worse than the rest of the New World experienced? These problems have never been easy to answer, but in the context of the present time they are much more difficult, for now the question has to be posed: how far was racism itself responsible for the wretchedness of the Negro slave? Did it give a peculiarly vicious twist to slavery? Indeed what are the connections between racism and slavery? Of course this raises the question of the nature of slavery—unbridled racism combined with absolute, or near absolute, authority of the racist master was unlikely to lead to anything but social brutality, to treating the slave more as a chattel than as a person.

At the present time the problem of racism and slavery is possibly the most insistent, for obvious reasons. For the professional historian there are other questions relating to slavery that are equally difficult but intellectually perhaps more exciting. There is Stanley M. Elkins’s brilliant and disturbing investigation of slavery and the Negro personality, examining the reasons for the development of the “Sambo” response of the Negro slave to his environment which help to explain the paucity of slave revolts in America. (No amount of black protest or black re-writing of history can overcome that fact. The American Negro slave protested less in his society than the free peasant class of Europe, or of England for that matter, and this needs explanation.) Less original, but more deeply and professionally argued is Eugene Genovese’s memorable book, The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), which attempts to relate all aspects of Southern life to its peculiar means of economic exploitation. Indeed, Genovese analyzes the social system based on slavery from its basic economic structure, through its institutionalization of power, to its self-justification, and sense of pride in itself. Slave society, Genovese has shown, was far more complex than most historians have allowed.

Apart from Elkins and Genovese many historians have recently made contributions of great value to the study of slavery and the South. Indeed the richness of historical writing is well brought out in the two anthologies under review. This type of book is stupidly despised by academicians with lunatic standards of scholarly endeavor, usually not for themselves, but for their pupils. Yet how could the modern undergraduate cope with the swelling bibliographies on any major theme without such assistance? Both American Negro Slavery: A Modern Reader, by Allen Weinstein and Frank Otto Gatell, and Black History: A Reappraisal provide an admirable selection of the best contemporary writers on the Negro question and will give the moderately diligent student an insight into some of the difficulties, arguments, and material of the problem.

Here he can read in fascinating apposition the bland apologetics of Ulrich B. Phillips, the moral incisiveness of Kenneth Stampp, the sophisticated approaches of David Brion Davis or Winthrop Jordan, and the valuable and all too rare local studies of Edward W. Phifer, whose account of slavery in Burke County ought to have many imitators, since even the best analyses of slavery often rely far too heavily on the great plantations of the Tidewater or the accounts of foreign travelers who kept to a well-worn track. Slaves, like the industrial proletariat, were exploited in many different ways, and, like the proletariat too, in varying degrees of inhumanity. It is as important not to concentrate on the worst as to forget it.

Yet in all this wide range of work on slavery, as exciting and original as any going forward on any other aspect of American social history, there is one omission. There is no comparative study of slavery and poverty. By this I do not mean a study of the economic condition of slaves compared with free Negroes in the slums of Southern cities such as New Orleans, which in fact has been examined by Richard C. Wade, but of the attitude of slaveowners toward slaves, compared with the attitude, not only of industrial, but of pre-industrial owners of wealth toward the poor, especially in the period 1540-1750 in Europe—for in a sense America had very few poor in the early centuries.

New World slavery raises two very serious questions. Why was it so easily accepted by all Western European nations at a time when slavery had ceased to be socially important? And, secondly, why did abolitionists become socially and politically effective from the last third of the eighteenth century onward? The answers to these questions will obviously illuminate the whole notion of slavery, but it is my conviction that these answers can be found only within the non-servile context of the exploitation of labor, and the ideology that goes with it. This brings one to Winthrop D. Jordan’s outstanding book, a volume to be placed alongside Stampp, Elkins, Davis, and Genovese. Jordan’s thesis is straightforward. The Elizabethan Englishmen coming across primitive black men for the first time were repelled. To them black men were associated with beastliness; their inferiority made them the lowest link in the Great Chain of Being. Blackness stimulated the Englishman’s sense of guilt and horror. His Devil was, after all, black, and he always put a high price upon fairness of skin. The primitive societies of West Africa, with their strange and divergent customs, strengthened the Elizabethan’s belief in the eternal, God-given inferiority of the Negro—a little higher, maybe, than the apes, but infinitely lower than the white Englishman. Negroes naturally were “addicted unto Treason, Treacherie, Murther, Theft and Robberie” as well as idleness and lechery.

Hence the proper status of Negroes was slavery. Slavery fitted their natures whose outward sign was the blackness of their skin. And it was because they were black that it became easy to justify slavery and maintain it. This racism can be further illustrated by the treatment of free or freed Negroes, whose rights were subject to strict limitation; even the onus of proof that he was free rested with the Negro, for society expected, because of his color, that he would necessarily be a slave. From the earliest days of slavery this element of racism—for example the detestation of miscegenation—was dominant and it became more and more powerful as Negroes grew in number and slavery became the dominant social system of the South. This, in essence, is Jordan’s argument and it is based on material which ranges from the sermons of sixteenth-century English bishops, obscure travelers’ reports from Africa, Court session records of the slave states, newspaper files throughout the South, the meditations of philosophers in the eighteenth century, and the voluminous correspondences of the Founding Fathers and many other sources. Indeed, the range of Jordan’s reading is prodigious.

That racism gave an added dimension to slavery cannot be doubted; but it is difficult to decide how extensive this dimension was. Jordan contends, with much quotation from Elizabethan literature and from African travelers’ tales, that the sixteenth-century Englishman regarded the Negro as not only savage, heathen, biologically close to the ape, but also as theologically damned; for the Negro was descended from Ham, Noah’s disinherited son, who was cursed by having black offspring. What was more, the Englishman’s Devil was always portrayed as black, so Negroes were associated with evil and linked ever more firmly to God’s curse. Furthermore, they proved helpless against the “angel-like” English, whose whiteness proclaimed them to be beloved of God: so, rightly, good was triumphing over evil.

These attitudes toward the Negroes made the enslavement of them by the English both natural and ferocious. Unlike Catholic Europeans, the English had no interest in conversion, and so long as the black remained a heathen savage in a Christian society the Negro slave could have no rights. Hence the slave possessed fewer human rights in English slave-holding societies than in others ancient or modern. From start to finish American slavery had an extensive racial quality: indeed Jordan calls it racial slavery. In one essential Jordan is correct. Negroes were considered born inferiors, born slaves if you will, to a degree that was never applied to many other groups of slaves. The Roman slave was treated just as brutally, at times far more brutally, than the Southern Negro. He certainly possessed no more rights. But, once freed, the world was open to him. He and his family could rise or fall like any other man in the Roman state, so long as he had either ability or money or both. Not so the Negro. The freed Negro entered a caste which was excluded from most of the benefits and all of the power in the society to which it belonged. And the basis of this exclusion was racial. This far one can go with Jordan.

But it could also be argued that racism went far beyond slavery so that it cannot be viewed simply as the major cause of slavery. Racism was not, of course, confined to the Southern slave masters or to Southern slave society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was just as rampant in the Portuguese Empire. Franciscans in the seventeenth century in Goa attempted to prevent Portuguese born of pure white parents from entering their order on the grounds that having been suckled by Indian wet-nurses, their blood was contaminated for life (ex. inf. Professor C. R. Boxer). This surely is racism as extravagant as any to be found in the Southern states.

Again, Jordan makes a great deal of the deliberate exclusion of the Negro from the Anglican Church, but Catholic slaveowners were no more eager for their blacks to be a part of their Church. As one Portuguese slaveowner exclaimed indignantly, “Should my Kaffirs receive communion? God forbid that I should ever allow them.” Indeed the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is full of savagely expressed racism directed not only to the Negro but to the Hindu, the Hottentot, the Welsh, Scots, Irish, French against English, English against the Dutch.

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