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A Special Supplement: American Slaves and Their History

The history of the American lower classes has yet to be written. The ideological impact of the New Left, the intellectual exigencies of the black liberation movement, and the developing academic concern for the cultural aspects of politics and history have all converged to produce the expectation that this history will be written. If even a small percentage of the praise heaped upon E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class could be translated into an effort to extend its achievement, the future would be bright. Good work is finally being done, although little by those who periodically issue manifestoes on the need to rewrite history “from the bottom up.”

History written from the bottom up is neither more nor less than history written from the top down: It is not and cannot be good history. Writing the history of a nation without considering the vicissitudes of a majority of its people is not a serious undertaking. Yet it is preposterous to suggest that there could conceivably be anything wrong with writing a book about the ruling class alone, or about one or another elite, or about any segment of society, however small. No subject is too limited to treat.

But a good historian writes well on a limited subject while taking account (if only implicitly and without a single direct reference) of the whole, whereas an inferior one confuses the need to isolate a small portion of the whole with the license to assume that that portion acted in isolation. One may, for example, write Southern history by focusing on either blacks or whites, slaves or masters, tenant farmers or landlords; but the one cannot be discussed without an understanding of the other.

The fate of master and slave was historically intertwined, and formed part of a single social process; each in his own way struggled for autonomy—struggled to end his dependence upon the other—but neither could ever wholly succeed. The first problem in the writing of social history lies in this organic antagonism: We tend to see the masters in their own terms, without acknowledging their dependence upon the slaves; but we also tend to see the slaves in the masters’ terms, without acknowledging the extent to which the slaves freed themselves from domination.

There cannot be, therefore, any such thing as “history from the bottom up,” but there can and should be good histories of “the bottom.” A good study of plantation architecture, apart from its contribution to aesthetics, would be one that grasped the social link between the culture of the Big House and that of both the slave quarters and small non-slaveholding farm houses, for the Big House, whatever else it did, served to impress men in humble circumstances. Such a study need never mention the slave quarters or the farm houses, but if the essential insight fails or remains undeveloped and abstract, then the entire effort must remain limited. Should it succeed, then the book would be a valuable contribution to the history of Southern society and its constituent races and classes. To consider such a study “elitist” because it concerns itself with upper-class life or eschews moralistic pronouncements is a modern form of absurdity.

There is much to be said for the current notion that blacks will have to write their own history: Black people in the United States have strong claims to separate nationality, and every people must interpret its own history in the light of its own traditions and experience. At the same time, the history of every people must be written from without, if only to provide a necessary perspective; sooner or later the history of every people must flow from the clash of viewpoints and sensibilities.

But for historians of the South there is a more compelling reason for black and white scholars to live with each other: there is simply no way of learning about either blacks or whites without learning about the other. If it is true, as I suspect, that future generations of black scholars will bring a special viewpoint to Southern history, then their success or failure will rest, in part, on their willingness to teach us something new about the masters as well as the slaves.

I should like to consider some debilitating assumptions often brought by social historians to the study of the lower classes and to suggest a way of avoiding the twin elitist notions that these classes are generally either passive or on the brink of insurrection. We have so many books on slavery in the Old South that specialists need to devote full time merely to keeping abreast of the literature. Yet there is not one book and only a few scattered articles on life in the slave quarters: we must rely mainly on such primary and undigested sources as slave narratives and plantation memoirs. A good student might readily be able to answer questions about the economics of the plantation, the life of the planters, the politics of slavery expansionism, or a host of other matters, but he is not likely to know much about the daily life and thoughts of slaves, about the relationship of field to house slaves, or about the relations between slave driver or foreman and other slaves. To make matters worse, he may well think he knows a good deal, for the literature abounds in undocumented assertions and plausible legends.

The fact remains that there has not been a single study of the slave driver—the most important slave on the larger plantations—and only a few sketchy and misleading studies of house slaves. So far as the life of the quarters is concerned, it should be enough to note that the idea persists, in the face of abundant evidence, that slaves had no family life to speak of. Historians and sociologists, both white and black, have been guilty of reasoning deductively from purely legal evidence—slave marriages were not recognized by law in the United States—and have done little actual research.

I do not propose here to discuss the slave family in detail, or house slaves and drivers for that matter, but should like to touch on all three in order to illustrate a larger point. We have made a grave error in the way in which we have viewed slave life, and this error has been perpetuated by both whites and blacks, racists and anti-racists. The traditional proslavery view and that of such later apologists for white supremacy as Ulrich B. Phillips have treated the blacks as objects of white benevolence and fear—as people who needed both protection and control—and devoted attention to the ways in which black slaves adjusted to the demands of the master class. Abolitionist propaganda and the later and now dominant liberal viewpoint have insisted that the slave regime was so brutal and dehumanizing that blacks should be seen primarily as victims. Both these viewpoints treat black people almost wholly as objects, never as creative participants in a social process, never as half of a two-part subject.

True, abolitionist and liberal views have taken account of the ways in which slaves resisted their masters by shirking, breaking their tools, and even rebelling, but the proslavery view generally noted that much, too, even if from a different interpretation. Neither has ever stopped to consider, for example, that the evidence might reflect less a deliberate attempt at sabotage or alleged Negro inferiority than a set of attitudes toward time, work, and leisure which black people developed partly in Africa and partly in the slave quarters and which constituted a special case of a general pattern of behavior associated with preindustrial cultures.

Preindustrial peoples knew all about hard work and discipline, but their standards were neither those of the factory nor those of the plantation, and were embedded in a radically different culture. Yet even such sympathetic historians as Kenneth Stampp who give some attention to the subject of slaves generally try to show that slaves exercised some degree of autonomy in their responses to the blows or cajoling of their masters. We have yet to receive a respectful treatment—apart from some brief but suggestive passages in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and perhaps one or two others1—of their attempts to achieve an autonomous life within the narrow limits of the slave plantation. Although family letters and plantation diaries of the whites, slave narratives, and black folklore are full of the hints and data needed for such a history, we have yet to have a synthetic record of their incessant struggle to escape from the culture as well as from the psychological domination of the master class.

In commenting briefly on certain features of family life, house slaves, and drivers, I should like to suggest some of the possibilities in an approach that asks a question beyond What was done to the slaves? namely: What did the slaves do for themselves and how did they do it? In a more extensive presentation it would be possible, indeed necessary, to discuss slave religion, entertainment, songs and dances, and many other things. But perhaps we may settle for a moment on one observation about slave religion.

We are told a great deal about the religious instruction of the slaves, by which is meant the attempt to inculcate a version of Protestant Christianity. Sometimes this instruction is interpreted as a good thing in itself and sometimes as a kind of brainwashing, but we may leave this question aside. Recently, Vincent Harding, following Du Bois’s suggestive probing, has offered a different perspective and suggested that the slaves had their own way of taking up Christianity and forging it into a weapon of active resistance.2 Certainly we must be struck by the appearance of one or another kind of messianic preacher in almost every slave revolt on record. Professor Harding therefore asks that we look at the slaves as active participants in their own religious experience and not merely as objects being worked on by slaveholding ideologues.

This argument may be carried further to suggest that a distinctly black religion, at least in embryo, appeared in the slave quarters and played a role in shaping the daily lives of the slaves. In other words, quite apart from the problem of religion as a factor in overt resistance to slavery, we need to know how the slaves developed a religious life that enabled them to survive as autonomous human beings with a culture of their own within the white master’s world.

One of the reasons we know so little about this side of slavery—and about all lower-class life—is that it is undramatic. Historians, white and black, conservative, liberal, and radical, tend to look for the heroic moments, either to praise or to excoriate them. Yet, if a slave helped to keep himself psychologically intact by breaking his master’s hoe, he might also have achieved the same result by a special effort to come to terms with his God, or by loving a woman who shared his burdens, or even by aspiring to be the best worker on the plantation.

  1. 1

    See, e.g., C.L.R. James, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery: Some Interpretations of Their Significance in the Development of the United States and the Western World,” Amistad, #1 (Vintage Books, 1970). Du Bois’s writings are full of important ideas and hypotheses. See especially Black Reconstruction in America and Souls of Black Folk.

  2. 2

    Vincent Harding, “Religion and Resistance Among Ante-Bellum Negroes, 1800-1860,” August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, eds., The Making of Black America (Atheneum, 1969), I, 179-197.

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