• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Special Supplement: American Slaves and Their History

The slaves, on their side, behaved, of course, in various ways. Some were indeed promiscuous, although much of the charge of promiscuity stemmed not so much from actual promiscuity as from sequential polygamy. They did change partners more often than Victorian whites said they could stomach. (In this respect, they might be considered among the forerunners of the white middle-class sexual morality of the 1960s.) I stress these matters, the interest of the master in slave family stability and the effort of the slave to protect his stake in a home, however impoverished, because it is now fashionable to believe that black people came out of slavery with little or no sense of family life. But if so, then we need to know why so many thousands wandered over the South during early Reconstruction looking for their spouses or children.

We do not know just how many slaves lived as a family or were willing and able to maintain a stable family life during slavery. But the number was certainly great, whatever the percentage, and as a result, the social norm that black people carried from slavery to freedom was that of the nuclear family. If it is true that the black family has disintegrated in the ghettos—and we have yet to see conclusive evidence of this—then the source will have to be found in the conditions of economic and social oppression imposed upon blacks during recent decades. The experience of slaves, for all its tragic disruptions, pointed toward a stable postslavery family life, and recent scholarship demonstrates conclusively that the reconstruction and postreconstruction black experience carried forward the acceptance of the nuclear-family norm.3

Let us consider the role of the male and the legend of a slave matriarchy. Almost all writers on slavery describe the slave man as a guest in the house, who could have no role beyond a purely sexual one. The slave narratives and the diaries and letters of white plantation owners tell us something else. The position of the male slave was undeniably precarious and frustrating. If his wife was to be whipped, he had to stand by and watch; he could not fully control his own children; he was not a breadwinner in the usual sense. There were severe restrictions imposed upon the manifestations of what we somewhat erroneously call manliness. But both masters and former slaves tell us about some plantations on which certain women were not easily or often punished because it was readily understood that to punish the woman it would be necessary to kill her man first.

These cases were the exception, but they tell us that the man felt a duty to protect his woman. If circumstances conspired to prevent his fulfilling that duty, those circumstances often included the fact that his woman did not expect him to do so and indeed consoled him by acknowledging the futility of such a gesture. We cannot know what was said between a man and a woman when they lay down together at night after having experienced such outrages, but there are enough hints in the slave narratives to suggest that both knew what a man could do, as well as what he “should” do, especially when there were children to consider. Many scholars suggest that black women treated their men with contempt for not doing what circumstances made impossible. This is a deduction from tenuous assumptions; it is not a demonstrated fact.

Beyond that, the man of the house did do various things. He trapped and hunted animals to supplement the diet in the quarters, and in this small but important and symbolic way he was a breadwinner. He organized the garden plot and presided over the division of labor with his wife. He disciplined his children—or divided that function with his wife as people in other circumstances do—and generally was the source of authority in the cabin. This relationship within the family was not always idyllic. In many instances, he imposed his authority over both wife and children by force. Masters forbade men to hit their wives and children and whipped them for it; but they did it anyway and often. And there is not much evidence that women readily ran to the masters to ask that their husbands be whipped for striking them.

The evidence on these matters, even from the slave narratives, is fragmentary, but what it suggests is that the men asserted their authority as best they could; that the women expected to have to defer to their husbands in certain matters; and that both tried hard to keep the master out of their lives. The conditions were unfavorable, and perhaps many men did succumb and in one way or another became emasculated. But we might also reflect on the ways in which black men and women conspired to maintain their own sense of dignity and their own autonomy by settling things among themselves and thereby asserting their own personalities.

Black women have often been praised—and justly so—for their strength and determination in holding their families together during slavery, when the man was supposedly put aside or rendered irrelevant. It is time, I think, to praise them for another thing which large numbers of them seem to have been able to do: to support a man they loved in ways deep enough and varied enough to help him to resist the mighty forces for dehumanization and emasculation. Without the support of their women, not many black men could have survived; but with it—and there is plenty of testimony that they often had it—many could and did.

If our failure to see the plantation from the vantage point of the slave quarters has led us to substitute abstractions for research on the slave family, so has it saddled us with unsubstantiated and erroneous ideas on house slaves. According to the legend, house slaves were the Uncle. Toms of the system—a privileged caste apart, contemptuous of the field hands, jealous of their place in the affection or at least attention of the white master and mistress, and generally sellouts, “white man’s niggers.” Like most stereotypes this one has its kernel of truth; there were indeed many house slaves who fit the description. But in 1860 roughly half the slaves in the South lived on farms of twenty or fewer slaves; another 25 percent lived on plantations of between twenty and fifty slaves. Only 25 percent, in other words, lived on plantations of fifty or more, and of these, the majority lived on units of fewer than 100—that is, on units of fewer than twenty slave families. In short, the typical house slave worked either on a small farm or, at best, on a moderate-sized plantation. Only a few lived and worked on plantations large enough to permit the formation of a separate group of house slaves—of enough house slaves to form a caste unto themselves.

The idea of the fancy-dressed, uppity, self-inflated house slave who despised the field blacks and identified with the whites derives from those who lived in the towns and cities like Charleston, New Orleans, Natchez, and Richmond. These town house slaves and a small group of privileged house slaves on huge plantations could and sometimes did form a separate caste having the qualities attributed to them by the literature. Certainly the big planters and their families, who left most of the white family records that have been the major source, would likely have remembered precisely these slaves. Even these blacks deserve a more careful look than they have received, for they were much more complicated people than we have been led to believe. The important point, however, is that the typical house slave was far removed from this condition. He, or more likely she, worked with perhaps one to three or four others on an estate too small to permit any such caste formation.

If the typical house slave was an Uncle Tom and a spoiled child of the whites, then we need to be told just why so many of them turn up in the records of runaways. There is abundant evidence from the war years. We hear much about the faithful retainers who held the Yankees off from the Big House, or protected young missus, or hid the family silver. Such types were not at all rare. But they do not appear to have been nearly so numerous as those house slaves who joined the field slaves in fleeing to the Yankee lines when the opportunity arose.

The best sources on this point are the letters and diaries of the planters themselves who were shocked at the defection of their favorite slaves. From a vast body of published and unpublished writing by Southern whites on their war experience we learn that they could readily understand the defection of the field hands, whom they considered stupid and easily led, but were unable to account for the flight—with expressions sometimes of regret and sometimes of anger and hatred—of their house slaves. They had always thought that they knew these blacks, loved them, were loved by them; and they considered them part of the family. One day they learned that they had been deceiving themselves, that they had been living intimately with people they did not know at all. The house slaves, when the opportunity presented itself, responded with the same range of behavior as did the field slaves: they proved themselves to be just as often rebellious and independent as docile and loyal.

This display of independence really was nothing new. If it is true that house slaves were often regarded as traitors to the black cause during slave rebellions, it is also true that their appearance in those rebellions was not so rare as we are led to believe. Consider the evidence from the abortive slave rebellion led by Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822. One slave leader, in an often quoted remark, said not to trust the house slaves because they were too closely tied to the whites, and, indeed, several house slaves did turn informers. But we ought also to note that some of the toughest and most devoted leaders of Vesey’s rebellion were themselves house slaves. Indeed, the greatest scandal was the role played by the most trusted slaves of the governor of South Carolina.

Certainly, the role of the house slave was always ambiguous and often treacherous. But if many house slaves betrayed their fellows, many others collected information in the Big House and passed it on to the quarters. We know how well-informed the field slaves were about movements of Yankee troops during the war; we know that these field slaves fled to the Yankee lines with uncanny accuracy in timing and direction. Probably no group was more influential in providing the necessary information than those same house slaves who are so often denigrated.

  1. 3

    Herbert Gutman has presented several papers to scholarly meetings and is close to completing a major book on the historical development of the black family from slavery to World War I. I am indebted to him for allowing me to see the manuscript in progress and for discussing the data with me.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print