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A Special Supplement: American Slaves and Their History

The decision of slaves, whether house slaves or not, to protect whites during slave insurrections or other catastrophes, hardly proves them to have been Toms. The master-slave relationship, especially when it occurred in the intimacies of the Big House, was always profoundly ambivalent. Many of the same slaves who protected their masters and mistresses from harm and thereby asserted their own humanity were anything but docile creatures of the whites.

Since most house slaves worked on estates too small for a separate existence, their social life was normally down in the slave quarters and not apart or with the whites. Women usually predominated in the house, and even when they did not, the group was too small for natural pairing off. A large number of house slaves married field hands, or more likely the more skilled artisans or workers. Under such circumstances, the line between house slaves and field hands was not sharp for most slaves. Except on the really large plantations, house slaves were expected to help out in the fields during picking season and during emergencies. The average house slave got a periodic taste of field work and had little opportunity to cultivate airs.

There are two general features to the question of house slaves that deserve comment: first, there is the ambiguity of their situation and its resultant ambivalence toward whites; the other is the significance of the house slave in the formation of a distinctly Afro-American culture. The one point I should insist upon in any analysis of the house slave is ambivalence. It is impossible to think of people, black and white, slave and master, thrown together in the intimacy of the Big House without realizing that they had to emerge loving and hating each other.

Life together meant sharing pains and problems, confiding secrets, having company when no one else would do, being forced to help one another in a multitude of ways. It also meant experiencing in common, but in tragically opposite ways, the full force of lordship and bondage: that is, the full force of petty tyranny imposed by one woman on another; of expecting someone to be at one’s beck and call regardless of her own feelings and wishes; of being able to take out one’s frustrations and disappointments on an innocent bystander, who would no doubt be guilty enough of something since servants are always falling short of expectations.

To illustrate the complexity of black slave behavior in the Big House, let us take a single illustration. It is typical in that it catches the ambiguity of those enmeshed and yet hostile lives. Beyond that it is of course unique, as is all individual experience. Eliza L. Magruder was the niece of a deceased planter and politician from the Natchez, Mississippi, region and went to live with her aunt Olivia, who managed the old plantation herself. Eliza kept a diary for the years 1846 and 1847 and then again for 1854 to 1857.4 She may have kept a diary for the intermittent years, but none has been found. In any case, she has a number of references to a slave woman, Annica, and a few to another, Lavinia. We have here four women, two white and two black, two mistresses and two servants, thrown together in a single house and forced on one another’s company all year long, year after year.

On August 17, 1846, Eliza wrote in her diary more or less in passing, “Aunt Olivia whipped Annica for obstinacy.” This chastisement had followed incidents in which Annica had been “impudent.” About a month later, on September 11, Annica took another whipping—for “obstinacy.” Eliza appears to have been a bit squeamish, for her tone, if we read it correctly, suggests that she was not accustomed to witnessing such unpleasantness. On January 24, 1847, she confided to her diary, “I feel badly. Got very angry and whipped Lavinia. O! for government over my temper.” But as the world progresses, so did Eliza’s fortitude in the face of others’ adversity. When her diary resumed in 1854, she had changed slightly: the squeamishness had diminished. Annica had not changed: she remained her old, saucy self. October 26, 1854: “Boxed Annica’s ears for impertinence.”

Punctuated by this war of wills, daily life went on. Annica’s mother lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and mother and daughter kept in touch. Since Annica could neither read nor write, Eliza served as her helpmate and confidante. December 5, 1854: “I wrote for Annica to her mother.” Annica’s mother wrote back in due time, no doubt to Annica’s satisfaction, but also to her discomfiture. As Eliza observed on January 25, 1855, “Annica got a letter from her mammy which detected her in a lie. O! that negroes generally were more truthful.” So we ought not to be surprised that Eliza could write without a trace of the old squeamishness on July 11, 1855, “I whipt Annica.”

The impertinent Annica remained undaunted. November 29, 1855: “Aunt Olivia gave Annica a good scolding and made her ask my pardon and will punish her otherwise.” Perhaps we should conclude that Annica’s behavior had earned the undying enmity of the austere white ladies, but some doubts may be permitted. On July 24, 1856, several of their neighbors set out on a trip to Jackson, Mississippi, where, it will be recalled, Annica’s mother lived. Aunt Olivia, with Eliza’s concurrence, sent Annica along for a two-week holiday and provided ten dollars for her expenses. On August 3, Annica returned home in time for breakfast.

On September 4, 1856, “Annica was very impertinent, and I boxed her ears.” Three days later, wrote Eliza, “I kept Annica in in the afternoon for impudence.” The next day (September 8) Eliza told Aunt Olivia about Annica’s misconduct. “She reproved her for it and will I suppose punish her in some way.” Again in November, on the tenth day of the month, “Aunt Olivia whipt Annica for impertinence.”

At this point, after a decade of impudence, impertinence, obstinacy, whipping, and ear-boxing, one might expect that Annica would have been dispatched to the cotton fields. But she remained in the Big House. And what shall we make of such an incident as occurred on the night of December 29, 1856, when poor Annica was ill and in great pain? It is not so much that Eliza sat up with her, doing what she could; it is rather that she seemed both concerned and conscious of performing a simple duty. On the assumption that the illness left Annica weak for a while, Eliza of course still had Lavinia. January 30, 1857: “I boxed Lavinia’s ears for coming up late when I told her not.”

On April 23, 1857, Annica greatly pleased Eliza by making her a white bonnet. But by April 26, Annica was once again making trouble: “Aunt Olivia punished Annica by keeping her in her room all afternoon.” And the next day: “Aunt Olivia had had Annica locked up in the garret all day. I pray it may humble her and make further punishment unnecessary.”

On August 18, 1857, “Aunt Olivia held a court of enquiry, but didn’t find out who ripped my pattern.” There is no proof that Annica did it; still, one wonders. Two weeks later in Miss Eliza’s Sunday school, “Annica was strongly tempted to misbehave. I brought her in however.” The entries end here.

Let us suppose that the ladies had carried their household into the war years: What then? It would take little imagination to see Annica’s face and to hear her tone as she marched into the kitchen to announce her departure for the federal lines. It would not even take much imagination to see her burning the house down. Yet she seems never to have been violent, and we should not be too quick to assume that she would easily have left the only home that she had known as an adult and the women who wrote letters to her mamma, exchanged confidences with her, and stayed up with her on feverish nights. The only thing we can be sure of is that she remained impudent to the day she died.

What I think this anecdote demonstrates above all is the ambivalence of relations in the Big House and the stubborn struggle for individuality that house slaves, with or without the whip, were capable of. Yet it may also hint at another side of their experience and thereby help to explain why so many black militants, like so many historians before them, are quick to condemn the whole house-slave legacy as one to be exorcized. The house slaves were indeed close to the whites, and of all the black groups they exhibit the most direct adherence to certain white cultural standards. In their religious practices, their dress, their manners, their prejudices, they were undoubtedly the slave group most influenced by Euro-American culture. But this kind of cultural accommodationism was by no means the same thing as docility or Uncle Tomism. Even a relatively assimilated house slave could and normally did strike back, assert independence, and resist arbitrariness and oppression.

We are today accustomed to thinking of black nationalists as “militants” and civil rights integrationists as “moderates,” “conservatives,” or something worse. Yet Dr. Martin Luther King and his followers were and are militant integrationists, prepared to give up their lives for their people; on the other hand, there are plenty of black nationalists who are anything but militant. The tension between integration and separatism has always rent the black community, but now it has led us to confuse questions of militancy with those of nationalism. In fact, the combinations vary; there is no convincing way to categorize integrationists or separationists as either militant or accommodating. Field hands or house slaves could be either docile, “accommodating,” or rebellious, and it is likely that most were all at once.

If today the house slaves have a bad press, it is largely because of their cultural assimilationism, from which it is erroneously deduced that they were docile. The first point may be well-taken; the second is not. LeRoi Jones, for example, in his brilliant book, Blues People, argues convincingly that field slaves had forged the rudiments of a distinct Afro-American culture, whereas the house slaves largely took over the culture of the whites. He writes primarily about black music, but he might easily extend his analysis to language and other fields. There are clearly two ways of looking at this side of the house-slave experience. On the one hand, the house slaves reinforced white culture in the slave quarters; they were one of the Americanizing elements in the black community; on the other hand, they wittingly or unwittingly served as agents of white repression of an indigenous Afro-American national culture.

Of course, both these statements are really the same; it is merely that they differ in their implicit judgments. But we ought to remember that this role did not reduce the house slaves who were in their own way often rebellious and independent in their behavior. Therefore, even these slaves, notwithstanding their assimilationist outlook and action, also contributed in no small degree to the tradition of survival and resistance to oppression that today inspires the black liberation movement.

If today we are inclined to accept uncritically the contemptuous attitude that some critics have toward the house slave, we might ponder the reflections of the great black pianist, Cecil Taylor. Taylor was speaking in the mid-1960s—a century after slavery—but he was speaking of his father in a way that I think applies to what might be said of house slaves. Taylor was talking to A. B. Spellman, as reported in Spellman’s book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business:

Music to me was in a way holding on to Negro culture, because there wasn’t much of it around. My father has a great store of knowledge about black folklore. He could talk about how it was with the slaves in the 1860’s, about the field shouts and hollers, about myths of black people…. He worked out in Long Island for a State Senator. He was a house servant and a chef at the Senator’s sanatorium for wealthy mental wrecks. And actually it was my father more than the Senator himself who raised the Senator’s children….

And I really used to get dragged at my father for talking such shit off these people. I didn’t dig his being a house servant. I really didn’t understand my old man; well, you’re my generation and you know the difference between us and our fathers. Like, they had to be strong men to take what they took. But of course we didn’t see it that way. So that I feel now that I really didn’t understand my father, who was a really lovely cat. He used to tell me to stay cool, not to get excited. He had a way of letting other people display their emotions while keeping control of his own. People used to say to me, “Cecil, you’ll never be the gentleman your father was.” That’s true. My father was quite a gentleman…. I wish that I had taken down more about all that he knew about black folklore, because that’s lost too; he died in 1961.

Finally, we must consider another misunderstood group of slaves—the drivers. These black slave foremen were chosen by the master to work under his direction or that of an overseer and to keep the hands moving. They would rouse the field slaves in the morning and check their cabins at night; would take responsibility for their performance; and often would be the ones to lay the whip across their backs. In the existing literature the drivers appear as ogres, monsters, betrayers, and sadists. Sometimes they were. Yet Mrs. Willie Lee Rose, in her book, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, notes that it was the drivers in the Sea Islands who kept the plantations together after the masters had fled the approach of the Yankees, who kept up discipline, and who led the blacks during those difficult days.

Now, it is obvious that if the drivers were as they are reported to have been, they would have had their throats cut as soon as their white protectors had left. In my own researches for the war years I have found repeatedly, almost monotonously, that when the slaves fled the plantations or else took over plantations deserted by the whites, the drivers emerged as the leaders. Moreover, the runaway records from the North and from Canada reveal that a number of drivers were among those who successfully escaped the South.

One clue to the actual state of affairs may be found in the agricultural journals for which many planters and overseers wrote about plantation matters. Overseers often complained bitterly that masters trusted their drivers more than they trusted them. They charged that often overseers would be fired at the drivers’ instigation and that, in general, masters were too close to their drivers and too hostile and suspicious toward their white overseers. The planters did not deny the charges; rather, they admitted them and defended themselves by arguing that the drivers were slaves who had earned their trust and that they had to have some kind of check on their overseers. Overseers were changed every two or three years on most plantations whereas drivers remained in their jobs endlessly. Usually any given driver remained in his position while a parade of overseers came and went.

It had to be so. The slaves had to be controlled if production was to be on schedule, but only romantics would think that a whip alone could effect the result. The actual amount of work done and the quality of life on the plantation were a consequence of a compromise between masters and slaves. It was a grossly unfair and one-sided compromise, with the master holding a big edge. But the slaves did not simply lie down and take whatever came. They had their own ways of foot-dragging, dissembling, delaying, and sabotaging.

The role of the driver was to minimize the friction by mediating between the Big House and the quarters. On the one hand he was the master’s man: he obeyed orders, inflicted punishments, and stood for authority and discipline. On the other hand, he could and did tell the master that the overseer was too harsh, too irregular; that he was incapable of holding the respect of the hands; that he was a bungler. The slaves generally knew just how much they had to put up with under a barbarous labor system but they also knew what even that system regarded as going too far. The driver was their voice in the Big House as he was the master’s voice in the quarters.

Former slaves tell us of drivers who were sadistic monsters, but they also tell us of drivers who did everything possible to soften punishments and to protect the slaves as best they could. It was an impossible situation, but there is little evidence that drivers were generally hated by the field hands.

The selection of a driver was a difficult matter for a master. First, the driver had to be a strong man, capable of bullying rather than of being bullied. Second he had to be uncommonly intelligent and capable of understanding a good deal about plantation management. A driver had to command respect in the quarters. It would be possible to get along for a while with a brutal driver who could rule by fear, but, generally, planters understood that respect and acquiescence were as important as fear and that a driver had to do more than make others afraid of him. It was then necessary to pick a man who had leadership qualities in the eyes of the slaves.

The drivers commanded respect in various ways. Sometimes they became preachers among the slaves and got added prestige that way. Sometimes, possibly quite often, they acted as judge and jury in the quarters. Disputes among slaves arose often, generally about women and family matters. If there were fights or bitter quarrels and if they were called to the attention of the overseer or the master, the end would be a whipping for one or more participants. Under such circumstances, the driver was the natural choice of the slaves themselves to arbitrate knotty problems. With such roles in and out of the quarters, it is no wonder that so many drivers remained leaders during and after the war, when the blacks had the choice of discarding them and following others.

Every kind of plantation had two kinds of so-called “bad niggers.” The first kind were those so designated by the masters because they were recalcitrant. The second kind were those so designated by the slaves themselves. These were slaves who may or may not have troubled the master directly but were a problem to their fellow slaves because they stole, or bullied, or abused other men’s women. The driver was in a position to know what was happening in the quarters and to intervene to protect weaker or more timid slaves against these bullies. In short, the driver’s position was highly ambiguous and on balance was probably more often than not positive from the slaves’ point of view. Whatever the intentions of the master, even in the selection of his own foremen—his own men, as it were—the slaves generally were not passive, not objects, but active agents who helped to shape events, even if within narrow limits and with great difficulty.

We know that there were not many slave revolts in the South and that those that did occur were small and local. There were good reasons for the low incidence of rebellion: In general, the balance of forces was such that revolt meant suicide. Under such conditions, black slaves struggled to live as much as possible on their own terms. If their actions were less bombastic and heroic than romantic historians would like us to believe, they were nonetheless impressive in their assertion of their resourcefulness and dignity, and a strong sense of self and community. Had they not been, the fate of black America after emancipation would have been even grimmer than it was. For the most part the best that the slaves could do was to live, not merely physically but with as much inner autonomy as was humanly possible.

Every man has his own judgment of heroism, but the kind of heroism alluded to by Cecil Taylor in his moving tribute to his father is worth recalling. There are moments in the history of every people—and sometimes these historical moments are centuries—in which they cannot do more than succeed in keeping themselves together and maintaining a sense of individual dignity and collective identity. Slavery was such a moment for black people in America, and their performance during it bequeathed a legacy that combined negative elements to be exorcized5 with the decisive elements of community and self-discipline. If one were to tax even the privileged house slaves or drivers with the question, “Where were you when your people were groaning under the lash,” they could, if they chose, answer with a paraphrase of the Abbé Sieyès, but proudly and without his cynicism, “We were with our people, and together we survived.”


Black Culture April 22, 1971

  1. 4

    Ms. diary in Louisiana State University library, Baton Rouge, La.

  2. 5

    I have discussed some of these negative features in “The Legacy of Slavery and the Roots of Black Nationalism,” Studies on the Left VI (Nov-Dec., 1966), 3-26. I stand by much of what I wrote there, but the essay is doubtless greatly weakened by a failure to appreciate black slave culture and its political implications. As a result, the political story I tried to tell is dangerously distorted. Still, that legacy of slavishness remains an important part of the story, and I think I identified some of its features correctly. I am indebted to many colleagues and friends for their criticism, without which I could not have arrived at the reconsiderations on which the present essay is based; in particular, the criticism of George Rawick has been indispensable.

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