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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.

We tend to think of someone who aspires to be a good slave as an Uncle Tom, and maybe we should. But human beings are not so simple. If a slave aspires to a certain excellence within the system, and if his implicit trust in the generous response of the master is betrayed, as often it must be in such a system, then he is likely to be transformed into a rebel. If so, he is likely to become the most dangerous kind of rebel, first because of his smashed illusions and second because of the skills and self-control he taught himself while he was an Uncle Tom. The historical record is full of people who were model slaves right up until the moment they killed their overseer, ran away, burned down the Big House, or joined an insurrection.

So what can be said about the decidedly non-Christian element in the religion of the slave quarters? The planters tell us repeatedly in their memoirs and letters that every plantation had its conjurer, its voodoo man, its witch doctor. To the planters this meant a residue of African superstition, and it is of course possible that by the 1830s all that remained in the slave quarters were local superstitions rather than continuing elements of the highly sophisticated religions originally brought from Africa. But the evidence suggests the emergence of an indigenous and unique combination of African and European religious ideas, adapted to the specific conditions of slave life by talented and imaginative individuals, and representing an attempt to establish a spiritual life adequate to the task of linking the slaves with the powerful culture of the masters while providing for a high degree of separation and cultural autonomy.

When we know enough of this story we shall know a good deal about the way in which the culture of an oppressed people develops. We often hear the expression “defenseless slaves,” but, although any individual at any given moment may be defenseless, a whole people rarely if ever is. A people may be on the defensive and dangerously exposed, but it often finds its own ways to survive and fight back. The trouble is that we keep looking for overt rebellious actions—a strike, a revolt, a murder, arson, tool-breaking—and often fail to realize that in given conditions and at particular times the wisdom of a people and their experience in struggle may dictate a different course, one of keeping together. From this point of view, the most ignorant of the field slaves who followed the conjurer on the plantation was saying no to the boss and seeking a form of cultural autonomy. That the conjurer may in any one case have been a fraud and even a kind of extortionist, and in another case a genuine popular religious leader is, from this point of view, of little importance.

Let us take the family as an illustration. Slave law refused to recognize slave marriages and family ties. In this respect United States slavery was far worse than Spanish American or Luso-Brazilian slavery. In those Catholic cultures the Church demanded and tried to guarantee that slaves be permitted to marry and that the sanctity of the slave family be upheld. As a result, generations of American historians have concluded that American slaves had no family life and that Cuban and Brazilian slaves did.

This judgment will not bear examination. The slave trade to the United States was closed early: no later than 1808—except for some cases of smuggling which are statistically insignificant—and in fact decades earlier for most states. The rise of the Cotton Kingdom and the great period of slavery expansion followed the closing of the slave trade. Slavery, in the numbers we are accustomed to thinking of, was a product of the period following the end of African importations. The slave force that was liberated during and after the War for Southern Independence was overwhelmingly a slave force born and raised in this country.

We have good statistics on the rate of increase of that slave population and there can be no doubt that it compared roughly to that of the whites—apart from the factor of immigration—and that, furthermore, it was unique among New World plantation slave classes. An early end to the slave trade, followed by a boom in cotton and plantation slavery, dictated a policy of encouraging slave births. In contrast, the slave trade remained open to Cuba and to Brazil until the second half of the nineteenth century; as a result, there was little economic pressure to encourage family life and slave-raising. In Brazil and Cuba far more men than women were imported from Africa until late in the history of the respective slave regimes; in the Old South a rough sexual parity was established fairly early. If, therefore, religion and law militated in favor of slave families in Cuba and Brazil and against them in the Old South, economic pressure worked in reverse. The result was a self-reproducing slave force in the United States and nowhere else, so far as the statistics reveal.

It may be objected that the outcome could have reflected selective breeding rather than family stability. But selective breeding was tried in the Caribbean and elsewhere and never worked; there is no evidence that it was ever tried on a large scale in the South. Abolitionists charged that Virginia and Maryland deliberately raised slaves—not merely encouraged but actually fostered slave breeding. There is, however, no evidence for slave breeding on a significant scale. If slave-raising farms existed and if the planters were not complete fools, they would have concentrated on recruiting women of childbearing age and used a relatively small number of studs. Sample studies of major slave-exporting counties in Virginia and Maryland show no significant deviations from the patterns in Mississippi or other slave-buying regions.

It is clear that Virginia and Maryland—and other states as well—exported their natural increase for some decades before the war. But this was a process, not a policy. It reflected the economic pressures to supplement a waning income from agriculture by occasional slave sales; it was not incompatible with the encouragement of slave families and in fact reinforced it. Similarly, planters in the cotton states could not work their slaves to death and then buy fresh ones, for prices were too high. They had been too high from the very moment the Cotton Kingdom began its westward march and, therefore, a tradition of slavekilling never did take root. As time went on, the pressures mounted to provide slaves with enough material and even psychological satisfaction to guarantee the minimum morale needed for reproduction.

These standards of treatment—food, living space, time off, etc.—became part of the prevailing standard of decency, not easily violated by greedy slaveholders. In some respects the American slave system may have been the worst in the world, as many writers insist. But in purely material terms, it was probably the best, for the evidence left by participants, travelers, and official reports shows that American slaves were generally better fed, clothed, housed, and worked than those of Cuba, Jamaica, Brazil, or elsewhere.

But the important thing here is that the prevailing standard of decency was not easily violated because the slaves had come to understand their own position. If a master wished to keep his plantation going, he had to learn the limits of his slaves’ endurance. If, for example, he decided to ignore the prevailing custom of giving Sundays off or of giving an extended Christmas holiday, his slaves would feel sorely tried and would certainly pay him back with one or another form of destruction. The slaves remained in a weak position, but they were rarely completely helpless, and by guile, brute courage, and a variety of other devices they taught every master just where the line was he dared not cross if he wanted a crop. In precisely this way, slaves took up the masters’ interest in their family life and turned it to account. The typical plantation in the Upper South and the Lower was organized by family units. Man and wife lived together with children, and to a considerable degree the man was in fact the man in the house.

Whites violated black family life in several ways. Many families were disrupted by slave sales, especially in the Upper South where economic pressures were strong; white men on the plantations could and often did violate black women: nothing can minimize these injustices. The frequency of sales is extremely hard to measure. Many slaves were troublesome and sold many times over; this inflated the total number of sales but obscured the incidence of individual transfers.

The crimes against black people are a matter of record, and no qualifications can soften their impact. But it is not at all certain that most slaves did not live stable married lives in the quarters despite the pressures of the market. I do not wish to take up the vexing question of the violation of black women here, but certainly there was enough of it to justify the anger of those who condemned the regime on this ground alone. The evidence, however, does not warrant an assumption that a large percentage of black plantation women were so violated. In other words, for a judgment on the moral quality of the regime, the problem was extremely important; for an assessment of the normal life of the slaves it was much less so.

What the sources show—both the plantation diaries and record books and letters of the masters and also the reports of runaway slaves and exslaves—is that the average plantation slave lived in a family setting, developed strong family ties, and held the nuclear family as the proper social norm. It is true that planters who often had to excuse others, or even themselves, for breaking up families by sale, would sometimes argue that blacks did not really form deep and lasting attachments, that they lacked a strong family sense, that they were naturally promiscuous, and so forth. Abolitionists and former slaves would reinforce the prevalent notion by saying that slavery was so horrible no real family tie could be maintained. Since planters, abolitionists, and former slaves all said the same thing, it has usually been taken as the truth. Only it was not.

In the first place, these various sources also say the opposite, which we rarely notice. Planters agonized over the breakup of families and repeatedly expressed regrets and dismay. Often, they went to great lengths to keep families together at considerable expense, for they knew how painful it was to enforce separations. Whether they were motivated by such material considerations as maintaining plantation morale or by more lofty sentiments is beside the point. They often demonstrated that they knew very well how strong the family ties were in the quarters. Planters encouraged the slaves to live together in stable units, for they recognized that a man was easier to control if he had a wife and children to worry about.

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.

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.”

Letters

Black Culture April 22, 1971

  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.

  3. 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.

  4. 4

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

  5. 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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