Whatever else the civil rights movement of the 1960s may have accomplished or failed to accomplish, it at least liberated Afro-Americans from historical invisibility. As recently as 1965, the dean of American historians produced a best-selling history of the United States in which black leaders and cultural achievements received scarcely more attention than horses and horse-raising. It is hard to imagine such a thing happening again. Not only has black history gained academic respectability, but it has even become a preoccupation of the press and television.
Most of this burgeoning interest has focused on the slave experience. Everyone now seems to agree that the struggle of Afro-Americans to survive under servitude was not only an important episode in American history but somehow even a glorious one. But the exact nature of this struggle and the question of how the white masters influenced its outcome remain matters of great controversy among historians. Every year or so the discussion seems to take a new turn. In 1974, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman offered a radical reinterpretation of these issues by using elaborate quantitative methods. In 1976 the work of Herbert Gutman, ostensibly more modest and specialized than that of his immediate predecessors, promises to force still another rethinking of the meaning of the Afro-American slave experience.
To understand the significance of what Gutman has done, it may be useful to review the modern debate on the impact of enslavement on black culture and personality. The debate really began in earnest in the early to mid Sixties when there was a delayed reaction to a book published without fanfare in 1959—Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Since Elkins stressed the harshness of servitude and its allegedly devastating effect on the black personality, he had little reason to anticipate the ideological storm that his work would eventually provoke. For in the late Fifties there was general agreement among liberal historians and sociologists—both white and black—that an emphasis on victimization was the best reply to the racist argument of innate inferiority and might also serve to counter the view, still enshrined in most textbooks, that slavery was a beneficent institution—a kind of school for the civilization of primitive Africans, where kindly masters presided over the Americanization of contented slaves. But Elkins planted the seeds of controversy by likening the slave plantation to a Nazi concentration camp and arguing that such a totalitarian institution tended to reduce its victims to childlike dependency. He thus gave a new environmentalist sanction to an old and unflattering black stereotype—the grinning, shuffling “Sambo” of pro-slavery lore.
Initial criticisms of Elkins’s work came mainly from orthodox historians who objected to his freewheeling use of hypotheses derived from the behavioral sciences more than to his conclusions. But the book was …