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A History of Endurance

Saying what Nathan Huggins’s new book on the Afro-American experience is not may help to define what it is. It is not sociology, psychology, or anthropology, though there are significant insights gleaned from these disciplines, and large sections of the book read much like the more successful popular works in those fields. Black Odyssey is not a novel nor is it poetry, but the passion of its language suggests the freedom and personal involvement of those arts. Black Odyssey, by a black historian who teaches at Columbia, is a history of the enslavement of Africans and their experience as slaves in America, but it definitely reflects a new approach to the subject. What is one to make of a work of history without footnotes, with no direct quotations, few specific names of individuals, and fewer dates and specific deeds? What is one to make of a work on American slavery under 250 pages?

Black Odyssey works as history, however, and may be best described as an essay in explanation, even justification. The deepest hard questions we ask about the slave experience are elemental, after all, like those we may have concerning birth and death, suffering and injustice, and are best answered in consultation with the verities of human nature as it must have existed in some specific historical setting. What was it really like to have been a slave? What emotions and feelings would we have had, had we been there? Huggins is helpful here. “Onward the road turned, meeting rivers that flowed further still. At some moment, all one’s imprecations, all one’s pleas to ancestors, all one’s evoking of spirits, sound in the ears as the hollowness of one’s own voice. At such a moment, he [the captive] would sense the most dreadful meaning in what had happened. He was alone, abandoned by all he knew that could have given him support and anchor: village, family, and even his gods.” By such means Huggins endeavors to bring his readers within the emotion of the experience he describes.

Such identification in thought and feeling has been difficult for historians to achieve with more orthodox means than Huggins has employed, and there are few works similarly successful and equally honest to the facts of human experience. Oscar Handlin’s classic The Uprooted, deservedly famous for its compassionate reconstruction through their letters of the experience of America’s immigrants in transit from their European peasant communities, comes promptly to mind. There are few others. One may wish for Huggins’s work the readers Handlin’s has had, for Black Odyssey is, like The Uprooted, an honest achievement in the popularization of history. It explains difficult matters with art and economy, and helps to fill an obligation that professional scholars have often neglected.

Most popular history deserves the bad name it has with serious scholars, for it follows the popular perception of truth to where it already stands, put there often enough by novels or semi-fictionalized works, rather than helping to direct that perception to a deeper reality. Huggins is concerned with a deeper reality, and it is clear that he has read the works of the most thorough scholars, that he has traveled in Africa and learned from the experience, that he has read the records slaves left of their trials. Without distorting the facts as he understands them, and he is a discerning scholar, Huggins then draws his readers toward an emotional comprehension of the “odyssey” he describes.

Readers of Alex Haley’s Roots, whose number must be legion, will grasp that this is precisely the “odyssey” the author assigned to young Kunta Kinte and his descendants. But where Haley, in his largely fictionalized section on Africa, described a Garden of Eden, where there was no sin before the Fall, Huggins has felt no need to do so. Yet his Africa is no less poignantly missed by his “everyman” whose journey we follow, ripped from the web of life in which his meaning is defined by his relations with others. “Severed from his intrinsic value” the captive sensed himself to be “an abstraction” lost with others in “a sea of the miserable and lost.” But to Huggins that loss shared by all Africans was one basis for unity in the new culture of the Afro-American. In these basic interpretations Huggins’s history differs not too widely from Haley’s African chapters, but Huggins answers harder questions. If we are not well read on the subject and therefore “stunned at the irony of black men serving as agents for the enslavement of blacks to whites,” Huggins shows us that the merchants saw themselves as “selling people other than their own,” because “the distinctions of tribe were more real to them than race, a concept that was yet to be refined by nineteenth-and twentieth-century Western rationalists.” Huggins reveals African communities sophisticated enough to be as cruel to those of other nations as warring Europeans could be.

Once begun, the slave trade proved “circular and invidious” for the peoples of West Africa, for they depended on the guns traded to them for slaves to defend themselves from others bent on the same business. Huggins makes no claim that there was no cupidity in this. Power and wealth were simply calculated differently in a traditional society, where the chief or merchant would see them as “personal, not societal,” where his having power would be shown to him by the “ceremonial reverence of others…and the continued accumulation of material possessions. To have wealth, to use it, to destroy it, were all symbols of power, and it was either in luxury and dissipation or in gross avarice that wealth and power were enjoyed most.” For the Europeans value had begun to be calculated in different ways. “Capitalists all, they made a distinction between a simple thing and one that produces other things, that creates wealth.”

This concept, “spectral and impalpable” to the traditionalist African, was “founded on credit and investment,” and the African did not see what a bad exchange he made in trading men, women, and children, with the power to create wealth, for “guns, ammunition and powder, pots and pans, beads and cloth.” It is the willingness to explore and explain the difficult questions without hypocrisy, and without patronizing readers, that lends special interest to a work designed “to touch wherever possible the emotional and spiritual essence” of the Afro-American ordeal. If there are modern Americans, for instance, who feel any lingering resentment that there were so few revolts against the oppressors, Huggins explains the obstacles fully, not only those of isolation and weakness, but the emotional obstacles presented by the slow but certain adaptation of the Afro-American to the new situation in which he found himself. He learned to extract some joy from life under the most adverse circumstances, to raise his family, worship in community with others, to create songs and beautiful objects for the enjoyment of others. Huggins conveys the changing times that brought a more settled way of life to the late antebellum era, when for many slaves their lives held enough satisfaction to discourage foolish risk-taking.

No longer were slaves an alien, displaced, or wandering people. The slaves and the land, their lives and labor, had come to belong to one another, like all serfs and peasants, ironically more a part of the country than those who owned them both. They were the land’s, while the land belonged to their masters.

Manipulating this more settled situation in order to secure more privileges, more space for himself, became the slave’s main objective and the primary means of resisting the forces arrayed against his humanity. A wise slave learned how to manage his owner in subtle ways, encouraging dependency upon himself for daily decisions, exploiting his knowledge of the owner’s weaknesses and vanities. In this way it sometimes turned out that the slave, on his own part, did some “breaking in” of the slaveholders to new tasks or obligations.

This view of human relations under slavery is not novel, or original with Huggins. It could in fact be described as a new orthodoxy for explaining the cultural achievements of black Americans under slavery, the maintenance of family, religious community, even parallel population growth with whites. All these achievements seem incredible under the view, once widely held, that stressed mainly the physical repression of slaves and their narrow range of opportunity. But for Huggins this historical view carries no credit to the slaveholders who allowed themselves to be manipulated, and his is no soft judgment of a society priding itself on “free” institutions yet tolerating slavery, indeed protecting it firmly in its constitution. Slavery should be called by its proper name, tyranny, insists Huggins, for then we shall be able to honor not only those who forcibly resisted their bonds at the cost of life, but those who endured and insisted on their own humanity as well.

There may be slight elements of internal contradiction in Huggins’s argument here, for some would hold that there is only one way to deal with tyranny. On closer view, however, the inconsistencies tend to resolve themselves, for it is clear that the tyranny so thoroughgoing in legal terms, and so throughly exploited in certain instances, was not, on a day-to-day basis, for most slaves, exercised so as to create the desperation of despair. In one of the best sections of this book, Huggins begins by observing that slaves had motives plentiful enough to justify rebellions to any number, but that when slaves broke their bonds by running away or other means, and left a record, they gave as their reason some sense of their master’s having betrayed them in some special way. Theirs was a devotion to a perceived sense of duty, from which they released themselves when the mutuality of obligation, as they understood it, was broken. Religion no doubt contributed to this, though Huggins does not believe that the slaves were blind to the self-serving qualities of the teachings of the white man’s religion. “Contrary to St. Paul, their duty was not to their master; their duty was to do right.” Huggins observes further that “a stoical ethic was appropriate to a people whose lives were defined in terms of limits, restraints, and pain.”

The broad sweep of Huggins’s theme, and the brevity of his treatment, has often forced him to choose between conflicting interpretations without allowing space for full explanations of the reasons, something we should expect in a more conventional historical monograph. Occasionally his choice raises a question. While preferring economic explanations for most developments in the rise of the slave trade and its entrenchment in British North America, Huggins clearly believes that religion and culture account more heavily for the limits of slavery in the New England colonies than economic forces. Anxiety to preserve the community, the city on the hill, and the integrity of family against the corrupting influences of an enslaved labor force prevented the New England imagination from devising ways and means to exploit such labor. “The way could have been found had there been the will.”

One wonders. Huggins makes no claim that it was a conviction that slavery was wrong that stood in the way, for trading in slaves went forward briskly. Others have shown that the Puritans did not hesitate to sell the Indian children taken in King Philip’s War. Huggins is doubtless right in assigning racist views to the founders of the Bay colony. But one wonders whether they might not have accommodated to slavery had there been the demand for cheap agricultural labor present in more fertile regions. Plantations could hardly have developed in the rocky and uneven New England terrain, and slave labor went with plantations. The slave on board ship was simply worth a higher price in the region where he could be made most productive. The future thrust of slavery into the black belt of the Southwestern slave states shows slavery following exploitable land. While acknowledging the force of community values, this reader is convinced that economic limitations were sufficient in themselves.

But explaining white motives is not the main objective of Black Odyssey, or its particular achievement. Selfishness and cruelty in those who would deny humanity to black men and women when they had the power to do so is merely a backdrop for the unfolding drama, which is about endurance. Black Odyssey is in praise and explanation of those who salvaged from the wreckage of the traditional world of Africa the fragments with which to build a new culture in the New World. Nowhere are the psychological dynamics of this ordeal and triumph more clearly, gracefully, or economically set forth.

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