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Not So Freed Men

Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery

by Leon F. Litwack
Knopf, 651 pp., $20.00

In the fantasies of the liberated an exodus is the classic sequel of bondage—an exodus that puts distance between the oppressed and their oppressors. A Red Sea that opens before the fugitives and closes over Pharaoh’s army is ideal. Short of an exodus of the emancipated, a withdrawal of the old masters, such as happened in parts of the British West Indies, is a welcome alternative. In the aftermath of slavery in the American South neither exodus nor withdrawal of any consequence took place. Instead four million former slaves and their former masters squared away face to face on their native soil. Also participating were some eight million whites who regarded themselves as members of a master race, whether masters or not, deeply involved in the outcome. Over the shoulders of all these parties watched a victorious North.

Any account of the ensuing confrontation in the South has been subject to controversy. The accounts by members of the master class generally pictured Southern whites as the aggrieved party. The favorite response to hostile Northern historians of the South’s treatment of the freedmen has been to accuse them of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and suggest that they are forgetting or covering up racial prejudice and injustices in the North that equal or exceed anything of the sort in the South. The strategy is part of the ongoing game of regional polemics, one means by which the South sought to shift or share its burdens of guilt. Such success as the strategy has had is explained by the considerable amount of truth in the accusation.

Leon F. Litwack, professor of history at Berkeley, enjoys a singular immunity from the accusation of Yankee hypocrisy and self-righteousness. He established these credentials in 1961 with his first book, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. It was a severe and unsparing exposure of racism and of the harshness and universality of racial injustice in the ante-bellum North and West. He demonstrated in detail how blacks were systematically separated from whites “in virtually every phase of existence,” public and private; how they were deprived of the ballot and job opportunities, denied equal protection of the laws, and excluded from interracial marriage, from militia service, from the jury box and from the witness stand when whites were involved. He cited state laws excluding or discouraging blacks from settlement and denying them poor relief. He pointed out that race riots and Jim Crow laws originated in the North rather than the South, and that antislavery sentiment was often combined with anti-black sentiment. All this left no ground for pretensions of self-righteousness, for if Litwack is hard on Southern whites he is no harder than he has been on Northern whites.

Black rather than white experience of liberation is the subject of this book, but a major part of the black experience was the whites’ response to the change. Much attention is therefore given to how master and mistress perceived, accepted, restricted, or rejected freedom and what they expected or demanded of the freed. One master, for example, told his servant that “though I acknowledge her freedom, I do not acknowledge her right to do as she wishes without my consent.” Many masters expected the same degree of deference and awe as prevailed under bondage, the same old etiquette with all the relics of subservient speech and gesture, the same old terms of address and greeting on both sides.

As Litwack observes, the slaveholding class “had enormous self-pride invested in the postwar behavior of the freed slaves, along with an image of themselves that they expected their blacks to authenticate.” This was self-righteousness, Southern style. Most of them believed all tenets in their defense of paternalistic slavery, including the doctrine that it was best for the blacks, and that they were docile, contented, faithful, and loyal. Any conduct on the part of freedmen that did not bear out these tenets, including desertion, was regarded as ingratitude and betrayal. The shock of surprise, of personal defeat, of frustration and hurt pride—as well as the hurt pocketbook—lay at the root of white fury and the flogging, mutilation, and murder of freed slaves that broke out in many parts of the South. These outbursts of rage did much to set the tone of race relations in coming years. On the other hand such black conduct as served to reinforce the self-image of righteousness was preserved and embellished by the romantic legend of the Old South.

The plight of freedmen in the aftermath of slavery has been the subject of a growing shelf of “New History” in recent years. These works also attempt to capture the meaning of freedom, but unlike the book under review they are analytical monographs geared to testing hypotheses and establishing theses. Quantified in technique, they are often committed to some ideology. Thus a school of neo-classical economists undertakes to show that freedom conferred the benefits of free market competition on the liberated and substantially, if gradually, improved their lot. Meanwhile a .school of neo-Marxists takes pains to demonstrate, not surprisingly, that capitalist competition did no such thing but merely left freedom enthralled under somewhat different bonds. Between the neo-classicists and the neo-Marxists a couple of neo-populists take their stand on the proposition that the Civil War left a debilitating legacy of slavery and racism and a monopolistic credit system that held the masses, black and white, in grinding poverty. Between the embattled schools of New History are much brandishing of models and hurling of barbed mathematical equations.

None of this sort of thing appears in Litwack’s long volume, though he covers the same topics along with many others. One might think him obliged at least to mention contentions of the New History, but he is writing Old History in the grand manner. No models, no equations, scarcely a statistic. If there is a hypothesis or a thesis, it remains unstated; if an ideology, it is unformulated or subconscious. Neither psychological “constructs” nor conceptualized formulas simplify the picture. Freedmen are not reduced to Sambos or masters to monsters. If one personality type gains upstage prominence, it is followed by its opposite. Historiographical sniping and revisionist forensics are generally eschewed. The reader is invited to share subtleties, complexities, and puzzlements rather than to be dazzled by generalizations.

Contrary to the legends of ‘docility’ and ‘militancy,’ ” writes Litwack, “the slaves did not sort themselves out into Uncle Toms and Nat Turners any more than masters divided neatly into the ‘mean’ and the ‘good.’… If the vast majority of slaves refrained from aggressive acts and remained on the plantations, most of them were neither ‘rebellious’ nor ‘faithful’ in the fullest sense of those terms, but rather ambivalent and observant, some of them frankly opportunistic, many of them anxious to preserve their anonymity, biding their time, searching for opportunities to break the dependency that bound them to their white families.”

The story begins with the war, and the war revealed “the sheer complexity of the master-slave relationship, and the conflicts, contradictions, and ambivalence that relationship generated in each individual.” A servant might risk life and limb under fire repeatedly in service to his soldier master—only to desert overnight to the enemy. The most humble, self-effacing slave might light the fire that gutted his master’s house, and a troublemaking “bad nigger” might save the family silver. It was a rare slave, no matter how degraded or docile, “who did not contain within him a capacity for outrage,” but neither his master nor he could predict when or if it might surface. “The tensions this uncertainty generated could at times prove to be unbearable.”

The great revelation for the masters’ families was how little they actually knew of their blacks, how easily they had mistaken outward conduct for inner feelings, docility for contentment. Unlike other masters, Louis Manigault never pretended to understand his blacks, but on returning to visit them at his Georgia plantation after the war he said, “I almost imagined myself with Chinese, Malays or even the Indians in the interior of the Philippine Islands.” Some masters were surprised at the lack of slave uprisings or insurrections during the war, but not prepared for changes in black manners and conduct afterward. If any of these experiences evoked admission of guilt, Litwack failed to discover it: “If slaveholders felt morally reprehensible or guilt-ridden, they evinced no indication of it at the moment they declared their blacks to be free.”

One of the many merits of this book is that it reports findings that are not always consistent with each other, with rational expectations, or perhaps with the author’s preferences in the matter. He finds, for example, very little evidence of desire among freedmen for vengeance against former masters or for punishment or humiliation of their class. He reports instances on both sides of pity, affection, charity, and generosity out of a sense of mutual obligation. If the sudden break in the bonds of mutual dependency brought relief to many, it brought genuine dismay to others. With a sense of desertion, “some freed blacks responded with cries of ingratitude and betrayal that matched in fury the similar reactions of white families to the wartime behavior of certain slaves.” The whites had walked out on their obligations.

The major undertaking and the prime achievement of Been in the Storm So Long is to capture “the countless ways in which freedom was perceived and experienced by the black men and women who had been born into slavery and how they acted on every level to help shape their condition and future as freedmen and freedwomen.” That includes ways of testing, asserting, proving, and establishing the momentous change. To those inured for a lifetime to absolute control even the smallest exercise of personal freedom could be a critical ordeal. To grasp and appreciate the various emotions, tensions, and conflicts of the four million in transition is, as Leon Litwack says, “to test severely our historical imagination.”

To meet this challenge Litwack has mastered the traditional sources with great patience and thoroughness. Only those who have explored these for themselves will fully appreciate what an undertaking that was. One huge collection mined with special skill was the thousands of interviews with ex-slaves taken by the Federal Writers’ Project during the New Deal period. Fully alert to the pitfalls, biases, and distortions of this testimony and its recorders, he has applied rigorous standards of criticism and made effective and illuminating use of it. His original intention was to carry his account of the liberated down to the end of the century, but he got no further than 1867 in this volume, an enormous prelude to the epic that followed.

The history of the emancipated is not so much rewritten as enriched, amended, and revised. The traditional “Day of Jubilo,” the legend of hilarious blacks shouting and dancing at the glad tidings, largely disappears under scrutiny. “Large numbers of former slaves recalled no such celebration.” More often they remembered a sense of confusion and uncertainty or a suspicion of ruse or deception. The slaves on an Alabama plantation stood silent, stunned by the news. “We didn’ hardly know what he means,” said one. As a former slave of Jefferson Davis put it, “Folks dat ain’ never been free don’ rightly know de feel of bein’ free.” The legendary wandering of freedmen that followed hard on emancipation turns out to be much exaggerated, and what there was of it was not so much wandering as getting together. They were efforts, largely unsuccessful, to reunite families and friends. The flight to towns soon turned back in disillusionment or hunger.

The political debut of the blacks is briefly introduced in a chapter entitled “Becoming a People.” It catches the excitement of hopes aroused by collective action, but it will not be much comfort to black nationalists. The incipient divisiveness of distinctions in color, class, and acculturation to white society became apparent among the freedmen very early. It was so clear that “some blacks preferred to look, act, and sound as little Negro, colored, or black as possible.” Their search for racial identity and for integration into a society as thoroughly racist as that of the South and that of America faced almost unimaginable handicaps from the start.

As a comprehensive study of the coming of freedom, Litwack’s book has no rival save possibly W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction (1935), and that work covered a much broader field. Been in the Storm So Long deserves a place beside recent books of such merit as Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), Willie Lee Rose’s Rehearsal for Reconstruction (1964), and a neglected book deserving recognition, James L. Roark’s Masters Without Slaves (1977). Leon Litwack’s volume stands as a reminder that the old school history still has much to say to us and that all the new light on old subjects does not come from the New History.

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