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The Big American Crime

It has been a long time since anyone has argued that slavery was a good thing, but just how bad it was has become a pregnant question. It is not in doubt that slaves suffered injustice and cruelty, that slave plantations, whether producing rice or tobacco, cotton or sugar, rested on systematic brutality and violence. The question is what the experience did to the people violated, especially in North America, where they were almost all black, the ancestors of present-day black Americans. Or should we say of African-Americans? The choice of a name is itself a way of taking sides, like the older one between Negro and black (or Black?), a choice between stressing national unity or ethnic diversity, between affirming racial equality or black pride. Historical investiga-tion of what slavery did to slaves is charged with presentist implications that shadow every fact found, and consciously or unconsciously shape every interpretation.

The subject took on a new kind of sensitivity early in this century after anthropologists, under the leadership of Franz Boas, began examining the complexity and sophistication of African cultures (the plural is important). Melville Herskovits, a student of Boas, studied the cultures not only of Africans in a part of Africa (Dahomey) but also of descendants of Africans in Haiti, Suriname, and most significantly the United States. In The Myth of the Negro Past (1941)1 he argued that much in African cultures had survived the trauma of slavery and persisted among the descendants of slaves. In Brazil and Suriname and to a somewhat lesser extent in the United States he found survivals of African music and dancing, African styles of humor and modes of address, African patterns of family relationship and social structure, African attitudes toward the elderly, toward children, toward the dead. White ignorance or denial of such cultural survivals in the United States, Herskovits argued, was “one of the principal supports of race prejudice in this country,” because it left the Negro “a man without a past,” unworthy of the respect that other ethnic groups inherited from identification with their progenitors.

Although it was not his intention, Herskovits seemed to imply that slavery could not have been as totally repressive as, say, the abolitionists had made it out to be. He had discovered an African past in the black communities of his own day. If remnants of African cultures had survived until then, they could not have been obliterated by slavery. Slaves must have been able to sustain a degree of cultural autonomy under the restraints of a regime that claimed the power to order their every waking hour. Of course the more power exerted over them, the greater their achievement in setting limits to it. But in any case, if Herskovits was right, slavery was not a one-way street in which slave owners dictated every movement. The history of slavery could be understood only as an interchange between two parties, the one not as wholly subdued to the other as had been generally supposed.

The challenge for historians was to retrieve from past records the elements and extent of slave autonomy, to show what kinds of lives slave men and women had been able to carve out for themselves despite the odds against them. Historians were slow in rising to the challenge. It was not until the late Sixties and early Seventies that studies in depth of slave life began to appear, prompted perhaps by the rising consciousness of race prejudice exemplified by the civil rights movement. The roots of the civil rights movement were doubtless complex, but its objectives may have depended more on a reassessment of black history than was always evident at the time. Once the study of slave life began, it quickly became a major area of historical research and has now furnished black Americans with a past even richer in its autonomy than Herskovits had envisaged. New books by Philip E. Morgan (no relation to the reviewer) and Ira Berlin evince the maturity that the study has attained.

Berlin, who has already contributed significantly to the literature, here brings together in a magisterial synthesis much of what has now been learned about slave life during its first two centuries within the present United States. Slavery, he insists at the outset, was always a “negotiated relationship” and an “intrinsically unstable” one, the terms of which varied from time to time and from place to place.

The negotiations were not conducted across a table or on anything like a level playing field. Rather they were embedded in the daily transactions between master and slave, mainly in the work place. Work was always at the center of them and “informed all other conflicts between master and slave,” including conflicts of culture. Berlin sees the cultural autonomy expressed both in the continuation of African patterns of behavior (braided hair and filing teeth in the traditional manner, clandestinely performing African rites at births and burials) and the creation of new ones as deliberate and purposeful. While the contours of slave life might vary as negotiations shifted, the beliefs, at-titudes, and activities that slaves nurtured among themselves always had an “oppositional content,” even if concealed in the mimicry of dance or later in the metaphors of a folk tale. In places where the body of slaves had come directly from Africa, as in eighteenth-century South Carolina, they often carried so deep an attachment to old customs that “the conflict over work and over culture became one.”

With the masters’ determination to dominate and the slaves’ resilient resistance as constants, a variety of circumstances affected the outcome of their negotiations. Were the slaves at a given time and place from one African region (and culture) or another or from many different ones? How long ago had they left Africa and what had happened to them since? Did they grow tobacco or rice or sugar or cotton in the country or did they build houses, caulk ships, or shoe horses in the city? Did their work determine a region’s whole economy (“slave societies,” as in most of the South) or was it merely a convenience (“societies with slaves,” as in the North)?

Berlin’s achievement is to order the resulting variety by identifying four different regions with four different economies (the Chesapeake, the eastern tidewater from South Carolina to Florida, the Mississippi Valley, and the North) and by dividing the social developments of two centuries in each region into three periods, which he designates as the charter generations, the plantation generations, and the Revolutionary generations, stopping short of the heyday of slavery in the antebellum decades of the nineteenth century.

The contrasts of slave life in different places and at different times can be appreciated in Berlin’s depiction of the two regions that held most of the country’s slaves before the nineteenth century, the regions studied in greater detail by Morgan, on whose previous research Berlin frequently relies (the two have collaborated in earlier works). The Chesapeake enjoyed the relatively favorable conditions of the charter generations from the beginning of slavery there in 1619 until the last two decades of the century. Before then the Virginia labor force was mainly white, and Africans joining it enjoyed more rights and had a better chance of becoming free than those who came after them in much greater numbers. Most of the charter generations had left Africa some time earlier. Many were what Berlin calls Atlantic creoles, slaves who had been born and raised in the great trading centers of the Atlantic, in Spain, Portugal, West Africa, and the Caribbean. They were often of mixed European and African descent, already familiar with European cultures, and thus “did not arrive as deracinated chattel, stripped of their past and without resources to meet the future.” In consequence they blended into the existing society, sometimes gained freedom, and developed only a thin autonomous culture of their own.

But they were not assimilated or fully accepted as equals, and a flood of coerced immigrants from Africa in the half-century after 1680 coincided, not accidentally, with a legal elimination of whatever privileges they had originally enjoyed. Race and slavery were deliberately identified. Yet the Africanization of the Chesapeake labor force apparently did not create a durable African culture. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the fertility of the black population produced a majority of Chesapeake slaves who had never seen Africa. “Slaves with teeth filed, hair plaited, or skin scarred in the ritual manner disappeared from the countryside.” By the time of the American Revolution, with tobacco fields exhausted, Chesapeake planters found themselves with a surplus of slaves, mostly native born. That fact, along with the ideology of freedom that accompanied the Revolution, produced an increasing number of manumissions and regained for Chesapeake slaves, at least temporarily, some of the benefits of the charter generation.

The history of South Carolina slave society is one of both greater oppression and greater autonomy. The colony began with a charter generation of Atlantic creoles who worked beside their masters in mixed agriculture and stock raising. Slaves mistreated could easily take to the woods. Swamps deep in the interior harbored “maroon” settlements of successful runaways, whose continuing presence furnished a refuge, for those who dared risk it, from the rigors that arrived with rice culture at the end of the seventeenth century. Rice required heavy, unhealthful, and exhausting labor. The death rate among slaves was so high that the labor force could be maintained only by a continuous influx of new slaves, especially as rice cultivation generated ever larger plantations. The result, combined with the possibility of escape to the maroons and the absence of any close relationship with masters (who frequently preferred the comforts of Charleston to the steaming heat of the plantation), was the creation of an African culture more autonomous than any other in North America. Slaves were able to negotiate a task system of labor whereby instead of working as a gang, everyone was given a specific task for the day, a number of plants to plant or rows to hoe, however long it took. With their daily stint completed, slaves could work for themselves, even growing their own crops of rice on patches of land assigned them.

Since they came from different regions of Africa, often with different languages, it was their common plight and a recognition of their common origins in another continent that brought them together. Consequently, as Berlin notes, with implications for the present that are hard to assess, “The construction of an African identity proceeded on the western, not the eastern, side of the Atlantic.” At the same time, South Carolina planters, who became familiar with the character of the peoples from different parts of Africa, sometimes gathered their forces from a particular region, so that it became possible for “specific African cultures to reconstitute themselves within the plantation setting.”

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    With a new introduction by Sidney W. Mintz (Beacon Press, 1990).

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