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The Skeleton in the Closet

Slave Narratives

edited by William L. Andrews, by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Library of America, 1,035 pp., $40.00


One hundred and thirty-five years after its abolition, slavery is still the skeleton in the American closet. Among the African-American descendants of its victims there is a difference of opinion about whether the memory of it should be suppressed as unpleasant and dispiriting or commemorated in the ways that Jews remember the Holocaust. There is no national museum of slavery and any attempt to establish one would be controversial. In 1995 black employees of the Library of Congress successfully objected to an exhibition of photographs and texts describing the slave experience, because they found it demoralizing. But other African-Americans have called for a public acknowledgment of slavery as a national crime against blacks, comparable to the Holocaust as a crime against Jews, and some have asked that reparations be paid to them on the grounds that they still suffer from its legacy. Most whites, especially those whose ancestors arrived in the United States after the emancipation of the slaves and settled outside the South, do not see why they should accept any responsibility for what history has done to African-Americans. Recently, however, the National Park Service has begun a systematic review of exhibits at Civil War battlefields to make visitors aware of how central slavery and race were to the conflict.

Professional historians have not shared the public’s ambivalence about remembering slavery. Since the publication of Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution in 1956 and Stanley Elkins’s Slavery in 1959, the liveliest and most creative work in American historical studies has been devoted to slavery and the closely related field of black-white relations before the twentieth century. In the 1970s, there was a veritable explosion of large and important books about slavery in the Old South.1 But no consensus emerged about the essential character of antebellum slavery. What was common to all this work was a reaction against Stanley Elkins’s view that slavery devastated its victims psychologically, to such an extent that it left them powerless to resist their masters’ authority or even to think and behave independently.2 If slaves were now endowed with “agency” and a measure of dignity, the historians of the Seventies differed on the sources and extent of the cultural “breathing space” that slaves were now accorded. For Herbert Gutman, it was the presence among slaves of closely knit nuclear and extended families; for John Blassingame, it was the distinctive communal culture that emanated from the slave quarters; for Eugene Genovese, it was the ability to maneuver within an ethos of plantation paternalism that imposed obligations on both masters and slaves.3

Clearly there was a difference of opinion between Blassingame and Gutman, on one hand, and Genovese on the other, about how much autonomy the slaves possessed. Genovese conceded a “cultural hegemony” to the slaveholders that the others refused to acknowledge. But even Genovese celebrated “the world that the slaves made” within the interstices of the paternalistic world that the slaveholders had made. At the very least, slaves had their own conceptions of the duties owed to them by their masters, which were often in conflict with what the masters were in fact willing to concede. Although all the interpretations found that conflict was integral to the master-slave relationship, the emphasis on the cultural creativity and survival skills of the slaves tended to draw attention away from the most brutal and violent aspects of the regime—such as the frequent and often sadistic use of the lash and the forced dissolution by sale of many thousands of the two-parent families discovered by Gutman.4

There was also a tendency to deemphasize physical, as opposed to cultural, resistance by slaves. Relatively little was said about rebellion or the planning of rebellion, running away, or sabotaging the operation of the plantation. From the literature of the 1970s and 1980s, one might be tempted to draw the conclusion that slaves accommodated themselves fairly well to their circumstances and, if not actually contented, found ways to avoid being miserable. Out of fashion was the view of Kenneth Stampp and other neo-abolitionist historians of the post-World War II period that the heart of the story was white brutality and black discontent, with the latter expressing itself in as much physical resistance as was possible given the realities of white power. Interpretations of slavery since the 1970s have tended to follow Genovese’s paternalism model when characterizing the masters or analyzing the master-slave relationship and the Blassingame-Gutman emphasis on communal cultural autonomy when probing the consciousness of the slaves. Tension between the cultural-hegemony and cultural-autonomy models has been the basis of most disagreements.

Beginning around 1990, however, a little-noticed countertrend to both culturalist approaches began to emerge. The work of Michael Tadman on the slave trade, Norrece T. Jones on slave control, and Wilma King on slave children brought back to the center of attention the most brutal and horrifying aspects of life under the slaveholders’ regime.5 Tadman presented extensive documentation to show that the buying and selling of slaves was so central to the system that it reduces any concept of slaveholder paternalism to the realm of propaganda and self-delusion. “Slaveholder priorities and attitudes suggest, instead, a system based more crudely on arbitrary power, distrust, and fear,” he wrote.6

What kind of paternalist, one might ask, would routinely sell those for whom he had assumed patriarchal responsibility? Building on Gutman’s discovery of strong family ties, Jones maintained that the threat of family breakup was the principal means that slaveholders used to keep slaves sufficiently obedient and under control to carry out the work of the plantation. There was no paternalistic bargain, according to Jones, only the callous exercise of the powers of ownership, applied often enough to make the threat of it credible and intimidating. Like Jones, Wilma King likens the master-slave relationship to a state of war, in which both parties to the conflict use all the resources they possess and any means, fair or foul, to defeat the enemy. She compared slave children to the victims of war, denied a true childhood by heavy labor requirements, abusive treatment, and the strong possibility that they would be permanently separated from one or both parents at a relatively early age. She presented evidence to show that slave children were small for their ages, suffered from ill health, and had high death rates. The neo-abolitionist view of slavery as a chamber of horrors seemed to be reemerging, and the horror was all the greater because of the acknowledgment forced by the scholarship of the Seventies that slaves had strong family ties. What was now being emphasized was the lack of respect that many, possibly most, slaveholders had for those ties.

A recent book that eschews theorizing about the essential nature of slavery but can be read as providing support for the revisionists who would bring the darker side of slavery into sharper relief is Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger.7 This relentlessly empirical study avoids taking issue with other historians except to the extent that it puts quotation marks around “paternalistic.” It has little or nothing to say about slave culture and community. Its principal sources are not the many published narratives of escaped slaves, such as the ones now made available by the Library of America, but rather newspaper accounts, legal records, and the advertisements that describe runaways and offer a reward for their return.

The latter sources are especially useful because they contain candid descriptions of lacerated backs, branded faces, and other physical evidence of cruel treatment. Few runaways actually made it to freedom in the North. Most remained in relatively close proximity to their masters’ plantations and were eventually recaptured. It was generally young men who absconded, but they did so in huge numbers. Few plantations of any size failed to experience significant absenteeism. Franklin and Schweninger are unable to determine “the exact number of runaways,” but conclude very conservatively that there had to have been more than 50,000 a year. Slaves ran off for a variety of motives—to avoid being sold or because they wanted to be sold away from a harsh master, to avoid family dissolution or to find kin from whom they had already been separated, to avoid severe whipping or as a response to it. The picture that emerges from the many vivid accounts of individual acts of desertion is of an inhumane system that bears no resemblance to the mythical South of benevolent masters and contented slaves. It is even hard to reconcile with the more sophisticated view that most slaveholders conformed to a paternalistic ethic that earned a conditional acquiescence from many of their slaves.

The masters found in this book are cruel and insensitive and the slaves openly rebellious. Although it rarely brought freedom, the mode of resistance described in Runaway Slaves could have positive results for the deserters. In some cases, they successfully made their return contingent on better conditions, or at least avoidance of punishment. In other words, running away could be a kind of labor action, the closest approximation to a strike that was possible under the circumstances. Very well written, filled with engrossing narrative, and exploiting valuable sources that the historians of slave culture and consciousness have tended to neglect, Runaway Slaves is a major work of history.


But of course most slaves did not run away and some plantations did not have serious problems of desertion. Franklin and Schweninger might therefore be exposing only one side of a complex reality. The deep discontent of the deserters is obvious, but was their attitude typical or exceptional? To answer this question, it would be helpful to have direct testimony from slaves who stayed as well as those who fled. There are two principal sources of slave testimony—the published narratives from the nineteenth century, some of which have been collected by William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates for the Library of America, and the interviews with elderly ex-slaves conducted in the 1930s by WPA writers. Selections from the interviews are now available in a book-audio set, published in conjunction with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. Reading these books and listening to the tapes conveys, if nothing else, a sense of how diversely slaves could be treated and how variously they could respond to their circumstances. The narratives written by fugitives stress, as might be expected, the abuse and oppression from which their authors have fled. But the WPA interviews include some that convey nostalgia for kindly or honorable masters and suggest that paternalism could, in some instances, be an ethical code as well as a rationalization for servitude.

One could conclude therefore that some masters were genuine paternalists who made their slaves grateful that their owners were among the decent ones (unlike, for example, the owner of a neighboring plantation who had a reputation for cruelty), while others were ruthless exploiters who treated their human property simply as tools of their own greed and ambition. Both bodies of sources have built-in biases that detract from their authority, as Franklin and Schweninger suggest in explaining why they made little use of them: “Suffice it to say that many of the persons who inhabit the pages of recent studies are either far removed in time and space from the South they describe, or, due to conventions, or the purpose of a diary, are less than candid in their observations.”

  1. 1

    I discussed some of this work in these pages (The New York Review, September 30, 1976.) The essay appears in slightly revised form in my collection The Arrogance of Race: Historical Perspectives on Slavery, Racism, and Social Inequality (Wesleyan University Press, 1988). The most significant books were Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (Pantheon, 1976), which occasioned the review; John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (Oxford University Press, 1972); Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Pantheon, 1974); and Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Little, Brown, 1974).

  2. 2

    Elkins compared the effect of slavery with that of the concentration camp, which, according to psychological studies then in vogue, reduced its victims to an equivalent of the grinning, shuffling “Sambos” of proslavery lore. He therefore proposed a nonracist explanation for this stereotype. See Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Univer-sity of Chicago Press, 1959). Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (Knopf, 1956) had represented slaves as discontented and resistant to the master’s authority but nevertheless living in a state of “cultural chaos” without strong ties of family or community.

  3. 3

    These were the views that became influential in the study of slavery. The one that did not was the claim of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman that the slaves were the willing collaborators in and beneficiaries of a rational and efficient form of production.

  4. 4

    Gutman did acknowledge family breakup and in fact found some of his strongest evidence for the strength of family ties in the heroic efforts slaves made after emancipation to reconstitute families earlier dissolved by sale. But the focus of his attention was on the stability and durability of many slave unions despite the persistent danger of forced separations.

  5. 5

    See Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Norrece T. Jones, Born a Child of Freedom, Yet a Slave: Mechanisms of Control and Strategies of Resistance in Antebellum South Carolina (Wesleyan University Press, 1990); and Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Indiana University Press, 1995).

  6. 6

    Tadman, Speculators and Slaves, p. 219.

  7. 7

    Oxford University Press, 1999. See the review in the June 10, 1999, issue of The New York Review by Edmund S. Morgan. John Hope Franklin is of course the much-honored dean of African-American and Southern historians. See my essay on some of his work in The New York Review, September 23, 1993.

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