Among the many humiliations of the American Negro, not the least burdensome has been the various characterizations he has had to undergo in the eyes of the white man. It is hardly an ex-aggeration to say that before World War II It the predominant image of the Negro was that of the New Yorker cover of around 1935, which in a cartoon by Rea Irvin depicted a rotund and very black man in the act of chicken thievery: against a background of midnight blue the chickens are squawking their panic while the Negro, pop-eyed and comically aghast, tries vainly to shush them with a finger held against his blubbery lips. This caricature of the Negro as a pilfering but likeable scalawag was dominant from slave days until the early 1940’s, and one is bemused by the fact that it appeared on the cover of the same magazine which this year published James Baldwin’s now celebrated essay. Since that New Yorker cover, of course, reaction has set in with a vengeance. Yet though the situation has virtually reversed itself, the characterizations—the caricatures—persist. With the help of sociology and anthropology and hipster romanticism, Stepin Fetchit has been transformed into a sexual carnivore of superhuman capacities. The New Yorker cover was thoughtless and vapid enough—even though a fair reflection of the times—but the concept of “the white Negro” is equally preposterous; both arise from an imaginary notion of Negro life, both are lampoons and vulgarizations, and both are products of wish fulfillment.

The historiography of the American Negro, especially that of Negro slavery, has likewise suffered from a career in which genteel apology has been supplanted less by perceptions than by extremist revisionism. First published in 1943 and reissued now, Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts is an attempt to repudiate such old-school apologists for the ante-bellum Southern plantation system as Ulrich B. Phillips, who saw in slavery a generally genial institution, the victims of which were more or less content with their lot and in any case so docile by nature as to be incapable of rebellion. Certainly it seems clear now that the Phillips viewpoint, shared by many other historians, was befogged by Southern pride and often by frank racism: and when Aptheker’s book first appeared (during the same general period as Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, a period of leftist-oriented anthropology and sociology), the reaction had begun to move into full tide. Negro slaves, according to the new canon, were not happy, servile, childlike; they were instead intractable, seething with unrest, forever chafing in the bonds of slavery. As Aptheker stated this position: “The evidence…points to the conclusion that discontent and rebelliousness were not only exceedingly common, but indeed, characteristic of American Negro slaves.”

As a matter of fact, if we can accept Aptheker’s evidence—and on the whole his book seems well documented—it would appear that unrest and discontent were considerably more widespread than earlier historians would grant, with sporadic outbreaks of violence occurring throughout the South for many years. Relying…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.