Slavery, Race, and the Poor

Black History: A Reappraisal

edited by Melvin Drimmer
Doubleday, 530 pp., $6.95

American Negro Slavery: A Modern Reader

edited by Allen Weinstein, edited by Frank Otto Gatell
Oxford, 376 pp., $2.95 (paper)

White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812

by Winthrop D. Jordan
University of North Carolina, 672 pp., $12.50

Race Relations

by Michael Banton
Basic Books, 450 pp., $7.95

Often social change is imperceptible to those living in its midst. It is like water oozing through a dam—at first a faint dampness, a trickle, a spurt, the cracks multiply and either the dam crumbles or the pushing waters are sufficiently eased to create a new, if unstable, equilibrium. To the Black Panthers and other groups of activists the change in social attitudes in America toward the Negro is derisory, and when not derisory a conscience-easing fake. To WASPS, conscious or unconscious, or to ethnic groups living near black ghettos or in competition with blacks for jobs, the rushing of the waters is so deafening that they are driven toward panic and hysteria. To the uneasy liberal, the situation borders on the grotesque. He wants to be fair, to make retribution, and yet he cannot easily accept the new black contempt toward the white, and he is also conscious, perhaps over-conscious, of a hatred of white democracy, a growing insistence on authoritarian, almost totalitarian, attitudes within the black community.

The situation of the historian is equally acute. What has been the role of the Negro in American history? What have been the long-term results of slavery and deprivation of civil rights? Indeed, what was the true nature of American slavery—was it the most evil type the world has known or no better and no worse than the rest of the New World experienced? These problems have never been easy to answer, but in the context of the present time they are much more difficult, for now the question has to be posed: how far was racism itself responsible for the wretchedness of the Negro slave? Did it give a peculiarly vicious twist to slavery? Indeed what are the connections between racism and slavery? Of course this raises the question of the nature of slavery—unbridled racism combined with absolute, or near absolute, authority of the racist master was unlikely to lead to anything but social brutality, to treating the slave more as a chattel than as a person.

At the present time the problem of racism and slavery is possibly the most insistent, for obvious reasons. For the professional historian there are other questions relating to slavery that are equally difficult but intellectually perhaps more exciting. There is Stanley M. Elkins’s brilliant and disturbing investigation of slavery and the Negro personality, examining the reasons for the development of the “Sambo” response of the Negro slave to his environment which help to explain the paucity of slave revolts in America. (No amount of black protest or black re-writing of history can overcome that fact. The American Negro slave protested less in his society than the free peasant class of Europe, or of England for that matter, and this needs explanation.) Less original, but more deeply and professionally argued is Eugene Genovese’s memorable book, The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), which attempts to relate all aspects of Southern life to its peculiar means of economic exploitation. Indeed, Genovese analyzes the social system based…

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