We have had many books on southern slavery, some good, some bad, but never one quite like this. Good, bad, or indifferent, the others have usually been shaped by hereditary predispositions toward guilt or indignation, defensiveness, or reproachfulness. Anglo-American or Afro-American, northern or southern, radical or conservative, historians of slavery have been predominantly Protestant and middle class. Those who were not have heretofore felt impelled to mount some psychological, sociological, or economic thesis and foster some revisionary reinterpretation.
The result is that we have had slavery history from many points of view and numerous interpretations, often ably done, but no rounded, holistic treatment free of traditional coercions. The nearest approach to that kind of history (for all the reservations it provokes) is Gilberto Freyre’s colorful picture of Brazilian slave society in The Masters and the Slaves and its sequel, The Mansions and the Shanties. And the closest approximation to Freyre’s work, for all its differences, is Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll. Unencumbered by Anglo-Saxon reserve, Protestant inhibitions, middle-class commitments, or hereditary guilts and rancors, Genovese has done more than any other American historian to lift this tortured subject out of its culture-bound parochialism. As a Marxist, of course, he has his own point of view, but more of that later.
The rounded view Genovese presents is not that of a peculiar institution, but of an entire society—the largest, richest, and most powerful slave society of its time—as it shaped and was shaped by slavery. Far more than an economic relationship, slavery was indeed a way of life and a way of looking at life and the world. And the slavery of the South was not merely one of a score of slave systems of the New World, but a historically unique slave system. The South was part of the world the slaves made, and their world was molded by the South.
The slave South shared the paternalism of other societies, but it was a “unique kind of paternalist society,” and this paternalism is of central importance in Genovese’s reading of southern slavery and southern history. Paternalism, of course, can be selfishly motivated, and both cruel and tyrannical as well as kind and gentle. It was both a necessity of discipline and a justification of oppression. “It did encourage kindness and affection” on both sides, “but it simultaneously encouraged cruelty and hatred.” It was accepted by both masters and slaves, and by slaves far more readily than was slavery. “A fragile bridge across intolerable contradictions,” paternalism justified involuntary labor as a legitimate return for protection and care. It exacted reciprocal demands and expectations, mutual obligations, duties, responsibilities, and—of vital importance to the slaves—rights and an implicit recognition of the slaves’ humanity.
Paternalism was for the slaves, therefore, a weapon for defense and a potential weapon for liberation. It undermined the solidarity of its oppressed by linking individuals to oppressors, but “it protected both masters and slaves from the worst tendencies inherent in their respective conditions.” By accepting the ethos of paternalism slaves helped to legitimize class rule, but at the same time they “developed their most powerful defense against the dehumanization implicit in slavery.”
Roll, Jordan, Roll, true to its title, is primarily a book about the slaves and the world they made. But their world was also made by masters and mistresses, overseers and yeoman, and the racial hegemony of the surrounding white majority. The book takes account of this by rounding out the picture with portraits of the dominant white actors. The southern planters, unlike Caribbean slaveholders, who were absentee investors, were resident masters, totally committed—family, fortune, and honor—and personally responsible for all they ruled:
They were tough, proud, and arrogant; liberal-spirited in all that did not touch their honor; gracious and courteous; generous and kind; quick to anger and extraordinarily cruel; attentive to duty and careless of any time and effort that did not control their direct interests. They had been molded by their slaves as much as their slaves had been molded by them. They were not men to be taken lightly, not men frivolously to be made enemies of. And they wallowed in those deformities which their slaves had thrust upon them in the revenge of historical silence—deformities which would eventually lead them to destruction as a class.
Their self-image was a patriarchal one of “authoritarian fathers who presided over an extended and subservient family, white and black.” In the author’s opinion, “This special sense of family shaped southern culture.” On its positive side “it brought white and black together and welded them into one people with genuine elements of affection and intimacy.” But the negative side of arrogant domination over disobedient “children” outweighed the positive. For one thing it not only pitted blacks against whites but poisoned the white community as well by exacting subordination of women and children and holding any resistance to the master a threat to the whole system, including slavery itself. With a sense of guilt they were, as Protestants, singularly unburdened. Their “moment of truth” came at emancipation when the illusion of “loyalty” was shattered. The 80 percent or so who remained on the plantations could not compensate for the “betrayal” of the rest. Loyalty to be real had to be reciprocal.
Genovese agrees with the prevailing view that material conditions for slaves improved greatly in the nineteenth century. In fact, he calls it “a glorious story of self-reformation…glorious, that is, from the point of view of the master class,” for “humanization of slave life would strengthen rather than weaken the regime.” The campaign for amelioration predated the abolitionist agitation. Slaves profited to the extent that they “fared as well, in material terms, as a substantial portion of the workers and peasants of Western Europe,” better than those of Russia, Hungary, Poland, and Italy. In fact, “the living conditions of a majority of the world’s population during the twentieth century might not compare in comfort with those of the slaves of Mississippi a century earlier.”
To a remarkable extent the paternalist slave regime was able to instill its ethos and values in the minds and behavior of its servile dependents. “The slaves’ commitment to the aristocratic ethos and to a sense of order emerged as their contribution to that pattern of behavior known as southern courtesy.” Not without dissembling toward whites, “courtesy became an instrument in their determined effort to take care of each other in a painful common struggle to live decently.” Often denied proper reciprocity of courtesy from whites, “the finest, if rudest, examples of the southern lady and gentleman were to be found in the quarters even more readily than in the Big House.”
In spite of the slaves’ internalization of the masters’ values, their belief in “de good massa,” their undissembled affection for “our white folks”—and he presents ample evidence of all this—Genovese is firm in his rejection of the theory that the slave people were emasculated, infantilized, or dehumanized by their terrible experience of oppression. They were not converted into a race of Sambos and Toms. The intersection of paternalism and racism did transform personal dependency into a sense of collective weakness. “It was not that the slaves did not act like men. Rather, it was that they could not grasp their collective strength as a people and act like political men.” Most of them nevertheless, he declares, “found ways to develop and assert their manhood and womanhood despite the dangerous compromises forced upon them.”
The ways they found were mainly religious ways, and a great part of this huge work carries religious themes. Each of its four “books” and each subdivision “part” bears a scriptural title and is prefaced by a text from the Scriptures—King James Version. This is preeminently the religious history of a people, and the author brings to his task a profound respect for his subject and a keen appreciation of its theology.
The slaves embraced the masters’ Christianity, but they “conquered the religion of those who had conquered them.” They molded it and transformed it to meet their moral and psychic needs. Even St. Paul set limits to “the things which are Caesar’s” and left no doubt that there was a Master above the slave’s master and moral limits to submission, even of a slave. Slavery might produce a sense of shame but hardly a sense of guilt. Missing from black Christianity were some essentials of the doctrine’s Western formulation—original sin, a sense of guilt, a sense of mission, and the terrible inner tensions they produced.
In their place black Christianity “affirmed the joy of life in the face of every trial.” Such was not the stuff of revolutionary commitment and holy wars. It accepted the hegemony of the oppressor but denied realization of the master’s ideal. It was a theology vital for defensive needs but poor for offensive strategy. It was a source of strength for a people at bay, but also a source of political weakness. It strengthened the individual at the expense of collective assertion. “The accomplishment soared heroically to great heights, but so did the price, which even now has not been fully paid.”
Genovese dismisses the theory that blacks merely copied white religion as “unworthy of discussion.” Obviously their religion had Western antecedents, but beneath them were divergencies in meaning—of soul, of sin, of hell and heaven, of the very meaning of God. The devil could be a friend and a laughing matter. The survival of African traditions and influences—which the masters never doubted—is sensibly explored, and so is the compatibility of conjuring, voodoo, Obeah, and witchcraft with fervid commitment to Christianity. Call-and-response, song-style preaching, and the tightrope role of black preachers gain appreciative understanding. Theirs was a gospel of spiritual resistance but rarely of revolutionary defiance.
John Calvin’s Kingdom of Heaven was reserved for people with a “calling” and a “work ethic” that regarded labor as duty. It poorly accommodated a “religion of joy,” and slaves looked for a back door. Planters, despite their antibourgeois disposition, sought to impose a stern factorylike discipline, but the slaves effectively interposed their own traditional work ethic of time and rhythm that compelled masters to compromise and thwarted dehumanization. Slaves established a “right” to limits, to time of their own, to holidays and Sundays, and masters resorted increasingly to bonuses, prizes, rewards, even overtime pay and wages. But these incentives did not account for the “gaiety and elan that perplexed observers” when slaves brought them to their work. The compromise “constituted a halfway house between peasant and factory cultures” which had fateful consequences, or “it ill prepared black people to compete in the economic world into which they would be catapulted by emancipation.”
In addition to religion, a second refuge of slaves in their defense of decency, community values, cultural autonomy, and living space was the family. Admitting the “terrible toll” that slavery took, Genovese nevertheless comes down on the side of those who stress the remarkable stability, strength, and durability of the nuclear family under slavery. This along with an unparalleled rate of natural increase set American slave society apart as unique. Masters were not unmindful of the self-interest involved and for this reason or for more humane ones made impressive efforts to keep families together. Too often, however, self-interest or necessity cruelly broke up families, and market pressure prevailed over patriarchal principle. The family norm nevertheless prevailed and flourished, and emerged intact after emancipation.
Careful research leads Genovese to scorn “the legend of slave promiscuity” and lend credence to quaintly Victorian moral standards in the quarters and to “tenderness, gentleness, charm and modesty” in the love life of field hands. He believes that “the slave as husband and father requires a fresh look.” If scarred, they were far from emasculated, and “there is no evidence that most felt themselves less than men.” He confirms the powerful image of the slave mother and wife that comes through the spirituals and folklore.
Whatever misery awaited them, slave children were assured a childhood, one exempt from labor and degradation past the age when working-class children of England and France were condemned to mine and factory. The nuclear family was the housing unit, and in space and quality slave housing was “comparable to that of the free workers and peasants of the bourgeois world,” American as well as European, and superior to that of the more backward European nations in the mid-nineteenth century. Food was generally ample and varied but clothing was likely to be skimpy and inadequate in winter. The planter’s boast of tender concern for the aged was sometimes shamed by contrary evidence. The emotional and physical security the aged enjoyed was often provided by younger fellow slaves.
Roll, Jordan, Roll is most reminiscent of Gilberto Freyre’s colorful portrait of Brazilian slave society in its description of life in the Big House and the quarters. No corner is neglected, no relationship overlooked. Kitchen, parlor, and pantry, bedroom, dining room, and living room are ransacked for their secrets, and so are barnlot, nursery, cabin, and garden. The full cast of characters in the plantation drama passes in review: mistress and mammy, overseer and driver, house servant and field hand, and all the supporting roles. Accompanying these portraits are analyses of relationships, mutual dependencies, and emotional bonds that transcended status and race, and “made white and black southerners one people while making them two.”
“Mistresses and servants found themselves bound together in mutual dependency in spite of themselves.” They needed each other and used each other, not always amicably or peaceably, but constantly. They poured out their loves and sorrows to each other and fled to each other’s arms in trouble or terror. In familial intimacy they hated and loved. Nor were the men immune, as the record of their deep and intimate friendships reveals and as the numerous eulogies and obituaries of slaves attest. “Many mistresses and some masters became imprisoned by their dependency, and the slaves knew as much.” But such was the coercive intimacy between master and bondsman in paternalistic slavery that “neither could easily make any statement about the human condition and their own place within it without some reference to the life of the other.”
House servants, “suspended between two politics,” were the great “integrationalists” of plantation society. Those who formed an elite status group, a small number in great town houses and plantations, were a small minority of the house servants, who were in turn a small minority of the slaves. But house servants were an important minority. They transmitted Afro-American cooking, folklore, religion, and sensibility into white culture and carried Big House culture back to the quarters. The status gap between house servants and field hands, as Genovese shows, is mostly myth and so is the privileged life they allegedly led. For all its intimacies and kindnesses, interracial life in the Big House could trigger sudden and uncontrollable violence, and house servants bore the brunt of it. The demand for constant, cheerful, total service was insupportable, “and typically blows fell.” Dependency and identification with the white folks implied no more commitment to slavery among house servants than among field hands. Poison, arson, and murder were less idyllic aspects of life in the Big House. Few mistresses were so fortunate as Mary Boykin Chesnut, who could say that “the Chesnut Negroes have such good manners you forget everything else.”
At least two-thirds of the slaves worked under the supervision of black men, foremen of gangs, often overseers in fact, called “drivers.” Not infrequently they managed the whole plantation in the absence of their masters. Theirs was the hardest task. They had to protect their people and simultaneously represent the interest of the master—and maintain their manhood toward both. They maintained decorum in the quarters and diplomacy with the Big House. Their existence was filled with ambiguities. “They strove to mediate between Big House and the quarters, to lower the level of violence, to maintain order in the most humane way available—which, to be sure, was not always humane. They were the men between.”
And then there was the most legendary character in the whole cast—Mammy, a term the author consistently capitalizes. He is fully aware of the legend and the sentimentality that has brought about her “steadily worsening press,” which he deplores. He is determined at whatever cost to do her justice. “She remains the most elusive and important black presence in the Big House,” he writes. “To understand her is to move toward understanding the tragedy of plantation paternalism.”
Mammy’s role was that of surrogate mistress and she carried herself that way. “Primarily, the Mammy raised the white children and ran the Big House either as the mistress’s executive officer or her de facto superior.” Her authority, when used with restraint, extended over black and white, and her will was not lightly crossed, her anger not to be borne.
In general, she gave the whites the perfect slave—a loyal, faithful, contented, efficient, conscientious member of the family who always knew her place; and she gave the slaves a white-approved standard of black behavior. She also had to be a tough, worldly-wise, enormously resourceful woman; that is, she had to develop all the strength of character not usually attributed to Aunt Jane.
Her tragedy lay not in her pride or in abandonment of her own people, “but in her inability to offer her individual power and beauty to black people on terms they could accept without themselves sliding into a system of paternalistic dependency.”
But “mammy” is a code word, and its use is likely to raise the question, “What is going on here in the name of Marxist history?” Genovese is quite conscious of the risk he runs. The current peril to the revisionary impulse in slave history is the temptation to slide obliquely into romanticizing the jolly old institution. It is perfectly possible to romanticize Captain Kidd while quantifying the victims who walked the plank. I think Genovese has adequately guarded against that. The nearest he comes to slipping is in his Sybaritic celebration of southern cooking. Total immersion in deep fat, the heritage of a southern breeding, black or white, would have saved him, but he was spared that. We all have our vulnerable points.
Any lingering doubts should be removed by the last section of the book on slave revolts and resistance. It is but an excerpt from an extensive treatment that Genovese has decided to make a separate work, but it outlines a view consistent with the foregoing parts. After pointing out the absence of any rebellions comparable in size, frequency, intensity, or political and historical significance with those of the Caribbean or South America, he offers an explanation of the failure of American slaves to forge a revolutionary tradition. It is too complicated for more than sketchy summary here.
His explanation does not sustain racist myths of black docility. It stresses the absence in the South of the very conditions that fostered insurrection elsewhere: a high ratio of slave to free, of black to white, and of native African to Creole; the prevalence of large slave-holding units, of a divided ruling class, of recurrent national wars, of slaves with military experience; and the absence of paternalistic relationships that enmeshed southern slaves even while they were used in the strategy for survival. Instead of being called to terms for their failures, the slaves of the old South “should be honored for having tried at all under the most discouraging circumstances.” Such revolts as they did mount were of vital importance, however, in setting “limits to white self-deceptions and the tendency of slaves to accept them themselves.”
The “day-to-day resistance” celebrated by other scholars—stealing, lying, sabotage, malingering, murder, arson, infanticide—was really “prepolitical,” implying accommodation, “and made no sense except on the assumption of an accepted status quo the norms of which, as perceived or defined by the slaves, had been violated.” It was of indispensable value as rejection of the moral pretensions of the masters and asserting slave-defined limits to degradation, but it was essentially nonrevolutionary, unpolitical, and noncollective in nature. The runaway probably made the greatest contribution to the spirit of collective resistance, but his action also proclaimed the futility of insurrection. Slaves could not help celebrating the “bad nigger” in song and story, but they rejected his nihilism and preferred as a people “to live, not to die heroically.”
Interspersed among these analyses are essays of striking brilliance and often of great charm. That on black English, for example, richly illustrates the infinite ambiguities of a language forged in slavery and still in use. An essay on stolen pig rivals in subtlety Lamb’s on roast pig and elucidates the slaves’ moral code: “they stole from each other but merely took from the master,” since that “only transformed his property from one form to another.” Another on the folk tales shows how “by laughing at themselves, they freed themselves to laugh at their masters.” One on miscegenation speculates informatively on why there was so little of it, and one on “de big times” adumbrates their therapeutic and psychological uses without neglecting their genuine fun and hilarity.
But what has all this to do with the Marxist interpretation of history? Very little, if one brings to it the commonly received expectations. Here there is no glorifying of the working class, no denigration of oppressors. There are humane as well as brutal masters, “human beings with virtues of their own”; slaves who are compliant and willing as well as slaves who are defiant and apathetic; overseers who are obsequious and intimidated as well as overseers who are tyrannical and sadistic; justice as well as injustice is done in the courts—Draconian codes mitigated sometimes by Christian administration. No coercive economic determinism or cynical compulsion lords it over this patient account of human institutions and frailties.
“Objectively,” to borrow a favorite Marxian adverb, the Marxian increment emerges here in incidental but important ways—in an erudite command of working-class history, for example. Again and again there appears some such interjection as “for the slaves, as for lower classes in other times and places…” and one suddenly realizes that what has been commonly held peculiar to slaves or Afro-Americans had much wider significance. For one example, there is the well-known weakness for expensive and elaborate funerals, worth any sacrifice. Precisely the same among working-class Englishmen and Sicilians. Or the masters’ repeated complaint of the slaves’ lack of gratitude. “Dependence excludes gratitude,” we are reminded, for “gratitude implies equality”—the latter being in short supply among working classes generally. Similarly we are cautioned against “measuring the slave family by middle-class standards,” or reminded of working hours in Sardinian mines or child labor in France. If this is a fair sample of Marxist history (and, alas, I am afraid it is not) then American historiography could do with a good bit more of it.
The recent publication of Time on the Cross, an econometric study of slavery by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, invites comparison with what they would doubtless call Genovese’s “traditional” history. Space is lacking here for a comparison of their findings. In fascinating ways these two works partly support and partly contradict one another. As was predicted, Fogel and Engerman opened a Pandora’s box of troubles, some of them no doubt productive troubles, but mainly troubles embarrassing for the authors and their cumbersome data, their elaborate quantifications, scientific techniques, and sensational revisions.
The contrast with Genovese is striking. Since “traditional” has been made a pejorative term, I would call him “old fashioned.” He patiently uses the traditional canons of scholarship and rhetoric. Not only does he marshal vast published sources, but extensively exploits manuscript sources as well. Of special importance is his use of slave and black testimony, particularly the neglected ex-slave interviews recorded during the New Deal. In addition to an unrivaled command of the sources on the subject (no one can be “exhaustive”), he brings to bear other kinds of history that enrich his cultivation of this small patch. I have mentioned working-class history, and he has other resources, especially Caribbean and South American history. To these endowments he adds a keen historian’s sense of how things do not happen, of motives that do not motivate, a sense of the imponderable pace with which history moves, and an abiding skepticism of easy answers and quick solutions.
Another tribute is deserved for the boldness with which a scholar of Eugene Genovese’s background invaded such alien and exotic territory. One thinks of Prescott moving in on the Aztecs and the Incas, and one hopes a surviving native or so had the grace to make him a bow for his pains.
October 3, 1974