Whatever else the civil rights movement of the 1960s may have accomplished or failed to accomplish, it at least liberated Afro-Americans from historical invisibility. As recently as 1965, the dean of American historians produced a best-selling history of the United States in which black leaders and cultural achievements received scarcely more attention than horses and horse-raising.1 It is hard to imagine such a thing happening again. Not only has black history gained academic respectability, but it has even become a preoccupation of the press and television.
Most of this burgeoning interest has focused on the slave experience. Everyone now seems to agree that the struggle of Afro-Americans to survive under servitude was not only an important episode in American history but somehow even a glorious one. But the exact nature of this struggle and the question of how the white masters influenced its outcome remain matters of great controversy among historians. Every year or so the discussion seems to take a new turn. In 1974, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman offered a radical reinterpretation of these issues by using elaborate quantitative methods.2 Later that year Eugene Genovese published his sophisticated Marxian analysis with its emphasis on “paternalism” as the setting within which slaves made a world for themselves.3 In 1976 the work of Herbert Gutman, ostensibly more modest and specialized than that of his immediate predecessors, promises to force still another rethinking of the meaning of the Afro-American slave experience.
To understand the significance of what Gutman has done, it may be useful to review the modern debate on the impact of enslavement on black culture and personality. The debate really began in earnest in the early to mid Sixties when there was a delayed reaction to a book published without fanfare in 1959—Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life.4 Since Elkins stressed the harshness of servitude and its allegedly devastating effect on the black personality, he had little reason to anticipate the ideological storm that his work would eventually provoke. For in the late Fifties there was general agreement among liberal historians and sociologists—both white and black—that an emphasis on victimization was the best reply to the racist argument of innate inferiority and might also serve to counter the view, still enshrined in most textbooks, that slavery was a beneficent institution—a kind of school for the civilization of primitive Africans, where kindly masters presided over the Americanization of contented slaves. But Elkins planted the seeds of controversy by likening the slave plantation to a Nazi concentration camp and arguing that such a totalitarian institution tended to reduce its victims to childlike dependency. He thus gave a new environmentalist sanction to an old and unflattering black stereotype—the grinning, shuffling “Sambo” of pro-slavery lore.
Initial criticisms of Elkins’s work came mainly from orthodox historians who objected to his freewheeling use of hypotheses derived from the behavioral sciences more than to his conclusions. But the book was welcomed by sociologists and “interdisciplinary” historians who admired it precisely because of this bold use of social science “models.” The book had a powerful influence for a time not only within academic circles but outside as well. In his famous report on the Negro family, prepared for the Johnson administration in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan quoted a summary of the Elkins thesis which asserted that slavery “stripped [blacks] of their African heritage,” placed them in “a completely dependent role,” and “most important of all…vitiated family life.”5 Such a background, Moynihan argued, helped to account for “pathological” weaknesses in the contemporary black family. William Styron’s prize-winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, published in 1967, was also influenced by Elkins’s work, both in some of its characterizations of slaves and in its general portrayal of the cultural chaos out of which Nat Turner emerged. But the hostile reaction, particularly from blacks, which greeted both the Moynihan Report and Styron’s novel was symptomatic of a growing attack on the Elkins thesis itself.6
Elkins’s view of what slavery had done to its black victims became increasingly unacceptable in the Sixties, not simply, or even mainly, because of its inherent flaws. Flaws there were, but much of the bitter antagonism generated by the book was due to its direct collision with emerging ideologies. Its argument, first of all, was anathema to proponents of black nationalism, whose search for historical sources of pride and community led them to reject the idea that their grandfathers were dehumanized “Sambos.” Furthermore Elkins’s thesis seemed to provide support for a new “racism,” based on the concept of “cultural deprivation,” which was replacing crude notions of biological inferiority as a rationale for denying equal justice to Afro-Americans. Elkins’s premise of black docility and passivity was also incompatible with a New Left historiography that took it for granted that oppressed classes always resist their oppressors.
There were, however, some historians (this reviewer among them) who acknowledged that Elkins had given a fruitful new direction to the study of slavery by attempting to use analogies or models drawn from contemporary experience in coercive or “total” institutions. Instead of rejecting his approach in toto, they sought to build upon it and refine it, by using analogies that seemed to do greater justice to the variety of plantation experience and the wide range of personal adjustments that slaves could make to their predicament. They sought illumination from apparently comparable situations, such as prisons, mental hospitals, and boot camps, in which the great differences in power between those in charge of such institutions and those incarcerated in them did not inevitably result in the successful “internalization” of the authority of the superintending class but left the subordinates or inmates with enough leeway or “breathing space” to erect a variety of defenses against “dehumanization.”7 If some slaves were reduced to passivity, others “played it cool” by opportunistically masking their true feelings, and a few resisted the regime every step of the way. When their own standards of justice were flagrantly affronted, slaves who had hitherto seemed perfectly docile could suddenly turn into rebels or runaways.
Later scholarship, culminating in Gutman’s study, showed that the view of the plantation as a total institution had one significant shortcoming: it failed to take into account the fact that slaves, unlike inmates, lived in family groups. Hence it tended to overlook the more collective aspects of slave response in favor of an overemphasis on individualistic “strategies for survival.”
John Blassingame’s The Slave Community, published in 1972, was the first substantial effort to do justice to this collective or communal side of the slave experience.8 Furthermore it seemed to bury Elkins’s thesis once and for all because of the effective way it summed up and synthesized almost all the lines of attack that had developed over a decade. Blassingame described a plantation community in which slaves, far from being utterly dependent on their masters, used substantial cultural resources of their own to resist oppression and maintain a sense of their dignity and worthiness as human beings.
Among these resources were surviving African traditions in the form of folklore, music, and beliefs about the supernatural; “significant others” like black preachers and conjurors who could blunt the psychological impact of the masters; and strong family ties that persisted despite the frequent break-ups resulting from the slave trade. Almost point by point, therefore, Elkins’s thesis was refuted, and on the whole convincingly. Yet major questions remained about how precisely this slave community developed, maintained itself over time, and adjusted to the realities of white power and dominance. Not conclusively resolved was the crucial issue of whether it was slave initiative or planter patronage that was mainly responsible for family life and other sources of communal health and vitality.
The next major work on slavery, Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross, was mostly concerned with somewhat different issues from those we have been considering. Yet it did have important implications for the question of how and to what extent slaveholders were able to shape the personalities and belief systems of their slaves. Arguing from a conviction that the plantation was not merely a profitable enterprise but a model of capitalistic efficiency, Fogel and Engerman made their controversial claim that the slave was a willing collaborator in this economic miracle, as well as a beneficiary of it. He was thus neither a degraded and infantilized instrument of his master’s will, as Elkins contended, nor a deliberately non-cooperative and inefficient worker, asserting his manhood by sabotaging his master’s interests, as many of Elkins’s critics argued. According to Fogel and Engerman, slaves were induced to work efficiently because of real incentives—which included material rewards equivalent to wages, opportunities for upward mobility within a plantation hierarchy, and positive protection for a stable pattern of family life.
The slaves thus accepted the capitalistic work ethic of their masters because it was in their own interest to do so. It would seem to follow, therefore, that many of the signs of health, or at least absence of “pathology,” that Blassingame had discovered in the quarters, were due to the deliberate policies of enlightened capitalistic owners who understood that the encouragement of worker morale and esprit de corps was the essence of good management.
In Roll, Jordan, Roll, Eugene Genovese vigorously rejected any notion that the master-slave nexus was influenced by a capitalistic ethos. In his view, the opportunity for blacks to develop a community and culture of their own resulted from a “paternalistic” compromise or bargain between masters and slaves. Using as his model the kind of reciprocity between lords and dependents characteristic of precapitalist “seigneurial” societies, he portrayed the slave as fulfilling his obligations to his master in return for a recognition of certain “customary rights” and privileges. Although there was constant tension within the system, as slaves struggled for greater autonomy and masters sought to perfect their mechanisms of control, the result was a kind of dynamic equilibrium in which both sides made the necessary concessions. Despite his relish for dialectical paradox and his basic disagreement with Fogel and Engerman on the processes involved, Genovese also concluded in effect that the master-slave relationship was a collaborative or accommodationist arrangement. To put it simply, blacks avoided being degraded and dehumanized by accepting what their masters offered and making it their own.
Hence, according to both of the most recent major interpretations of slavery, blacks could indeed assert their manhood and enjoy a limited sense of autonomy under slavery, but only within a larger scheme of beliefs and values imposed by the master class. Although they differed from Elkins by stressing consensus rather than coercion, these historians of the Seventies agreed with him in seeing planter power and ideology as decisive influences on slave consciousness. Unlike Fogel and Engerman, Genovese paid considerable attention to the growth of a distinctive black culture and even an incipient black nationalism. But these developments occurred as the result of the paternalistic compromise, not in spite of it; for it was within the “breathing space” conceded by paternalistic masters that slaves forged an Afro-American world view that was culturally sustaining and psychologically satisfying, but incapable of providing revolutionary consciousness because it incorporated the slaves’ own acceptance of a paternalistic order.
Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom should serve as a valuable counterweight to this new tendency to domesticate the Afro-American slave experience as part of some larger pattern of interracial cooperation or adjustment. Like other post-Elkins historians of slavery, Gutman stresses the creativity and achievement of blacks rather than the crippling effects of oppression. But unlike Fogel and Engerman or Genovese, he gives the white planters very little credit for what happened. According to him, one does not need to assume an atmosphere of capitalistic opportunity or paternalistic mutuality to explain the rise of the slave communities. Slaves made a life for themselves not so much by reacting to particular modes of white domination as by adapting to highly diverse conditions of servitude in certain uniforms ways that were truly their own. Using cultural forms that whites did not even perceive—much less impose, promote, or concede to them as part of a paternalistic compromise or out of a rational concern for industrial morale—they built up a complex and distinctive Afro-American heritage that shielded them not only from the kind of psychological damage and dependency posited by Elkins but also from the cultural dominance or hegemony of the planter class.
For Gutman there is nothing unique or miraculous in such a process of autonomous cultural adaptation on the part of a lower class or dependent group. In his notable essays on the American working class, also published in book form this year, he describes similar phenomena among immigrants and others reacting for the first time to industrial society.9 Rather than being hollow receptacles for the new concepts of work discipline and laissez-faire capitalism pressed upon them by the ruling class, they clung tenaciously to older, pre-industrial values. As recently as 1902 there was a classic type of “food riot” in New York City, as Jewish immigrants protested a rise in the price of Kosher meat and called on rabbis to fix prices in accordance with traditional standards of fairness. In all his work, Gutman seeks to demonstrate that the poor and underprivileged, whether black or white, are not simply acted upon by the rich and powerful, but behave in ways that can only be understood with reference to the persistence and resiliency of traditional cultures, which are sometimes richer and more complex than those of their overlords. Ruling classes of course must attribute such “deviant” behavior to congenital inferiority or “cultural deprivation,” because to do otherwise would undermine their rationalizations for dominance and exploitation. But conservative cultural adaptation serves the relatively weak and powerless as a defense against psychic exploitation and may, under some circumstances, provide a platform for collective action against the world their masters are trying to make.
The Black Family does not attempt to exhaust the subject of how the cultural experience of blacks helped them to adapt to slavery and to what followed. Rather Gutman examines in detail the one institution that he finds was central to the growth of communal consciousness and was the vehicle for transmitting the folk heritage from generation to generation. His initial research was aimed at questioning the Moynihan Report’s generalization about a legacy of black family disorganization going back to the slave era. Looking first at census data for a number of cities in the period between 1880 and 1925, Gutman discovered that two-parent households were the norm in poor black communities and that families headed by females were scarcely, if at all, more common than among comparable whites. Some of these findings are presented in the concluding section of the book. But most of his current study is devoted to explaining how this stable family pattern among freedmen and their immediate descendants could have arisen in the first place, given the prevailing view among historians and sociologists that slavery and emancipation had wrecked the black family.
Gutman finds the answer not in some rush to imitate white norms in the Reconstruction era (which has been the view of some recent historians) but rather in family and kinship patterns that had arisen under slavery. He recreates this family and kinship structure mainly through an ingenious use of quantifiable data, derived mostly from plantation birth registers and to a lesser extent from marriage applications that freedmen submitted to Union officers after emancipation. He also makes considerable use of the direct testimony of ex-slaves as he seeks to probe the human reality behind his charts and statistical tables.
He establishes, first of all, that the two-parent household predominated in the slave quarters just as it did among freedmen after emancipation. This is perhaps the least unexpected of his findings; in less conclusive fashion Blassingame, Fogel and Engerman, and Genovese had asserted much the same thing. But Gutman provides a fuller sense than his predecessors of what these unions meant. They tended to be remarkably long-lasting, except when broken prematurely by sale. Indeed if one were to try to calculate a voluntary divorce rate among slaves it would probably be considerably lower than what exists in the United States today. Yet forced separation by sale was frequent enough to make it misleading to describe slave marriages as “stable” or to ascribe their normative character to the patronage of planters (as Fogel and Engerman had done).
Nearly one-sixth of all the slaves over twenty who registered to be married by Union Army chaplains in Mississippi in 1864 and 1865 reported that an earlier marriage, often of long duration, had been broken by force. But to the extent that slaves had their own way, as reflected most clearly on plantations where sale was infrequent, they showed a strong preference for stable monogamy. Since these unions resulted in children who constituted capital gains for the masters, one might suppose that the owners encouraged them. Not so, argues Gutman; for masters were fully aware of the biological fact that women can have children without living with one man in a stable relationship, and most of them in fact professed indifference to the specific kinds of sexual arrangements existing in the quarters so long as offspring resulted.
The slaves’ propensity to live in settled monogamous unions was not, however, accompanied by the same high regard for female virginity that characterized the culture of the planters. It was relatively common for a young slave woman to have a child by one man before settling down to a permanent relationship with another. Marital fidelity, Gutman finds, was highly regarded and zealously defended, but prenuptial sex was regarded with tolerance and no stigma was attached to illegitimacy.
The long-lasting conjugal unions could have represented an imitation of white norms, and the tolerance for illegitimacy and premarital experimentation might have resulted from defective social controls or from the fact that for slaves there were none of the problems involving the inheritance of property or lineage rights that have discouraged premarital sex and especially birth out of wedlock among most free populations. But Gutman uncovers other facets of kinship that cannot be explained in this way. Most importantly his birth registers reveal that cousins almost never married. This “exogamous” tendency contrasts sharply with the “endogamy” practiced by the masters, who showed so little fear of inbreeding that according to one contemporary observer “the marriage of cousins” was “almost the rule rather than the exception.”
The distinctive slave preference for exogamy, Gutman cautiously suggests, may have been adapted from African kinship patterns. Although the rules governing the choice of marriage partners in West Africa were extremely variable, differing markedly from one cultural or tribal group to another, all involved some kind of prohibition on unions with close kin, and it seems probable that slaves preserved from the diverse practices of their ancestors a general sense that it was wrong to marry blood relations.
To practice exogamy one has to have a good sense of exactly how people are related to each other, and the apparent taboo against cousin marriages is only one of the many indications Gutman finds of a strong awareness of an extended kinship network. The frequency with which children were named after parents or grandparents suggests to him a regard for lineage or family continuity extending over at least three generations. He even disputes the common view that slaves had no family names and simply took on those of their masters when they were emancipated. Although last names did not appear in the records kept by the owners, the recollections of ex-slaves reveal that they frequently used such names among themselves and that they were usually derived from a former master or even the master of an ancestor rather than from the current owner. Gutman cites, among others, the example of Daniel Payne, a slave of George Washington, who ran off during the Revolution and was evacuated by the British. The function of these family names was not so much to memorialize an earlier, and perhaps kindlier, master, as to keep alive some sense of identification with a slave family of origin.
The consciousness of being part of an extended family—including spouses, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—provided Afro-Americans with the foundations for a sense of community that could extend over time and across space. When original families were broken up and individual members carried to new plantation areas in the nineteenth century the effect was of course traumatic; yet the kinship ideal was not lost. When congenial relationships were lacking, as on newly stocked plantations in the Southwest, “fictive” kinship arrangements tended to take their place until a new pattern of consanguinity had time to develop. Out of such situations, Gutman believes, arose such habits as addressing all elderly slaves as “uncle” or “aunty.” Thus blood ties could become the model for a broader conception of the slave community, in which individuals, whether actually related or not, came to view their social obligations and allegiances as kin-like in character.
The kinship structure and sense of slave interdependence associated with it developed quite early in the Afro-American experience, Gutman believes—probably by the middle to late eighteenth century. Since Africans were arriving in great numbers during that period, it may well have been the principal mechanism by which African traditions were adapted to slave circumstances. The resulting cultural forms—which were neither African nor American but Afro-American—were passed down to future generations of slaves. Their resiliency was such that they could survive disruptive economic and geographical changes, such as the transplantation of slavery from relatively small economic units in one region to vast plantations in another. Since the slave family was the principal agency for the socialization of slave children, it served as the means for transmitting other aspects of the Afro-American cultural tradition from one generation to the next. Without it the rich and distinctive legacy of folklore, music, and religious expression that slaves were continually fashioning out of African and American materials could not have survived.
Gutman’s discoveries enable him to challenge explicitly some of the central assumptions of previous scholarship on Afro-American slavery. He scores his predecessors for assuming that slave socialization and culture were predetermined by the kind of “treatment” they received from the masters. This approach, he argues, underestimates the cultural resources that enabled the slaves to make certain kinds of adaptations regardless of how they were treated.
A related shortcoming of the historiography of slavery has been its tendency to exaggerate the extent to which black consciousness was influenced by white cultural models. One of Gutman’s most striking revelations is that slaveholders were generally not only indifferent to the complex kinship arrangements prevailing in the quarters but not even aware of their existence. He explains this myopia quite convincingly as the result of an unwillingness to attribute “adult” behavior to folk who had to be seen as “child-like” in order to justify their enslavement. This strikes me as another way of saying that racism so clouded the vision of the whites that they could not deal with blacks as responsible human beings. Even when whites tried to influence black behavior and beliefs out of some sense of paternalistic duty, their efforts were seriously inhibited by their lack of understanding of the people they were dealing with. Blacks of course did learn from whites what they needed to know to get along, but this was not necessarily what the whites wanted to teach them.
The question still remains how it was possible for the planters to maintain effective control over people who were so profoundly alien to them. Gutman’s work seems to me to rule out the possibility that the planters could do so because they were able to persuade or brainwash the slaves into accepting or “internalizing” the idea that whites had some legitimate right to rule over them. Although he does not concern himself directly with the sources of white power and authority, Gutman does suggest a new explanation when he points out in passing that “kin and quasi-kin obligations often militate against the development of ‘class consciousness.’ ” It seems likely that slavery was a satisfactory labor system for the master class, as well as an effective means of social control, partly because the satisfactions of kinship and quasi-kinship took the edge off black discontent and gave the owners a kind of leverage that could work against the growth of revolutionary attitudes and actions.
A culture in which social obligations are defined by kinship is likely under most circumstances to be a conservative culture where the main concern is holding on to what one already has rather than seeking radical changes. As Gutman makes clear, many slaves were reluctant to run away because this meant the breaking of strong ties to family and friends. Similarly, defiance and rebellion could lead to reprisals not only against oneself but against kinfolk as well. The threat of sales that could break up families may have been the most powerful device that the masters possessed to ensure discipline and economic performance.
In short, the masters may have been the entirely undeserving beneficiaries of the kinship system that Gutman describes. The verdict of comparative historians that slave rebellions were less frequent and smaller in scale in the American South than in other New World slaveholding societies may be supported not only by the factor most often mentioned—the relatively high proportion of whites to blacks—but also by the growth of a more highly developed and comprehensive kinship structure. In areas such as Brazil and Cuba where the African slave trade lasted longer than in the United States, there was a constant influx of unattached Africans who had relatively little to lose by rebelling. Afro-Americans, once the network of kin and quasi-kin had matured and stabilized, would have had a great deal to lose by overt acts of resistance.
If kinship does not promote militancy, proponents of revolution searching for a “usable past” may in the end be as disappointed by Gutman’s interpretation as they are with the work of Fogel and Engerman and Genovese. Yet surely there was great nobility in the cultural achievement of Afro-American slaves. If they were not consciously making a revolution to overthrow white power, they were doing a great deal more than simply “surviving” under slavery. They were creatively fashioning a life for themselves by making what choices they could and putting to use whatever resources they had. As Herbert Gutman’s magnificent study shows, the chance to live, even precariously, in family groups provided the means to create a distinctive Afro-American culture.
Since Gutman formally ends his study in 1925, he makes no attempt to describe in detail how the black family has fared in more recent times. But in a brief postscript he endorses the view of some critics of the Moynihan Report that “massive structural unemployment” among urban blacks, and not some deeply rooted legacy of family instability, accounts for the increase since the 1940s in the proportion of female-headed families. He also cites studies showing that much of the statistical gap between the races (93 percent of all white families in 1960 had a male present as compared to 79 percent of all black families) disappears when one compares blacks and whites of the same economic level. Blacks with incomes above the poverty line differ very little from similarly situated whites in the percentage of families that are headed by women. A catastrophic lack of steady jobs for young black males, which has become a chronic feature of ghetto life, is clearly a main factor in preventing many of them from becoming effective husbands and fathers.
This does not mean, however, that the adaptive capacities of the black lower class have failed them under modern urban conditions. Carol Stack’s recent anthropological study, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in the Black Community, describes vividly how extended networks of kin and quasi-kin meet some of the needs of poor urban blacks.10 These “domestic networks” function by sharing limited resources and services—a pattern of exchanges reflecting the principle that those who for the moment have something are obliged to share with those who do not, with the expectation that the roles may be reversed in the future. This system conceivably suggests a new adaptation of the extended kinship structure that originated under slavery. But Stack also describes how a combination of widespread unemployment and a welfare system that rewards fatherless families has given the kin group a vested interest in discouraging the development of stable conjugal unions. For a poor black woman to enter into conventional marriage might well mean her withdrawal from full participation in the network. Her ADC payments, if any, would no longer be available to the kin group, and her own energies and earnings would now tend to be devoted exclusively to her smaller nuclear family rather than to her larger extended one.
Such middle-class behavior would normally make little sense even from the woman’s point of view, since a potential husband would be unlikely to be a successful breadwinner. Greater security can usually be found by remaining in the network and avoiding marital commitments. Thus the contemporary situation has apparently created a new kind of tension or conflict between the two sides of the black family tradition that Gutman describes as coexisting in the past—conjugal affection and loyalty to an extended kin group. Two aspects of family life that even under slavery could reinforce each other may now turn out to be harsh alternatives for the poorest and most deprived blacks. Stack’s work suggests that many will continue to choose the kinship network over the conjugal union so long as severe unemployment and the current welfare system persist.
But reformers should not be too quick to set as their goal the isolated nuclear family that is the norm among middle-class whites. These islands of self-contained tension and neurosis hardly represent familial perfection. A better objective would be to try to restore the complementary relationship between the ties of marriage and the obligations of extended kinship that, according to Gutman, is the essence of the black folk tradition.
September 30, 1976
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People (Oxford University Press). ↩
Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Little, Brown & Co.). ↩
Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Pantheon). ↩
University of Chicago Press. A new edition (the third) is being published this year and contains Elkins’s latest response to his critics. ↩
See Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (MIT Press, 1967), p. 62. ↩
Published by Random House. See also John Henrik Clarke, ed., William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (Beacon Press, 1968). ↩
See George M. Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch, “Resistance to Slavery,” and Roy Bryce-Laporte, “Slaves as Inmates, Slaves as Men: A Sociological Discussion of the Elkins Thesis,” in Ann J. Lane, ed., The Debate over Slavery: Stanley Elkins and His Critics (University of Illinois Press, 1971), pp. 223-244, 269-292. ↩
Oxford University Press. ↩
Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in Working-Class and Social History (Alfred A. Knopf). ↩
Harper and Row, 1974. ↩