The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

by Mechal Sobel
Princeton University Press, 364 pp., $25.00

Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community, 1720–1840

by Gary B. Nash
Harvard University Press, 354 pp., $28.95

Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia: 1860–-1900

by Roger Lane
Harvard University Press, 213 pp., $25.00

When Landon Carter, a Virginia plantation owner, read the Declaration of Independence two days after it was issued, he wondered whether its ringing affirmation of equality meant that slaves must be freed. If so, he confided to his diary, “you must send them out of the country or they must steal for their support.” The author of the Declaration held an even darker view. Jefferson thought that emancipation, unless accompanied by the exile of blacks, would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”

Carter and Jefferson both figure largely in Mechal Sobel’s study of black–white relations in eighteenth-century Virginia. The picture she draws seems to belie the one implied in the dire predictions. It is one of black and white living together in close quarters, each with inherited customs and attitudes, which meshed and interacted, so that both the dominant Anglo culture and the black subculture, itself a blend of many African cultures, were transformed.

It scarcely needs arguing that African customs were altered in America. For a long time it was assumed (a highly charged assumption, like all assumptions about race) that slavery eradicated every trace of inherited culture and left blacks without a past and with new patterns of living dictated entirely by their masters. The trend in modern studies of slavery has been the passionate opposite, to emphasize the survival of the African heritage and the autonomy of black culture even under slavery. Sobel takes the trend a step further in contending that attitudes and casts of mind carried from Africa penetrated and altered the dominant English culture. She sees the preindustrial, seasonal work patterns of Africa reinforcing traditional precapitalist English agricultural work patterns to create the lazy South. She sees native African acceptance of slavery encouraging the deference demanded by the master class in America. She finds African technology in the construction of houses transforming English housing.

Most significantly Sobel finds black and white patterns of religious experience meshing and merging in the evangelical denominations that swept up lower- and middle-class Virginians in the last half of the eighteenth century. Here the argument is persuasive in suggesting how African attitudes toward death made blacks susceptible to the “new birth” that figured so heavily in the preaching of Baptists and Methodists. That the black example served to make Virginia’s whites “more ‘open’ to ecstasy and spiritual life,” as Sobel seems to be saying, is less clear. Ecstasy of the spirit and outbursts of emotional frenzy have accompanied evangelical Christianity everywhere.

What Sobel does not emphasize, perhaps because it is obvious, is that this Virginia “world they made together” remained a white man’s world. White Virginians might learn from blacks—as white South Carolinians may have learned how to grow rice from them—but the blacks remained their slaves. The few who were free or freed and remained among them were a constant source of worry, and were systematically deprived of fundamental rights enjoyed by whites.

The intransigence…

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 account.