The Big American Crime

It has been a long time since anyone has argued that slavery was a good thing, but just how bad it was has become a pregnant question. It is not in doubt that slaves suffered injustice and cruelty, that slave plantations, whether producing rice or tobacco, cotton or sugar, rested on systematic brutality and violence. The question is what the experience did to the people violated, especially in North America, where they were almost all black, the ancestors of present-day black Americans. Or should we say of African-Americans? The choice of a name is itself a way of taking sides, like the older one between Negro and black (or Black?), a choice between stressing national unity or ethnic diversity, between affirming racial equality or black pride. Historical investiga-tion of what slavery did to slaves is charged with presentist implications that shadow every fact found, and consciously or unconsciously shape every interpretation.

The subject took on a new kind of sensitivity early in this century after anthropologists, under the leadership of Franz Boas, began examining the complexity and sophistication of African cultures (the plural is important). Melville Herskovits, a student of Boas, studied the cultures not only of Africans in a part of Africa (Dahomey) but also of descendants of Africans in Haiti, Suriname, and most significantly the United States. In The Myth of the Negro Past (1941)1 he argued that much in African cultures had survived the trauma of slavery and persisted among the descendants of slaves. In Brazil and Suriname and to a somewhat lesser extent in the United States he found survivals of African music and dancing, African styles of humor and modes of address, African patterns of family relationship and social structure, African attitudes toward the elderly, toward children, toward the dead. White ignorance or denial of such cultural survivals in the United States, Herskovits argued, was “one of the principal supports of race prejudice in this country,” because it left the Negro “a man without a past,” unworthy of the respect that other ethnic groups inherited from identification with their progenitors.

Although it was not his intention, Herskovits seemed to imply that slavery could not have been as totally repressive as, say, the abolitionists had made it out to be. He had discovered an African past in the black communities of his own day. If remnants of African cultures had survived until then, they could not have been obliterated by slavery. Slaves must have been able to sustain a degree of cultural autonomy under the restraints of a regime that claimed the power to order their every waking hour. Of course the more power exerted over them, the greater their achievement in setting limits to it. But in any case, if Herskovits was right, slavery was not a one-way street in which slave owners dictated every movement. The history of slavery could be understood only as an interchange between two parties, the one not as wholly subdued to the other as had been generally supposed.

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