John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger announce at the outset of their study of runaway slaves that “even today important aspects of the history of slavery remain shrouded in myth and legend.” The myths and legends are not only those that still romanticize the old plantation but also the contrary ones that demonize it. Like other myths they have only a remote resemblance to fact, but historians who seek to dispel them, an enterprise that has engaged some of the best of them in the past fifty years, have found that in the study of slavery myth clings stubbornly to fact. Every exposition of what actually happened on the plantation carries implications, frequently unintended, that echo the myths. And this is particularly the case with attempts to recover the facts of what slavery did to slaves, where a long tail of implication sometimes seems to wag the dog.
Stanley Elkins argued in a seminal work in 1959 that slavery reduced its victims to mindless “sambos,” comparable to the brainwashed inmates of concentration camps.1 This indictment carried the unintended implication that slaves lacked the character or strength of mind to resist the destruction of their self-respect by heartless masters. The implication gathered new significance in a 1965 Department of Labor report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which drew on Elkins to argue that “the slave household often developed a fatherless matrifocal (mother-centered) pattern,” a pattern which continued into the twentieth century with disastrous consequences.2
Moynihan’s report, aimed toward a national effort to break that continuity, made its appearance just at the time when many black leaders of the civil rights movement were tending toward a separatism in which they cherished a positive continuity with slave culture and resented any deficiencies that whites might find in blacks, slave or free. In 1974, in a work ostensibly designed to reveal “the record of black achievement under adversity,” Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman used a statistical economic analysis to portray the plantation as an enlightened business enterprise: under masters guided by cost-effectiveness, slaves enjoyed somewhat better conditions of life than free workers, and lived in nuclear families headed by husbands.3 This went way beyond any refutation of Elkins or Moynihan; and other historians immediately challenged it, not only in its benign statistics but in its seeming “return to a very old-fashioned concept of the acquiescent slave, and to all of its potentially racist implications.”4 A large number of more detailed studies, avoiding any such implications, have explored the slave culture of resistance, and portrayed the building of nuclear families within it as acts of defiance rather than compliance.5 Now Orlando Patterson, as we shall see, returns to the view of the Moynihan report in dismissing such families as not families at all but mere “reproductive units,” at the service of their masters.
That serious scholars could arrive at such conflicting conclusions testifies to the inconclusiveness and malleability of the multitude of surviving sources—ledgers, laws, letters, diaries, newspapers, books—all written by the free for the free. There are a few autobiographical narratives by escaped slaves and some recollections by survivors, gathered sixty or seventy years after emancipation by the Federal Writers Project. But for the most part what slaves thought or felt has to be extracted almost entirely from what other people did to them or said about them. That is not an insuperable barrier, for historians commonly have to cull facts from testimony not necessarily designed to disclose them. But the exercise is a nice one when the facts all derive from controversy and can fuel further controversy. Franklin and Schweninger have been able to reduce the inherent bias of their sources by confining themselves to two kinds of documents where “it was in the interests of individuals to state their case as clearly and truthfully as possible”: descriptions of runaways in advertisements for their capture and petitions to legislatures and county courts in cases involving runaways. While these sources give us only fleeting glimpses of what life on the run was like for those with the daring or desperation to undertake it, they do make possible the first comprehensive analysis of slave resistance during the seventy years prior to emancipation. The analysis neither romanticizes nor demonizes the plantation and dispels some legends, but it too carries implications that the authors may not have intended.
Violent rebellion was never a possible option for Afro-American slaves because they were outnumbered everywhere in the United States by Euro-Americans (not the case in the successful rebellion in Haiti in 1801). Running away, on the other hand, was not directed toward the goal of overthrowing the slave system. Rather, as becomes apparent in Franklin and Schweninger’s study, flight served, perhaps not deliberately or consciously, as a way of limiting and defining the operation of the system. Running away kept slavery within bearable limits both for those who ran and for those they left behind, even though in the short run it usually meant trouble for both.
The book’s aim is simply to demonstrate with abundant evidence that slaves did not acquiesce quietly in their enslavement. They could be kept at the job of producing a profit for their owners only by the whip or the threat of the whip. And the threat was made thoroughly plausible by the continual realization of it. Slaves who ran were usually caught in the end and suffered for it, knew they would suffer, but were ready to pay in pain for a brief spell of freedom. A few made it to the free states of the North or to Canada. A few remained hidden for years or even a lifetime, in the “maroon” camps of the swamps and forests or in the anonymity of cities like New Orleans or Charleston. But most of them were quickly captured or forced by cold and hunger or some internal compulsion to return. Many of them repeated the process again and again, gaining a reputation as “runners,” thereby incidentally lowering their market value and also disrupting production sufficiently to give planters a motive for making life on the plantation more attractive than life on the run.
Because runaways were seldom advertised unless they had been gone as much as a month, the total can never be known. The authors estimate that they may have averaged 50,000 a year or more. The number advertised from 1790 to 1860 was only about 8,400, but the authors argue that “while runaways constituted a small minority of the slave population, they were of enormous significance in the plantation universe.” That significance may have lain, as the authors say, “in their defiance of the system,” but it was not the defiance itself that mattered so much as its effect on the planter’s profits. Analysis of age and sex, where known, supports such a judgment. Over 80 percent of runaways were male, and of these three out of four were under thirty. In other words, those most likely to run were also those most capable of hard work. But slaves of all ages and both sexes ran away as opportunities presented themselves. Eternal vigilance, to change the metaphor, was the price of slave-owning.
It was a price that slaveholders gladly paid. While Franklin and Schweninger emphasize the universal resistance of slaves to their subjection, the implication that emerges unmistakably if unintentionally from the evidence offered is the failure of that resistance to seriously impair the success of the slave system. Those who went on the run generally struck out alone. Though couples or entire families sometimes made the attempt, there seem to have been no examples of concerted or mass desertions. Running away became a regular and accepted thing for masters to put up with, “a matter of course,” contained within dimensions that never challenged the viability of the system itself. Analysis of the different occasions that prompted or enabled slaves to run shows them to have coincided with irregular situations and events in their lives as slaves, such as a change of masters or overseers, sale or the threat of sale, forced separation from wives or husbands, children or parents, quarrels between a master and his wife that disrupted discipline, being hired out on loan to other masters.
Cases of enticement by whites who promised freedom were relatively rare, though continually feared. Runaways seldom headed north toward freedom, because the odds against making it were too great. Most of them stayed in the South, often in the immediate neighborhood, where they were assisted with provisions by fellow slaves and sometimes gathered in gangs until caught. The occasion or opportunity for running might come at any season of the year, but the only season when the recorded numbers dropped was during the autumn harvest. Presumably the decrease was due to closer surveillance at a time when labor was most needed, but again it shows the ability of masters to limit the impact of this kind of resistance. Because owners counted on regularly losing a certain amount of labor from runaways anyhow, they also counted on making up the difference by driving those who remained that much harder while their companions were gone. As Franklin and Schweninger observe, “Since those who went out were usually brought back within the fortnight, they did not represent a serious economic loss nor did the temporary loss of hands mean the work could not be transferred to those who remained behind.”
The success of masters in keeping all resistance within bounds is evinced even by their corresponding success in persuading themselves that they were playing the role of benevolent fathers to children who owed them not only labor but gratitude. Prompted perhaps by verbal assaults from the North, they learned to speak of their “peculiar institution” as one of “domestic” slavery and increasingly referred to their slaves as part of their “family.” “Again and again,” Franklin and Schweninger note, “slaveowners used the same word to describe runaways: ungrateful.” Their departure always seemed “without any cause,” a betrayal of their paternal keepers.
To dismiss such habitual designations as hypocrisy (which the authors do not) would be to miss the significance of the fact that running away, however common, could be treated as abnormal, deviant behavior. One New Orleans physician diagnosed it as “drapetomania, or the disease causing Negroes to run away.” It was, he insisted, “as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation.” The norm was happy childlike Negroes who loved their masters and deserved punishment if they failed to do what they were told. Whippings that left a man or woman scarred or maimed for life could be considered without regret as applications of the old adage about sparing the rod. It required no more than the usual human capacity for self-deception to sustain this delusion.
Measures to limit running away were not difficult to devise, because freedom and slavery were so closely tied to color in a society where miscegenation was common that the market value of a slave depended in some degree on complexion: any light-colored slave lost value by virtue of the fact that he or she could too easily escape and pass for free. The proportion of mulattoes among runaways was three to four times their proportion in the slave population, because it was easier for them to get away with it. Most runaways of whatever shade returned of their own accord in a short time, because the forces arrayed against them were so many: the slave owners of a region kept up a network of correspondence in which they alerted one another to escapes; tracking runaways became a profession for a small class of men, who made use of dogs trained for the purpose; patrols rode up and down the roads night and day, requiring every person of color to explain his or her presence away from a plantation.
Free black persons away from home (where a neighboring white could vouch for them) would likely wind up in jail as presumed runaways and perhaps be auctioned off as slaves before their status could be verified. One free son of a white woman and a colored man escaped such a fate while traveling in Virginia only because no one would buy him: he was “too white.” Trackers sometimes bought at bargain prices any runaways who had evaded capture long enough to make owners decide to cut their losses rather than bank on their recapture. When and if the tracker succeeded in running down the fugitives, he could sell them for whatever the market would bear. And the continually rising price of slaves made the possible profits worth the risk. On the other hand, the expected return of most runaways kept any rewards offered for their capture at a surprisingly low figure, averaging no more than 5 percent of what a slave would sell for.
Franklin and Schweninger have demonstrated conclusively that slaves resisted their subjection by running from it despite the obstacles that normally made their escape shortlived and painful. What they have also demonstrated, whether intentionally or not, is that this form of resistance posed no serious threat to the system. It does not follow that the resistance was futile. The authors do not draw that conclusion, but neither do they give us a direct assessment of what runaways did achieve, apart from requiring slave owners to organize effective measures to thwart them.
The constant pressure of runaways on the system can be seen as one indication of the determining role played by slaves in setting practical limits to a coercion that was only theoretically absolute. For slavery to be cost-effective, as it clearly was, running away had to be made normally less attractive than submission. The costs and the modes of deterring it must not exceed or cancel the rewards. Measures severe enough to make it impossible might have debilitated or demoralized the labor force and defeated the purpose. Slavery, as Ira Berlin has argued, was a negotiated relationship, varying from time to time and from place to place.6 The threat of running away was one of the few bargaining chips that slaves could always bring to the negotiations; and Franklin and Schweninger record a few instances in which slaves actually “left with the intention of lying out for a few days, or weeks, and then negotiating to gain concessions.”
But the larger significance of running away lay in the silent negotiation that defined the system itself. Just as the threat of punishment accompanied by frequent exercise of it was sufficient to prevent most slaves from running most of the time, the threat of running away accompanied by continual examples of it was sufficient to keep the exercise of owners’ powers within limits acceptable to the owned. By showing that they could be pushed just so far and not farther, slaves won what amounted to rights that could be violated only by endangering the relationship: the right to grow a small crop of their own, to buy and sell property of their own, and especially the right to have a family of their own.
Although John Hope Franklin is currently presiding over a national “dialogue” on race relations, he avoids making any connections here between runaway slaves and present-day relations between or within ethnic or racial groups. His and Schweninger’s findings nevertheless point to the strength of the slave family ties that have figured so largely in recent studies of slave culture: separation from “loved ones” by a sale was one of the common occasions for running away.
Orlando Patterson would scarcely challenge such a connection or the possibility of genuine affection in slave unions. But in Rituals of Blood he deploys his characteristic superlatives to denounce the resurrection of the idea of the stable slave family in studies that he considers “not just an academic absurdity” but “an intellectual disgrace, the single greatest disservice that the American historical profession has ever done to those who turn to it for guidance about the past and the etiology of present problems.” The historical profession may perhaps take comfort in the fact that Patterson also finds the whole history of Christianity before Martin Luther King “one of the greatest distortions and misappropriations in the history of the world.”
Despite his addiction to hyperbole, Patterson’s is a voice that should be taken seriously in any national dialogue on race, a term which he customarily places in quotation marks as something that exists only in mistaken minds. He speaks as a sociologist, historian, and philosopher, not to say prophet. And as a historian his specialty has been the effect of slavery on slaves. He began in 1967, two years after the Moynihan report, with a sociological analysis of slavery in his native Jamaica. In it he observed that “the nuclear family could hardly exist within the context of slavery…. Furthermore, even where such families did develop, the male head could not assert his authority as a husband or as a father. His ‘wife’ was the property of another.”7 Patterson went on to a study of slavery in every part of the world from the beginning of recorded history to the present. He found that Jamaica had been no exception:
In all slaveholding societies slave couples could be and were forcibly separated and the consensual “wives” of slaves were obliged to submit sexually to their masters; slaves had no custodial claims or powers over their children, and children inherited no claims or obligations to their parents.
He admitted that in the American South “stable unions and households were encouraged, sometimes even required, by the master class.” But what he calls “natal alienation” was one of the distinguishing marks of slavery in the United States and everywhere else. Slaves, by definition, were “socially dead.” They might have informal social relations among themselves but no legal relationship to anyone, living or dead, except their masters. They could have sexual unions but not marriages or families that their master or anyone else was bound to recognize.8
Patterson has continued to study “the structures and culture of domination in human life” but with more attention to the relations of Euro-Americans and Afro-Americans (terms he insists on in place of “white” and “black”) in the United States after the end of slavery. In 1997 he offered one of the most judicious assessments we have yet seen of affirmative action in The Ordeal of Integration. 9 This was billed as the first volume of a trilogy. Rituals of Blood is the second volume, consisting of three long essays on disparate phenomena in American life, related only by a sometimes tenuous connection to the slave past of Afro-Americans.
The first and longest essay, “Broken Bloodlines,” examines the similarities and differences between Euro-American and Afro-American families on the basis largely of opinion polls and statistics collected by government agencies and private foundations. The opinions are detailed and the statistics derived with a precision that sometimes boggles the mind, for example the opinions about whether a single mother can successfully raise a son. We find that the majority of Americans as a whole think she can, but “being married diminishes the odds of concurring by 43 percent,” while “those who have never been married are 2.75 times more likely” to concur and “the divorced and separated 63 percent more likely.” There are scores of statistics like this, with tables and graphs to match. They all point in one way or another to Patterson’s main concern, the isolation of Afro-Americans, which he attributes in large measure to the failure of fatherhood among them:
Afro-Americans are the most unpartnered and isolated group of people in America and quite possibly in the world. Unlike any other group of Americans, most of them will go through most of their adult lives without any deep and sustained attachment to a non-kin companion. Sixty percent of Afro-American children are now being brought up without the emotional or material support of a father. This is so because the great majority of Afro-American mothers have been seduced, deceived, betrayed, and abandoned by the men to whom they gave their love and trust.
Patterson’s analysis of how this situation came about is nowhere directed toward excusing “the men who so wantonly impregnate these mothers, then abandon them and their children.” He finds it “hard to imagine a more execrable form of immorality and irresponsible behavior” and heaps scorn on the “cool-pose culture” that endorses it among the underclass of Afro-Americans in urban ghettos. But he has no doubt that the explanation of such behavior lies in an unbroken chain leading back to the plantation. After studying slavery in the rest of the world he needed no deep immersion in the slave culture of the American South to confirm the “natal alienation” of its slaves and particularly of males who had to surrender every right of a husband and father to their owners. Slave motherhood “had legal status [in the slave owner’s legal right to the offspring, whoever the father] and was jealously guarded by the slaveholder”; slave men, on the other hand, compensated for their emasculation by abusing their partners and indulging themselves in heedless promiscuity.
The historians whom Patterson denounces for giving a sustaining role to families in slave culture earn another rebuke for cherishing the continuation of African customs and kinship relations as a source of support. Patterson points out that slavery was well established in West African societies with the usual effect of social death for slaves: “Slaves had children and relatives but no legitimate kin.” As a result, enslavement and transportation to a strange land had a traumatically isolating effect on those who suffered it. Deprived of the customary restraints and obligations of fatherhood and bound by no new ones, male slaves adopted a stark Darwinian strategy: “Bringing a child into the world became a virtual obligation of manhood and of ethnic survival that did not entail any consideration of the means whereby one would support it.” The modern consequence is that “male descendants of slaves firmly believe that ‘birth control is a plot to kill the Negro race.”‘
Patterson is evidently not one of the majority of Americans who think that a single mother, at least in the situation of Afro-American women in the ghetto, can successfully bring up a son. The abuse such women and their partners suffered in childhood begets the abuse of their own children, and their children’s children,
all leading back to that most heinous form of abusive socialization: the slave plantation, which let it not be forgotten, is less than three generations away. Many of the grandparents who brought up the parents of today’s underclass children were themselves brought up by ex-slaves.
The social death of slaves has been carried forward, not only in the broken families of the Afro-American underclass but in other kinds of isolation of Afro-Americans from one another and from the rest of the world. They are less willing, in proportion to their numbers, to intermarry with Euro-Americans than the other way around. Their networks of friends and associates generally include fewer kin than is the case with Euro-Americans, and are more “dense,” that is, their friends all tend to know each other and do not intersect or overlap with other social networks. The total effect is that Afro-Americans are shut off or shut themselves off from social and economic opportunities of all kinds and also lack the security and support of kinsmen that Euro-American groups enjoy.
Patterson rests his portrayal of Afro-American isolation on the array of statistics he has derived from the United States Census, from the National Health and Social Life Survey conducted by University of Chicago sociologists in 1991, from a 1997 survey of gender roles sponsored by Harvard’s School of Public Health, The Washington Post, and the Kaiser Family Foundation, and finally from the annual General Social Survey of the University of Chicago. He makes full use of earlier studies of gender relations among Afro-Americans and considers a multitude of variables affecting the way the sexes treat each other and the differences in attitudes, opinions, and sexual relations among Euro-Americans as well as Afro-Americans of all ages. He considers the effects of external factors such as economic opportunity and the much greater upward mobility of Afro-American women than of Afro-American men.
But in the end he traces the ultimate source of Afro-American isolation to attitudes induced by slavery and perpetuated from generation to generation, first in the neoslavery of sharecropping and then in the ghetto. Like Moynihan before him, he wants to break that continuity, and he has nothing good to say about the black separatism that serves to perpetuate it. Studies that confer stability on slave families can be seen as offering support to separatism, coming as they did in conjunction with black separatist reactions to Moynihan. That conjunction, it would seem, has dictated Patterson’s heated denunciation of them and their authors.
It would be hard to disagree with his strictures on separatism, but his rejection of slave families rests less on historical research than on a projection of the attitudes of current underclass Afro-Americans back onto their slave ancestors, another case of the long tail of implication wagging the dog. Patterson’s earlier study of slavery throughout the world developed a definition of the institution that fits it for the role he here assigns it but left no room for the negotiated relationship which subsequent historians have found in the American South. It requires a doctrinaire sort of assurance to dismiss out of hand the evidence for such a relationship, for its variation from place to place and from time to time, and for the existence of nuclear slave families in defiance of the legal imperatives of slavery. If slavery had been as controlling as Patterson’s view requires, any book on runaway slaves would have to have been much shorter than the one Franklin and Schweninger have given us. It does not diminish Patterson’s diagnosis of the current situation, or the urgency of addressing it, to question his attribution of its origin.
It may well be that relations between men and women are at the heart of the problem and that therefore, as Patterson concludes, the only solution is ultimately to be found in “a radical recommitment to stable gender, marital, and parental attitudes and behavior” on the part of Afro-American men. But if the unfortunate attitudes and behavior that need replacing have been generated by more proximate causes than slavery, they may be more susceptible to present remedies. In the first volume of his trilogy, The Ordeal of Integration, Patterson hailed the success of government action in integrating schools and expanding economic opportunity. Here he suggests some short-term steps government might take to curb child abuse and to enforce laws against deadbeat fathers. But the long-term goal of overcoming the cool-pose culture of the ghetto can scarcely be brought closer by giving it a respectable ancestry it does not have.
The slave culture that is delineated in recent studies has never been seen as supporting the Darwinian strategy of heedless procreation that Patterson ascribes to male slaves. If nuclear families played the sustaining role historians have assigned them in slave culture, a respect for them could also help to sustain Afro-American families in the radical recommitment (should it not in his view be a new commitment?) that Patterson calls for. In his dismissal of such families among slaves, in favor of an a priori assertion of their impossibility, he deprives Afro-Americans of a highly usable past. If that past never existed, it should not be invented, but if it did exist, and the best evidence says that it did, it is worth cherishing.
Rituals of Blood might well have concluded with this first essay. One might say better have concluded there. The other two essays have little relation to its message. They are tours de force, in which Patterson’s creative imagination discovers cosmic meanings in two mass phenomena of post-slavery Euro-American culture. “Feast of Blood” treats lynchings as rituals of human sacrifice, dictated by the cannibalistic imperatives of a Christianity that went wrong with Saint Paul and has not recovered. In counterpoint, “American Dionysus” treats the surprising popular idolization of black sports heroes like Michael Jordan as Dionysian symbolism, crossing and at the same time dissolving boundaries of color and sex. In it we learn that Dennis Rodman, formerly of the Chicago Bulls, is “possibly the most authentic epiphany of Dionysus since the fall of ancient culture.” Patterson has a lot of fun with this fantasy, and many readers will too. This reader didn’t quite get it. The first essay is not much fun, and neither is its subject, but it deserves the attention that the other two should not be allowed to obscure.
June 10, 1999
Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (University of Chicago Press, 1959). ↩
United States Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, D.C., 1965), p. 16. ↩
Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Little, Brown, 1974), p. 264. ↩
Paul A. David et al., Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery (Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 28. ↩
Particularly John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Ante-Bellum South (Oxford University Press, 1972) and Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (Pantheon, 1976). ↩
The Sociology of Slavery: An Analysis of the Origins, Development and Structure of Negro Slave Society in Jamaica (MacGibbon and Kee, 1967), p. 167. ↩
Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 5-6, 190. ↩