The Skeleton in the Closet

Slave Narratives

edited by William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Library of America, 1,035 pp., $40.00


One hundred and thirty-five years after its abolition, slavery is still the skeleton in the American closet. Among the African-American descendants of its victims there is a difference of opinion about whether the memory of it should be suppressed as unpleasant and dispiriting or commemorated in the ways that Jews remember the Holocaust. There is no national museum of slavery and any attempt to establish one would be controversial. In 1995 black employees of the Library of Congress successfully objected to an exhibition of photographs and texts describing the slave experience, because they found it demoralizing. But other African-Americans have called for a public acknowledgment of slavery as a national crime against blacks, comparable to the Holocaust as a crime against Jews, and some have asked that reparations be paid to them on the grounds that they still suffer from its legacy. Most whites, especially those whose ancestors arrived in the United States after the emancipation of the slaves and settled outside the South, do not see why they should accept any responsibility for what history has done to African-Americans. Recently, however, the National Park Service has begun a systematic review of exhibits at Civil War battlefields to make visitors aware of how central slavery and race were to the conflict.

Professional historians have not shared the public’s ambivalence about remembering slavery. Since the publication of Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution in 1956 and Stanley Elkins’s Slavery in 1959, the liveliest and most creative work in American historical studies has been devoted to slavery and the closely related field of black-white relations before the twentieth century. In the 1970s, there was a veritable explosion of large and important books about slavery in the Old South.1 But no consensus emerged about the essential character of antebellum slavery. What was common to all this work was a reaction against Stanley Elkins’s view that slavery devastated its victims psychologically, to such an extent that it left them powerless to resist their masters’ authority or even to think and behave independently.2 If slaves were now endowed with “agency” and a measure of dignity, the historians of the Seventies differed on the sources and extent of the cultural “breathing space” that slaves were now accorded. For Herbert Gutman, it was the presence among slaves of closely knit nuclear and extended families; for John Blassingame, it was the distinctive communal culture that emanated from the slave quarters; for Eugene Genovese, it was the ability to maneuver within an ethos of plantation paternalism that imposed obligations on both masters and slaves.3

Clearly there was a difference of opinion between Blassingame and Gutman, on one hand, and Genovese on the other, about how much autonomy the slaves possessed. Genovese conceded a “cultural hegemony” to the slaveholders that the others refused to acknowledge. But even Genovese celebrated “the world that the slaves made” within the interstices of the paternalistic world that the slaveholders had made. At the very least, slaves had their own conceptions of…

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