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The Slave Community:

July 2024
5min read

Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue, by C. Vann Woodward.

Little, Brown and Co., 301 pp. $7.95

Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, by John W. Blassingame.

Oxford Univ. Press, 272 pp. $7.95

We are still seeing slavery through a glass, darkly, and small wonder. For the legacy of race conflict, slavery’s deformed child (or perhaps its parent), remains with us, refusing to be banished by all our piety and wit.

We would like to turn our eyes away from it, but we cannot. All we can do is try to see both past and present clearly, hoping that intelligence will make us free of anger and error and find a way to a peaceable future. The quest for the historical truth of slavery is therefore a cleansing and valuable task. When that task is shared by historians of both races, whose goal is to unveil the reality of the past and not necessarily to confirm anyone’s prejudices (black or white, liberal or conservative), there is cause for rejoicing among professional historians and their readers. Academic training has some use, after all; it cuts across lines of bias and conditioning in a helpful way.

Consider two books. American Counterpoint is the work of a distinguished white history professor at Yale, who is now over sixty years of age—and who was born in Arkansas. It appeared in 1971. A year later John Blassingame—also a Yale faculty historian- emerges with his study, The Slave Community . Blassingame is a Southerner by birth, too. But he is thirty-two years younger than Woodward, and black. Yet somehow, without planning, one is sure, both books take a sharp view of some legends that have grown up around the “peculiar institution.” Both uncompromisingly assail the actual record with piercing questions. And both men wind up with studies that defy some of our prejudices, prod us with yet unanswered questions, and somehow make us feel that we have moved a little closer to liberating truth.

Consider, now, just a few of the ideas about slavery and the black race that have been current (and often in conflict) in historical circles for the last dozen years or so:

—Blacks were stripped of their language, religion, customs, and culture in slavery and taught just enough of their masters’ ways to make them tractable. They were denied family life, rendering their menfolk especially irresponsible since they could not protect their own children. Some slaves responded to this cultural rape by adopting a “Sambo” personality—childlike, undisciplined, humorous, and dependent.

—Blacks pretended to acquiescence in slavery and affection for their white plantation owners and neighbors but actually were filled with rebelliousness.

—Slaves suffered more in white, Protestant America than in the colonies of Catholic Spain, France, and Portugal. This was because the American slave was simply a piece of capital goods in a liberal society that let each planter do what he liked with his property; whereas in the Latin colonies the royal government intervened to guarantee that the king’s wards got some protection, and the Church had a hand in seeing that the pope’s flocks were educated in their Christian duties. Moreover, AngloSaxons worried more about racial purity than Frenchmen or Spaniards and made no legal distinction between the coal-black Negro and the octoroon. In Latin America, by contrast, there was more recognition accorded to mulattos and a rising scale of privileges that went with each degree of lightness.

To say in detail what these books do to such assumptions is impossible in a short space. It is worthwhile, however, to point out a brace of the generalizations to which Woodward pays close and fruitful attention. To begin with, there is the matter of slave numbers and mortality. Woodward, relying on the best and latest scholarship, dismisses exaggerated claims that perhaps forty million Africans were shipped out (after first being enslaved by other Africans!) during the trade’s macabre centuries of life. He finds the count closer to ten million, and of these, only about 450,000 came to England’s North American colonies. Yet those 450,000 had swelled to four million by the time of the Civil War, whereas in supposedly less harsh Latin America the slave populations not only did not increase but actually declined by as much as half in the same period. This, Woodward notes, should give us pause in our assessment. Did American planters simply take better care of their “stock”? Did they encourage larger numbers of their black women to “breed”? (That charge, levelled by abolitionists, was always denied by Southerners.) Or is there some Malthusian factor at work that we have not yet isolated?

Woodward also takes a sharp glance at the Brazilian plantation, which is somehow supposed to have followed a pattern that made the absorption of blacks easier, after emancipation, than it was in the United States. He finds it to have been tolerant of racial differences, indeed- tolerant in an almost Biblical way. In translation this means that for the Brazilian planters, polygamous miscegenation was an acceptable pattern. They had numerous slave mistresses, and they sustained their power to do so with an authoritarian sway over their households that reduced their white women also to virtual chattels dwelling among their husbands’ concubines. And some Brazilian plantation patriarchs also were capable of savage punishments, petulant rages, and drunken idleness on a scale that would have made Simon Legree look benign or Augustin St. Clare purposeful by contrast.

Blassingame, too, has myths to puncture. He notes, first of all, that the so-called extinction of African culture was far from complete. Long after shipment from Africa there were on the plantations musicians, drummers, singers, tellers of talcs, carvers of wood in traditional forms, and conjurers who played important roles in the slave community. The “cultural rape” theory does not rest on sound evidence.

Moreover, a careful study of plantation records and of narratives composed by escaped slaves indicates that a kind of family and community structure endured in the quarters. Law or no law, many slave fathers did their best, even when it involved infrequent or difficult visits to neighboring plantations where their wives were located, to look after and set models for their children. Furthermore, within the world of field and cabin there were blacks whose special strength, skill, and cunning allowed them to master various crafts. These became indispensable to their owners, but in addition earned respect among the slaves themselves. The head blacksmith or cotton-gin mechanic, the black overseer—these were men who had to be won over before a job could be well done, as any master soon learned. And they were often the figures turned to by the slaves during crises, having earned that instinctive reliance that people place on natural leaders.

Finally, Blassingame notes, generalizations about slave personality skimp the actual complexity of plantation life. There were some “Sambos,” indeed. There also were—as the records show—slaves who literally would not submit to punishment or intimidation. In between were those who knew when to push and when to yield, when to shirk and when to hustle, which white folks could be handled and which could not. There were slaves easily broken by punishment, and others manageable only by those whom they could respect or love. The documents indicate, in fact, that people are people even under the extreme stresses of a system as outrageous to our modern ideas of human dignity as slavery.

For after all, to say that many blacks lived lives of occasional satisfaction and pride, even in bondage, is not to say that they were debased or docile, but simply that they had tremendous capacity to endure. The human animal’s persistence in asserting personality in the face of crushing disaster is amazing. The observation that some kind of slave society remained intact under the shadow of the lash is not inconsistent with the reality of occasional black rebellion or perennial black craving for freedom. It simply underscores the toughness of the slaves’ spirit.

Both these writers know that they do not have the final truth of slavery. Both recognize that as an impossible goal, given an imperfect record and the fallibility of human nature. Blassingame writes: “The slave, like the master, gave his view of the institution. Both distorted reality as they viewed the world through their respective lenses.” And Woodward notes that perhaps it would have been better for future peace between the races if Anglo-American masters had shared certain experiences (such as a past occupation byMoors) with those of Iberian background. “But then,” he says, “that would have been somebody else’s history and not our own.” We must see both sides—indeed, all sides —of our history and accept the unchangeable reality of what we see. It might indeed be splendid if we had behaved like other peoples (or vice versa), but the moving finger has writ, and we have better uses for our energies than wishfully thinking it may be lured back to cancel half a line. That lesson alone may be one of the best to be derived from the study of history.


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