Beneath the debate that has been going on among English scholars over the state of the working classes during the Industrial Revolution lies a painful dilemma. One aspect of the question is all bound up with “immiseration”: the demoralizing and brutalizing consequences of exploitation under the emerging industrial system. The other aspect is that of resistance to the exploitation, and its consequences: creative energy, the development of a distinctive cultural identity, a radical working-class literature and tradition. The dilemma, of course, is how you can emphasize vitality and achievement while you are also emphasizing decline and degradation. I mention this problem because of its resemblance to another that especially concerns me.1 This is the debate that has proceeded for more than a decade over American black slavery.

In surveying the experience of any group subject to radical oppression and stress, and when your principal theme is damage, it is neither easy nor expedient to build in an alternative frame-work that provides adequately for resistance. On the other hand, there is bound to be resistance in some form, and this too needs to be recorded. And yet the more you make of it, the more you minimize the impact of brutality and exploitation upon powerlessness as a sociological, psychological, and moral fact. Although powerlessness corrupts, just as surely in its way as does power, our sympathy for the powerless puts limits on our tolerance of what their condition has done to them, and upon our willingness to survey the whole damage. Thus as resistance looms larger (both theirs and ours), the damage steadily shrinks; so, unavoidably, does the powerlessness; so, even, does the brutality itself. Indeed, it begins to look as though things generally were not so bad, after all, as they had been made out. Much of the strain in the current state of historical thinking on slavery is a reflection of this dilemma. Is there any resolution in sight? I have my doubts.



There is a long tradition of writing about slavery that has put its primary stress upon brutality and damage. It goes at least as far back as Theodore Dwight Weld's American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839), which is still being quoted from; it includes Frederic Bancroft's bleak Slave Trading in the Old South, published nearly a century later; and its spirit suffuses the authors of the Myrdal series on the Negro in America done in the 1930's and 40's, at all those points where their work refers back to slavery. Slavery was always hotly debated, but the debate that dominated the subject in antebellum times, and continued in modified form well into the 20th century, was not at all the same debate I referred to above, the one that is in full swing now. Then, it was the evils of the system that preoccupied everyone, and the opposition's challenge was largely a matter of denying that the evils existed. Indeed, the Southerner Ulrich Phillips, whose work emphasized the benign aspects of the plantation regime and who thus managed to keep faith with his pro-slavery ancestors, was recognized for many years during the present century as the leading authority on the entire subject. That side of the debate, it goes without saying, was designed not to show how slaves resisted the system, but to mitigate and justify the practices of slaveholders.

But the abolitionists—we may as well call them that—were bound to win out, and the publication in 1956 of Kenneth Stampp's authoritative The Peculiar Institution signaled the final eclipse of Phillips's influence. My own book, Slavery, which came out three years later and which stressed the impact of an absolutist regime on slave personality, was actually part of that same tide, though I was hardly as willing to see it in such a way then as I am now. Stampp and I had our differences, but recent developments, as he wryly remarked to me not long ago, have retrospectively brought our positions a good deal closer together than they must have seemed then. I was a bit lofty about the need for value-free judgments, and I had some hard things to say about moralizing abolitionists. But for practical purposes I was one of them. I never once doubted, and certainly do not doubt now, that American chattel slavery was damaging to every man, woman, and child, white or black, who was in any way touched by it. I wanted to know what the damage was, and how it was done.

Now the tide has turned once more, having begun to do so in the later 1960's. Interest is now focused almost wholly upon resistance, resistance to the degradations of the slave regime that took a variety of forms, and upon something that was of scant concern to white scholars of a generation ago, the growth under slavery of a black culture. The two have become inseparable, culture itself functioning as a form of resistance. The new work examines slavery at many points and in considerable depth, but whatever else it does, the best of this work—indeed, most of the current output—involves a search for culture, and by now there is very little in any of it about damage.

Something should probably be said about the ideological climate in which both these arguments have functioned, the argument on damage that reached its peak in the mid-60's, and the one on culture that has come for the time being to supersede it in the attention of scholars and public.

The crest of the “damage” cycle in the early 1960's coincided almost perfectly with a state of mind regarding race relations whose dominant concern was integration and civil rights. Most of the writing done up to this time could function as both theoretical and ideological underpinning for the movement, and the writers themselves—historians, psychologists, sociologists, or whatever—were well aware of this. Each had contributed details to the catalogue of abuses that white society had heaped upon American blacks beginning with slavery, and of the damage for which, it was now earnestly felt, restitution must at last be made.

The spirit that animated the civil-rights movement was the hope of brotherhood, the conviction that the time had come when lines of separation on grounds of race should be resolutely swept away. The ideal had about it a certain grandeur, and one may still feel this in rereading, say, the writings of Howard Zinn on SNCC activities in the deep South. But there was another aspect of it that is clearer now than it seemed then. It was still very much—certainly in the work that had served to form the intellectual background—a matter of whites talking to whites. To be sure, there stood in that same background such black scholars as W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, Carter Woodson, and John Hope Franklin. But their work did not seem in the least inharmonious (Frazier's in particular was frequently referred to) with the perceptions of massive damage that permeated the writing of white intellectuals, and for which whites were guiltily considering remedies.

We may now see that such a situation—one in which whites told each other what was good for blacks, or at least took their own leadership in the interracial movement for granted—had its drawbacks. Still, it was not lacking in good will, and one can make too much of its condescensions. Moreover, there was one small advantage, for what it may have been worth. White intellectuals had not yet reached the point at which they would feel the need to weigh everything they said for its effect on an emergently aggressive black audience. The “civil-rights” phase, together with all the attitudes that had fashioned it, may be said to have reached a kind of benign meridian with President Lyndon Johnson's remarkable address at Howard University in June 1965. “Much of the Negro community,” the President said, “is buried under a blanket of history and circumstance.” Positive action, he declared, must be taken to repair the damage done by “ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice.”

Few could then have known how transitory this phase would prove to be, how swiftly the emphasis upon civil rights and integration (and “ancient brutality”) would evaporate, and how suddenly black spokesmen would emerge everywhere insisting that what was good for blacks would henceforth be defined by them, and not by whites. It was all to leave white intellectuals in rather a state of shock. In 1969 Marcus Cunliffe, observing the academic scene with the wicked detachment of an uninvolved Englishman, reported a deep sense of strain: “White facial muscles ache with nervous smiling, black ones with intimidating scowls.”2 What could possibly have happened?


In reviewing the precipitous change that occurred in the intellectual weather of the mid-1960's, one must see the famous Moynihan Report, together with what happened to it, as a truly critical event. Both the report and the program Moynihan hoped to initiate with it were smothered in a landslide of recrimination. The main details are familiar enough. As Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel P. Moynihan had given considerable thought to what he saw as the perilously demoralized state of the black family in Northern city ghettos, and the report he prepared on this subject was to open the way—or so he hoped—for a kind of sweeping domestic “Marshall Plan” of federal assistance to the black community. “Three centuries of injustice,” he wrote, “have brought about deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro American.” He advanced a synthesis of historical findings, sociological diagnoses, and current statistics to show the various forms of destruction this “injustice” had brought about and which should now be remedied through programs in the realms of employment, education, housing, and welfare reform. Moynihan's report, which defined the problem but deferred discussion of the remedies for subsequent planning, was completed by the spring of 1965. Moynihan had meanwhile persuaded President Johnson to give his own blessing to its spirit and principles, and this was what the President did in his Howard University address that June, of which Moynihan himself was the chief draftsman.3

For the subsequent failure of the report, so prodigious in view of such promising beginnings, a variety of reasons could be assigned. These would certainly include covert resistance within the welfare bureaucracy, the piecemeal and somewhat lackadaisical way in which the report's contents were leaked to the public, inadequate briefings of the press, insufficient consultation with civil-rights leaders, and the draining away of official energy during the fall of 1965 amid the administration's mounting preoccupation with the war in Vietnam. But the deepest reason of all, the one that underlay all the others, was that without anyone's quite realizing it the entire “damage” argument—as applied to Negro life in America—had become ideologically untenable.

Simply as policy, Moynihan's conception had much to be said for it. Given its general Catholic working-class welfare perspective, there should have been nothing grossly unreasonable about assuming that the morale and well-being of any community depend in some way on the stability of the families that make it up, that exploitation and economic adversity place the family life of any community under severe strain, and that the primary object of any program of social welfare should lie in assisting hard-pressed fathers to support their families decently and provide a stable setting for their children to grow up in. (Needless to say, this was not the only theory on which social policy might have been based, but it had at least a rough consistency, and in any case theories are not everything.) And there was a potentially logical transition from this to the remedies Moynihan had had in mind all along: jobs, job training, education, public housing, and a welfare structure that did not put a premium on disrupted families or penalize families that had men present—in short, a massive federal commitment to rebuilding the economic life of black communities everywhere. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that neither the generality of black spokesmen nor of white intellectuals had any real quarrel with the actual prescriptions Moynihan envisioned.


The uproar came not over the remedies, but over the argument for them. The report itself was a relentless, insistent, dreary picture of unrelieved damage, designed to prove beyond any doubt that the condition of the urban black family in America had deteriorated to the point of disaster. Beginning with claims made by me regarding the stultifications of individual personality experienced under slavery, adding material of a similar kind from the psychologist Thomas F. Pettigrew, and bringing in E. Franklin Frazier's account of the disruptive consequences of slavery upon the black family as a persistent legacy, Moynihan then produced a series of very depressing contemporary statistics. They dealt with differential rates (between whites and blacks) of unemployment, illegitimacy, crime, low educational performance, women with absent husbands, children with absent fathers, and families headed by women. “It was by destroying the Negro family under slavery,” Moynihan balefully warned, “that white America broke the will of the Negro people. Although that will has reasserted itself in our time, it is a resurgence doomed to frustration unless the viability of the Negro family is restored.” The report was not originally intended for public release, and Moynihan did not write under the constraints that might have been imposed by touchy persons watching over his shoulder. It was written to persuade inside policy-makers that the problem was so serious in scale that nothing short of a total commitment was thinkable. He wanted his paper to be “shocking enough that they would say, ‘Well, we can't let this sort of thing go on. We've got to do something about it.’”

Shocking it was, but to all the wrong people, and, in the end, with the very opposite results from those he had so fervently hoped for. What they saw, based on incomplete newspaper accounts, was a vast slur on the whole American black population, past and present. James Farmer (“I'm angry . . . really angry”) exploded in the Amsterdam News upon learning that “we've caught ‘matriarchy, ’ and ‘the tangle of Negro pathology’ . . . a social plague recently diagnosed by Daniel Moynihan. . . .” Roy Wilkins, who himself supported the report, explained somewhat apologetically that the black community resented the emphasis on the black family, “as if it were a moral criticism of themselves.” They were egged on, moreover, by prehensile white liberals who were beginning to try on “radical” attitudes. William Ryan, a mental-health consultant, wrote a widely-circulated paper, which was printed both in the Nation and in NAACP's Crisis, in which he discussed “this smug document” without having read it. “The theme is: ‘The Negro was not initially born inferior, he was made inferior by generations of harsh treatment.’ Thus we continue to assert that the Negro is inferior while chastely maintaining that all men are equal.” There is “no escape,” Ryan declared, “in the world of sociological fakery.” And the Christian Century loftily announced, after a discussion of the report's many fallacies, that the real agenda ought to be “jobs, housing, and education”—the very matters Moynihan had had closest at heart.

Still, for all the fumbled handling of the report, one may wonder how much sustained intellectual support Moynihan could have had for his message in the years immediately ahead, no matter what tactics had been used to promote it. The entire climate in which white intellectuals had hitherto functioned was changing. Charles Silberman, who had himself made a major contribution to what I have been calling the literature of “damage,” said as much in November 1965. The civil-rights phase, whose goals had been relatively simple and to a surprising degree successful, was over. The history of Negro-white relations, Silberman wrote,

has entered a new and radically different stage—a stage so different from the recent or distant past as to make the familiar approaches and solutions obsolete, irrelevant, and sometimes even harmful. . . . What is new is that Negroes have begun to reveal and express—indeed, to act out—the anger and hatred they have always felt, but had always been obliged to hide and suppress behind a mask of sweet docility.

True, and white intellectuals would find the adjustment troublesome, especially with the rumblings of Black Power that arose shortly thereafter. The campus uprisings of 1968 and 1969 would leave many of them reeling. One of the byproducts of that period was demands everywhere for elaborate Black Studies programs, to which professors and administrators alike agreed with an almost benumbed alacrity. The new insistence now was upon “black culture”—an expression which, at least in the common currency, had been all but unknown in 1965.

Daniel P. Moynihan knew that for his purpose, as one observer put it, “he needed to point to what poor Negroes were deprived of, not to how they managed to make out despite their deprivations.” And yet it was precisely the latter point, not the former, that had now come to seem all-important: “how they managed to make out.” In short, it was no longer damage they wanted to hear about and talk about, but resistance.


Such, then, was the ideological bridge from “damage” to “resistance”—or, to put it more comprehensively, to “culture.” But there was another kind of bridge as well, one of intellect and sensibility. And it was this, I think, that gave the search for black culture the authenticity and legitimacy to which it was entitled, and still is entitled. The most impressive example of this point that I know of is that provided by Ralph Ellison.

The demand for a new vision of the American black experience that emerged in the later 1960's was, for Ellison, far more than a fashionable novelty. Early in his career Ellison saw “social science” for the standing menace that it is to any true literary mind under any circumstances. But a more particular menace lay in social-science categories as applied indiscriminately to the aggregate experience of American blacks. Efforts in the realm of psychology and sociology could, undertaken in good faith as most of them now were, appeal to the white conscience. By exhibiting, as they were bound to do, the injustice and degradation visited upon blacks from time out of mind, they could conceivably move white society to sweep away the barriers that had hitherto prevented blacks from taking their rightful place as full participants in the common current of American life.

So far, so good; Ellison had no quarrel with that. But social science cannot possibly stop there, and well before it does stop, it has already taken away something that for Ellison was life itself. In every such undertaking there are two deadening implications. One is that the collectivity of blacks must be seen as essentially inert; the other, that when all this prejudice and discrimination is removed, blacks would somehow become undifferentiated Americans. Their past—by definition an ugly pathological blot—would be wiped out; their distinctive character, experience, contributions, and culture would in effect be denied, would really no longer exist. Brotherhood: splendid. The races cannot function separately, and in fact never have. But this was not it. This, for Ralph Ellison, were merely a new device of stultification.

Thus Ellison's responses to such material as it appeared were always measured (since he knew what he wanted) with a special nicety. He also retained a remarkable consistency over time, as two or three examples may show.

As early as 1944 Ellison wrote a review of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, a book widely acclaimed by whites (whose consciences were powerfully stirred) as well as by blacks (who saw white society as beginning at last to wake up). He praised Myrdal's book for its many insights, some of them “brilliant,” and for offering the key “to a more democratic and fruitful usage of the South's natural and human resources.” But when Myrdal asserted in effect that the Negro's life, his thoughts—and presumably his personality and his culture—“are, in the main, to be considered as secondary reactions to more primary pressures from the side of the dominant white majority,” the young Ralph Ellison's hand came sharply down on the table. Can a people, he demanded,

live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting? Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them? Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs, why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white man's dilemma? . . .

It does not occur to Myrdal that many of the Negro cultural manifestations which he considers merely reflective might also embody a rejection of what he considers “higher values.” . . . It is only partially true that Negroes turn away from white patterns because they are refused participation. There is nothing like distance to create objectivity, and exclusion gives rise to counter values.

This was written for Antioch Review; the editor—for whatever reasons—did not print it. But twenty years later Ralph Ellison, now famous as the author of one of the most important novels of the period, made another statement. The occasion this time was a lead review, for a national audience, of Howard Zinn's The Southern Mystique in 1964. Again he made discriminations. He praised Zinn for his good will, his expenditures in deeds as well as words in the cause of civil rights, and his desire for massive contacts between blacks and whites. But when Zinn came to insist that history no longer mattered in the face of the Negro's new self-assertion, and of the white South's new willingness to make unwanted adjustments, Ellison once more drew the line.

Zinn had been impressed by my book, Slavery, and its discussion of the “Sambo” personality, which he thought explained much about the history that no longer mattered. (“That personality also becomes, Elkins suggests, reversible.”) Ellison would have none of this. Zinn had let himself be taken in, “both by Elkins and by his own need to recreate man, or at least Negro man, in terms of the expediencies of the historical moment.” The black American is something more than “a physical fact and a social artifice.”

He is the product of the synthesis of his blood mixture, his social experience, and what he has made of his predicament, i.e., his culture. And his quality of wonder and his heroism alike spring no less from his brutalization than from that culture.

Three years later Ellison was at it again, this time in an extended interview with three young black writers, which appeared in Harper's magazine. He condemned the Moynihan report; at the same time he praised President Johnson's Howard University speech (which was simple, direct, and unargumentative), though both had come from the same pen. Once again, he warned the young men against Elkins.4 We depend, he said, “upon outsiders—mainly sociologists—to interpret our lives for us.” What all their abstractions left out—once again—was culture.

In the years immediately ahead, Ellison's message would make a deep impression upon black intellectuals—though not upon all, precluding as it did the extreme positions of black nationalism. But to chastened whites the appeal was irresistible, especially to those writing about slavery.


The literature on American slavery that has appeared in the past four or five years, and continues to appear, is impressive in both depth and bulk. Among the many themes in it that will strike the casual reader is the strong belief of nearly every writer in the cultural bias of all who came before. Each also believes he has uncovered new material, which in a number of cases is true, and that the more familiar material, hitherto misinterpreted, is being properly read for the first time. None is primarily concerned with damage; all are preoccupied with resistance and culture.5

John W. Blassingame's The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972), for instance (according to its author), “breaks sharply with American historiographic tradition.” It rests on “new kinds of sources, viewed from different angles,” which previous historians have “deliberately ignored.” The typical pattern of plantation life was sufficiently open that the slave's individuality was in fact not crushed, and the picture most historians have drawn (using only planters' records and material from the white side of things) “of an all-powerful, monolithic institution which strip[ped] the slave of any meaningful and distinct culture, family life, religion, or manhood,” is simply false. A far more accurate one would show a rich, diverse, and variegated community life in which family (the slave family was not destroyed either), religion, and a body of lore served as mechanisms of resistance against the debilitating effects the slave system was formerly supposed to have had. The slave's own contribution to the total picture—with the music, folktales, religion, and surviving autobiographies as evidence—must be brought to the foreground if this culture is to be fully seen for what it was.

As it happened, Blassingame's book was not received with much enthusiasm, though not because of its basic argument, which was already familiar and had by this time come to be widely accepted in principle. It was rather that reviewers thought his conclusions not as original as he claimed them to be, and that he had neglected to exploit a large mass of readily available evidence—the WPA interviews with former slaves—of the very sort that should have been most pertinent to his case. But a more serious difficulty lay in Blassingame's being so locked in combat with a previous version of slave personality, and so repeatedly denying its legitimacy, that he never quite got around to explaining what did go into the making of this culture, or what its distinctive character was, or how it got that way. It seems to have been entirely a culture of resistance, but there is surprisingly little interest shown in the nature of what it was that was being resisted. As Eugene Genovese points out in Roll, Jordan, Roll, one cannot begin to understand slave society—personality, culture, or anything else—without seeing the mutuality of the master-slave relationship as an indispensable key to it. In a society where men are enslaved by other men, human relationships must at least be taken as something special, and its human products—on both sides—as special too. Whereas the slave, at the end of Blassingame's book, “was no different in most ways from most men. The same range of personality types existed in the quarters as in the mansion.” If slavery in practice made no more difference than that, perhaps the entire subject of slavery is less important than we thought.

George P. Rawick offered an argument the same year, 1972, which was in many respects similar. From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community was the introductory volume to a nineteen-volume edition of slave narrative materials, hitherto mostly unpublished, the bulk of which represented the work originally done by the WPA Writers' Project in the 1930's. Rawick's preparation and publication of these materials, making them readily accessible for the first time, was an enormously valuable contribution. From Sundown to Sunup, presented as an interpretive study to accompany them, may thus be seen in two capacities—as a separate entity and as part of a larger undertaking.

Another theme that permeates all the new literature is a strong emphasis on “community.” Rawick puts the word in his title (as does Blassingame); he even extends its meaning at many points to embrace blacks all over America, slave and free alike. As for slavery, “almost all historians have presented the black slaves as dehumanized victims, without culture, history, community, change, or development.” Rawick, like Blassingame, believes this view of plantation slavery should be exchanged for one which recognizes the “social space” allowed by the system for both survival and resistance. He, too, insists on the positive functions of the slave family, slave religion, and slave folklore for tightening the internal bonds of community. And he, too, is convinced that the slave personality was certainly “not one that should be described . . . as ‘infantile.’” A perpetual state of rebellion, among other things, kept it from becoming so.

Whatever the merits of Rawick's essay, one is perplexed about the kind of relationship that was intended between it and the eighteen volumes of source materials that follow it, materials being presented as a major new body of evidence for the study of American slavery. The ambiguity may be suggested by two examples. One is incidental to Rawick's assumptions about a nationwide antebellum black “community.” “The abolitionist movement,” he writes,

was essentially a product of the black community, though whites played a role in it. Abolitionism was at all times dominated by Afro-American freedmen, not by whites, although the inherent racism of American ideology has obscured that fact, not only for present-day Americans but for most whites—with the notable exceptions for such men as James [sic] Wentworth Higginson and Wendell Phillips—who participated in the movement.

There is nothing in Rawick's evidence—eighteen volumes of it—to support such an extraordinary assertion, nor, so far as I know, in anyone else's evidence either.6 The other example concerns personality. “The slave narratives are the richest source we have ever had for a description of slave personality.” Rawick is surely right there, except that the only systematic analysis that has been made of the narratives for this purpose (by the sociologist Norman R. Yetman, who inferred from them that plantation life, on the large holdings in particular, did in fact create a dependent personality type) offers conclusions very different from his own.7 Evidence, it seems, does not always speak for itself. On what sort of authority, in such cases, do we decide what it ought to say?


Two new books on specific areas of slave culture will very shortly appear, one on songs and folk-tales by Lawrence Levine, and the other on the family by Herbert Gutman; unlike the works just referred to, these are not likely to have any aspersions cast on their scholarly thoroughness. Gutman's I can discuss with confidence, having the manuscript before me; with Levine's I shall have to be more tentative, limiting myself to an observation or two based on three substantial published essays reflecting work in progress.8 The work of both is scrupulous, accurate, and authoritative, and should prove to be influential. Let me say something about Levine's first.

Levine, like other recent writers, is gravely concerned—no doubt justifiably—over the errors of his predecessors and the undependability of their work. Their research has been “narrow and culture-bound,” and they have treated the distinctive features of black history “not as cultural forms but as disorganization and pathology.” Even those who first collected the primary materials he is working with are not to be trusted. They “had little understanding of the culture from which [the songs and folk-tales] sprang, and little scruple about altering or suppressing them.” Historians up to now “have rendered an articulate people historically inarticulate.” Levine would like to render them articulate again, and so far he has done a very good job of it. Moreover, he has taken to heart Ralph Ellison's admonition that “if you would tell me who I am, at least take the trouble to discover what I have been.”

Examining slave songs as a key to slave consciousness, Levine makes two points that are both convincing and enlightening. One is that they represented “a distinctive cultural form,” owing less to either white influence or African origins than to the circumstances of American slave life. The other concerns the extraordinarily fluid, improvisational character of this music. (When James McKim during the Civil War asked where the slaves got their songs, he was told, “Dey make em, sah.”) It is wrong, Levine feels, to “conceive of slavery as a closed system which destroyed the vitality of the Negro and left him a dependent child,” since it “never prevented the slaves from carving out independent cultural forms.” And he argues throughout that these forms were a product of community, created out of a “communal consciousness.”

The case for “community” holds up very well throughout the entire discussion of music, and is especially persuasive with regard to the spirituals. But with the folk-tales the claim is dropped; there, with entirely different forces at work, it somehow does not apply at all. This disjunction creates some puzzles. The Brer Rabbit trickster stories were certainly not the only kind, though they seem to have been the most popular. They were “didactic”; they gave instruction on how the weak must make their way in a world of hypocrisy and superior power—by tricking not only the strong but also each other. Many of Brer Rabbit's tricks are responses to the requirement of self-defense and survival. But many others seem gratuitous and purposeless. He steals or cheats the other animals out of more of their food than he needs; he not only persuades them to help him out of traps but tricks them into taking his place; a lady who resists his wooing he kills, skins, and smokes over hickory chips. He assembles his neighbors to help him build a spring house, and when this act of community is accomplished, he has them all drowned. Brer Wolf seeks revenge upon Brer Rabbit (for having boiled Wolf's grand-mother and tricked Wolf into eating her), whereupon Rabbit callously sacrifices his own wife and children to save himself. There may be much “complexity and ambiguity” in the tales, as Levine insists, and “levels of meaning,” but one thing about them is clear and simple enough: their “hero” is at best one nasty little hustler. The world he confronts and in which he survives, he also helps to perpetuate. He certainly does nothing to improve it. In that world of lying, stealing, duplicity, and murder there is no friendship, no affection, and no mutual trust; “family” counts for nothing, and of “community” there is not a shred. If this particular body of lore represents a form of psychic adjustment to slavery, as Levine seems to have proved, one is reluctant to take it as a very positive one. There were undoubtedly others, as we shall see when the rest of his evidence is in.


Herbert Gutman's The Invisible Fact: Afro-Americans and their Families, 1750-19259 has an excellent chance of being received, along with Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll, as one of the two most important works of the 1970's on American plantation slavery. Its comprehensive scholarship and its technical skill as a work of social history will give it considerable effectiveness. It breathes with polemical passion, which raises problems, but its argument will be listened to, and I think with respect.

The particular vehicle for the growth and transmission of culture that concerns Gutman is the slave family. Using techniques of family reconstitution originally developed by historical demographers, and working with extraordinary persistence and imagination, he pieces out a picture of a widespread, complex family and kinship structure that evolved over a long period of time, in some cases extending back as far as the early 18th century.10 The members of that network could thus draw on a rich fund of accumulated experience. Gutman makes very ingenious use of the records of several large plantation units, one set of which had been kept over four generations and (in this particular case) without any slave's having been sold. Certain striking patterns emerge. One is a clear continuity of family groupings, some of whose earliest members were African-born. Another is a configuration of sexual behavior which varied from the norms of white society but was nonetheless coherent and subject to the group's own rules. (A girl might have intercourse fairly early and bear a child, but then she was generally expected to settle down with one man and have the rest of her children by him.) Another clear pattern involved the giving and taking of names. Boys were frequently named after their fathers, but girls seldom after their mothers (fatherhood did count for something), and when surnames were assumed, they were—perhaps oftener than not—taken from former owners rather than from current ones. Among the devices for absorbing the shocks of sale and separation, and for socializing newcomers, was that of adoption and “fictive kin.” All told, the slave family system had a dynamic of its own which Gutman believes was largely independent of planter control.

It is evident, on the other hand, that the polemical requirements of Gutman's argument have affected not simply the argument's tone (which is often hot and fierce) but its very shape, structure, and even outcome. It would have been one thing to say that the black family, exposed to the debilitating rigors of slavery, in reality had access to a series of stabilizing mechanisms. Such a formulation would allow for its own reversibility, a margin essential to any experimental proposition. But it is quite another simply to make, as he does, the untestable claim that he has shown the black family emerging from slavery with a very high degree of stability, far greater than his predecessors have been willing to grant. The slave family, so the logic goes, was much more stable than we thought. But what if we had not thought anything? How in that case might a study on this subject have begun, and how might it have turned out?

Gutman, reasonably enough in principle, criticizes everyone else for using a static model which does not provide for development over time. But his own model is equally static in a lateral way; it makes no operative provision for stress, disintegration, or damage of any kind, at any point in time. He makes verbal gestures toward the severities of the system, but no serious analytical ones. Of course nobody expects him to stress the severities, his concerns being elsewhere, but he has not even left spaces in his scheme for how they might have worked. Might he not try to predict a new study (the older ones are all obsolete; he says so himself) which would be just as thorough, just as learned, just as sophisticated as his own, but which examined the other side, the “damage” side of slave life for the slave family, just as he himself has done for the “resistance” side? We are not even sure now whether such a side existed.

Put in another way, the slave family is given no credible setting in which to function. Gutman is rightly enthusiastic about Charles A. Valentine's “bicultural model” for explaining the socialization of ethnic minorities, a process of interacting “mainstream” and “ethnic” influences. Well and good, but here the “mainstream” hardly appears, much less does anything, whereas Gutman's greatest fury is aroused by the most coherent “mainstream” argument now going—Eugene Genovese's assertions about the paternalistic ethos of the master class and the ways in which it influenced the slaves' own culture. Gutman flatly declares—probably wrongly and certainly unnecessarily—that there is no evidence for any such claims.

An analogy that comes to mind is the peculiar impression I once had in reading Irving Brant's version of James Madison's role in the nation's drift toward war in 1812. The biographer was determined to show Madison as far less the indecisive vacillator, tossed by events, “than we once thought,” whereupon poor Madison begins to grow ever bigger and more resolute until all the powers of Europe, the entire setting—Napoleon, the Grand Army, Wellington, and the fleets and admirals of England—shrink into specks. In Gutman's pages the proportions of things—in themselves very good things—appear similarly warped. The family flourishes in slavery, and for all we know may even have been strengthened by it; the vitality of slave culture grows and grows; life under slavery looks better and better. And farther and farther into the distance recedes the planter class with its array of coercive powers—physical, psychological, and moral—as does a whole environing society with its vicious racism, determined in a thousand ways to render impotent and dependent the black presence in its midst. Gutman respectfully quotes me: “It was, after all, a very hard system, and we would do well not to forget it.” But I fear he does forget it. His work is impressive; his case is potentially an excellent one. But it is made without a context.


There now seems to be a fair measure of agreement on the importance of the time dimension; others besides Gutman have recognized that slavery had a history, and that its development and growth began a long time before the immediate antebellum era upon which our focus normally rests. Gerald W. Mullin's Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eigh teenth Century Virginia (1972) and Peter H. Wood's Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974) are two notable efforts to extend this historical perspective by examining the conditions of slavery in the 18th century. Resistance, as is implied in the titles, looms large in each. Each is admirable as a monographic undertaking; both have most of the merits of care, detail, and circumstance that such work at its disciplined best can embody. What they give us as building blocks for a general theory of American slavery, however, is somewhat less evident.

Wood shows that in early colonial South Carolina the combination of a numerical majority of blacks (two to one by 1740), special skills (Africans apparently knew more about rice culture than Europeans), great demand for labor of all kinds, and especially the loose and unsettled character of a frontier-plantation society, had by 1720 or 1730 provided the makings of a distinct Afro-American subculture, with Gullah as a kind of lingua franca. But growing signs of self-sufficiency among these lowland slaves became intolerable to the white minority. Efforts to hedge and limit the slave population generated tension and resistance, culminating in the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in which a band of fifty or more slaves killed about two dozen whites. The rebellion was brutally suppressed. The most rigorous legal features of the South Carolina slave system date from the comprehensive Negro Act of 1740—a direct consequence of the rebellion—which formed the core of the South Carolina slave code for the next hundred years.

The path to rebellion in Mullin's study, which ends with the Gabriel uprising of 1800, was different. In Virginia, it seems, it was not a climate of repression that produced rebellion, but something like its opposite: the setting of post-Revolutionary Virginia was permissive and ideologically rather open. The largest number of runaways during that period came not from the plantations but from a relatively mobile and highly valued class of slaves who had mastered a craft of some kind, spoke English fluently, and had become acclimated to European ways. It was from this group, moreover, that the leadership for Gabriel's Rebellion was drawn. Actually the uprising never took place, the conspirators having been detected before it could be carried into action. Here too the punishment was summary and swift.

These studies, terminating in the way each does, leave unresolved some important questions about culture. Is the passage of time bound to be “progressive,” and are its effects in the way of cultural change always of a positive character? A rebellion and its consequences should present a potentially useful test of this—of the power of “ethnic” and “mainstream” cultures to assert themselves under stress—but if your examination ends with a rebellion you cannot very well run such a test, and your historical slice remains in its way as truncated as any other “static” model.

As for rebellions in themselves, there is the oft-mooted question of which kinds of slaves were likely to rebel more effectively, the African-born or the fully acculturated American-born. Mullin says the latter; Wood implies the former. Perhaps the question itself is misleading. The key variable in each instance seems to have been a certain modicum of social space, provided in the South Carolina case by a “critical mass” of shared African behavior, speech, and myth, and in Virginia by a situation that allowed a privileged group to evade the full coercions of plantation slavery. Did they—for whatever reasons—have as much space afterward? It seems not. Actually the entire problem of rebellion, not only in these works but in others as well, has become analytically rather blurred. I will come back to this point shortly.



The most impressive of the new books that has yet appeared is Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974). This comprehensive survey of all elements of the plantation system is a work of obvious distinction, fully entitled to the honors so far accorded it. To be sure, the theme that continually recurs in the critical commentary (for reasons not as clear as they might be) is that of the “flawed masterpiece.” The flaws must be duly examined. But it is only fair to consider first why it should have been regarded as a masterpiece, and for this one finds a variety of grounds.

Genovese's book represents a prodigious effort to see slavery whole. “No aspect of the lives of the slaves escapes his scrutiny,” as one reviewer has written; “nothing his lively intellect touches remains obscure.” Great learning has been combined with meticulous research in the widest range of sources, and unlike any other recent writer, Genovese has an inclusive theory which tries to account in a humane way for both the planter's side and the slave's side of the system. For him the key concept is “paternalism.” With this he reaffirms, as in his previous work, the power of the master class—but with a difference. The ethos of paternalism was accepted, each in its own way, by both sides. For the master, it was the moral sanction for the exploitation and ownership of other men's labor, as well as for defining them as socially inferior, in return for his assuming their care and protection. But for the slave it meant a recognition of his humanity and a set of strong claims upon the master, claims he was able to manipulate for the preservation of his own dignity. The slave accepted paternalism, but reluctantly and not without extracting terms. Though we may think what we please of the theory, the work as a whole is massively documented, and we can examine the evidence for ourselves.

Genovese takes up a variety of problems, often in a challenging and original way. There was, for instance, the difficult position of the black driver, which required a constant balancing of diametrically opposed interests. Or the role of the “mammy,” one of great authority and even more complex, which he treats with a fine subtlety. As for resistance, there is careful discrimination between individual acts (sabotage, thievery, petty insubordination, and so on, which did not imply nonacceptance of the system itself) and concerted measures of rebellion, which were admittedly few. The consciousness of the slave community, Genovese believes, must be regarded as generally “pre-political,” even though he also thinks the idea of a “black nation” was already present. And finally, the very fullest attention is given to slave culture. There are appreciative discussions of speech patterns, folk-tales, conjuring, music, craftsmanship, and cooking. Many of Herbert Gutman's conclusions about slave family life, courtship, and sex mores have been anticipated—though of course in less depth—by Genovese. But that aspect of slave culture which receives the most extended and novel treatment is religion. Slave religion had neither a messianic tradition nor a concept of original sin, but its “life-affirming” quality served as “a weapon for personal and community survival.” Christianity, as the slaves redefined it,

lacked that terrible inner tension between the sense of guilt and the sense of mission which once provided the ideological dynamism for Western civilization's march to world power. But in return for this loss of revolutionary dynamism, the slaves developed an Afro-American and Christian humanism that affirmed joy in life in the face of every trial.

Roll, Jordon, Roll, with its magisterial proportions, may well come to occupy the authoritative position once held by Ulrich Phillips's American Negro Slavery and later by Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution. Nonetheless, virtually everyone commenting upon the book has had some fault to find with it.

It has been objected, for instance, that Genovese does not know as much about the South as he ought to, that black religion was never really very different from lower-class white fundamentalism, and that if Genovese had had to eat more of that greasy cooking himself he would not have rhapsodized so much about it. But more serious and puzzling difficulties have been raised by his solemn claims for the makings of black nationalism under slavery, and—in view of Genovese's own earlier writings—by his having gone overboard for black culture. David Donald finds this explainable only “as a consequence of the immense pressure, both direct and indirect, exerted these days upon white scholars who write about Afro-American history,” and suggests that the language of Roll, Jordan, Roll was so fashioned “as to appease the most ardent black militant.”11 Blacks, on the other hand, have not been “appeased” at all. They appear to have little use for Genovese's central concept, paternalism, and judging from the doings at the recent conference of black scholars at Queens College, this has put them off everything else in the book. At best it seems that Genovese has written a book that nearly everyone can praise, but mostly for somebody else's purposes. It should be of great interest, according to one black reviewer, to those who “sit and theorize about somebody else's oppression and humanity.”

But the most provocative of all the critiques has been that of the West Indian-born sociologist Orlando Patterson.12 Conceding the work to be “brilliant” and “indispensable,” Patterson nonetheless sees it as an “analytically disappointing study.” He thinks Genovese has abandoned much of his early Marxism, keeping its memory alive only through a few “redundant” quotations from the Italian theoretician Antonio Gramsci. (Donald found the Gramsci references similarly “pretentious.”) Unlike American blacks, Patterson agrees with Genovese that antebellum paternalism as “a mechanism of social control . . . succeeded astonishingly well in welding together all the elements of the system, especially masters and slaves.” But he will have none of Genovese's insistence that the accommodation made by the slaves was one that preserved their dignity, and he too sees no basis in slave culture for the talk of black nationalism. Despite the expressive component of that culture, it was “singularly lacking in range, flexibility, and dynamic adaptability,” and represented “a total adjustment to the demands of plantation life.” The slaves who pass through Genovese's pages Patterson finds “as a class, morally degraded and utterly wanting in their capacity to resist, even when the system was crumbling around them.” In other words, Patterson, rather like a young Israeli tank sergeant of a decade ago commenting on the Holocaust, is demanding to know why they capitulated, why they were not more heroic.


What does one make of all this? For one thing, I believe the abused Gramsci is more central to Genovese's overall scheme than he is generally given credit for being. Gramsci's thought provides Genovese with a way of bringing the slave fully into the equation without repudiating his earlier convictions either about the planter class's hegemony over Southern society at large or about the master's patriarchal role vis-à-vis his black dependents. Genovese theoretically had two choices as he prepared to write this book. He might have emphasized the deadening effects of paternalism on the slave population, which Patterson thinks he should have done. He chose instead, like a number of others, to put his emphasis on the positive aspects of slave life and culture. Moreover, Gramsci's thesis on the “man of the masses” whose struggle to transform the future is also a struggle for understanding between two opposing modes of consciousness within himself—one urging him forward, the other binding him to the past and inducing political passivity—allows Genovese both to keep his paternalism and to postulate a “pre-political” slave community that retains its moral integrity. Gramsci the gradualist insists on seeing things over the very long run, and will have no wasteful revolutionary posturing before the mass consciousness—morally, intellectually, politically—is good and ready for it. Under the Gramscian rubric even a “black nation” may be projected, however little the contemporary evidence might seem to warrant it.

But does it all make for a real balance? Has Genovese achieved a convincing synthesis of masters' and slaves' world views—do the two sides of the model have a true organic relation, can they really be made to fit? I fear that Gramsci is, after all, just a bit too good to be true. Gramscian theory, not needed at all in Genovese's The Political Economy of Slavery, functions here principally to justify the integrity of slave culture. But whereas it may apply admirably to the depressed classes of post-1918 southern Italy, it makes little allowance for immediate damage in a setting where some men not only exploit other men but deprive them of liberty itself, and keep them so deprived by force.

For Genovese, the workings of the American slave system somehow avoid corrupting either side. There is little room in his paternalism for contempt—self-contempt, or contempt for the other—as any built-in aspect of the total equation. He continues to deny, for example, that the planters as a class were afflicted with guilt, that there was ever a real failure of self-assurance, or that a hateful corrosive racism was ever a primary element of their mentality. They may have been genuinely shocked at the slaves' “ingratitude” in wartime, but that need hardly be inconsistent with chronic self-deception or a basic sense of insecurity, or with guilt. Nor is there much room for self-contempt on the slave's part either, be it over his color or over his own powerlessness. Genovese claims, with no proof at all, that color envy was a product not of slavery but of post-emancipation times; and of the “slavish personality” he once made so much of, there remains scarcely a trace. Thus there is a strong sense here of having it both ways: paternalism, for all the qualifications and disclaimers, comes out on both sides as essentially positive in character. Few other aspects of it are allowed to show anywhere in Roll, Jordan, Roll.

A final problem concerns resistance. It is the question of just how much Genovese has done—any more than Mullin or Wood has done—either to advance a theory of rebellion or to predict one (although Genovese says he plans to go into this in a subsequent book). On the one hand, I think Orlando Patterson's demands for a heroic tradition—or rather, his implication that the lack of one is a sign of moral failure—are inhumane and unreasonable. But on the other, Genovese's long-view Gramscian conjurations take less than serious account of immediate circumstances: the immense coercive powers at the master's command, the savage vengeance wreaked on the few insurrectionary gestures that were made, or the fact that those who did make such attempts were men who had escaped the full dead weight of plantation paternalism. Genovese is to be taxed not for a failure to recognize these factors (he does in his way recognize them), nor even for extenuating the thinness of the slaves' revolutionary tradition (which he does at some length), but simply for his supposing that such a “tradition” (long-term or short-term) was even thinkable.

Indeed, viewing the slaves' own culture with greater discrimination, and being less seduced by the idea of a “black nation,” might have disclosed how essentially conservative it was. (“Pre-political” is surely the understatement of the century.) It might have shown some of that culture's most positive mechanisms—religion probably, the family almost certainly—functioning in a profoundly moderating way. One does not need to multiply entities—say, with pre-political contradictory consciousness—to see, for example, that men with families close at hand are those least likely to go on revolutionary rampages, especially under a standing threat of sale and separation. As for Patterson's wondering why there were no revolts even when the system was crumbling, for thousands there was no reason why they should want to revolt. They could simply pick up and leave. And the potential leadership, if any, for such revolts would have been the first to go. In short, every major force in the system—positive and negative—worked to discourage rebellion, and assumptions to the contrary by any modern writer will make heavy—even cruel—demands on the evidence.



For the slavery audience, the sensation of the 1974 publishing season was, of course, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, by Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman. There has since been some speculation as to why such an extraordinary amount of attention was bestowed upon the authors' novel message of a thriving, dynamic institution from which everyone benefited. Pure incredulity may well have been the main explanation for it. But in any case the glow did not last very long. Few books on slavery or any other historical subject have made more sweeping claims. Few have shot so high and fallen so far, so fast.

The message was sensational, supported as it seemed to be by the full resources of “cliometrics” or quantitative history—computers, statistical formulas, an army of research assistants, and a third of a million dollars in foundation money—all being brought to bear on the subject for the first time. Southern slave agriculture, Fogel and Engerman announced, was “35 per cent more efficient than the Northern system of family farming,” and the typical slave field hand was by and large “harder working and more efficient than his white counterpart.” Most slave-owners encouraged stable families, seldom sold slaves, provided food and housing as good as what was available to the average Northern white worker and probably better. Whippings were not as frequent as zealots have claimed; slaves tended not to be sexually promiscuous—like the whites, they were “Victorian” and even “prudish,” the women especially; at least 25 per cent of the male slaves occupied “managerial” positions or were skilled workers; and the average slave in effect retained about 90 per cent of the earnings of his labor.

The masters thus emerge not as cruel exploiters but as shrewd entrepreneurs who used a variety of incentives to fashion a crack labor force, achievement oriented, with a snug family life and a set of positive attitudes—a sort of “Protestant ethic”—toward work. It is a grievous libel, Fogel and Engerman sternly explained, to picture the blacks as having been so victimized and repressed by slavery that they could do nothing constructive with their lives. The authors' desire was “to strike down the view that black Americans were without culture, without achievement, and without development for their first two hundred and fifty years on American soil.”

Fogel was not at all unwilling to talk about his and Engerman's work. (It will be more convenient henceforth to refer mainly to Fogel, since he has given more than the usual indications of his role as senior author, having made the key tactical decisions, given all the interviews, and posed for all the pictures.) He and his coadjutor had not at first dreamed of writing such a book, or suspected such results. But his duty as a disinterested scientist required him to follow the evidence wherever it led, come what might.


The scene opens in 1967. The two, as Fogel tells it, had just completed a modest little paper about what the cliometricians (themselves included) had contributed and might further contribute to such marginal questions as growth of per-capita income in the antebellum South and the profitability of investment in slaves. They had not presumed to encroach upon the concerns of such “mainstream historians” as Stampp, Elkins, and Genovese by involving themselves in issues like the black family or the psychological impact of slavery upon the slaves. This was because they “did not want to mire quantitative work in the marshlands of ideological dispute.”13 But the following year—still content to pursue their self-effacing researches unmired in ideology or other qualitative encumbrances—they ran an experiment on agricultural efficiency. It took them aback: “Southern agriculture was 9 per cent more efficient than free Northern agriculture—an absurd result.”

Something was wrong. They must adjust their procedures, “recalibrate their inputs,” and try again. “To our surprise, the adjustment went in the wrong direction: the relative advantage of slave agriculture rose from 9 to 39 per cent.” Now they were really jolted. How could slavery, “deeply immoral and politically backward,” produce such an outcome? “How could a system so impoverished in labor skills be efficient?” That would mean Stampp, Elkins, and Genovese would all have to be mistaken. The result “did not sit well with us.” “Our instincts continued to resist the implications of our findings.” But after much struggle with their resisting instincts, they simply had to recognize that “the time was at hand for a fundamental reinterpretation of the nature of the slave economy.”

Farewell to the quiet life. They would wind up the other study they were doing (on the American iron industry), put safe and harmless things behind them, and square away. One startling discovery led to another, and this created a new crisis. By early 1971 it was obvious that their emerging reinterpretation was becoming so fundamental that they could no longer think of confining it to a scholarly monograph. It must be given to the general public, and it could not wait for the completion of all phases of their exhaustive research. To be sure, there were professional risks in undertaking a popular work. But what might happen if they left the interpretation of their discoveries to others? Though the work was technically sound, it might be “twisted into an apologia for slavery rather than used to demolish the myth of black incompetence.” No, said Fogel; whatever the consequences, this must not happen. And besides:

How often are scholars presented with an opportunity to cut a gordian knot as massive, as urgent, and as deeply intertwined in the moral trauma of a nation as the racial issues that have tormented America for most of its history?

How often, indeed? They had no choice; they must grasp the opportunity. They must press on.

They did, and Time on the Cross duly made its appearance in the spring of 1974 amid a blaze of publicity arranged by Little, Brown (“with Professor Fogel's acquiescence,” according to the New York Times). For several months all seemed to go splendidly. The book was written up in all the leading periodicals, and it stirred up no end of excitement. Fogel himself attracted much interest in his transatlantic comings and goings that summer. Special sessions on the book were scheduled for historical meetings in the forthcoming season.

And yet by fall, the horizon was already beginning to darken. The thunderclouds were very noticeable by late October. By the end of the year, the deluge.


The blacks, from the beginning, never appreciated the special Fogel-Engerman version of their ancestors' “achievement,” implying as it did a willing acceptance of slavery and the entire system of white values. “What's the use of discussing all the alleged benefits,” demanded Kenneth Clark. “Would the authors recommend a return to slavery?” After this benign account of slavery, according to a reviewer in Phylon, whites would be able to claim that “the best explanation for the [subsequent] failure of blacks to ‘progress’ in American society is not . . . racism and its consequences, but their own ineptitude.” “Fogel and Engerman,” jeered Brenda Jones in Freedom-ways, “would cut the last rope restraining the racist hordes: Come out, come out, wherever you are! You have no reason to denounce your slave-holding ancestors—they did nothing wrong. You have spent too much time on the cross!

Meanwhile, scholars everywhere were beginning to sniff with suspicion. There were no clear lines among them; it was not a matter of resistance to cliometrics, or of “conservatives” versus “radicals,” or of “humanists” against quantifiers. If anything, the vanguard was led by Fogel's fellow cliometricians challenging him on his own grounds. But perhaps the most accurate picture would be that of historians and economists of all persuasions descending on Fogel at once. By the time they were through, they had rendered doubtful the procedures by which every one of the book's major assertions had been reached. A few examples may suggest the extent of the wreckage.

For the superior “efficiency” of Southern agriculture, the index the authors used was based not on volume of cotton per slavehand but on prices received for the product, which meant it could measure little more than profitability, a very different thing from efficiency. It gave no warrant for qualitative conclusions about “diligent and efficient workers,” “imbued like their masters with a Protestant ethic”; the worldwide demand for cotton, and returns on investment under near-monopoly conditions, were such that Southern cotton growth could have looked “efficient” even with slovenly work habits, a refractory labor force, and an irrational mode of production. Then there was Fogel's claim that “the houses of slaves compared well with the housing of free workers.” A check on his and Engerman's own sources for the typical size of slave cabins revealed they had exaggerated it by about 50 per cent, while the “comparison” was with tenements of the poor in the most wretched slums of New York, Chicago, and Baltimore at the depth of the 1893 depression—and at that, they had only counted the bedrooms. As for the slaves' sexual habits, “not promiscuous but prudish,” all that this rested upon was an inference from the probate records that the average age of slave mothers at the birth of a first child was 22.5. But this was not what the records showed at all. They showed date of birth of the first surviving child; in a period of high infant mortality and separation of mothers from children, the true age would have been closer to 18. Perhaps the most remarkable assertion of all was that 79 per cent of all overseers were slaves. (This was part of the authors' general contention that 25 per cent of the slaves were either “managers” or skilled artisans.) Though they could not give a single real-life example, they reasoned that if a white overseer was not listed in the census for a given plantation, there must still have been an overseer, and he must have been black. They seem not to have known that a resident overseer was not listed in the returns at all unless he lived in the master's house (an irregular arrangement), or that innumerable plantations were managed by the owner himself or one of his sons, or that thousands of whites who gave their occupation as “overseer” would according to the Fogel-Engerman logic have been unemployed. The fact was that a slave overseer in the antebellum South was almost as rare as a black slaveowner.14

There were any number of lesser items as well. The only source for the authors' contention about infrequent punishments was the published diary of the Louisiana planter Bennet Barrow, and from it they calculated that the average was “0.7 whippings per hand per year.” But they inflated the numbers of slaves on the plantation, which brought down the average; other information in the diary on frequency of whipping was not counted, which brought it down still more; Barrow was in fact a brutal master, and some of his punishments were monstrous. None of this was mentioned. Even by their own figures, somebody was whipped every four days on the Barrow plantation, which undoubtedly served as a strong incentive to hard work, a Protestant ethic, and so forth. Another misrepresentation was in the number of slaves sold, “only” 1.92 per cent of them each year. The same figures meant that any slave over a thirty-five-year lifetime had a 50-50 chance of being sold himself and witnessing the sale of at least 11 members of his immediate family. Or the claim that “more than 84 per cent of all sales over the age of fourteen involved unmarried individuals.” They got this by taking a limited sample from the New Orleans slave market, assuming that the traders “strongly preferred unmarried women,” then further assuming that such a “preference” carried over to men. And finally, a surprisingly large proportion of the “evidence” was not quantitative at all but came from traditional narrative sources. These too were garbled, otherwise they could not have yielded such strange assertions as that abolitionists and pro-slavery apologists were equally “racist,” or that Southern planters on the eve of the Civil War were “optimistic” about the future of slavery, or that the planter class after emancipation “no longer existed.”

How could it all have happened? It is certainly a fascinating phenomenon in the psychology of desire—in seeing most sharply those aspects of “the truth” that one most wants to see, and managing somehow to overlook the rest. Many have mused over this, and wondered how Fogel could have so hypnotized himself or not have anticipated the consequences. However that may be, there are at least two elements of the case that seem worth noting. The primary thing seems to have been a total commitment to the “efficiency” thesis: this had to be correct, no matter what objections other econometricians might make, and Fogel as much as said so after three days of bombardment at Rochester.15 Why? Because the superior efficiency of antebellum plantation agriculture had been his and Engerman's great discovery: this was the magic formula that promised to transform an essentially peripheral question—that of profitability—into one involving the entire character of slavery itself. It was from this that all the rest followed, and this was what made the other difficulty.

Fogel, it seems, was at some point seized with an imperial vision. The “culture” argument had come to dominate the discourse by the time his book was being planned; the impulse to absorb it into a grand synthesis which would in effect preempt the entire field was irresistible. He would simply reshape the argument in accordance with his primary claim, even though he presented no evidence whatever as to what this “culture” amounted to—values, beliefs, lore, or anything else. He would somehow redefine culture as a kind of occupational “achievement,” no matter how grotesque the result might look. As for his predecessors, he would lump them all together into one indiscriminate category—“traditional historians”—and dismiss their work as having been mostly built on “racist” premises. He was determined, it appears, to have the argument all to himself.

So the convergence of everyone—scholars of every type—upon Time on the Cross was, after all, logical enough. They moved as they did not only because their own findings and procedures were threatened with disrepute (those of other cliometricians most of all), but also because they thought they saw the whole grand subject being brought into ridicule. The episode may nevertheless have had some salutary by-products. It may have brought us to a fruitful turning point, and furnished a precipitant of sorts for rethinking the entire argument over American black slavery.



Ralph Ellison, judging from what others have published over the past few years, has clearly carried his point on black culture. But it seems equally clear that the culture argument is at something of a crossroads. Much of what Ellison once called for still eludes those pursuing it, especially that aspect which concerns blacks under slavery. Slavery is not the most typical context in which one explores such an entity as culture; the initial search for “resistance” may have propelled us farther into that area than we bargained for. The pursuit of culture is important but, as we have already seen, it is full of logical traps.

Any group that has been dispossessed of liberty by another group and subjected to daily assaults on its dignity, on the personalities of its members, and on their very physical being, is by the primal laws of life going to do something to protect itself. It brings to bear whatever individual and communal resources it has in order to make its condition tolerable; it develops patterns of response; it fashions a body of lore and a picture of itself that makes its own existence in some way comprehensible, predictable, and bearable. The product—as with any other people seeking collectively to make sense out of the world—is “culture.”

But it does not follow that simply in locating culture we have automatically found something ipso facto positive, in and of itself. No theory of culture I know of claims that much, though the point is by no means clear in much of the recent discussion of American black slavery. Culture, under such conditions as those of slavery, is not acquired without a price; the social and individual experience of any group with as little power, and enduring such insistent assaults (of cruelty, contempt, and, not least, uncertainty), is bound to contain more than the normal residue of pathology. Any theory that is worth anything must allow for this. It must allow, that is, for damage.

So there are two distinct arguments, equally worth pursuing, one on damage, the other on resistance and culture. This ought to have been obvious all along. But it has never been entirely obvious, either in the 1950's and early 60's when damage was the dominant concern, or later when the culture argument came to eclipse the one on damage. This state of things will surely no longer do. Each argument is in fact relatively undeveloped; there is much to be done on both.

One way to proceed would be simply to acknowledge this distinctness, and to pursue the two lines separately. It may be the same street, but the traffic goes in opposite directions, and in the present case it would seem exceedingly difficult for anyone to work both sides at once. Just to recognize this would in itself be an advance of sorts, though in practice it would go further than that. Though a useful discussion of culture need not devote inordinate attention to damage, it must still leave spaces in its theoretical structure—not mere verbal concessions and “exceptions,” but a formal allowance—for damage and its workings, and the same would hold in reverse for those on the other side of the street.

And yet in the last analysis the two arguments on slavery cannot really be separate, and when ideological tensions eventually loosen, the two must and will meet. But how will we know when the time is at hand? We will know this when, for one thing, it can be shown without inhibitions just how the “mainstream” and “ethnic” cultures did interact, bearing in mind where the power lay, and exactly how it was exerted and responded to. And for another, we will know it when we are able to make discriminations within culture, and to see some cultural responses as more positive and creative than others.16

Then there is a final point, when it is a question of exploring the depth and variety of American black culture. Too much of the culture argument has been confined so far—artificially, it seems to me—to the era of slavery. Only by breaking out of such confinement, and carrying the argument forward, will we find it possible to test the development of culture over time and under varying conditions. Only thus, moreover, can we re-test a proposition which until recently nobody thought needed demonstrating. It is the conviction that freedom is better, after all, than slavery—however much “freedom” may have been hedged about in the century after emancipation—for the growth of culture, or anything else that humankind most values.


1 The resemblance has been pointed out by R.M. Hartwell in an as yet unpublished paper, “Slave Labor and Factory Labor.”

2 “Black Culture & White America,” Encounter, January 1970, pp. 22-35.

3 Lee Rainwater and William Yancey, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (MIT Press, 1967), is both a history of the report and a useful collection of documents pertaining to it.

4 Note from the beleaguered Elkins: I am here conceding the full validity of Ellison's case. Naturally I will be taking some of it back later on.

5 I have concerned myself in the following discussion with works that deal directly with plantation life. A number of distinguished studies on slavery, or bearing on slavery, have appeared in the past decade which fall outside this category, and my omission of them here is in no way a judgment on their importance. Among them are David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966) and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975); Win-throp D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968) and The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (1974); George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (1971); and Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975). Carl N. Degler's Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (1971) I have written about at length elsewhere (Journal of Negro History, January 1973, pp. 86-90). Ira Berlin's fine Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1974) gives considerable support to my concluding point in the present essay.

6 William Lloyd Garrison had substantial support for his Liberator from free blacks, and there were, of course, some notable black abolitionists. But these men came nowhere close to being a majority, and the high-handed manner in which the whites relegated them to a subordinate role in the movement was notorious. Moreover, though there was a significant class of reform-minded black leaders and publicists in the antebellum North, Frederick Cooper argues that they gave a relatively minor share of their attention to abolition. See “Elevating the Race: The Social Thought of Black Leaders, 1827-50,” American Quarterly, December 1972, pp. 604-625.

7 “The Slave Personality: A Test of the ‘Sambo’ Hypothesis” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1969) . Yetman made no attempt at the time to publish this work, though he may yet do so in some form.

8 The essays I am referring to and quoting from are: “Slave Songs and Slave Consciousness: An Exploration of Neglected Sources,” in Tamara K. Hareven, ed., Anonymous Americans: Explorations in Nineteenth-Century History (Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 99-130; “The Concept of the New Negro and the Realities of Black Culture,” in Nathan I. Huggins et al., eds., Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience (Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1971), II, pp. 125-149; and “‘Some Go Up and Some Go Down’: The Meaning of the Slave Trickster,” in Stanley Elkins and Eric Mc-Kitrick, eds., The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial (Knopf, 1974), pp. 94-124.

9 To be published in the fall of 76 by Pantheon.

10 The claim is plausibly supported by Philip Curtin's demonstration that American slavery, which depended no more than nominally on fresh imports, was—unlike slavery elsewhere—demographically successful. Curtin estimates that only about 4.5 per cent of slave imports from Africa to the New World were brought to the present United States, and concludes that the maintenance of the American slave population depended primarily on natural increase. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

11 COMMENTARY, January 1975.

12 New Republic, November 9,1974, pp. 37-38.

13 R.W. Fogel, “From the Marxists to the Mormons,” Times Literary Supplement, June 13, 1975. The date is misleading; the article was written roughly a year before, and the expansive mood reflects the period immediately following the book's publication. See also the interview by Francois Furet and Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, “A qui profitait I'esclavage?,” in Le Nouvel Observateur, September 9, 1974, pp. 72-80. Fogel's sayings read particularly well in French.

14 The body of criticism is already prodigious, and I have drawn only upon its highlights for these paragraphs. The principal items are Thomas L. Haskell, “Were Slaves More Efficient? Some Doubts About ‘Time on the Cross,’” New York Review of Books, September 19, 1974, and “The True & Tragical History of ‘Time on the Cross,’” ibid., October 2, 1975 (Haskell was the first to throw doubts on the “efficiency” thesis); Herbert G. Gutman, Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of “Time on the Cross” (Illinois, 1975), especially on punishments, sales, the family, etc.; Gary M. Walton, ed., “A Symposium on ‘Time on the Cross,’” Explorations in Economic History, Fall 1975, especially the paper by Richard Sutch, who discovered the fallacy on housing; Eric Foner, “Redefining the Past,” Labor History, Winter 1975, pp. 127-138, which makes the striking point about the extent to which Fogel and Engerman have relied on non-quantitative sources; and Paul David and Peter Temin, “Slavery: The Progressive Institution?” Journal of Economic History, September 1974, pp. 739-783, and “Capitalist Masters, Bourgeois Slaves,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Winter 1975, pp. 445-457.

15 I am referring here to the conference of scholars convened at Rochester, October 24-26, 1974 for the sole purpose of discussing Time on the Cross. See Haskell, “The True & Tragical History of ‘Time on the Cross.’”

16 One of a number of possible examples of such discrimination comes to mind. It is now some time since I made my own initial statement on this subject. I have been told by well-wishers and critics alike that I really ought to have done something with Erik Erikson and his work on ego-psychology. This is a very sound point, and if I were writing Slavery over again I probably would. My argument on personality, thus enriched and modified, might then go somewhat as follows. The natural tendency of human beings anywhere, according to Erikson, is to move toward adulthood tentatively, even reluctantly. One of the normal functions of culture (through rites of passage and so on) is to encourage the process, to quicken and even to force it. Some cultural contexts are more efficient in doing this than others; some, conceivably, might even hold the process back. The cultural setting of the antebellum slave plantation might well be examined with this problem in mind.


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