John W. Blassingame. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
African-American scholar John Blassingame enriches our understanding of the antebellum south by examining one section of society historians have previously ignored, or burdened with stereotypes – the slave community. Evaluating the influence of heritage upon transported Africans allows Blassingame to explain slave acculturation within American society. Up until this study, most white historians accepted Stanley Elkin’s assessment that categorized enslaved blacks into three basic personality types: Sambo, Nat, and Jack. Assumptions based on the hypothesis that blacks were either deviant or childlike supported the reigning ideology of the period and justified white “guardianship” of slaves. In reality, the assumed “dependency” of blacks, which helped justify and underpin southern economic imperatives, resulted from a mass of cultural misinterpretations by whites.
One of the most intriguing sections of the book involves a discussion of the place of religion, and authoritative religious figures, in both the white and black communities. Blassingame examines the role of black preachers within the slave community and the oratory styles they employed. In doing so, he opens a line of enquiry that would be pursued by ethnographers, anthropologists, and sociologists in the following decades when the incorporation of social sciences assisted historians in creating a more realistic and comprehensive analysis of past behavior.
Described by many white observers as possessing a “rude eloquence,” black preachers actually presented one of the strongest links between African and African-American societies (131). African-Americans treated articulate “men-of-words” with deference, just as West African communities have commonly conferred a degree of authority on an eloquent orator. Such speakers commanded respect explicitly because of their ability to speak well. The flamboyant style of speech used by black preachers often attracted derision from whites, yet members of this race based their assessment of blacks on their own cultural understanding of correct speech. Such stigmatization also arose from the belief that blacks have no ordered or shared culture and that they were merely making a poor showing of imitating white modes of address. The very opposite was true. The vigorous and emotional manner in which blacks addressed their audience continued a practice of speech practiced amongst West African tribesmen, some of whom invariably suffered transportation to the United States as slaves. In reality, many black preachers consciously, or sub-consciously, used traditional aspects of black culture to adapt a conventional religious message to their audiences.
Other misinterpretations of black culture come from African-Americans themselves. Blassingame makes reference to the combination of African and American elements that led “to the evolution of unique courtship practices in the slave quarters” (158). Most interestingly, Blassingame relates how black children conflated the wedding ritual and the post-nuptial jumping of the broom because their parents had used that particular metaphor when discussing past ceremonies. Such confusion reminds the historian that members of the same race can easily misinterpret the actions of their immediate forebears (167). Oral histories are important but should be approached in the same rigorous manner, as one would evaluate any written form of evidence.
Blassingame relies on slave narratives and letters to provide a more authentic “voice” in black history. Unfortunately, one of the documents from which he most often quotes has suffered some controversy of late. It appears highly unlikely that Gustavus Vassa could have penned his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah, without assistance. He never mentions receiving schooling of any significance, yet his autobiography is written in a grammatically correct and formal manner. The reader must also question the veracity of the text itself considering the author’s relationships with a number of well-known abolitionists. If the narrative was indeed written by a white for political purposes, then regardless of the truth of some of the episodes recorded, this story remains another white construction of black experience. Of deeper concern is Blassingame’s occasional tendency to make sweeping statements. The author provides no data to support the assertions that “southern whites developed a healthier attitude toward sex as a result of their interaction with slaves” or that “in imitation of slaves, the white man’s circle of friends expanded” (103-104).
Despite these minor criticisms, Blassingame’s book marks a turning point for the study of race and, through his innovative approach, to southern antebellum history. Historians who continued to accept the one dimensional racial stereotyping of blacks presented their readers with a faulty view of antebellum black and white society. These two societies did not operate discretely, but rather depended upon a shared economic system, if nothing else. Each race impacted the other with short and long-term results. As Ralph Ellison wrote, “Southern whites cannot walk, talk, sing, conceive of laws or justice, think of sex, love, the family or freedom without responding to the presence of the Negroes” (49).
The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. By John W. Blassingame. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979 (1972).
The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum
South was written by John W. Blassingame, who received a doctorate
from Yale and served on its faculty before his death in 2000. Blassingame
suggested that the failure of historians to produce a systematic study
of slave life had engendered a monolithic view of an all-powerful plantation
system populated by Sambos (Stanley Elkins' thesis). The Slave
Community, originally published in 1972, represents serious research
documenting slave life. The 1979 edition added data on African impacts
on American culture and the influence of Southern churches, which Blassingame
called the key institution to an understanding of antebellum society. An
appendix provided statistical charts and an analysis comparing the effect
of slavery to that of armies, prisons and concentration camps, finding
that armies and prisons lacked the threats to life that made comparisons
viable but that concentration camps were not appropriate for comparisons
because they were rational organizations designed, largely, for mass executions
while plantations were irrational organizations aimed not at extermination
Thesis: The Slave Community attacked Stanley Elkins' idea that Southern slavery was so severe that it destroyed slave culture, producing a race of Sambos—docile, child-like slaves who depended on and doted on their masters. Blassingame argued that a great variety of personality types existed but identified three: Sambos, a minority group mostly from house servants; Nat, the Sambo’s opposite who was bloodthirsty, cunning, and treacherous, a frequent runaway and rebel; and Jack, the most numerous type who worked faithfully, as long as demands were reasonable, and practiced deference as a rational means of survival, not as an expression of identification with masters. Blassingame saw Samboism not as the dominant slave personality imposed by nature or by an oppressive system but as a façade used by bondsmen as a means to physical and psychological survival, rationalizing Sambo-like deference to control, in part, their own destiny. Sambo, who represented what planters wanted to believe, and Nat, whom they feared, were the dominant literary figures while Jack seldom appeared.
Blassingame began in Africa, analyzing enslavement, acculturation, and survival strategies that maintained African culture in food, music, dancing, agriculture, and religion. He then compared Southern acculturation with that of white slaves in Africa but spent more effort contrasting the American process with that of African slaves in Latin America, finding that Southern slaves acculturated faster due to the earlier end of the American slave trade and the success of Southern religious instruction. The primary environment of Southern slaves centered around their quarters and families, areas where African influences survived and which, while remaining remote from masters, fostered cooperation and solidarity that blunted some of slavery’s oppressiveness. The primary environment existed in the South because the relatively even ratio of women to men engendered the nuclear family unit, an important survival mechanism that offered both affection and support. Those positives, along with the South’s larger military forces and lower slave to white ratios, accounted for the relatively low number of rebellions, compared to Latin America.
Blassingame’s thesis is important, his argument is compelling, and his style has appeal both for scholars and the public.
The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. By John W. Blassingame. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Pp. 262).
In The Slave Community, John W. Blassingame's approach is two-fold. First, he wants to look at slave life from the perspective of the slaves themselves, something that he claims was sadly lacking before this book. Secondly, he aims to apply psycho-history to their experience, thereby disproving some generalities while creating new ones that he labels "personality," instead of stereo, types. In the end, he wants to disprove the idea that "Sambo" was the most common sort of slave, by showing that there were in fact a plurality of kinds.
Blassingame begins, logically, with a look into the slave trade in Africa and the Middle Passage. He emphasizes the shock with which most slaves greeted their capture, especially when embarking on the long, terrifying trip to the Americas. Treated like cargo and often unable to communicate even with each other, they were allowed exercise and food. When they arrived in the English colonies, they were completely isolated form their home, culture, their master, and often each other due to language difficulties. Still, Blassingame emphasizes, they were not completely broken, as what was asked of them, heavy agricultural labor, was something they had done all their lives. That, and masters who would let them be if they did their work, allowed many slaves to cling to their heritage despite their conditions.
His next chapter looks at what the slaves were able to retain: their culture. Rather, they were able to take it and adapt it to new circumstances, where it produced many different forms. Much of this took place out of sight of the overseers and masters. Not happy with the way their owners insisted they be taught religion, they held their own services. One issue he does not deal with in this chapter, is whether or not it is accurate to portray slave culture as a monolith. Thousands of blacks were taken from different parts of Africa and deposited in many parts of the Western Hemisphere. That knowledge, in itself, is enough to make the reader question his overall depiction. No doubt it is accurate in many ways, but likely fails to even scratch the surface.
Chapters three and four deal with slave families, runaways, and resistance. All but a few planters encouraged monogamy among their slaves. Some did so for reasons of religious principle, others for simple practicality. Most slaves became more manageable after marriage, as they had more of a stake in being obedient; their wives and children could be flogged before their eyes. The most horrific aspect of this was when masters sold members of the family. This was not always the rule, as many planters avoided this, but a great many more had fewer scruples. When the work or punishment got to be too much, slaves would sometimes run away or rebel. These, however, were a decided minority. Their troubles were legion. Growing up on a plantation, it was difficult for them to simply pack up and leave, especially on the harsher farms where they were kept in abject poverty. Also, unlike slaves in the Caribbean, they did not outnumber their oppressors by a wide margin. This, coupled with the white's monopoly on firearms, virtually ensured that rebellions would never take place.
The final three chapters, parallel a volleyball game in a way. Five is a bump, as he fields his opponent's arguments. Next, chapter six is a set, as he refutes them and prepares to offer his own insight. Finally, seven is a spike, where he provides what he hopes will tie all of his evidence together into an irrefutable whole, placing the ball firmly back in the other court. First he deals with the three traditional slave stereotypes: Sambo, the affable and lovingly obedient servant, Jack, somewhat shifty, lazy, and hardly good for anything minus the whip, and Nat, the vicious calculating rapist/murder, just waiting to rise up. Then, Blassingame takes these apart, piece by piece, examining what life was actually like on the different kinds of plantations, most notably, cotton, tobacco, and sugar. As expected, they exhibit many different sorts of traits that their masters rarely, if ever, saw. Finally, he sums it all up by arguing that the presence of significant others and lack of absolute control by the whites bred as many different types of slaves as there are of any other people group.
While doing an excellent job refuting the "Sambo Thesis", he stops short of what his book seems to promise: a systematic categorization of slave personality types. In essence, he argues that they cannot be simply rammed into the three pre-existing slots. This is not out of line, as social scientific attempts to do so are philosophically flawed from the ground up,(1) and by stopping where he does, he prevents his thesis from dying the death of a thousand qualifications. Yet, he would have done his readers a great service if he had been able to discuss this subject, and then contract some of the grand claims he gives in his preface that he cannot, even in theory, deliver on.
Another slight difficulty is the broad geographical range that he covers. This book is supposed to be representative of slave life on plantations from Texas to Georgia and Maryland to Florida. As such, he is forced to paint with such a broad brush, that at times he seems to contradict himself. Once again, it would have helped if he were conscious of this fact and dealt with it. This only becomes readily apparent when the reader tries to hold the book to the exalted, and unrealistic, standard he sets in his introduction.
His sources seem to be solid. One criticism might be that, just as planter narratives are not accurate due to the fact that the author stands apart from the slaves, so the slaves who escaped and were literate enough to write the memoirs he uses, were different from the rank and file of their brethren. They are not necessarily exemplary of the rank and file on the plantation.
Overall, this is a very good, useful peek into plantation life. Though
forced to be overly general in a few areas, what he provides seems to be
convincing and worthwhile. The simple answer to the few problems that are
inherent to it is to take his introduction with a salt block and move on
to the bulk of the text, which is excellent. It is a book that would do
anyone good to read.
|Texas Christian University||
1. To discuss it fully here would be to digress too much from the topic.
In a word, behavioral determinism fails to take into account man's proven
free will, creativity, and ability to stand outside of nature's closed
system. At best, a model based on this system will soar into the realm