Family life in the antebellum South continues to dominate the discipline of social history. Brenda Stevenson takes a close look at black and white antebellum families in Loudoun County, Virginia. Life in Black & White purports to disprove the theses of Herbert Gutman and other revisionists who have argued that for the most part the black family, despite the conditions of slavery, maintained strong familial bonds. Stevenson states that, “slaves indicated their desire for a variety of marital and domestic styles, not just a nuclear family structure” (xii). Slave families had no other choice, but to utilize a variety of family structures given the tenuous conditions they lived under. The assertion that slaves desired matrifocal families cannot be proven. Despite overstating the book’s capabilities, Life in Black & White paints an accurate picture of antebellum southern life.
The author utilizes the personal histories of Loudoun County’s most prominent white families to illustrate the importance of family within the southern community. Although Stevenson asserts as stated above that black families were not nuclear nonetheless she maintains that slaves still placed a premium on strong familial ties. “Men and women of the South of all shades and status constantly sought and vigilantly protected the most crucial source of their humanity, their families” (xii). The book is divided into two parts and the first section deals with the white community. Stevenson used planter records, diaries, and family papers to illustrate the social, political and cultural norms of wealthy southern whites. Her research reveals that the planter-class whites in Loudoun County reflect great similarities to those planters in other southern regions. Stevenson’s study mirrors Jane Censer’s study of North Carolina planters. Both books illustrate a segment of southern society that share strong familial ties, high expectations for the education of their children, and also a strong sense of social stratification. These men and women were slaveholders and understood the economic, social, and political necessities in upholding the norms and mores associated with the slave system. Stevenson argues that the early nineteenth century marks a distinct change in parental roles within the white family. Distinct parental roles formed where the woman’s duties expressly enveloped childrearing and the father “provided early examples of masculinity” to their sons” (97). This era produced the notion of the “Republican mother,” whereby mothers not only cared for their children’s physical and emotional well-being, but also indoctrinated them with the importance of patriotism and service to ensure the nation’s continued success.
Life in Black & White also addresses the issue of divorce within the white community. The information provided in this chapter represents the difficulties experienced throughout the country in obtaining a divorce; Loudoun County reflects the norm. She demonstrates the communal concern for chaste and moral marriages by recounting the story of William and Eliza Jane Yonson. William suspected that Eliza Jane was involved in an affair and sought to prove it by engaging his neighbors’ assistance in catching her in the act. It was only with such proof that he could legally obtain a divorce. Women fared much worse under Virginia’s divorce laws because absolute divorce was not always granted on the grounds of infidelity. Women often lost custody of their children and were often vilified for accusing their husbands of abuse or adultery. Overall the information about Loudoun County’s white community mirrors work done about other southern regions. Stevenson’s work is interesting, but really does not lend new information about planter-class life in the South.
The second portion of the book deals with the lives of free blacks and slaves within Loudoun County. Stevenson begins the introduction with a compelling quote by President James Monroe on the punishment of a runaway slave. Monroe says, of his slave Daniel, “He is a worthless scoundrel” who deserved to be whipped. “Tell him that you are authorized to sell him to the New Orleans Purchasers, and that you will do it, for the next offense” (159). Monroe’s reaction to his slave’s disobedience reflects the mindset at large within the slaveholding community. Slave families were forced to survive and forge familial ties within this brutal context of selling, buying, and severe physical punishment.
Stevenson argues against a black “core” family unit as the norm within slave society. She certainly maintains that there is little proof of a black nuclear family in Loudoun County. Because “husbands had no legal claim to their families, they could not legitimately command their economic resources or offer them protection from abuse of exploitation” (161). While these circumstances certainly inhibited the “ideal” family structure, to negate that a core family existed is incorrect. The slave family shaped, bent, and created familial structures that could survive within the slave system. The systems often were stable even under the most strenuous of circumstances. Oddly, while Stevenson states that revisionists admit to “countervailing forces” that undermined the slave family, her evidence base using Loudoun County also supports the same assertion. Slave families showed a mixed record of stability, monogamy, and nuclear focus. The revisionists that Stevenson’s takes to task recognized this; their goal was to rectify the record that silenced any type of familial cohesiveness within the historical records on slave families.
Although Stevenson fails to disprove Herbert Gutman, Deborah Gray White or John Blassingame’s theses, she has tightly focused on a particular southern county that enables readers to gain an intimate look at black and white life in the South between the Revolution and Civil War era. Her research and narrative are impeccable, but a deletion of some of the specific familial information and the addition of some of the movements (Second Great Awakening and the rise of capitalism) and their effect on white and black life in this southern county would have enhanced the book. This micro-history serves to build the foundation of works already done on white and black lives in the South.