Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.  By Eugene D. Genovese.  (New York: Pantheon Books, c. 1974, Pp. [xxii], 823.  ISBN 0-394-491-9.)

In the monumental Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese explores the lives of antebellum slaves.  Genovese argues “the slaves, as an objective social class, laid the foundation for a separate black national culture while enormously enriching American culture as a whole” (p. xv).  The black national culture, Genovese writes, is characteristically American regardless of African origins or the unique experience of American blacks.  “Masters and slaves shaped each other,” Genovese writes (p. xvii).

Genovese—a devoted follower of the Marxist approach when he wrote Roll, Jordan, Roll—sees southern slave society as a class conflict in the form of a racial clash.  Planters dominated southern society through a system of rational jurisprudence and were infused with pre-capitalist values.  Paternalism rather than market forces shaped the relationship between masters and slaves.  Profit was not the planters’ primary motive. “The Old South, black and white, created a historically unique kind of paternalist society,” Genovese writes.  “To insist upon the centrality of class relations as manifested in paternalism is not to slight the inherent racism or to deny the intolerable contradictions at the heart of paternalism itself” (p. 4). 

The demand for new raw materials and the need for labor for the new production provided the historical origins for the rise of southern slave society and other slave regimes.  Other characteristics were unique to the Old South.  Southern slaveholders, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, lived on their plantations and near their slaves.  The closing of the African slave trade forced masters to monitor the reproductive lives of their chattel.   Ultimately, the southern slave force was the only one that reproduced itself.  These circumstances encouraged paternalism, linked the oppressor and the oppressed, and, ironically, affirmed the slaves’ humanity.  Slaves created communities tied to a master.  “The existence of the community required that all find some measure of self-interest and self-respect,” Genovese writes (p. 6).  Slaves turned paternalism into a “weapon of resistance” (p. 7).  Southern paternalism reinforced racism and class exploitation as it empowered slaves to alter the society.

Genovese exhaustively studies how paternalism and the pattern of accommodation and resistance that it shaped influenced subjects such as black families, children, religion, burials, and labor.  As an example, Genovese observes a unique millennialism preached in black churches that called for restraint in the temporal life and glory in Heaven.  “The sermons of the black preachers did not call on the people to be ready to follow a black messiah who would arise to lead them out of bondage,” he writes (p. 272).  The message built community and discouraged violent revolt.  Genovese explains that individual acts of violence perpetrated by one slave against his or her master did not represent rebellion against the system but instead resulted from the slave’s desire to enforce retaliation for the master breaking the bonds of paternalism.

Genovese attacks misconceptions throughout the book.  He notes that half of southern slaves lived on farms rather than on plantations and that only a quarter of southern slaves lived on plantations with more than 50 slaves.  Genovese engages in the debate about the source of black Christianity and finds the roots of slave religion in traditions emanating from West Africa.

Texas Christian University                                                   Jeff Wells                   



Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, New York: Pantheon Books (1974), 825 pgs.

            All too often historians construct narratives that portray either slaves or their masters as powerless observers of a phenomenon rather than makers and shapers of their own culture and history. In stark contrast to this trap stands Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). Through the thick description of their everyday lives and experiences, Genovese argues that “the slaves, as an objective social class, laid the foundations for a separate black national culture” (xv) that was itself wholly and conspicuously American. Slavery, as an institution, “made white and black southerners one people while making them two.” (xvii)

            A distinctly Gramscian conception of paternalism mediates Genovese’s discussion. This hierarchical system of self-identification within a society represented and reinforced hegemony and class-consciousness, yet afforded both blacks and whites the opportunity to conceive of their world in their own way. For whites, paternalism “discipline[d] and morally justif[ied] a system of exploitation.” (5) For blacks, it allowed for judgment of the merits of their masters and assertion of their rights, and thus the assertion of their own humanity.

            Genovese devotes the majority of Book One (of Four) to this notion of paternalism in southern society. The law acted as a hegemonic device, reinforcing the authority of the upper-class whites. Slaveholder demands for absolute obedience stand for Genovese as evidence of whites’ attempts to justify their perceived place in the social order rather than as thirst for blood or power, per se. He argues quite strongly that masters conceived of slaves as part of their extended family in such a way that they expected both obedience and loyalty – “anything less would have meant a self-image as exploitative brutes.” (97) Genovese again stresses that within this setting blacks carved out their own interpretations of their place in society. He finds numerous examples of slaves passing judgment on the qualities of their masters, giving them agency in this narrative. Just as whites depended on slaves for the purposes of self-identification, so too did blacks’ self-identification depend in part on their conceptions of whites.

            In Book Two, Genovese examines the role of black religion in perpetuating both paternalism itself and the unique black perception of it. Slaves used religion as a means for ordering the world around them and for the purposes of self-identification. Some slaveholders observed the passions of slave services and feared that brand of religion might become a means of unifying the slaves into a force capable of insurrection. Whites thus employed various means for controlling slave religion, including the use for slave services of whites preaching on Christianity’s emphasis on submission. This and other methods proved wholly ineffectual, as blacks wrought their own form of Christianity in contrast to the white-dominated world of formal religion. In exploring why this never gave rise to armed rebellion, Genovese interestingly suggests that the regime was simply too strong, and that this was a “clash of two peoples but not of two civilizations.” (274)

            Book Three describes the slaves’ ordering of their own world along similarly paternalistic lines as did whites. House slaves judged themselves superior to field slaves in much the same way as their planter masters judged themselves superior to so-called “poor white trash.” More importantly, Genovese here discusses numerous aspects of slave life to reinforce the dominant theme of paternalism. The discussions in this section on slave romances, the roles of men, women, and children in both field and “home,” names, clothing, and community celebrations are the work’s most vibrant and stand as a definitive jumping-off point for contemporary scholars. In some way, each of these analyses evidences a subtle but perceptible blurring of lines between black and white. For instance, slaveholders could not work their slaves on Sundays for a number of reasons, chiefly: “Law, custom, explosive white opinion, and slave resistance.” (567)

            Genovese concludes by explicating slaves’ various means of resistance, including physical confrontation, armed rebellion, running away, plantation plundering, and arson. His most interesting, yet most difficultly defended, argument here is that slaves understood their economic value to their masters and could, by feigning illness, strike directly at their masters’ pocketbooks. While thought provoking, this stands as descriptive of the major weakness of Genovese’s argument. Where he gives impressively thorough evidence and documentation for virtually all of his other assumptions, it seems impossible to prove that slaves conceived of their resistance in economic terms. In restoring agency to slaves within the oppressive paternalistic order, Genovese may go too far in assuming they were completely aware of the machinations of the “white world,” just as whites failed to understand the black’s world. Nevertheless, his book is an invaluable piece of scholarship, one that should be read by any interested student or scholar. 

Matthew A. McNiece


Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Eugene D. Genovese. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

Prolific southern historian Eugene D. Genovese attempts to decipher, from a Marxist perspective, the world of antebellum slavery in his work Roll, Jordan, Roll. In seeking to accomplish this goal, Genovese dispels various historical myths of the slave existence, demonstrating the true complexities of the peculiar institution. The work does more than this, however, for it also serves as a counter argument to the slavery historiography of the early 1970s. Genovese dismisses the notion posed by scholars such as Kenneth Stampp and Stanley Elkins that slavery stripped its prisoners of their African culture while at the same time refusing to allow them access to the American culture—that somehow the institution culturally emasculated slaves and has forced subsequent generations of African-Americans to live under these circumstances. In his mind, the slaves instead worked systematically through accommodation and resistance to the paternalistic master class to create both a unique African-American culture as well as the broader Southern culture.

To demonstrate his thesis, Genovese tracks two parallel movements: the development of an aristocratic, paternalistic social order and the progress of slave culture within this society. The work begins with a lengthy treatise on the role of the resident planter in Southern society and his view of slavery. The majority of owners in the Old South maintained close contact with their plantation, providing a different dynamic than the plantations in the West Indies, where the large farms took the form of a quasi- industrial factory.  In the Old South, these plantations took a more feudal shape, with the master becoming the Lord, looking to the care of the individual serfs (a.k.a. slaves) on his land. Thus, the majority of the planter class seemed to possess a mindset that the slaves were part of their extended family who needed their constant care—care that demonstrated itself in a drive to work and civilize the slaves (not to mention reminding them of their place in society). For example, the planters insisted that slaves come and express their problems directly to them, especially when these problems involved harassment from overseers.  When the slave would report mistreatment, the master would—if warranted in his mind—act accordingly and in many cases punish the overseer for their cruel treatment. Of course, this interaction at times put the master in a difficult situation, for they asserted on occasion the rights of slaves to demand quasi-fair treatment, while at the same time denying them rights as human beings to live free. Masters often times dismissed these complexities under the guise of civilizing the slaves and maintaining their happy white and black families.

The slaves, however, had other ideas in mind. In the midst of this paternalistic society, they worked consciously to maintain their own self-identity while at the same time attempting to survive in a near-hopeless situation. Genovese demonstrates many ways in which the slaves acted to assert their own identities, such as viewing themselves as a class above the “white trash,” distinguishing between the “good massa” and the “mean massa,” and appealing to the planter’s sense of guilt to provide for their sustenance, even after slavery had been abolished. In addition, several leaders rose up within the slave community, leaders like the drivers, plantation preachers, and Old Mammys, who embodied a sense of African pride, dignity, and self-worth in the midst of the horrors of slavery.  These individuals, especially the plantation preachers, infused their African world-view into their American situation to produce authentic expressions of an emerging African-American culture and a black protonationalism.  Perhaps one of the more subtle ways in which the slaves undermined the institution was through a type of passive resistance, whether that be expressed through false gratitude to their owner, slowing down their work, or running away from the farm.  Genovese sees these forms of resistance as the only logical way in which slaves could have imagined rebellion against the system without fear of loosing their lives.

Genovese presents a thoroughly researched and well-argued book. Many of his conclusions cause one to reevaluate a simplistic understanding of the slave experience and see it for all of its complexities.  A few items of criticism should be noted, however. The first is that Genovese’s love for theory can come across very heavily in the work. At times he spends pages giving ideological background on class relations or forms of communal resistance, losing the reader in theory. This leads to a second point.  Given that Genovese wrote this while he was still an avid Marxist, his tendency to caste his narrative in light of class conflict, while not overpowering, can on occasion distract the reader from larger points of the work. Finally, the author at times seems to connect far too many dots to which the evidence does not explicitly lend itself. This is perhaps to be expected given the nature of the archival evidence, but one must be suspicious that the author’s belief in class consciousness and resistance may have in some ways shaped his understanding of the material. Regardless of these shortcomings, the work is still a landmark of research, presents intriguing and far-reaching arguments, and has over the years reshaped the field of slave historiography.

Blake Killingsworth

Roll, Jordan, Roll:  The World the Slaves Made.  by Eugene D. Genovese.  (New York:  Pantheon Books, c. 1974.  Pp. xxii, 823.  E443 G46).

 Eugene D. Genovese received a Ph.D. from Colombia in 1959 and at the date of publication (1974) was chairman of the history department at the University of Rochester.  In 1962 he began studying plantation records, family papers, slave narratives, and travelers’ accounts, seeking to describe how slaves in the Old South survived, both physically and spiritually  Genovese found that slaves in the South were a dynamic force, that they not only survived but also created a separate Black national identity which formed the basis of modern African-American culture.  That creation was a product both of African influences and those experiences that Blacks encountered in America, including the culture of slave owners.  However, it was, and is, a distinctly American phenomenon.  Genovese argued that Blacks and Whites in America may be viewed as one nation or two, or as a nation within a nation, but their common history guaranteed that they are both American.

 Genovese’s study centered on the existence in the South of a historically unique kind of paternalism between slave and slaveholder that formed not only the owner’s hegemony but also the slave’s resistance. The paternalism of the South neither diminished the cruelty nor the intolerableness of slavery nor did it grow out of benevolence. Southern paternalism developed out of a necessity to morally justify its system of exploitation and traced its ideological roots from feudal relationships between lords and serfs in the middle ages. Two unique factors aided its development. Most Southern slave owners, unlike their cousins in the Caribbean, lived on their plantation and that condition of physical proximity favored the growth of paternalism. In addition, the closing of the slave trade forced slave holders to depend on their slaves for reproduction, giving paternalism an economic push.  For slave holders, paternalism defined the involuntary labor of slaves as a legitimate return for their masters’ protection and direction. However, paternalism’s insistence on mutual responsibilities constituted a moral victory for the slaves in that it implicitly recognized their humanity and provided a limitation on the slave owner’s authority. Faced with the marginalizing effects of paternalism and a pervasive racism that attacked self worth, slaves forged weapons of defense, acting consciously and unconsciously to transform paternalism into a doctrine of protection of their own rights. However, paternalism also undermined solidarity among the oppressed by linking them to their oppressors, therefore reducing their ability to identify with other slaves and decreasing the likelihood of a rebellion.

 Genovese gave equal weight to religion, which he also credited as reflecting the hegemony of the masters while being a center of slave resistance. He argued that the heart of Black slave culture rested in Christianity that, while connected to that of Whites, was a product of the slave experience. However, in ways indirect and confused, the spiritual experience of slaves was also influenced by African traditions. Of course, the religion adopted by slaves closely resembled that of their holders but Black America’s ties with African traditions remained and helped shape a religious culture entirely its own. Slaves used religion, which was supposed to assure their compliance and docility, to reject the ideological essence of slavery and to assert their own rights and values as human beings. Christianity balanced submission to authority against the courage of the individual will but it also drove deep into the soul an awareness of the moral limits of submission. Indeed, by placing a heavenly master above the earthly master, Christianity dissolved the ideological ground on which the very principle of absolute human lordship rested. When profession of salvation became a symbol of a civilized man, the gap between religious slave and religious master narrowed. In that way Christianity laid the foundations of a protonational consciousness and gave the individual slave the means to hold himself intact. At the same time, Christianity also blocked the emergence of a political consciousness and legitimate black authority. The same force that engendered a profound spiritual strength imparted political weakness because, while religion empowered slaves to battle the slaveholder, it confined their resistance within the existing system and to one of defense, not of rebellion.

 Both religion and paternalism, while providing important benefits, interacted with other factors to reduce the likelihood of large scale rebellions. Major slave revolts flourished where the master-slave relationship developed as more a matter of business, where economic hardships occurred, and where slaveholding units were large. None of those conditions was characteristic of the South, although there were some exceptions. Given how unfavorable the climate was, Genovese argued that the significance of slave rebellions in the South was not that they were so few but that they occurred at all.

 Genovese’ work is a true classic that was painstakingly researched and artfully written, making it difficult to overstate its worth. His research was truly impressive, allowing him to cite several references from original source material in support of most points. If there is a criticism it is that he overdid the references. In a discussion of the feelings of ingratitude expressed by slave owners when their slaves deserted, Genovese presented over thirty separate citations, complete with quotes. For the less committed student that level of documentation can be overwhelming. Not high criticism by any means, but simply a matter for consideration in making a recommendation of an exemplary work.

Harold Rich