by Thomas L. Webber
W. W. Norton, $14.95
Don’t be intimidated by the rather academic trappings of this fine book. It tells us in meticulous detail made doubly moving by its unemotional tone what slave owners sought to teach, and to keep from, their slaves and what lessons those slaves actually learned. One of the first skills acquired in the slave quarter was how to spot hypocrisy. Such practices as dropping the words “Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” from a slave wedding service made it obvious to slaves that even religion was being doctored to serve the white man’s purpose. What black people learned from the brutal punishments meted out to those caught with a book was how invaluable a skill reading was.
Quoting copiously from slave narratives, songs, and oral histories—sources that have often been cited before—Webber still manages to make us see slave-community life with a new and painful intimacy.