The Slave Community:


Blassingame, too, has myths to puncture. He notes, first of all, that the so-called extinction of African culture was far from complete. Long after shipment from Africa there were on the plantations musicians, drummers, singers, tellers of talcs, carvers of wood in traditional forms, and conjurers who played important roles in the slave community. The “cultural rape” theory does not rest on sound evidence.

Moreover, a careful study of plantation records and of narratives composed by escaped slaves indicates that a kind of family and community structure endured in the quarters. Law or no law, many slave fathers did their best, even when it involved infrequent or difficult visits to neighboring plantations where their wives were located, to look after and set models for their children. Furthermore, within the world of field and cabin there were blacks whose special strength, skill, and cunning allowed them to master various crafts. These became indispensable to their owners, but in addition earned respect among the slaves themselves. The head blacksmith or cotton-gin mechanic, the black overseer—these were men who had to be won over before a job could be well done, as any master soon learned. And they were often the figures turned to by the slaves during crises, having earned that instinctive reliance that people place on natural leaders.

Finally, Blassingame notes, generalizations about slave personality skimp the actual complexity of plantation life. There were some “Sambos,” indeed. There also were—as the records show—slaves who literally would not submit to punishment or intimidation. In between were those who knew when to push and when to yield, when to shirk and when to hustle, which white folks could be handled and which could not. There were slaves easily broken by punishment, and others manageable only by those whom they could respect or love. The documents indicate, in fact, that people are people even under the extreme stresses of a system as outrageous to our modern ideas of human dignity as slavery.

For after all, to say that many blacks lived lives of occasional satisfaction and pride, even in bondage, is not to say that they were debased or docile, but simply that they had tremendous capacity to endure. The human animal’s persistence in asserting personality in the face of crushing disaster is amazing. The observation that some kind of slave society remained intact under the shadow of the lash is not inconsistent with the reality of occasional black rebellion or perennial black craving for freedom. It simply underscores the toughness of the slaves’ spirit.

Both these writers know that they do not have the final truth of slavery. Both recognize that as an impossible goal, given an imperfect record and the fallibility of human nature. Blassingame writes: “The slave, like the master, gave his view of the institution. Both distorted reality as they viewed the world through their respective lenses.” And Woodward notes that perhaps it would have been better for future peace between the races if Anglo-American masters had shared certain experiences (such as a past occupation byMoors) with those of Iberian background. “But then,” he says, “that would have been somebody else’s history and not our own.” We must see both sides—indeed, all sides —of our history and accept the unchangeable reality of what we see. It might indeed be splendid if we had behaved like other peoples (or vice versa), but the moving finger has writ, and we have better uses for our energies than wishfully thinking it may be lured back to cancel half a line. That lesson alone may be one of the best to be derived from the study of history.