George Rawick 1967

Toward a New History of Slavery in the U.S.

Source: Speak Out, (January 1967).
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg, with thanks to Ian Birchall.

The need for a new historiography in the United States, one that is concerned with the development of the American people as its central focus rather than one primarily devoted to the development of the American state, is nowhere as obvious as in the historical treatment of American Negro Slavery. The historiography of slavery never becomes a part of a total American historiography, as it must become, an historiography which sees the development of the Negro American community and people as being central and integral to the story of the development of the whole American society.

The historiography of slavery in the United States reproduces in microcosm the entire history of the attitudes of white Americans toward Negro Americans. There are works which attempt to demonstrate that the Negro American was treated most shabbily by his white masters. These works portray the Negro in America as a victim waiting for the slave-owners to probe their own guilt feelings to the point that they decide, out of a new found goodness of their hearts, to treat their victims fairly. [See Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (New York;1956), 435pp] One work goes so far as to argue that the abolitionists were evil men because they made it impossible for the southern rulers to recognize the evil of their ways and reform the social system gradually. If the abolitionists had only stayed out of the picture, this book argues, slavery would have been gradually reformed allowing for the development of a “mature Negro” instead of creating the infantile Sambo that the author insists was the product of an unreformed slavery. And if that had occurred then the “Negro problem” in the United States would have been solved in the nineteenth century. [See Stanley Elkins, Slavery (Chicago,1959), 248pp.] But, unfortunately, we are told by the proponents of this point of view, this was not done and therefore the Negro in the United States is childlike, unable to assume adult responsibilities, a psychic cripple, who vacilates between helpless docility and outbursts similar to the impotent temper tantrums of the very young. But, these scholars conclude, we must now complete what was not done in the years before the Civil War and during Reconstruction: the slow, gradual reform of slavery, proceeding with firmness but intelligent consideration for the feelings of the masters. [Daniel Koynihan, in a report written for the United States Department of Labor, has called upon Elkins’ work as a backing for his view that the “solution” to the Negro American “problem” is some sort of mass psychotherapy.]

Several writers attempt to place North American slavery in the context of slavery elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, although it is important to note that they largely seem concerned with South American slavery, particularly that of Brazil, and seem totally uninformed about the history of slavery in the West Indies. While these authors gain a certain objectivity .about the subject matter, it is an abstract, sociological objectivity. It virtually dismisses the struggle between the slavocracy and its opponents as a tragic development which could have been avoided if men had been rational and of good will on both sides. They then would have seen the development of North American slavery as the inevitable product of a liberal capitalist society which had not yet matured to the point where it had developed built-in conservative institutions which both protected the individual personality and the social system from attack and decay. [See Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen: the Negro in the Americas (New York,1963), 128pp.]

One recent book has gone even further. It has attempted to place North American slavery in the context of the history of the idea of slavery in Western Civilization – from ancient Athens to the nineteenth century. Slavery in this view virtually disappears as an institution and a set of social relations and becomes an “idea.” The Platonic essence of slavery then contains almost nothing of the day by day reality of the slave. And from this Olympian height, of course, it is possible to believe in a doctrine of inevitable Progress, a Progress divorced from the active intervention in the struggle of men. As Western Civilization matures, the idea of slavery becomes more intolerable by the action of the unseen and unseeable development of the World Spirit and eventually disappears. Any sense of historical urgency is dulled by such analysis. [See David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture(New York,1966), 505pp.]

Negro historians, with the mighty exception of W.E.B. DuBois, have generally devoted themselves to answering the views of the white historians. Therefore, they tell us much about outstanding Negroes who have made contrubutions to American civilization. This becomes the history that deals with Crispus Attucks, the Negro who was “ the first to fall in the American Revolution,” with the Negro abolitionists such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman who contributed to abolitionism, and with George Washington Carver and the peanut. [See in particular Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts(New York, 1963), 405pp.]

While these, of course have their honored place in any historiography, more is necessary. We must have the boldness to insist what is in fact true: Negro Americans have at many crucial times led American civilization forward. No more can stories of great men and women tell the story of the Negro people in America, than can the story of the American Revolution be told fully or even crucially through the life of George Washington. Great events are, after all, not really made by great men and women. They are made by the ordinary men and women of the day and then, often, transformed into Great Events by historians impressed with Elites, Leaders, and Saviours.

The work of one historian, Herbert Aptheker, a man who takes his political inspiration from the American Communist Party, has for some time dominated the thinking of those who reject the views of the liberal and conservative historians of slavery. Aptheker focuses upon slave revolts and while-gathering much important and valuable material, overemphasizes the bloody conflicts and almost ignores the day-by-day development of the Negro culture and community. In a view which takes its flavor from that last flowering of bourgeois romanticism in literature and art- the so-called “socialist realism” which insists that history is made by unbelieveable Paul Bunyan-like heroes led by Zeus-like leaders – Aptheker seems to believe that the only events ultimately worthy of a revolutionary historiography is one in which men and women spill rivers of their blood. The blood of Christ is replaced by the blood of The People. As a result he either ignores or misinterprets the day-by-day, non-heroic, but potent ways in which the slaves built their community and their defenses against the slave system and prepared the way for their own emancipation. While the details of how slaves organized production under slavery, how they developed their religion, the nature of their values and attitudes, philosophies of life, and entertainments, their food, clothing and health may not be very heroic, they are the stuff out of which, not dreams but concrete historical reality are made. But as Aptheker, in line with most old-time Marxists in the United States, cannot see and understand the daily activities of American workers who in their own unheroic way struggle to make decent lives for themselves – and in so doing come up against an exploitative social system – he cannot see and comprehend similar events under slavery.

One recent work on slavery in part begins to break through the older pattern of the historiography of the subject: Eugene Genovese, writing from a perspective that he considers Marxist, focuses his attention upon the question of the profitability of slavery and the “class nature” of Southern slave society. [Eugene Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery (New York,:1966), 304pp.] He argues that, while slavery might have been profitable for individuals, the system was cut-through by internal contradictions that weakened the long-run chances for survival of the system; therefore the slaveowners had to fight or capitulate. Slavery did not have even the efficiencies of industrial capitalism because the planters insisted that they were not capitalist producers but neo-feudal aristocrats and consequently did not act consistently within the terms of capitalist rationality. Therefore, it follows that the Civil War was not an accident based on the actions of “irresponsible” men, but an inevitable conflict between differing social systems.

While Genovese’s treatment of the origins of the Civil War is noteworthy in its break with a tradition which has obscured the discussion by insisting that the war was “avoidable,” there is little doubt that he pushes it too far and broadly. The key to the matter comes when he continues to emphasize the inefficiency of slave labor and does so in such a way as to suggest that this was due largely to ignorance and only incidentally to the conscious desire of the slave to limit his production in order to limit in a concrete way the degree of his exploitation.

The subject can be placed in focus by looking at what is clearly in Genovese’s mind throughout, as witnessed by his constant references to the writings of contemporary neo-Communist authors on the problems of economic development, e.g. Paul Baran and Maurice Dobb: the problem of contemporary Russia and China. After all, when one examines the realities of the Russian economy and society today (ignoring the ideological trappings of “Russian Marxism”) and compares these with the realities of the American economy and society (ignoring the ideologies of liberal welfare capitalism) the emerging picture is one of basic similarity. [The argument that modern society, whether in Russia, China, or the United States, is best understood as forms of state capitalism is best made in State Capitalism and World Revolution, soon to be published by the Facing Reality Publishing Committee.] But if we focus upon either the ideologies of ruling classes or upon the underproductiveness of workers under repressive social relations we end up either focusing solely upon Russian ideology ala the Sovietologists of the Rand Corporation and the State Department or in “comprehending” the Russian- and then the Chinese rulers as having to do as they do because of the “backwardness” of the workers.

For Genovese what emerges- despite many interesting and important side discussions which touch more directly on the actual life of the slaves than do those of virtually any other historian of the subject- is that social systems are comprehended in terms of their historical, long-run efficiency and not primarily in terms of their exploitiveness and the self-activity of the exploited in fighting back in the ways available to them. Many things in Genovese’s work make one feel that he is uneasy with his one-sided version of Marxism, for example, his very good and unique discussion of the specific African tribal backgrounds of the slaves But he does not seen able to break through. While he maintains that the slaves were capable of a certain level of revolutionary activity similar to that of the Southhampton slave uprising led by Nat Turner, he also maintains that the slave was also simultaneously Sambo. Sambo and Nat Turner became dialectically related symbols for Genovese.

I would maintain that if Genovese were able to view contemporary American workers as being in fact highly conscious of their situation under capitalism he might be able to understand slavery more clearly. American workers, after all, despite their greater productivity than any other working class in the world, constantly sabotage production and greatly underproduce in relation to the productive potential of the technology and the less-than full production goals of the American managers. The under productivity of Negro slaves that Genovese documents considered in the context of the underproductivity of contemporary American workers was not due to their ignorance and Sambo-like qualities but was a result of their revolutionary self-activity.

The slave was no more inefficient in relationship to the productive potentiality of the technology available to him than the American worker is in relationship to contemporary technology. But as Genovese is convinced of the “backwardness” of American workers, who are also Sambo-like in their behavior in his view, he remains confused about the slaves. Moreover, he then tends to over-emphasize the pseudo-aristocratic trappings of the American slavocracy to the point where he sees slavery as essentially non-capitalist in its nature, confusing the issue at every point. Karl Marx, after all, was well aware of this tendency of social systems to dress themselves up in the garments of other epochs. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Marx writes:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.

(If we wish, a more American source for this understanding then we can go to Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn in which he indicates that Tom Sawyer cannot deal directly with the runaway slave Jim, even though he wants to free him, but insists that Jim, and Huck, and Tom are all characters in a medieval romance, instead of modern people involved in the complex web of market capitalism. The southern planter class read Sir Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas not because these bourgeois romantics were portraying accurately Southern slavery but because they helped obscure, even to its beneficiaries, the naked exploitiveness of the situation.)

It is strange and paradoxical situation that the only historian of slavery who has ever seriously attempted to describe and analyze the life of the slave was the southern historian, U.B. Phillips. Phillips was a racist who believed in the innate inferiority of Negroes and an apologist for slavery. But he was required by his immersion in the concrete details of slavery, as well as by his desire to demonstrate that the slave system did allow for something like a decent existence for the slaves, to look at the life of the slave in a way that begins to give us a view of the growth and development of the Negro American community and culture. Phillips, the first modern historian of slavery, turns out to be the best. Genovese in a very fine and perceptive introduction to a new paperback edition of Phillips’ classic American Negro Slavery suggests that “Phillips comes close to greatness as a historian, perhaps as close as any historian this country has yet produced “. [Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, American Negro Slavery(Baton Rouge, 1966)] With that judgement I would full concur if it were not for the fact that I believe that W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction achieved that distinction.

Phillips while he does not offer us a balanced, full view of slavery; does suggest the direction in which to probe. Let us read a few sections, from Phillips’ American Negro Slavery:

Occasionally, however, a squad would strike in a body as a protest against severities, An episode of this sort was recounted in a letter of a Georgia overseer to his absent employer: “Sir: I write you a few lines in order to let you know that six of your hands has left the plantation – everyman but Jack. They displeased me in their work and I give some of them a few lashes, Tom with the rest. On Wednesday morning they were missing. I think they are lying out until they can see you or your uncle Jack, as he is expected daily. They may be gone off, or they may be lying round in this neighborhood, but I don’t know. I blame Tom for the whole. I don’t think the rest would of left the plantation if Tom had not of persuaded them of for some design. I give Tom but a few licks, but if I ever get him in my power I will have satisfaction, There was a part of them that had no cause for leaving, only they thought if they would all go it would injure me more. They are as independent a set for running off as I have ever seen, and I think the cause is they have been treated too well. They want more whipping and no protector; but if our country is so that negroes can quit their homes and run off when they please without being, taken they will have the advantage of us. If they should come in I will write to you immediately and let you know.”

Such a case is analagous to that of wage-earning laborers on strike for better conditions of work. The slaves could not negotiate directly at such a tine, but while they lay in the woods they might make overtures to the overseer through slaves on a neighboring plantation as to terms upon which they would return to work, or they might await their master’s post-haste arrival and appeal to him for a redress of grievances. Humble as their demeanor might be, their power of renewing the pressure by repeating their flight could not be ignored. A happy ending for all concerned might be reached by mutual concessions and pledges. That the conclusion might be tragic is illustrated in a Louisianna instance where the plantation was in charge of a negro foreman. Eight slaves were lying out for some weeks because of his cruelty and finding their hardships in the swamp intolerable returned home together and proposed to go to work again if granted amnesty. When the foreman promised a multitude of lashes instead, they killed him with their clubs The eight then proceeded to the parish jail at Vidalia, told what they had done, and surrendered themselves. The coroner went to the plantation and found the foreman dead according to specifications. The further history of the eight is unknown.

These few paragraphs from Phillips, supported as they are by much more evidence, are the answers to the confusions of the historiography of American Negro slavery. The docile Negro slave with his childlike cheerfulness and impotent rages of most historians is transformed by Phillips into a most modern worker who demonstrates that it is he who ultimately controls production. This is the direction that a new, concrete history of Negro American slavery must take.