George Rawick

The Historical Roots of Black Liberation

(July 1968)

From Radical America, Vol.2 No.4, July-August 1968, pp.1-13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Black Revolution, particularly in its latest phase, has challenged all previous interpretations of the history of black people, not only in the United States but everywhere in the Western world and in Africa. No longer is it possible to write credibly the liberal, integrationist history which pictures only black contributions to American society and stresses the victimization of the slaves. History written under the slogan “Black and White, Unite and Fight” does not give us grounds on which to understand the contemporary black movement. Unless we find the real historical roots of Black Power we are faced with a situation unparalleled in world history: a massive revolutionary movement which comes from nowhere and is born fully grown. [1]

The central focus of the recent discussion of slavery in the United States has been a discussion of the slave personality. What did slavery do to the development of the human being? One group of social analysts has refurbished the Sambo image, translating it from “racial” to “psychological” terms. Using an amalgam of Freudian psychology and social-psychological role theory, Stanley Elkins has essentially argued that slavery “infantilized” the slave personality. Although Elkins allows himself escape mechanisms from the full implications of this theory, nevertheless his argument does amount to the claim that slaves generally did not become full adults. Others such as Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan have added another dimension with a complicated discussion of the so-called matrifocal family. They conclude that a lack of social circumstances necessary to produce mature adults has been reinforced from slavery to the present. Black people, in these conceptions, are inherently maladjusted to American society, implying that some figure or institution must shape them up. Thus the theory of the slave and his descendents as Victim.

On the other hand, there has been a continuation of more traditional liberal theory. If the slaves acted as if they accepted their subordinate status, it has been argued, they were only feigning such accommodation – only putting on “the Man.” Like the first theory, this does violence to the facts and carries clear ideological implications. While Elkins and his academic kin have attempted to produce a sophisticated conservative defense of existing social relations, the second school’s results suggest moderate reforms. Neither can be related to a revolutionary theory or practice.

Men do not make revolution for light and transient reasons, but rather only when they can no longer stand the contradictions in their personalities do they move in a sharp and decisive fashion. As Hegel, Marx, Camus and Farnon have well understood, the victim is the rebel, indeed all rebels are men and women resolving the classic contradiction laid out by Rousseau: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” As Hegel demonstrated in the famous dialogue of master and slave in Phenomenology of the Mind, the slave struggles against the master by struggling with his own internal dilemmas. The social struggle begins, in an immediate sense, as a struggle within the slave and only them becomes externalized and objectified. Therefore, unless the slave is simultaneously Sambo and revolutionary, Sambo and Nat Turner, he can be neither Sambo nor Nat Turner. He can only be a wooden man, a theoretical abstraction.

Genovese’s Work

From the perspective of the Movement, the only work that seriously approaches a sufficiently high level of discussion is that of Eugene Genovese, who unites a study of Marxism with a respect for and deep knowledge of the concrete experiences of the slaves themselves. Genovese’s studies reach far beyond those of others, but his work has not yet developed into a fully Marxist history. I hope to discuss first why I believe this is so, and then briefly indicate an alternative direction. [2]

Like C. Wright Mills before him, Genovese concentrates largely on the nature of the ruling class. To paraphrase some remarks he made at the Smith College Conference on Negro Slavery in February 1968, we must be primarily concerned with comparative studies of the ruling classes produced by Negro slave societies. This concentration seems to me undialectical, onesided, and needlessly schematic. My counter-thesis is that the most important problems inherent in the study of plantation production based on slave labor can be solved only by an analysis of the class struggle between masters and slaves; such analysis must begin with the self-activity of the slaves themselves. If one writes from such a perspective, then all history is indeed the history of the class struggle: as E.P. Thompson, Georges Lefebvre, C.L.R. James and other Marxist historians have brilliantly demonstrated, the defeats are inevitable and necessary stages in the struggle that leads to their ultimate triumph.

This view is central to the above mentioned master/slave dialogue in Hegel, dialogue which forms the basis of the Marxist dialectic. While Genovese knows the importance of this discussion in Hegel (and has quoted it in The Political Economy of Slavery), he shies away from exploring its full implications. A social passimism combined with what seems to me a sectarian impatience with history flaws his work. For example, he sees the American Revolution in the South essentially as a reactionary slave-owners rebellion. But it is apparent that the Revolution also represented the success of small farmers, non-slave-owners. Similarly, one could maintain that it was not until the 1830’s that the conflict between planter and non-planter whites was decisively won by the former. Moreover, as Genovese understands, the struggle continued into the 1840’s and 1850’s with Hinton Helper’s The Impending Crisis, published in 1857; as the manifesto of the non-slave-owning whites. But precisely because Genovese’s work is not a sterile academic enterprise but a personal attempt to intervene in the contemporary struggle, he allows his pessimism to interfere with his search for implications, presenting the South as a monolith.

Genovese handles the Sambo-rebel problem in a very brittle way, seeing it essentially as a problem of historical progression. Sambo could become the rebel in certain situations, and Genovese seeks to discover “the condition under which the personality pattern could become inverted and a seemingly docile slave could suddenly become fierce.” He even suggests that had the French Jacobins taken power in 1790 rather than 1794, they would have abolished slavery in San Domingo and therefore liberated the slaves from the outside (rather than, as historical fact, they liberating themselves). If so, he comments, “we would ... today be reading a Haitian Elkins whose task would be to explain the extraordinary docility of the country’s blacks.” All previous indication of rebelliousness in San Domingo is relegated by Genovese to unimportance: “We find a Sambo stereotype and a weak tradition of rebellion ... when the island suddenly exploded in the greatest slave revolution in history, nothing lay behind it but Sambo and a few hints.”

This conclusion is fundamentally absurd, the absurdity of sincere but pessimistic radical scholarship. Despite Genovese’s stated respect for C.L.R. James, he seems to be turning the historian upside down. For the point James is making in The Black Jacobins – a point which cannot be missed by the careful reader – is that the oppressed continuously struggle in forms of their own choosing and surprise all mankind when they transform the day-to-day struggle into monumental revolutionary deeds. The pre-revolutionary activity was a necessary predecessor to the Haitian revolt; and without Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner, there could have been no Fredrick Douglass, Rap Brown, Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver.


This is not to argue that the slave was in no sense Sambo. A man is Sambo precisely when he is at the very point of rebellion he is fearful of being the rebel. Rebel he must be, but self-confident he is not. The greatest of all abolitionist leaders, the ex-slave Fredrick Douglass, tells repeatedly in his autobiography that when in the very act of fleeing, he was not only afraid – he also felt he was doing something wrong. Everything seemed to tell him that he was incapable of being a freeman; but at the same time, everything told him he must be a freeman. Unless we understand the contradictory nature of the human personality in class societies, we can never portray reality. One never knows whether the victim or the rebel will manifest himself again, but then again one need never know. It does not matter. In real life, men engage and then they see. The man of courage is not afraid to act, not because he is certain he will not be the coward, but only because he knows that, if he does not act, he most certainly will be the coward.

The Sambo image is used often to give a facile explanation for the fact that there were very few slave revolts in North America. Because men were Sambo – and to be Sambo in this view, as we have shown, has meant that one could not be simultaneously the rebel – there were no successful slave revolts. This is an example of finding a very complicated, cumbersome solution when a more simple and direct explanation is at hand. Slaves from the Caribbean and Brazil, areas where the Sambo image and reality were as present as in Worth America, engaged in great and at times successful slave revolts. Wo talk of Sambo and infantilization need be brought into account for the failure of large-scale slave revolts in North America. The matter was really much simpler. Slaves in North America were in every respect far outnumbered by the whites, who in any area could successfully hold off an attack until help came from elsewhere.

The slave revolt was not the usual method of direct action on the part of slaves in the United States because it was obvious that such a small, isolated minority could not successfully struggle this way. Rather the slaves usually chose other, more suitable tactics. While the slaves did not engage, particularly after the defeat of Nat Turner in 1831, in large revolts, they did struggle in a most conscious fashion and in a most successful manner through the Underground Railroad, strikes, and acts of individual withholding of or destruction of production. Most important, they fashioned their own independent community through which men and women and their children could find the cultural defenses against their oppressors.

The black community was the center of life for the slaves. It gave them, marked off from the rest of society, an independent base. The slave did not suffer from rootlessness – he belonged to the slave community and even if he were sold down the river, would usually be able to find himself in a new community much like his previous one, in which there would be people who shared a common destiny and would help him find a new life.

Slave Self-Activity

The slave labored from sunup to sundown and sometimes beyond. This labor, which dominated part of the slave’s existence, has often been described but never in terms of its relationship to the slave community nor to what the slave did from sundown to sunup. Under slavery, as under any other social system, the lowest of the low were not totally dominated by the system and the master class. They found ways of alleviating the worst of the system and at times of dominating the masters. What slaves accomplished was the creation of a unified Negro community in which class differences within the community, while not totally eradicated, were much less significant than the ties of blackness in a white man’s world.

While slaves were oppressed and exploited under slavery, they fought back in a day-by-day struggle which did not lead directly to liberation, but which in fact prevented that “infantilization” of personality that many historians insist took place. While there was, of course, an impact upon the slave personality of the institution, “infantilization” hardly describes it. In fact, what must be seen is the fact that the result was quite contradictory. On the one hand, submissiveness and a sense that one deserved to be a slave; but on the other, a great deal of anger and a great deal of competence to express this anger in ways that protected the personality and had objective results in the improvement of the slave’s situation.

The metaphors of static psychology such as “infantilization” are most dangerous ones for they claim too much for conditioning. In any society based upon exploitation and social hierarchy, most people at all levels of the society display extreme ambivalence of personality. This “highest of the high and lowest of the low” syndrome produces social greatness as well as social incompetence. (Erik Erikson, for example, in The Young Man Luther, describes the religious revolutionary Martin Luther as a man who felt himself to be both a subservient worthless child and a man chosen by God the Father to do His work. Only in fighting his heavenly Father’s enemies would the child become a man.) Those who have raised the issue of the “infantilization” of the slave personality do so in connection with the argument that the Africans in being taken to the New World were “deculturalized” and that the only culture put in its place was the white man’s culture. On this basis, no African culture and no new culture could really matter; thus cultural dependency, wardship, infantilization. The Negro in the United States, they argue, had no culture of his own and was simply a very deprived member of the majority culture.

This school of slavery historiography is dependent upon the curious notion that “personality” and “culture” are like old clothes that can be discarded easily. However, one can never remove culture, although one can transform it. The ability of men to learn the simplest tasks is dependent upon the utilization of the existing cultural apparatus. New cultures emerge out of the older cultures gradually, never completely destroying the traces of the past. Revolutions, at their best, do not obliterate past society but liberate that which is alive from its domination by social classes no longer able to utilize the achievements of mankind for human purposes. In short, culture is a profoundly historical reality and not an ahistorical abstraction.

Afro-American Culture

The process whereby the African changed in order to meet the new environment was dependent upon his African culture. While slavery altered social patterns, it did not wholly obliterate African culture. The Br’er Rabbit stories of North America are not as Joel Chandler Harris in his racist wisdom imagined them to be. They are not childlike tales for toddlers. They contain the insight of a people and express a most sophisticated view of human life.

There are a variety of myths and folktales from Negro populations in Africa and the New World in which a relatively weak creature succeeds in at least surviving in his competition with the greater beasts. At times he even wins, but he never really loses. He is absurd, but he is filled with life and he keeps struggling with his destiny. In West Africa he is often called Legba and is portrayed as a spider or a rabbit or at times as a little black man. He survives by his wits and manages to live in competition with his more powerful neighbors. He appears in Brazil and as Papa Legba in Haitian voodoo. Elsewhere in the Caribbean we have Anansi, the spider trickster, who defeats Lion, Tiger, and Snake in great contests of wits.

Sometimes in the Caribbean he becomes Br’er Rabbit, the form in which he is known in North America. In all cases we have a creature whose life situation is very much like that of slaves. He survives, even occasionally triumphs, over the more powerful beasts; and whatever he does, he gains the sympathy of the non-powerful everywhere. In fact, he always seems to have a greater share of the classic human virtues than the Great Beasts.

In myth and folklore the slave not only acted out his desires, He accomplished much more than that. In his laughter and pleasure at the exploits of Legba, Anansi, and Br’er Rabbit he created for himself, out of his own being, that necessary self-confidence denied to him by so much of his environment.

We get another example, a most crucial one, of the relationship of the slave community to the slave struggle in the slave religion. The religion of the slaves not only provided a link with the most modern of naturalistic and humanistic philosophy, but also with the concrete day-by-day struggles of the slaves themselves. Slave revolts themselves were often related to what has been called in several accounts the “African cult meeting”. We have an overwhelming amount of evidence of regular late night or early morning “sings” and religious meetings held either in the slave quarters or in nearby swamps or river banks.

But, above all, for the period from the defeat of the rebellion of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 to the Civil War, the African cult and its related community provided the basis for social life of the slaves. In these thirty years the Negro slaves retrenched, struggled to maintain a coherent culture, infused human dignity and human possibility into the day-by-day life of the slave, and above all built the Underground Railroad. The real Uncle Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book was the leader of the slaves on the plantation precisely because he was more courageous than all the other slaves as well as wise in the ways of protecting his people in their isolation. Also, Negro spirituals were the legitimate and necessary manifestations of this period. The slave personality was kept whole by the conscious and deep-seated realities of the Afro-American culture as expressed in the day-by-day and night-by-night life of the slave quarters. While the struggle was neither dramatic nor heroic in an epic way, it was real and successful.

Through the instrumentality of the African cult, a concrete expression of a philosophy most adequate to the task at hand, the Afro-American slave prepared the ground and built the community out of which could come the struggles of the abolitionist movement. Abolitionism was at all times dominated by Afro-Americans, not by whites. Every abolitionist newspaper depended upon the support of Negro freedmen for its continuation. And these black freedmen received their impetus from the struggles of their brothers and sisters in slavery. Rather than stemming from the New England Brahmin conscience, abolitionism grew from, and carried, the necessity of black liberation whatever the cost. And in liberating the black community abolitionism transformed American society; it took the lead in creating a new America.

Although it will seem outrageous for those who think of movements as primarily organizations, offices, finances, printing presses and newspapers, writers and petitions, the heart of abolitionism was the slave community itself. The Underground Railroad, the efforts of the slaves for their own liberation, and their struggles’ impact on Northern Whites and slave blacks – these were the movement’s indispensible core. In the South, it gave the slaves the hope that enabled them to engage in the daily struggles that won for them that amount of breathing space which made more than mere continued existence possible.

With the defeat of Nat Turner’s rebellion the slaves turned more and more to building their day-by-day resistance: to the Underground Railroad, to individual acts of resistance, to slave strikes. There were countless strikes among the slaves, strikes that were often successful. A group of slaves would after some particular incident of brutality on the part of master or overseer take off for the swamps where they would hide out. After a period they would send in a representative to arrange for a conference at which there would be “collective bargaining”. Sometimes they lost, of course, and to lose meant to be whipped and at times even more severely punished. But nevertheless the strikes went on.

Resistance of the slaves had its results. While the corruption of the master class and other whites in Southern society has often been commented upon, the linkage with the activities of the slaves has never been made. The slaves themselves created the conditions for the inner corruption of the Master Class. While the rulers portrayed the institution of slavery as beneficent, the constant rebellion of the slaves made them know they lied. And when there is no way in which men can believe in the fundamental morality of a social system, even one they profit by, that system begins to die because the masters lose their ability to defend it. The slaves, in the struggle to the death with the rulers, repudiate the latter’s claim of moral justification, demonstrate to all the bad faith of the masters. (Seen from this vantage point, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn depicts the superiority of the moral claims of the runaway slave, Jim, to those of the masters based on property rights.)

Black Civilization and White

The southern slave owner was denuded of civilization by the very system he fostered. Instead of the southern plantation owner and the classes close to him being made up of the knights in armor of racist folklore, slavery produced a society in the American South dominated by a class who lived in corruption and within an atmosphere worthy of the Marquis de Sade. The picture of the life of the master drawn by the master class during slavery and by the romanticizers after slavery clashes sharply with the portrait drawn by the slaves themselves.

In the few ways in which some genuine civilization and humanistic culture came through in the lives of the masters, it was the result of the humanizing and civilizing influence of slaves. Slave women provided some degree of a full humanity for the masters of whom they were concubines; they provided some genuine love and training for the young masters and mistresses; the slave children helped and taught the slave owners’ sons and daughters. In almost every other way the slave owner was a cruel man who whipped horses, slaves, and women, gambled and drank hard, and was quick with the Bowie knife and the gun against any real or fancied opponent. The white women were not the delicate ladies of the southern myth. The slaves almost universally reported that the women enjoyed whipping slaves more than did the men, that they often took out on their slaves their anger at their husbands, particularly when these men spent more time with their slave women than with their wives. The myth of the gracious South dies hard, but die it must. The slaves as they report their experiences turn upon its head the image of mint julep and magnolia.


1. It should be mentioned that the study upon which this article is based was begun before the slogan “Black Power” was born; it has a basis that precedes slogans and ideologies in the same sense that the concrete expression of Black Power in the independent black community preceded any internal ideological discussion. Nonetheless, the contemporary black struggle has clarified and illuminated many matters, rendering the discussion a very different one than the one begun nearly a decade ago.

2. The full defense of my point of view is developed in my forthcoming multi-volumed work, The American Slave: From Sundown to Sunup whose volumes will begin to appear in the spring of 1969 under the imprint of Greenwood Press. The full ten to fourteen volume work will contain a one-volume introduction by myself followed by many volumes of annotated and edited slave autobiographies and narratives in which thousands of slaves and former slaves tell their own stories, which have either never been published or have been out of print for over a century. It is a telling commentary about American racism that no attempt previously has been made to develop a substantive history of American slavery based upon the records and artifacts left by the former slaves; indeed, most historians concluded that the material for such work did not exist. It is hoped that this work will be a challenge to others to revise history, based on even more careful and detailed studies of men’s self-activity.


Last updated on 12.8.2007