Wednesday, April 3, 2013

50: John Blassingame's The Slave Community

Published in 1972, John Blassingame's The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South uses autobiographies of fugitive slaves and survivors of slavery to show that the experience of slavery varied widely with time and place.  More importantly, he argues that slave communities, which operated both in response to their particular conditions of oppression and along their own internal dynamics, were crucial in shaping slaves' experience of slavery and the institution of slavery itself.  Blassingame thus refutes the position of many white scholars of slavery, particularly Stanley Elkin, that the oppression of slavery flattened all slave personalities into "smiling Sambos."  Slavery was certainly oppressive, but it was not universally so, and many slaves had freedom within slave quarters, religion, and the family to create a culture that influenced both black and white society.

Blassingame traces the development of slave culture in American from the slave trade in Africa and the Middle Passage; he argues that slaves retained their culture even as they adapted to new work habits, and he discusses the relationship between slave families, runaways, and resistance to slavery.  He also deconstructs the three main stereotypes of slave personality (Sambo, the affectionate, loving servant; Jack, the shifty, lazy good-for-nothing, and Nat, the calculating rapist and murderer) by examining life on different plantations (cotton, sugar, tobacco.)

This book is controversial both because of its sources and its claims.  Blassingame relied heavily on slave narratives (supported by plantation records) in order to construct slave communities from the inside, and critics were concerned that many narratives were shaped either by abolitionists with an agenda or by the age of the ex-slaves.  I also question his rather dubious claim that slave personalities could still be fitted into universal types.

However, despite these issues, the book was well-received by scholars who were interested in reclaiming the voices of oppressed peoples because it allows the slaves to speak for themselves.  It also suggests that slaves were far less passive than previous accounts had assumed, that they had agency and enough autonomy to create their own cultures, and that as a result the relationship between masters and slaves was often closer to a kind of negotiation than an exploitative imbalance of power.  Slave culture was thus integral to the culture of antebellum Southern America.

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