Wednesday, April 3, 2013
50: John Blassingame's The Slave Community
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.