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On the nature of slavery in the plantation South: A question of condition

On the nature of slavery in the plantation South: A question of condition

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Published by Anthony Fotenos
The only authentic source of insight into the antebellum black experience--the narrative--again and again shows certain emancipated slaves describing slavery in the most favorable of terms. The parasitic master-slave relationship--a product of the sweeping ideologies of the Civil Rights Movement--consequently falls. For it operated on the belief that slavery, by its very nature, was a duality of master versus slave. That is, that the mark of oppression in slavery was slavery itself. However, the evidence will prove otherwise. It will show that the mark of oppression in slavery need not have been absolute, but was, rather, a more complex question of the condition and individual treatment of the slave.
The only authentic source of insight into the antebellum black experience--the narrative--again and again shows certain emancipated slaves describing slavery in the most favorable of terms. The parasitic master-slave relationship--a product of the sweeping ideologies of the Civil Rights Movement--consequently falls. For it operated on the belief that slavery, by its very nature, was a duality of master versus slave. That is, that the mark of oppression in slavery was slavery itself. However, the evidence will prove otherwise. It will show that the mark of oppression in slavery need not have been absolute, but was, rather, a more complex question of the condition and individual treatment of the slave.

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Published by: Anthony Fotenos on Aug 15, 2008
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05/09/2014

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1 
On the Nature of Slavery in the Plantation South:A Question of Condition
Fotenos AF, United States slavery (1995) The Concord Review 6(4): 159-172[The Civil War] is essentially a people's contest...It is a struggle for maintaining inthe world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevatethe condition of men--to lift artificial weights from all shoulders--to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all--to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the raceof life.--Abraham LincolnMessage to Congress in Special Session [July 4, 1861]
I
t remains one of the most poignant testaments to the inferior status of blacks in Americanhistory that before 1959 the historiography of their leaders and cultural achievements wascomparable in bulk to the historiography of horses and horse-raising.
1
In that year, however,Stanley Elkins quietly published
Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life
,wherein he examined the impact of enslavement on black culture and personality. Motivated todiscredit racist arguments of biological black inferiority, Elkins used an array of interdisciplinarysocial science models, including a comparison of antebellum plantations to Nazi concentrationcamps, to argue that the harshness of slavery essentially dehumanized slaves, leaving the black personality hollow and devastated.
2
His approach was so radical that it succeeded in laying theframework of what would later become a rich and dynamic field of study. In his controversialexamination of the slave family prepared for the Johnson administration in 1965, Daniel Patrick 
1
George Fredrickson,
On Herbert G. Gutman's "The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom,1750-1925"
, ed. Allen Weinstein, Frank Gatell, and David Sarasohn (New York: Oxford UP, 1979)p.274.
2
Fredrickson,
On herbert Gutman
p.274.
 
 
2 Moynihan utilized Elkins's theses to support his own view that slavery had uprooted the traditionallypaternal black family. "Slavery," he argued, "stripped [blacks] of their African heritage," put themin "a completely dependent role," and "most important of all....vitiated family life."
3
So too didWilliam Styron portray slaves as victimized and broken in his prize-winning novel,
The Confessionsof Nat Turner 
.
4
 It is no coincidence that the advent of serious studies of slavery was contemporary to theCivil Rights Movement. So influential were the ideologies of that Movement, that historians in theSixties found it increasingly necessary to refute Elkins' thesis. Three in particular, John Blassingamein
The Slave Community
(1972), Eugene Genovese in
 Roll, Jordan, Roll
(1974), and HerbertGutman in
The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom
(1976), all effectively did just that. Apartfrom the enormous academic impact, their efforts provided the necessary intellectual groundwork for proponents of black nationalism, who saw no source of pride in a heritage of dehumanization,and for equal rights advocates, who feared that a subtler premise of "cultural deprivation" wouldreplace that of biological inferiority as a new source of racial discrimination.
5
In devising their arguments, these historians had to build off the premise first assumed byElkins--that within the institution of slavery masters operated as a force
against 
their slaves--andthen show that slaves somehow resisted. Although their theses differed in important nuances, allthree essentially drew on the significance of the slave community and its cultural resources--folklore, music, superstition, and "significant others," like black preachers and conjurors--as
3
Fredrickson,
On Herbert Gutman
p.274.
4
Published by Random House. See also John Henrick Clarke, ed.,
William Styron's Nat Turner:Ten Black Writers Respond 
(New York: Beacon Press, 1968) and George M. Fredrickson,
The Black  Image in the White Mind: The Debate on the Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914
 (New York, 1971).
5
Fredrickson,
On Herbert Gutman
p.275.
 
 
3 examples of shields slaves used to protect against the psychological persecution of their masters.Blassingame advanced this theory first, although he left unresolved whether communal vitalityresulted from planter patronage or slave initiative. Genovese argued the former, that paternalisticmasters agreed to recognize certain of slaves' "customary rights" in exchange for their obedience,whereas Gutman used his discovery of traditional kinship systems among slaves to deemphasizewhite control.
6
Regardless, the very notion of 
resistance
that underlies each historian's argumentsrequired him to assume that the influence of the master was diametrically opposed to the interest of the slave. He thus envisioned a parasitic master-slave relationship, in which, absent some form of cultural refuge, Elkins's paradigm of black dehumanization necessarily follows.Yet the parasite model ignores a host of historical evidence indicating that the relationshipbetween certain slaves and masters was salutary. Most notably, the only authentic source of insightinto the antebellum black experience--the narrative--again and again shows certain emancipatedslaves describing slavery in the most favorable of terms. The parasitic master-slave relationship--aproduct of the sweeping ideologies of the Civil Rights Movement--consequently falls. For itoperated on the belief that slavery, by its very nature, was a duality of master
versus
slave. That is,that the mark of oppression in slavery was slavery itself. However, the evidence will proveotherwise. It will show that the mark of oppression in slavery need not have been absolute, but was,rather, a more complex question of the condition and individual treatment of the slave.The physical abuse that some slaves received at the hands of their masters is well-documented and need not be treated here in any great depth. Stories like that of a thirteen-year-oldslave girl from Georgia, whose sadistic master put her on, "all fours `sometimes her head down, andsometimes up' and [beat her] until froth ran from her mouth," offer testimony to slavery's blackest
6
Fredrickson,
On Herbert Gutman
pp.275-285.

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