As I have researched more and more enslaved ancestors, I have become more immersed in researching slavery itself. I have a friend who is a Ph.D. and professor of African-American studies and he has really helped me understand the history in a different way. We’ve clocked tens of hours of conversation about the institution of slavery.
Although what genealogists do is similar, it’s also quite different from what professional historians do. We are more interested in the individuals and the specific while they tend to focus more on trends among larger groups of people. The difference in those perspectives fascinate me.
I wanted to present a short overview of some of the most famous works in the evolution of slavery studies and I highly encourage anyone researching enslaved people to read some (at least one) of these works. I haven’t gotten through them all but I’m working on it!
“American Negro Slavery” by Ulrich Phillips, 1918
Typical of the times, Ulrich’s racism was front and center. He believed in the inferiority of blacks and the fantasy of the “Old South.” He wrote that slavery was not a financially profitable institution and that it was done mainly to benefit blacks and maintain white supremacy. He wrote that slaveowners treated, fed and clothed their slaves well. Amazingly, this was the prevailing view of slavery for almost 30 years although W.E.B. DuBois vocally challenged his findings.
“The Peculiar Institution” by Kenneth M. Stampp, 1956
Stampp, in this groundbreaking work, was the first to counter Ulrich Phillips’ school of thought in several areas. He showed that slavery was not benign but a cruel and brutal system of labor exploitation and control. He argued that slavery was indeed a profitable system. He illustrated the extreme suffering of slaves and he also discussed the many methods of slave resistance. Stampp also discussed how becoming a slave owner was a part of a social system which allowed whites to enter the upper class and gain status in the community.
“Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life” by Stanley Elkins, 1959
Elkins was the first historian to look at the psychological impact of slavery rather than just the economics of it. He compared southern slave plantations to Nazi concentration camps and argued that slavery was so brutal and inhumane that it stripped slaves of their African heritage (i.e., they had a “social death”) and transformed them into docile, submissive figures. His most famous thesis was his conclusion that the system of slavery had infantilized slaves, making them “Sambos”—reduced them by brutality to a dependant, child-like status. Although many of his arguments have now been rejected, this single book caused a firestorm and a huge outpouring of responses by other historians.
“The Slave Community” by John Blassingame, 1972
Blassingame presented one of the first slave studies to be presented from the perspective of the enslaved and contradicted historians like Elkins and his “Sambo” thesis. Through the lens of psychology, Blassingame used 19th century fugitive slave narratives as sources to determine that in fact, a rich and unique culture developed among American slaves, with plenty of evidence that African practices survived. Historians criticized Blassingame’s use of slave narratives (which are considered biased) and questioned his neglect of the WPA slave interviews but the book remains an important contribution.
“Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” by Eugene Genovese 1974
Eugene D. Genovese was a Marxist and this book attempts to decipher, from a Marxist perspective, the world of antebellum slavery. Genovese’s thesis is that slaves created a rich culture, at once both African-American and uniquely southern. He raised some new arguments and presented a truly dizzying array of footnotes and examples. Sometimes he can lose the reader with his ruminations on social theory, but this is an engaging read nevertheless, from one of the most enigmatic and controversial American historians.
“The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925” by Herbert Gutman, 1976
In this classic text on black family life, Gutman argues that slavery did not break up the black family, which had become a familiar refrain as a result of the 1970s “Moynihan Report.” Gutman was a labor historian who studied workers and social history. Gutman illustrates that that most black families largely remained intact despite slavery and remained that way during the first wave of migration to the North after the Civil War (although he remained open to arguments about black family collapse in the 1930s and 1940s). Gutman’s work was widely praised.
I could go on and on, and mention works by Deborah Gray White on enslaved women (“Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South”) works by Ira Berlin (“Many Thousands Gone”) and John Hope Franklin (“Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”). There are more than I could ever review here, but I hope if you have not yet thought about reading one of these works you will.
The stories of the people we uncover need to be woven with social history, and perhaps nothing looms larger and more complex than slavery. Pick up some of these at the local library or used book store and shoot me an email and let me know what you’re reading.