Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Paper number three for the social history class explores this rather odd historiographical question about consent and slavery. The idea here, as argued by Genovese, is that slaves were induced to "consent" to slavery through the idea and system of paternalism, created by slaveholders. It should not be difficult to anticipate my, and other, objections to this idea and that is the focus of the essay.


The Possibility of Consent in American Slave Society


The debates among historians of the American slave system have resulted in a tremendous amount of scholarly output since before the system was ended well into the present day. Eugene D. Genovese’s seminal work, Roll, Jordan, Roll, is perhaps the most challenging book which still dominates the field over thirty years after its publication. While many ideas and stories make up the Genovese’s massive work, it is his underlying concept of paternalism, creating the consent on the part of the slave necessary for the existence of Gramsci’s hegemony, which Genovese ultimately sees as the cause of slave accommodation and lack of formalized rebellion. This idea has, understandably, added to the fiery debates swirling around this topic and yet it has persisted and forced every subsequent scholar to deal with it in one way or another. That a slave system built, as any such system must be, on brute force could be meaningfully consented to by its victims ought to be, and has been, challenged on many fronts.

Stanley Elkins, whose work Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life attempted to explain why there was no massive slave uprising, was one of many scholars whom Genovese was attempting to revise. Elkins took Genovese (among many others) to task for several reasons. First criticizing Genovese’s reliance on the thought of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, Elkins wrote, “whereas it may apply admirably to the depressed classes of post-1918 southern Italy, it makes little allowance for immediate damage in a setting where some men not only exploit other men but deprive them of liberty itself, and keep them so deprived by force.”[1] Historian Walter Johnson sees three distinct problems with Genovese’s Gramscian formulation of hegemony and consent,

first, the idea that there was not a revolutionary aspiration among North American slaves; second, the notion that this alleged failure to revolt must somehow be explained in reference to the slaves’ own culture rather than the balance of force in the society—by reference, that is, to “hegemony” rather than simple “rule”; and, third, that there is a contradiction rather than a continuum between individual and collective acts of resistance.[2]

Perhaps the most obvious flaw is that for the word “consent” to have any meaning at all, it must be freely (even if it is duped out of people as Gramsci argued) given, not imposed into a system which ultimately boils down to one man owning another other through capricious whim.
More crucial than Genovese’s reliance on Gramsci, Elkins deftly points out the biggest hole in Genovese’s paternalist construction,

There is little room in his paternalism for contempt—self-contempt, or contempt for the other—as any built-in aspect of the total equation. He continues to deny, for example, that the planters as a class were afflicted with guilt, that there was even a real failure of self-assurance, or that a hateful corrosive racism was ever a primary element of their mentality. …. There is a strong sense here of having it both ways: paternalism, for all the qualifications and disclaimers, comes out on both sides as essentially positive in character.[3]

This is particularly apparent in Genovese’s account of “fancy girls” markets where light-skinned and attractive female slaves were sold at high prices for sexual purposes. Genovese boldly asserts, “It would be hard to live with a beautiful and submissive young woman for long and to continue to consider her mere property or a mere object of sexual gratification, especially since the free gift of her beauty has so much more to offer than her yielding to force.”[4] This line of thought culminates with, “it would not be astonishing if many of these fancy girls … often ended by falling in love with their men, and vice versa.”[5] It is hard to conceive of any form of consent in an environment where one is sold like a horse or mule and despite the many instances that Genovese draws upon in an attempt to show his conception of the “fancy girl” trade as the rule; the stories serve as exceptions that prove a more horrifying truth. Walter Johnson sums it up, “These secret slaveholders sought victims, not companions. In their most private moments, these men existed only in the slaves whose bodies provided the register for their secret desires and their evident power.”[6]

Genovese attempted to demonstrate slave resistance through the “world the slaves made.” In other words, through black culture, i.e. religion, family, etc, the slaves did, in fact, resist white hegemony and did not lose their agency as individuals. While Johnson furthers this argument along, he heavily modifies it by emphasizing the limits in which the slaves could express their agency. For instance, the tale of the slave Ednoull is instructive because he was able to delay his sale to Louisiana away from his wife Sally for six months by threatening to kill himself, but was ultimately sent down the river anyway in spite of the paternalistic promise made by his master to respect his marriage.[7] Ednoull was taken seriously and the threat of losing his monetary value certainly caused hesitation in his sale, yet ultimately the allure of easy profit and the fact that Ednoull was at his master’s mercy overruled the risk that he would follow through with his threats. Elkins remained entirely unconvinced,

Genovese’s long-view Gramscian conjurations take less than serious account of immediate circumstances: the immense coercive powers at the master’s command, the savage vengeance wreaked for the few insurrectionary gestures that were made, or the fact that those who did make such attempts were men who had escaped the full dead weight of plantation paternalism. Genovese is to be taxed not for a failure to recognize these factors (he does in his way recognize them), nor even for extenuating the thinness of the slaves’ revolutionary tradition (which he does at some length), but simply for his supposing that such a “tradition” (long-term or short-term) was even thinkable.[8]

The terror instilled in a mostly American born slave population that knew no other condition than that of chattels must have been a great deterrence to action. The presence of families for a great many slaves must have made the idea of rebellion against astronomical odds hardly worth the expense of the tremendous amount of thought and work necessary to pull it off.

Genovese argued that “The slaveholders established their hegemony over the slaves primarily through the development of an elaborate web of paternalistic relationships, but the slaves’ place in that hegemonic system reflected deep contradictions, manifested in the dialectic of accommodation and resistance.”[9] It is not hard to see why many historians have been angered by this formulation for no meaningful consent or “accommodation” can be had with a gun to one’s head. Could one fairly or with a strait face say that one’s handing over one’s wallet to a mugger is an “accommodation” to the mugger or that one is therefore consenting to being robbed? Would this constitute the existence of hegemony of the robber over his victims? Surely not, and yet this seems to be the argument Genovese makes with respect to those held in bondage in the American south. So long as historians push forth this rather warped and meaningless formulation of consent and accommodation in respect to the topic of slavery, debate will and must continue.


[1] Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), revised 3rd ed., 292.
[2] Walter Johnson, “A Nettlesome Classic Turns Twenty-Five,” Common-Place: Re-readings (http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-04/reviews/johnson.shtml), 27 August 2005, page five of eight.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 417.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 115.
[7] Ibid, 34-35.
[8] Elkins, Slavery, 292-93.
[9] Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 658.

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