Society of slaves: stereotypes fall

September 13, 1998|By Gregory Kane | Gregory Kane,Sun Staff

"Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America," by Ira Berlin. Harvard University Press. 512 pages. $29.95.

We all think we know the history of slavery in America. We

cling to one of two models. The first tells us the horrors of unremitting black oppression, with slaves subdued by the whip and the chain, worked from sunrise to sunset, mutilated or executed for the most minor of transgressions and women repeatedly raped by slavemasters and overseers.

That's the "white devil" model. Slaves are just victims. All whites are evil. In this model there is no room for an Anthony Johnson, who landed in Virginia as a slave in 1621, worked 11 years on the plantation of a white couple called the Bennetts. After Johnson gained his freedom he moved to Virginia's Eastern Shore, where he acquired 250 acres of land, a slave of his own and left his sons enough financial security that they were also able to acquire land.

The second model of the history of slavery in America might be called the "Gone With The Wind" model. In that one, happy, vacuous Negroes contentedly chop cotton and cater to the every whim of their white masters. Thoughts of resistance, flight and freedom never dawn on them. An Anthony Johnson would be as unwelcome in this model as he would be in the first.

Thanks to Ira Berlin, both models should now be on their way to a well-deserved demise. The University of Maryland historian has broken new ground in "Many Thousands Gone" Berlin tells Johnson's story within the first 40 pages, in his chapters on what he calls the "charter generations" of African slaves in America.

These slaves came from the Atlantic coast of Africa. Berlin dubbed them "Atlantic creoles." They interacted with European slave traders, businessmen and merchants on the African coast, knew European languages, customs and laws. They were cosmopolitan enough to use those European languages, customs and laws to their advantage.

Berlin traces the history of these creoles and documents how they used the law to sue owners for their freedom, establish themselves as a vital part of early colonial America by their participation in militias and create a "slave economy" by selling the surplus crops they grew in their hours away from the field. They repeated that cycle even when conditions changed that made slavery harsher.

Thus slaves were never completely powerless, never just victims. Their world constantly changed as economic, social and political conditions in North America changed. The charter generations gave way to the plantation generations, which then gave way to the revolutionary generations that followed America's independence from Great Britain.

Slaves in the charter generation were members of "societies with slaves," Berlin write. Such societies had slaves who worked alongside indentured slaves and free laborers. Slavery in such a society was just one of several forms of labor. Slaves in the plantation generations were members of what Berlin calls "slave societies," where slavery was the primary source of labor.

In each society and in each generation slaves adjusted and adapted to their conditions. Blacks never were exclusively the hapless victims of the "white devil" model of history or the obsequious Sambos of the "Gone With the Wind" model. Berlin's greatest achievement is finally correcting the misconceptions black and white Americans have about how slavery operated in this nation.

Gregory Kane, a columnist for The Sun, was half of a Sun reporting team that last year bought two slaves in Africa, freed them and then wrote a series of articles demonstrating that slavery is still practiced.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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