Freeing Our Tongues Historian Ira Berlin thinks perhaps the time has come for all America to take the awkward step to talk about, understand and accept responsibility for slavery.

November 02, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The peculiar American institution makes for peculiar American conversation, or more likely none at all. American slavery defies cogent dialogue, stirs a muddle of denial, rage, shame, embarrassment, confusion.

Ira Berlin, history professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and authority on American slavery, has heard all that. Time after time he has seen historical fact drowned by emotion, political opportunism. He goes on, nonetheless -- writing, studying, teaching. An oceanographer in the depths of a treacherous karmic sea.

"We don't really have a language to talk about slavery," says Berlin. "Black and white don't talk to each other very much. This is a subject of great sensitivity. We don't have a language to do it. So people are not sure whether to raise the subject is to shame people, is to embarrass people, is to reveal something about yourself. You know, some horrible faux pas."

Berlin, 57, has his name on two recently published additions to the national conversation, such as it is.

He has written a book called "Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America." He also is one of three editors of a book/cassette tape set of oral history called "Remembering Slavery," much of which consists of former slaves telling their stories in interviews conducted under the auspices of the Depression-era Works Prog- ress Administration. The historic sweep of "Many Thousands Gone" and the tight focus of "Remembering Slavery" together show the lives of individual slaves and the ways in which their travails continue to influence how Americans think about race.

A 'social construct'

In the prologue of "Many Thousands Gone," Berlin writes that it "has become fashionable to declare that race is a social construct." That is, a product not of biology but life circumstance. The notion has been widely accepted in an abstract sense, especially on college campuses, but it does not seem to affect the way black and white people deal with or perceive each other.

"I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea that race is a social construct," he says in an interview at his office. "What I think is missing is that we assert that but we don't prove it. And when we don't prove it, then people don't accept it."

To illustrate the point if not "prove" it, Berlin has amassed exhaustive detail in "Many Thousands Gone," one of 15 books on slavery he has either written, edited or co-edited since the early 1970s. The book shows that North American slavery, notwithstanding the violence that sustained it, often allowed slaves some room for negotiation with their owners, a measure of economic independence and dignity. Even within the confines of a system of oppressive, there was not one "slave life," but many.

Without minimizing the horrors of the institution, "Many Thousands Gone" shows that in slavery, relationships varied from one historical moment to the next, from one part of the continent to another, from town to countryside. Berlin's purpose is not to put a soft edge on slavery, but to show how relationships between the races flowed from the economic and social situation.

"It seems to me in understanding the details of those on-the-ground struggles, ultimately that's where an appreciation of how circumstances define race comes out," says Berlin.

Forces of history

Not only was the ideology of black inferiority used to justify the brutality of the Southern plantation system, but slavery shaped racial attitudes in more subtle ways. In the North in the middle to late 1700s, slavery expanded, triggering more restrictions on freeing slaves. The free black population grew smaller and less prosperous, "and white Northerners slipped into the practice of equating bondage with blackness. Northern lawmakers reinforced that presumption by circumscribing the liberty of free blacks."

Using an array of historical records and secondary sources -- much of it accumulated in the course of 30 years' research -- "Many Thousands Gone" portrays slave lives in the context of their time, subject to forces of history. He organizes his study by slave generations, identifying the "Charter Generations," "Plantation Generations" and "Revolutionary Generations" spanning the early 17th through the early 19th centuries.

The book presents two broad categories of slave cultures: societies with slaves, in which slavery is one form of labor among many; and slave societies, in which slavery is the center of economic production and the master-slave relationship becomes a model for other social relationships. Slave society, represented by the plantation cultures that arose around tobacco, cotton and rice, was far more brutalizing than society with slaves.

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