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Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Vintage) Paperback – 12 Jan 1976
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"The most profound, learned, and detailed analysis of slavery to appear since World War II. It covers an incredible range of topics and offers fresh insights on nearly every page. . . . Genovese's great gift is his ability to penetrate the minds of both slaves and masters, revealing not only how they viewed themselves and each other, but also how their contradictory perceptions interacted." --The New York Times Book Review
"Without modern peer as an historical narrative, as a sensitive functional analysis of a major region and period of American society in general, and the Afro-American community in particular." --The New Republic
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A reevaluation of the master-slave relationship in American history.See all Product description
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The book has some serious flaws: three serious ones are its belief in the paternalism of American slave-holders, an almost complete lack of conclusions and its length. It is at its best when describing what its sub-title calls "The World the Slaves Made", but it could have done this far more concisely, and its failure to locate that world in context reduces its value. The book reads more like an extended essay about Genovese's interpretation than an objective study.
Genovese sees the pre-Civil War South as a paternalistic society whose paternalism was a European ideology adopted by the slave-holders and accepted by the slaves as it gave them a protector from harsh slave laws. However, acceptance (he argues) deprived the slaves of the initiative to change their lives through revolt, as in Brazil. He regards paternalism as a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial style of life and work, the opposite of the factory system. Other writers like Kenneth Stampp and Fogel and Engerman consider slave-holders were capitalists motivated by profit and the lifestyle they aspired to was merely incidental to this.
Genovese's 650-plus pages contain much detail from the records of slave-holders and others, but it is unclear how representative this is. His conclusions are limited to three pages, which largely restate his view of a paternalistic accommodation between master and slave without considering the alternatives. He calls paternalism an ideology or ethos but fails to analyse its elements or development. It is difficult to consider the actions of slave-holders in the South as "paternalistic" as that word is normally understood, but Genovese does not provide an explanation of how the system with its brutality could be paternalistic in any other terms.
This book deserves to be read as one reinterpretation of the history of American slavery, but it should not be read in isolation from the work of Kenneth Stampp and others, who show slavery as irredeemably rooted in violence and coercion.
Genovese commences with an observation made by the noted historian C. Vann Woodward: "the ironic thing about these two great hyphenated minorities, Southern-Americans and Afro-Americans...is the degree to which they have shaped each other's destiny, determined each other's isolation, shared and molded a common culture." One of the first points the author makes is that slavery need not rest on a racial basis, but, of course, the American variant was. And it was a "de jure" variant, as the author extensively covers in his review of the hegemonic function of the law. Imagine a legal system in which rape meant only the rape of a white woman. A black woman could not be raped, according to the law!
Fresh insights abound in this work. Lynching is a crime most often associated as one in which the victim was black but Genovese claims that of the three hundred or so cases between 1840 and 1860, only 10% were against blacks (many times the victim was a white "negrophile"). The author could easily have been dismissive of religion (`the opium of the people") but understood its importance in maintaining the dignity and resistance of Blacks to their fate, and thus dedicates a fair portion of the book to this topic, and commences this section by goading the reader: "In this secular, not to say cynical, age few tasks present greater difficulty than that of compelling the well-educated to take religious matters seriously." Indeed, for a "Marxist," Genovese knows his Bible well; scripture reverberates throughout his account, in epigraphs, and more. The slaves evolved a syncretic religion, adopted the outward forms of Christianity to their native African beliefs and rituals. The author details how initially white preachers led the "conversion," but that ultimately a class of black preachers would "shepherd their flocks."
The nature of work and social relations constitute other major portions of this work. How hard would you work if your received none of the fruits of your labor? Instead of understanding how any of us would react to that predicament, it was essential for whites to evolve a theory that blacks were inherently "lazy." The author contrasts that attitude with the results of blacks who became free men, and learned technical skills. In terms of social relations, Genovese examines the multitude of mechanisms available to keep blacks "in their place," and in particular, how sexual relations were twisted and distorted by a purported need to separate the races. Yet, as the author says: "Because three-quarters or so of today's Afro-American population in the United States reputedly has some white ancestry, we seek its origins primarily in the easy access to slave women provided by plantation slavery." Today, words such as "miscegenation" and "mulatto" have largely fallen into disuse, yet in numerous states the former was against the law when this book was written.
There are solid sections on the slave revolts, notably the one led by Nat Turner. In terms of his "white counterpart," John Brown, who the author calls "fanatic, millenarian, and possibly mad" but this only underscores the rhetorical question, applicable then, and possibly even now: "What judgment should be rendered on a society the evils of which reach such proportions that only madmen are sane enough to challenge them?" Outright revolts failed, a victim, according to the author, of the strength of paternalist relationships that maintained control.
One reviewer call this work "dated." Well, if one can overlook phrases such as "...but the slaves' place in that hegemonic system reflected deep contradictions, manifested in the dialectic of accommodation and resistance." then I believe the present reader will find this work as essential and vital today as when it was written. Is all this ancient history, or does it live on today, in less "de jure" forms, in a system which demands that substantial illegal immigration exist, so that there will almost be an undifferentiated amorphous pool of labor, willing to work for a pittance, without legal rights? Roll, Jordan, Roll remains an important 5-star plus read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on May 20, 2011)
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