Saturday, August 3, 2013

Slave Narratives and the New Debate about Slavery

Slave Narratives and the New Debate about Slavery

Just as the antebellum slave narratives had gained prominence in reaction to the Southern defense of slavery, so interest in the latter-day slave narrative was stimulated by the dominant attitudes toward the slave regime that prevailed in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Seldom before or since has racism been so pervasive and so academically respectable in the United States. The assumption of the innate and inherited inferiority of non-Anglo-Saxon racial and ethnic groups permeated and dominated white intellectual and popular thought. Social, scientific, and historical thought both mirrored and reinforced this racism.

By far the most profound influence upon the historical study of slavery during this period was the writings of Ulrich B. Phillips, whose monumental American Negro Slavery established him as the leading authority on the subject.4 American Negro Slavery was so comprehensive, its scholarship so exacting, and its racial assumptions so closely attuned to those then prevailing, that it "succeeded in neutralizing almost every assumption of the anti-slavery tradition."5 The portrait of slavery that emerged from this work bore a striking resemblance to that espoused by proslavery apologists before the Civil War. It minimized the severity of American slavery, extolled its civilizing and Christianizing functions, and reasserted the notion that the slave was submissive rather than defiant. The overall effect was a verification of the "plantation myth" and a confirmation of what Stanley M. Elkins has termed the "Sambo" image of the slave.

Against this background, the revival of interest in the slave narrative reflected a post-World War I revitalization of African-American culture that was instituted and promoted in large measure by blacks themselves. Most dramatically manifested in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, this revitalization was marked by a concerted quest for a "usable" past, one that would impart a sense of self-respect, dignity, and identity to African Americans. One result was the serious study of black history, spearheaded by the unremitting efforts and inspiration of W. E. B. DuBois and of Carter G. Woodson, the energetic founder, editor, and moving spirit behind the Journal of Negro History. The emergence of an increasing number of black scholars signaled the demise of black acquiescence to the prevailing white interpretations of the African-American past.

The authority of Phillips's interpretation therefore did more than rekindle interest in the subject of slavery. Although accepted as authoritative in most academic circles, his sympathetic view was indignantly contested by the new generation of black scholars who, as the slaves' blood and spiritual descendants, could not approach slavery in the spirit of erudition alone. Just as Phillips's Southern background and heritage had exerted a profound and pervasive influence upon his view of slavery, so the portrait espoused by African Americans was derived from a tradition perpetuated and enriched by the accounts of those who had experienced life under the slave regime. When Phillips spurned the use of ex-slave reminiscences as historical data, he rejected the validity of the very source upon which many of the basic assumptions of African-American scholars were ultimately founded.

Phillips's aversion to using slave narratives as appropriate sources of historical data also precluded the study of slavery written from the standpoint of the slave, since the sources he employed were inadequate to answer the question "What was it like to be a slave?" The recognition that only individuals who had lived under the slave regime could adequately answer this question contributed substantially to the surge of interest in obtaining the testimonies of former slaves. []

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