Friday, June 29, 2012

Eugene Genovese on Slavery and the Master-slave Relationship, by Mark Smith

Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), Genovese examined the society of the slaves. This book won the national Bancroft Prize in History. Genovese viewed the antebellum South as a closed and organically united paternalist society that exploited and attempted to dehumanize the slaves. Genovese paid close attention to the role of religion as a form of resistance in the daily life of the slaves because slaves used it to give themselves a sense of humanity. He redefined resistance to slavery as all efforts by which slaves rejected their status as slaves, including their religion, music and the culture they built. Genovese applied Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony to the slave South.

He placed paternalism at the center of the master-slave relationship. Both masters and slaves embraced paternalism, though for different reasons and with varying notions of what paternalism meant. For the slaveowners, paternalism allowed them to think of themselves as benevolent and to justify their appropriation of their slaves' labor. Paternalist ideology, they believed, also gave the institution of slavery a more benign face and helped deflate the increasingly strong abolitionist critique of the institution.

Slaves, on the other hand, recognized that paternalist ideology could be twisted to suit their own ends, by providing them with improved living and working conditions. Slaves struggled mightily to convert the benevolent "gifts" or "privileges" bestowed upon them by their masters into customary rights which masters would not violate. The reciprocity of paternalism could work to the slaves' advantage by allowing them to demand more humane treatment from their masters.

Religion was an important theme in Roll, Jordan, Roll and other studies. Genovese noted that Evangelicals recognized slavery as the root of Southern ills and sought some reforms, but no substantial change of the system. Genovese's contention was that after 1830, southern Christianity became part of social control of the slaves. Furthermore, he argued that the slaves' religion was not conducive to millenarianism or a revolutionary political tradition. Rather, it helped them survive and resist. (Wikipedia)

Panel 2: Eugene Genovese on Slavery and the Master-slave Relationship, by Mark Smith from Alexander Hamilton Institute on Vimeo.

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