The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities
Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1975).


Genovese describes the interaction between slaves and slaveholders on the plantation, arguing that slavery was always a negotiated space. American slavery was a pre-capitalist institution, Genovese asserts, and American slaveholders saw themselves as benevolent paternalists (rather than acquisitive capitalists) who held the best interests of their slaves at heart. The slaves themselves seized upon this fantasy of the planters as an opportunity to ameliorate the harshness of slavery and build some security into their own lives. By accommodating slaveholders' ideas of paternalism, enslaved people were able to control the pace of work, receive recognition for their marriages, and place various other limits on slaveholders' powers. Thus slaves used accommodation to resist the power of their masters, cultivating a unique and autonomous African-American culture within the plantation system.


"To the slaves, the white point of view looked a bit bizarre, and the very meaning of paternalism shifted to one of interdependence. If the master had a duty to provide for his people and to behave like a decent human being, then his duty had to become the slave's right. Where the masters preferred to translate their own self-defined duties into privileges for their people--an utter absurdity the illogic of which the most servile slave could see through--the slaves understood duties to be duties. Because they knew that their masters depended upon their labor, which they sometimes even preferred to think freely given despite the obvious coercion--hence their strictures to Fanny Kemble and Lucy Chase upon manual work--they felt that they had earned their masters' protection and care." (146-147)

"The slaveholders established their hegemony over the slaves primarily through the development of an elaborate web of paternalistic relationships, but the slaves' place in that hegemonic system reflected deep contradictions, manifested in the dialectic of accommodation and resistance. The slaves' insistence on defining paternalism in their own way represented a rejection of the moral pretensions of the slaveholders, for it refused that psychological surrender of will which constituted the ideological foundation of such pretensions. By developing a sense of moral worth and by asserting rights, the slaves transformed their acquiescence in paternalism into a rejection of slavery itself, although their masters assumed acquiescence in the one to demonstrate acquiescence in the other." (658)


We share Genovese's emphasis on the complex adaptations that characterized the institution of slavery. In Genovese's interpretation the daily negotiations between accommodation and resistance, between submission and self-dermination, added up to a capacious and flexible system whose longevity and vitality was the result.

Points of Analysis to this Historiography:

"Black people enslaved in Augusta married, raised families, and worked at all sorts of jobs, but they were never far removed from the tangled affairs of whites."

Citation: Key = H077
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