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Souls on ice

With firsthand testimony, two new books bring the everyday horrors of slavery to life

(EDEL RODRIGUEZ)
Email|Print| Text size + By James Smethurst
November 4, 2007

For many years historians in the United States, even scholars who challenged the relatively benign view of slavery and harsh view of Reconstruction that dominated the academy until at least the 1950s, were reluctant to draw on the testimony of the slaves themselves as found in their personal narratives, including those written before and after the Civil War as well as those collected orally during the WPA Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. Even after the 1950s there was considerable debate over whether these accounts of the "peculiar institution" by former slaves could be considered reliable historical evidence. However, more recently, such firsthand stories have been increasingly employed to put a face on slavery and give a more vivid sense of the human dimension of that crucial, and horrifying, epoch of US history. Two new books, Marcus Rediker's "The Slave Ship" and David W. Blight's "A Slave No More," are both powerful additions to this body of scholarship.

Rediker's book closely examines the slave ship era, especially that of Britain and the United States in the 18th and early 19th centuries. While other scholars have taken up the slave trade in some depth, none before have examined this key instrument and institution in the business so closely. Rediker convincingly argues that the slave ship in many respects set the character of slavery as well as the cultures of the masters and the slaves in the New World.

Drawing on his vast knowledge of the maritime world in the 18th and 19th centuries, Rediker shows how the slave ship was a capitalist venture, a site of class warfare, a prison, and an unintended instrument of ethnogenesis through which many African peoples speaking scores of languages began to forge common pan-African identities even before their debarkation in the Western Hemisphere. He also delineates some of the processes and the arbitrary peculiarities of race formation in a system that marked slaves as "black" and sailors as "white" - even though some of the sailors were Africans and many not "white" as the term would come to be understood in the United States. Through the use of a wide range of firsthand testimony of merchants, ship captains and officers, common seamen, and captured Africans, Rediker brings to life the brutality of the slave ships. Constant violence and threats were used to crush rebellion by brutally exploited sailors and persistent resistance ranging from suicide to open insurrection by enslaved Africans.

The occasion for Blight's book was the discovery of narratives written after the Civil War by two former slaves, Wallace Turnage and John Washington, which are presented in relatively unedited form after several chapters contextualizing the stories of the two men. These tales were hitherto known only by friends and members of the Turnage and Washington families. It is a little unclear to whom Turnage and Washington addressed their stories, but it seems likely that they intended their works as testimonies to the truth about slavery and the thoughts of the enslaved for their descendants.

As Blight points out, these autobiographies give a different look into the minds and memories of former slaves than do many better-known narratives aimed at a larger, and largely white, audience, generally with the mediation of a white editor. Both narratives document the thirst for freedom, self-betterment, and the reconstruction of families shattered by slavery. Turnage and Washington amply demonstrate the vindictive cruelty of many masters and the more impersonal inhumanity embodied in the separation of family members as part of a "rational" economic decision. Even more, their accounts illuminate the variety of resistance to the slave regime whether through escape, enlistment in the Union Army, or the aiding of fugitives. Turnage in particular shows this indomitable spirit, succeeding in reaching freedom behind the Union lines only after five attempts at escape at considerable personal cost. Framing these narratives are Blight's preceding chapters, which lay out what he and his fellow researchers were able to discover about the lives of Turnage and Washington, delineating also the moments and places in which they lived. Blight also helpfully gives the reader some sense of the more established literary genre of the slave narrative as well as the postbellum efforts of working-class African-Americans to make their way in the world, which became increasingly difficult with the rise of Jim Crow. Thus, the two narratives give insight not only into the slave era, but also into the psychology of the black working class as it faced the collapse of Reconstruction.

In short, both books are important contributions to the sort of history that would try to allow us to get a sense of the voices of the slaves and other participants in the "peculiar institution." In their different ways they provide fascinating and often gripping stories that speak to our understanding of the slave legacy and the meaning of the Civil War and Reconstruction with obvious implications for the issues of reparations, historical responsibility, and historical memory that continue to roil our society.

James Smethurst teaches in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

RELATED

The Slave Ship: A Human History
By Marcus Rediker
Viking, 434 pp., illustrated, $27.95

A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation
By David W. Blight
Harcourt, 307 pp., illustrated, $25

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