Commentary Magazine


Life Under Slavery

To the Editor:

. . . Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s review of Herbert G. Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 [Books in Review, January] was both interesting and timely. Mr. Wyatt-Brown’s contention that “sentimentality” has led to insupportable conclusions in several of the recent major studies of slave life in the Old South appears to be accurate. (It must be noted, however, that the reviewer is somewhat unfair in so closely linking Eugene D. Genovese’s highly informative Roll, Jordan, Roll with Robert Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s Time on the Cross, a work whose . . . outrageous distortions are well-known to most serious students of American slavery.)

Recent works on slavery have provided us with some very important new evidence . . . which has convincingly shown that the majority of slaves had social and cultural experiences which made their lives seem worth living, with only a minority succumbing to total despair. . . . Recent works on slavery have provided us with some very important new evidence . . . which has convincingly shown that the majority of slaves had social and cultural experiences which made their lives seem worth living, with only a minority succumbing to total despair. . . .

But to agree with some of the earlier conclusions of Kenneth Stampp is certainly not to be a “racist.” . . . The emotional havoc which the system of slavery in the antebellum South wreaked on its victims cannot be denied—nor should it be. It is no disapprobation of the slaves to claim that most were at least somewhat damaged psychologically by a social and legal arrangement which was so immoral, exploitative, and brutal. They deserve, rather, to be commended for having endured it as well as they did.

William N. Tilchin
Birmingham, Michigan

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Bertram Wyatt-Brown writes:

William M. Tilchin’s letter provides an opportunity to revise the overly bleak criticism of Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll, a sophisticated and brilliantly structured interpretation of the slave experience. Moreover, though battle-weary at times, Genovese is not afraid to voice unpopular opinions; he does not misuse the charge of “racism” to lambaste fellow scholars; he does not raise spurious contentions to promote sales. My remarks might have given the opposite impression. Yet, along with Professors Gutman, Fogel, and Engerman, he has encouraged some of the unfortunate tendencies mentioned in the review: overwriting, romanticism, presentism, and an adversary style of historical argument.

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