Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The Quarters and the Fields

While recent years have produced a significant amount of scholarship on how slavery differed out in various regions of the United States, few studies have offered a solid comparative examination. The Quarters and the Field: Slave Families in the Non-Cotton South by Damian Alan Pargas helps fill that void.

In this important work Pargas argues that slaves' family life was largely determined by the "varied nature of regional agricultural in diverse southern localities." In making that argument he emphasizes what has emerged in recent slavery studies: time and place made a important difference in slaves' lives. To provide evidence for his argument, Pargas examines sources from three different geographical counties: Fairfax County, Virginia; Georgetown District, South Carolina; and St. James Parish, Louisiana.

The transition from tobacco to grain agriculture in northern Virginia impacted the lives for slaves there in many ways. The switch created a surplus of slaves who owners sought to either sell or rent out, both of which often separated families temporarily at best or forever at worst. In addition, a change in staple crops came with a change in daily work patterns. In coastal South Carolina, slaves drastically outnumbered whites and rice cultivation brought owners tremendous wealth. Georgetown District was a relatively stable slave population region. There was less out migration through the interstate slave trade or owners moving to other areas of the South than in northern Virginia. Sex ratios were relatively equal on South Carolina rice plantations and working task style rather than gang style allowed additional opportunities for family time together. In St. James Parish, Louisiana, where sugar planting reigned supreme, the industrial nature of the work produced an ever-regimented style of labor that benefited best from male workers. This produced unequal sex ratios and often hindered mate selection and thus the development of family units.

Following chapters cover topics like "Family Contact during Working Hours," "Family-Based Internal Economies," "Marriage Strategies and Family Formation," and "Forced Separation." In the book's conclusion Pargas sums up his argument quite nicely: "The crucial link between different local economies and slave family life has long been underestimated in the historical literature. Past studies have tended to paint one-dimensional pictures of American slave families by underestimating regional economic differences and by ignoring or--far more often--overemphasizing the agency of slaves in shaping their own lives. It is in this context that the comparative approach is so valuable, as it offers a means for understanding slave families in different settings as they truly were: dynamic social units that were formed and existed under different circumstances across time and space."

The Quarters and the Fields is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on regional differences in slave family life. Its thorough research and comparative format makes for engaging and informative reading. I highly recommend it.

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