Thursday, December 19, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Slave Against Slave

The historiography of the institution of slavery in the United States is one that has many twists and turns. Since slavery's abolition with the 13th Amendment in late 1865 to the present, scholars have examined and interpreted the "peculiar institution" from different angles and have come to many different conclusions. Along the way, scholars chose different facets of slavery for further investigation. However, few plumbed the depths of intraracial violence. 

With Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South, historian Jeff Forret fills a once gaping void. One popular interpretation in the historiography is that slave communities, although plagued by violence or threats from owners, overseers, and other whites, were otherwise "sites of unwavering harmony and solidarity." Forret's research though finds that acts of harm were not uncommon among enslaved populations. Using extant plantation and court records, as well as church discipline records, and slave narratives Forret crafts a comprehensive work spanning almost 400 pages of text. 

Broken into eight engaging though at times emotionally draining chapters, Slave Against Slave examines specific topics of intraracial violence including among others: "Violence at Work and Play," "Violence in the Slave Economy," "Violence in the Creation, Maintenance, and Destruction of Slave Unions," "Honor, Violence, and Enslaved Masculinity," and "Honor, Violence, and Enslaved Femininity." 

In an environment of constant oppression and control of one's will it is not surprising that during work situations, and often in times of competitive recreation, enslaved people lost their self control and lashed out at those who annoyed or posed threats. As Forret explains, while some of the most extreme cases of intraracial violence led to court cases, and thus left us documents to examine and form a historical record, masters often handled less severe cases internally with their own forms of discipline. So determining quantitatively the frequency of slave on slave violence is difficult. However, enough evidence survives to show that harmful acts within the slave community did happen. 

With some owners renting out their slaves and allowing them to keep some of their earnings, or with slaves finding opportunities for a measure of financial gain with overwork and thus acquiring money and some types of property, situations developed where jealousies and class differentials emerged that caused rivalries. These sometimes turned violent within the confines of enslavement. Forced unions, and sometimes even loving relationships, ended in violent confrontations when nerves were frayed, frustrations spurred, and choices for individual time were limited. Likewise threats to a loved one, or their relationship, sometimes brought out defensive violence in the slave quarters. 

The chapter that I found most thought provoking were the last two on enslaved male and female expressions of honor. Honor, one thought to be the sole territory of white Southern males, gets challenged by Forret with solid evidence and enlightening interpretation. On page 293, he writes, "For some enslaved men, violence in the quarters afforded one means to construct a masculine identity within the context of a white society that routinely denied their manhood. However detrimental or disruptive conflicts were to the harmony and solidarity of the slave community, physical aggression was often crucial to the definition of enslaved masculinity." For example, on page 302, Forret further clarifies: "Most slights coming from the mouths of whites went ignored altogether, although occasionally a slave struck out violently at a verbally abusive master or overseer or took revenge opportunistically through 'Snopesian crimes' such as theft or arson. By contrast, when slaves spit verbal venom upon another, it stung. Just as southern white men bristled at the insults of other white men, slave could not dismiss the insults of their peers. Slaves inhabited the same social plane, and if one's equal voiced insult, it mattered: one slave was attempting to establish superiority or dominance over another and deny the second slave's expectation of treatment as an equal." Enslaved women, too, often had motives for violent acts. Forret found that, "Against other female slaves they employed violence to preserve relationships and families and to maintain their good word and reputation inside the slave community" (p. 382). 

We sometimes forget that people of the past were human individuals. They had hopes, dreams, likes and dislikes, just as we do. They experienced frustrations and threats, and some responded with violence, whether justified or not, just as some people do today. To study this facet of enslaved life (within proper context and with historical documentation) only enhances the humanness of those of the past. I highly recommend this book.

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