The book “The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South” by John Blassingame is among the first books that present the history of South slavery from the perspective of enslaved people. The book is argued to challenge conventional thinking confirming that African American slaves were not submissive, docile and morally depressed. Instead, Blassingame tends to prove that African American slaves managed not only to create their own culture, but also to exhibit a variety of personality types (beyond Sambo).
Despite methodology and sources were heavily criticized, the book significantly contributes to historical studies as the author offers fresh look on well-known things. Actually, the book is the fundamental study of slavery culture in the South. Blassingame starts his narration arguing that “historians have never systematically explored the life experiences of American slaves”. (p.
xi) He means that instead of concentrating on slaves, their life and culture, the majority of historians concentrated merely on the slaveowners distorting, in such a way, plantation life, distinctive culture of the enslaved, their manhood, religion, marriage and family life. Initially, slaves were described as submissive and childish Sambos, but Blassingame proves that personality types of enslaved included Jack and Nat as well. Nat. Sambo is described as faithful and superstitious combination of Uncle Tom and Jim Crow.
Jack personality is described as a slave that works faithfully, but who become rebellious when facing mistreatment and oppression. Finally, Nat types is referred to slaves who are against slaveowners. Sambo and Nat are two extreme personality types. Further, the author describes African American slave culture and their cultural retention. Actually, culture was the only thing that combined all the enslaved together providing them with the hope for better future, freedom and equal rights.
Blassingame believes that slavery didn’t fully remove African American culture and it was cultural retention that acted as resistance to enslavement. According to Blassingame, the key mistake of many historians is that that have paid attention to “what could be generally described as slave culture, but give little solid information on life in the quarters”. (p. 106) The author’s key argument is that slave culture developed independently in spite of the slaveowners’ influence.
To prove that idea, the author writes that “Antebellum black slaves created several unique cultural forms which lightened their burden of oppression, promoted group solidarity, provided ways for verbalizing aggression, sustaining hope, building self-esteem, and often represented areas of life largely free from the control of whites”. (p. 105) Of course, religious and spiritual beliefs of the African slaves were attempted to be erased by Christian missioners and constant influences of the slaveowners, and the author underlines that “in the United States, many African religious rites were fused into one -voodoo”.
(p. 127) It seems that voodoo remained rather influential in plantation life because voodoo priests promised African slaves that they would be provided with opportunity to harm their enemies, to heal sickness and insure life. Ritual dancing and funeral rituals were preserved as well. Plantation life was a rough place for living, and the enslaved were constantly prevented from playing musical instruments, ritual signing and using drums. Actually, drums have played important role as they were the signal to rebellion in 1739.
Despite such restrictions, slaves still managed to develop their own musical and signing tradition. Therefore, the author sums up that due to cross-cultural exchange “acculturation in the United States involved the mutual interaction between two cultures, with Europeans and Africans borrowing from each other”. (p. 98) Special attention in the book is paid to family life of the enslaved. Blassingame writes that slave marriages were illegal and in case of disobedience married couples were separated through sale.
However, Blassingame argues that slave marriages were under full control of the slaveowners who encouraged monogamy as it made it “easier to discipline their slaves. … A black man, they reasoned, who loved his wife and his children, was less likely to be rebellious or to run away than would a single slave”. (p. 151) How could the husband see his wife being raped or his children being sold? Such situations demonstrated that slaves were powerless to prevent sale of his family. Nevertheless, it gave slaves stimulus to survive and not to remain submissive and totally dependent to his master.
Some slaves managed to shield their children from brutality and cruelty of the plantation life. The most painful moment was when children understood they were slaves, primarily after beating and whipping. Interestingly, Blassingame distinguishes two behavioral types displayed by fathers. The first type was acting life a man when father slave tried to defend his family from mistreatment. The second type was submissive and obedient worker. In such a way, children might realize that obedience was practically the only way to avoid punishment.
The author underlines that “in family, the slave not only learned how to avoid the blows of the master, but also drew on the love and sympathy of its members to raise his spirits. The family was, in short, an important survival mechanism”. (p. 191) Summing up, in the book “The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South” John Blassingame has managed to represent not only family life, cultural values and religious beliefs of African American slaves, but also to convey they way they felt, experienced punishment and mistreatment. The book is among the first books that are told from the perspective of the slave, not the slaveowner.
Blassingame concludes that despite mistreatment, assaults and oppression, African-American slaves managed to preserve their culture, their ritual dancing and singing, their family values. Moreover, the author distinguishes three main personality types of the enslaved – Sambo, Jack and Nat – in contrast to one generally accepted type of Sambo. Sambo and Nat are described as two extremes: Sambo as the most submissive personality type, and Nat as the most rebellious personality type. Bibliography Blassingame, John. M. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.