Sambo Returns

Sambo Returns

Sambo Returns

The history behind current events.
Nov. 26 1998 3:30 AM

Sambo Returns

Were slaves happy? The answer's not as simple as you'd think.

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It only took a few days of national publicity to force a North Carolina college to cancel a course on the theme that American slaves were happy on the plantation. But this idea is popping up elsewhere: not just among the conservative defenders of the Old South, but even on the left.

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Edward Ball, a scion of slave owners, won a National Book Award last week for Slaves in the Family, a sentimental genealogy of his clan. The book exudes what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called "doughface" liberalism. Ball marvels that he may possess thousands of black "blood kin" who are descended from his ancestors' captives. He suggests with a can't-we-all-just-get-along naiveté that they're really all part of the same family. Slavery's barbarism gets lost in Ball's New Age journey of self-discovery.

Meanwhile, new DNA evidence strongly indicates that Thomas Jefferson did indeed father children by his slave Sally Hemings. Because Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife, and because their relationship may have lasted decades, the story has taken on a romantic coloration. Historian Eric Foner mocks that it is as if "he and Sally were a kind of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers doomed by an inflexible society."

The college course was titled "North Carolina in the War for Southern Independence." (That's the Civil War to y'all.) At Randolph Community College in Archdale, N.C., members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have been teaching, as the Associated Press reported, that "most slaves were happy in captivity and that many served as loyal Southern soldiers." According to one instructor, "These people [i.e., the slaves] loved the South. They weren't looking for some Yankees to come down here and save them."

Any historian can tell you that much of the Sunny Slavery Scenario is nonsense. Few slaves fought for the Confederacy, though 180,000 former slaves fought for the North. And slaves did want the Union army to free them. As Leon Litwack recounts in his copiously researched Been in the Storm So Long, they rejoiced to the skies when troops arrived to liberate them. They considered it a deliverance of biblical proportions.

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Still, leave aside the course, which was canceled last Thursday after protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ("We would never intentionally set up any class that is offensive to anyone in our community ... and, obviously, this class has done that," the college's president said.) What was the true character of bondage in the American South? On that question, historians have never agreed. Opinions have shifted with the prevailing political and cultural winds, and the issue remains alive.

For this, the left is as responsible as the right. Confederate enthusiasts have made free use of liberal arguments for academic freedom, tolerance, and multiculturalism. They say they are just exercising their right to teach their version of events. ("Everybody can celebrate their culture, but we can't," groused another course instructor.) Left-wing scholars have also done the most work to refute the view of slavery as a crippling experience.

Alittle historiography is in order. Not so long ago, the Randolph Community College view of slaves as happy in their bondage--smiling, singing "Sambos"--was the dominant view, even among experts. (The "experts," of course, were whites who in general believed themselves innately superior to blacks.) Led by the Southern-born Ulrich Phillips, whose American Negro Slavery (1918) was the standard work in the field for decades, leading academic historians portrayed slavery as a benevolent, paternalistic institution that benefited blacks by civilizing them. In this view, it was whites who suffered under the slave system, since before the Civil War, slavery had become far less profitable than the North's capitalist labor arrangements. Yet slave owners selflessly bore this burden so their slaves could enjoy continued care and goodwill.

It wasn't until 1956, when Kenneth Stampp published The Peculiar Institution, that the historical profession--and the textbooks that take their cues from it--seriously revised the picture of bondage. Besides cataloging the brutalities of slave owners, Stampp showed that slaves actually did not appreciate the experience. He noted their rebelliousness: their efforts to rise up and throw off their shackles, the ways they cagily resisted their work requirements, the lengths they went to in feigning contentment to elude harsh treatment from their masters. The happy Sambo, Stampp claimed, was just a ruse.

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T hree years later, Stanley Elkins published the equally monumental Slavery. Though a liberal like Stampp, Elkins accepted the notion of the docile, contented Sambo--though hardly as evidence of slavery's mildness. Influenced by the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim's research showing that the Nazi concentration camps "infantilized" their inmates, Elkins argued that the "closed system" of slavery was so cruel and all-encompassing that none but the most stouthearted could survive without their wills being broken or their psyches damaged. Liberal social scientists latched onto Elkins' theory as a rationale for creating policies to tear down the barriers that were impeding black advancement in the 1960s.

The sociologist Nathan Glazer reviewed Slavery for Commentary and gave a copy to his friend Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an aide to President Lyndon Johnson. In 1965 came the famous Moynihan report on the condition of black families. Influenced by Elkins, Moynihan suggested that slavery--and the barriers to male employment imposed by Jim Crow--had instilled in African-American culture such recurring features as broken families and illegitimacy. He called for governmental action to undo the damage.

Next, left-wing historians rose up to defend black culture against Moynihan's characterizations. In doing so, they partly absolved slavery. Herbert Gutman's The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750-1925 (1976) showed that slave families, while often broken up when members were sold or assigned to different plantations, were remarkably monogamous and stable. In 1974, the radical historian Eugene Genovese (who has since become a Catholic conservative) published Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Now a staple in college history courses, Roll, Jordan, Roll painted a picture of slaves not as mere victims of oppression but as creators of a vibrant life. While obviously constrained by their bondage, blacks nonetheless forged a culture rich with religious observances, folk tales, family traditions, song, and so on. Genovese transformed the debate by making slaves, at long last, central and even powerful players in shaping their own lives.

Many on the left thrilled to this portrait. Neither Genovese nor Gutman would ever argue, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that slaves were happy in their condition as slaves. But they might agree that slaves were sometimes happy despite their condition as slaves. And it's here that the New Left's scrupulous scholarship inadvertently dovetails with the right's racist interpretations. Thanks to Gutman, Genovese, and their left-wing peers, we now know that the notion that "Slaves Were Happy," as the New York Times headline put it, is not necessarily false.

In the early decades of this century, when racist views were the norm, Phillips' picture of slavery as benevolent institution held sway. In 1956, Stampp's view of slaves as being just like whites except for their subjugation reflected the tenets of postwar liberalism. In the era of black power, New Left assertions that slaves made their own lives resonated loudly. Today we have a therapeutic culture. The president champions a touchy-feely "national conversation" on race, defenders of the Confederacy just want to tell their side of the story, school officials worry about offending the community, and Ed Ball, inspired by the confirmation of shared blood, wants to use his book profits to fund interracial dialogue. Slavery has returned as little more than a failure to communicate.