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Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made


This landmark history of slavery in the South--a winner of the Bancroft Prize--challenged conventional views of slaves by illuminating the many forms ... Show synopsis

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  • Genovese and Slave Sub-Culture Apr 7, 2007
    by HistoryGeek

    Slavery, possibly more than any other issue in American history, has gathered a whirlwind of opposing ideas, concepts, and interpretations, all supported by one kind of data or another. Eugene D Genovese?s 1972 monograph Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made offers a synthesis of previous views and newer concepts in a well-documented yet intuitive approach to analyzing the paradox of slavery in the Old South. Genovese focuses on the concept of planter?s hegemony and the planter?s paternalistic role in a slave culture constructed and, in turn, flaunted and reconstructed, by both master and slave. It was this codependence of paternalism and accommodation, posits Genovese, that created a kind of slave subculture within the planter-dominated slaveholding society and hegemony. This subculture, evident in every facet of slave life, offered survival for the slaves as individuals and community. Overall, Genovese has created a sometimes believable, sometimes questionable, consistently provocative look at a southern antebellum slave world created by both master and bondsman in the search by both classes for survival.
    In attempting to explain the paradox known as the ?peculiar institution?, Genovese borrows from and adapts Ulrich B. Phillips long-refuted concept of paternalism. Disproved in the 1950s by revisionist historians, Phillips? theory constructed the image of benevolent plantation owners taking care of slaves in an idealic world. This was the mythical Old South, the basis for ?Gone With The Wind? that provided a nostalgic look at the antebellum South and slavery. Genovese retains and adapts the idea of paternalism to a theory of codependence. ?Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive,? Genovese states, ?slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other.?(3) Genovese?s paternalism is a new concept, a symbiotic relationship that acknowledges the violence and oppression of slavery, while acknowledging the paternalistic elements from Phillips? works.
    In adapting Phillips? notion of paternalism, Dr. Genovese refutes the ideas of two modern historians. In focusing on paternalistic benevolence within a cruel institution, the author seemingly denies Kenneth Stampp?s picture of an entirely cruel slave South, a culture that promoted an institution filled with fear, violence, and cruel oppression and slaves who were ?in a constant state of semirebellion.?(Foner, 1997, 86) Likewise, Genovese counters Stanley Elkins? thesis that slaves were so psychologically damaged by slavery that they were socially emasculated. The slaves, Genovese states, were constructing ways to circumvent the paternalistic system by constructing their own world. Indeed, the University of Kansas? Norman Yettman has commented that Genovese moves convincingly beyond Elkins by offering a view of the slave as ?an active participant in a dynamic, but ambivalent, relationship involving reciprocal rights and obligations.?(775) In doing so, Genovese creates a new way in which to analyze slavery and, indeed, the slaves themselves.
    Crucial to Genovese?s view of slavery is his concept of the utilization of political and social hegemony. Within this theory, the ruling class uses the law to retain power and to stabilize social structure while allowing room for dissent that ends somewhere short of rebellion. In Genovese?s scenario, the white South promoted and enforced slavery to ensure the greater good, guaranteeing safety for whites from the dangers of African slaves, and simultaneously protecting the blacks from themselves and their inferiority. The planters, in essence, had to convince the slaves to ?buy in? to the societal structure. By creating a world in which blacks could work and survive, the ruling planter class retained its position while protecting the white population. In this arrangement, the laws needed to be fair in order to ?compel conformity.? (Genovese 27) In other words, the slave owners ruled with the compliance and assent of the lower classes, including the slaves. This required the creation of a hierarchy that allowed for seemingly benevolent leadership backed by force.

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