Critics Misinterpreted 'Quality' of Slaves

Critics Misinterpreted 'Quality' of Slaves {
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP
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The New York Times 1619 Project focused almost exclusively on demonstrating the link between slavery and white supremacy today. Historically, however, the “legacy of slavery” almost always related to how contemporary black behaviors were linked to the slave past. This essay will identify the misrepresentation of the behaviors of enslaved blacks by those who overstated the harshness of their treatment and its adverse ramifications on assessments of black Americans after emancipation.

One stream of thought suggested by Matthew Desmond’s essay was that slavery was a vicious system of exploitation that previewed the dynamics of early U.S. capitalism. This perception of slavery was found in the early post-WWII writings of Stanley Elkins and Kenneth Stampp. In Slavery, Elkins wrote that the long series of shocks from their African capture, to their Middle Passage transport to the West Indies, through their sale to American plantations where slaves experienced brutal treatment, created a psyche similar to what Charles Bettleheim observed in Jewish inmates in Nazi concentration camps.

Like Bettleheim’s concentration-camp Jews, Elkins believed that the typical enslaved black adopted a childlike quality of complete submission that included identifying their masters as father figures since “their real fathers had virtually no authority over his child since discipline, parental responsibility, and rewards and punishments all rested in other hands.” This thesis was Elkin’s explanation for the black Sambo image that was widely accepted among researchers and observers of the slave experience.

In The Peculiar Institution, Stampp believed that to counter the harsh oppressive regime many enslaved blacks “feigned childlike behavior to sabotage production: shirking their duties, feigning illness, injuring the crops, and disrupting the routine.” For Stampp, however, terror and brutalization were at the core of the slave experience. As a result, the vast majority of enslaved blacks understood that to be the recipient of his master’s paternalism, a slave had to adopt the pose of “a fawning dependent.” He believed that this relationship robbed slaves of their confidence and promoted a “process of infantilization.”

Furthermore, Stampp claimed that masters destroyed the strictly regulated family life and rigid moral code that had prevailed in Africa. The typical slave family was matriarchal and “had about it an air of impermanence.” Most fathers and even some mothers regarded their children with indifference and sexual promiscuity was widespread. The slave trade further eroded black family life.

While Elkins and Stampp saw themselves as exposing the inhumanity of slavery, they unfortunately reinforced negative images of enslaved men and women: they lacked a strong work ethic, they lacked a strong commitment to the nuclear family, and they lacked sexual discipline. These alleged attributes sustained a series of adverse stereotypes. For W.E.B. Dubois, later E. Franklin Frazier, and ultimately Daniel Patrick Moynihan, it explained the high rate of black births out of wedlock.

For many whites, it led them to consider black laborers inherently lazy, requiring stern discipline to harness their work effort. For Southern landowners, it explained why even when a substantial compensating wage was offered, black workers refused to be employed in the gang system in which cotton production had been organized under slavery. The labor historian Herbert Hill reported that the leading early 20th century labor economist John R. Commons believed that “the backward nonwhite races were lazy, could not compete, and therefore did not need unions.” There continues to be widespread belief that too many black men lack a strong work ethic. This was one of the reasons given for Latino workers replacement of black workers at jobs that are physical demanding.

Eugene Genovese faulted critics of slavery who embraced the Elkins-Stampp narratives. He claimed “they have read the story of the 20th-century black ghettos backward in time and have assumed a historical continuity with slavery days. Herbert Gutman insisted that the “black family that emerged from slavery already had a distinct and quite simple nuclear structure.” He based this on Freedmen’s Bureau data on black family organization just after the Civil War and demographic records of six large plantations.

Plantation records indicated that more than three-quarters of all children were raised in stable two-parent families. This outcome reflected the fact that less than one in five marriages were ended as a result of the slave trade. In Gutman’s plantations, women had their first child, on average, at 18 years old. This timing suggested to Gutman that under well-defined mores, a girl typically had intercourse fairly early and bore a child, but then settled down with one man and had the rest of her children by him. While slave women still “fell victims to white lust, but many escaped because the whites knew they had black men who would rather die than stand idly by.” So strong was the resistance that it curbed “white sexual aggression” against married women.

For Gutman, Genovese, and Fogel, the planter’s absolute control was tempered by a primary focus on profitability. Since prime-age enslaved males were costly to purchase, planters made care to not risk their safety. They may be whipped, but not used whenever possible on highly risky activities. Instead, Irish immigrants were hired to do these dangerous jobs.

More generally, it was understood that carrots were more effective inducements than sticks. In modern times, this is known as efficiency wage theory. Wages and working conditions are determined by the cost of supervision and replacement. If extensive supervision to guarantee work effort is either expensive or technically infeasible and if it is expensive to replace workers, capitalistS would find it more profitable to pay their workforce above the going wage. This would instill loyalty, raise work efforts and reduce turnover. This was the theory behind Henry Ford’s “five dollars a day” and promises to support efforts of his workers to purchase homes.

For slavers, the hiring of white overseers was expensive. Overseers were employed in only one-sixth of moderate-size plantations (16-50 slaves); 25-30 percent on larger ones. On three-quarters of plantations with no white overseers, there was only one adult male of working age. This required extensive employment of enslaved workers in supervisory positions, as well as in many craft positions.

As a result, planters engaged in efficiency wage theory by providing benefits to strengthen profitability. Genovese suggested that masters who practiced paternalism were more successful than those who used their powers ruthlessly. In support of the impact of these concessions, ex-slave narratives indicated that stealing was over eight times as frequent in the plantations of masters who provided meager rations as on those with masters who provided ample rations.

This efficiency wage strategy took many forms. For example, beef or fish would have been a cheaper source of protein but almost universally pork was provided because of the strong preference of enslaved workers. On many plantations, enslaved workers who performed well were awarded private plots of land on which they could farm and sell their surplus to the planter for credits to purchase other goods. Fogel estimated that “income of top field hands was 2.5 times basic income; of top craftsmen probably four or five and in some exceptional cases as much as 10 times basic income.”

Gutman’s analysis of only large and growing plantations created two biases. First, it biased downwards age of first births. In more comprehensive data analyses, it was estimated that the average age at first births was 21 years old. This higher age does not preclude regular sexual intercourse before marriage, but does indicate that such behavior was far from universal. Also the seasonal pattern of first birth matched well with seasonal pattern of marriages. This further undermines notions of black promiscuity.

Second, family stability was much lower on plantations with less than 15 slaves. These plantations were more vulnerable to economic pressures so selling slaves was a more likely outcome; and often enslaved marriage partners lived on different plantations, making selling the husband emotionally easier. Still, in these smaller plantations half of enslaved children were raised in two-parent families.

Not only was the Elkins-Stampp view wrong about the place of the nuclear family in slave lives, it was wrong about the black work ethic. As already mentioned, enslaved blacks were employed in many skilled and semi-skilled positions. In the agricultural sector, Fogel estimated 7.0, 11.9, and 7.4 percent of enslaved blacks were employed in management, skilled artisan, and semi-skilled positions, respectively. In urban areas, 27 percent of enslaved blacks were artisans. As a result, the early  20thcentury researcher Carter Woodson claimed that at emancipation, black workers made up over 80 percent of the artisan class in the South. Indeed, at the end of the 19th  century, DuBois commented on the potpourri of occupations available to black workers in the South compared to the North where craft unions almost universally embraced racial exclusionary practices. Fogel lamented the mistaken view of black labor:

That the quality of slaves, both as ordinary workers and as managers, could have been so completely misrepresented by the antebellum critics of slavery is testimony to the extent of their racist myopia. What bitter irony it is that the false stereotype of black labor, a stereotype which still plagues blacks today, was fashioned not primarily by the oppressors who strove to keep their chattel wrapped in the chains of bondage, but by the most ardent opponents of slavery, by those who worked most diligently to destroy the chains of bondage.
This essay has explored the contrasting slave literature. We have seen that the fiercest critics of slavery, those that emphasize its most gruesome aspects, invariably reinforced the worst stereotypes of enslaved men and women, and gave no room for constructive agency. By contrast, those observers who limit the viciousness of slavery, those who are sometimes characterized as apologist for the system, present enslaved blacks as people who used their agency to better themselves and their families.


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