Book Review: Unburdened By Conscience

Unburdened By Conscience:  A Black People’s Collective Account Of America’s Ante-Bellum South And The Aftermath, by Anthony W. Neal

It is obvious that I am not the intended audience of this book any more than the books written by white historians for white readers to discuss the defensiveness and insecurity of slaveowners were for the black author of this book.  Even so, this book is a deeply interesting work that has very little interest in understanding slaveowners from their point of view and is resolutely focused on how slaveowners were viewed by slaves themselves from the accounts they told of their own experiences in slavery, mostly but not entirely in the postwar period after they had been freed.  Given the general lack of literacy and education among the slave population, and given the disregard which owners had for the opinions and perspectives of slaves, it has always been much more difficult to get a fair understanding of the experience of slaves than it has to obtain the attempts of white slaveowners to justify their peculiar institution and to influence law and opinion in their favor.  Of course, the contemporary mood against slaveowners makes a book like this far more likely to be appreciated than it would have been in earlier decades from a mass audience.

This book is a bit less than 150 pages long and is divided into four parts and 20 short chapters.  The first part of the book discusses brutality and physical repression, with chapters on the scholarship about the brutality of American slavery (1), the slaveowners’ monopoly of violence (2), the faith of slaves in God’s justice (3), the torture (4) and whipping (5) of black slaves, the injustice of white man’s law (6), and slave patrols (7).  The second part of the book deals with the rape of slaves, including a reluctance to call it rape on the part of historians (8), the revelation of such rape (9), the threat of injury or death to slaves (10), slave resistance (11), and the relationship of rape to slave breeding efforts (12) as well as the profitability of such efforts (13).  The third part of the book then looks at the breakup of slave families, with chapters on the picture of the slaveowner as humane home-breaker (14), the importance of the slave family (15), the break-up of marriages through slave sales (16), myths of the promiscuous bondwoman (17), as well as the breakup of slave families (18).  The book then ends with a discussion of the aftermath of slavery (IV), including the century of Jim Crow laws (19) and an epilogue (20), followed by a glossary, bibliography, index, and information about the author.

It should be well understood that this book tells a very unpleasant story about slaves and emphasizes the negative aspects of the slavery experience that shows the frequent inhumane violence directed at blacks by both white men and white women.  The author’s discussion of the beatings inflicted upon crying black children as well as the rapes and the coercive aspects of slave breeding for profit are deeply unpleasant reading, and there are few positive stories to counterbalance the grim and violent nature of the discussion–most notably a discussion of Vice President Richard Johnson’s unsuccessful attempt to convince a preacher to marry him and his mulatto mistress so that they would not have to live in sin.  This book is a reminder to us that we ought to insist that human beings be fully respected in the eyes of the law, for to rely on the conscience of those who do not wish to allow others to receive the protection of the law is to try to lean on a fragile and easily broken reed, as one sees from the history of slavery as well as abortion and related issues.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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