Generations Of Captivity: A History Of African-American Slaves, by Ira Berlin
In reading this book I was reminded of my experiences in reading about the perspectives of other people about me that I knew to be very inaccurate but which I considered to be worth having around because they expressed a perspective that was not my own. I would not want to see every book about slavery be written from the point of view of slaves, because it would be a major distortion that would only include part of the story, and the relationship between slaves and slave owners, slave traders, and non-slaveowning yeoman workers and farmers are all deeply interesting and important. That said, it is important that there be at least some histories about slavery that focus about the institution from the point of view of slaves, because one misses important insights and a huge part of slavery’s impact on history and culture and society when the point of view of those human beings who are (wrongly) considered to be property is ignored outright. And so this book of necessity is going to be a partial and biased account, but nonetheless one whose point of view is important to recognize even if one does not share it, if one wishes to make sense of slavery and the agency that people kept even when they were viewed as mere chattel.
This book is a sizable volume, and it is all the more hefty because it contains only a few chapters, divided by the era of slavery in the United States. The author begins with a prologue that looks at slavery and freedom and shows how ambivalent people were in relations to their status, especially at the beginning of slavery, when it was possible for free creoles to find themselves enslaved and also find themselves freed in a rather fluid fashion. This leads to a discussion of the charter generations of slavery during the 17th and up to about the middle of the 18th century when slavery had not yet hardened and it was possible for a significant amount of slaves to gain their precarious but precious freedom (1). This is followed by a discussion of plantation slavery where slavery regressed in the Mississippi Valley region but became more entrenched in the Deep South with the discovery of rice and indigo (2). After that comes a discussion of revolutionary generations, the period when slavery died out in the North during the course of the late 18th and first part of the 19th century, and where freedom increased in the Upper South, but where slavery became harsher in the Deep South and where slavery was threatened by revolutionary ideology and British interests (3). This leads to a look at the migration generation, where the Upper South and even parts of the Deep South lost a large part of their slaves, which were transported to new cotton boom areas in the Old Southwest and Texas (4). The epilogue then discusses the freedom, insecure as it was, that blacks found after the Civil War, after which there are tables, abbreviations, notes, acknowledgements, and an index.
Many generations of slaves were lost in captivity between the founding generations of slaves in the 16th and early 17th centuries, many of whom became free themselves, and the last generation of slaves that was freed at the barrel of a gun during the Civil War. Yet over and over again the author emphasizes the way that slaves negotiated their life, seeking to increase their freedom and their profits and to change their work conditions and frustrate, if possible, the plans of their masters. Many masters then, like many employers now, understood that work needed to get done and it was better for that work to get done in ways that were mutually acceptable, if of by necessity tacit in nature. The fact that slaves were able to influence the conditions of their servitude and build up an informal network of trade and information means that they forced masters, however unwillingly, to recognize them as human beings. This is not something that was easily given, and it is a great shame that today it is the humanity of the slaveowners which is most disregarded rather than the humanity of the slave.