Master-Slave Relations in the Antebellum South

How far do you agree with the view that master-slave relations in the antebellum South are most accurately described as paternal?

There exists much study surrounding the issue of master-slave relationships in the antebellum South; that is, debate regarding whether slaveholders lived up to their arguably propagandist paternal reputation or whether their relations with their slaves were different. Howard McGary defines paternalism in slavery as the belief that ‘slaveholders held slaves because they believed it was in the slaves’ best interests’ and that ‘slaves viewed their masters in a manner similar to the way children see their guardians’.[1] However, Peter Kolchin identifies that a growing America’s economic system was ‘heavily dependent on coerced labor’ and that colonists were merely ‘eager for material gain’.[2] This essay brings to question whether slave owners were father figures who protected and nurtured their slaves or whether they had a distinct economic agenda, putting profit above else – and moreover, whether these two relationships were intrinsically interlinked. Spanning a relatively large sector of American history, master-slave relations, among other plantation relationships, are most likely varying. Analysing a base of primary evidence, as well as investigating slavery scholarship, this study will aim to determine to what extent it is accurate and appropriate to describe such master-slave relations as paternal. This study will first discuss paternalism within existing historiographical theory, followed by an in depth analysis of primary evidence which will enable a conclusion on the issue of whether master-slave relations in the antebellum South are most accurately described as paternal or otherwise.

The Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, compiled by Randall M. Miller and John David Smith, states that the concept of paternalism became ‘salient in the South after about 1820’; as such, its associations with the 19th Century pro-slavery agenda create controversy about its meaning.[3] Miller and Smith suggest that the concept is intrinsically racist due to ‘its definition of blacks as inherently and permanently inferior’; this being a result of the idea that Africans were safer, happier and healthier within the confines of servitude and were granted some sense of civilisation when under the rule of a master. [4]

The concept is evidently borne of a propagandist attempt to justify and rationalise the capture and enforced labour of millions of Africans across the country at a time when American slavery was perilously close to its ultimate outlawing. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese suggests that whites assigned caricatures which explicitly contradicted their own ideals concerning gender stereotypes and roles to their slaves in an attempt to subvert their discomfort concerning traditional gender roles and the slave experience.[5] Many black slaves were viewed as the stereotypical ‘Sambo’ character, which Fox-Genovese suggests embodies a ‘reversal of white attitudes towards masculinity’; slaves were viewed in ‘an image of docility in direct opposition to the white ideals of male honor’. In this, Africans were naturally subservient and neither wanted nor deserved liberation.[6] This suggests that paternalism is a propagandist idea and not a concept that one could view in action amongst the busy and violent reality of a plantation.

David F. Ericson discusses various factions of the proslavery movement in his works. He suggests that whilst the liberal proslavery argument claims that African Americans are at their most free when enslaved due to their inherent inability to walk equal alongside the white man, the non-liberal proslavery argument firmly states that African Americans are an inferior race, ‘consigned by nature or God to be the slaves of a superior white/Anglo Saxon/Protestant race.’ Ericson discusses at length and identifies three key elements of both proslavery arguments, however. He states that the proslavery movement had to ‘consider themselves on the defensive’, and as such had to highlight three points: firstly, that whilst most racial slavery was unjust, this is not the case in the South. Secondly, whilst it may look dehumanising and lacking freedom, practically, slaves enjoyed greater liberties than free blacks. Finally, that the abolition of slavery would have dire consequences for both existing freemen and the newly created freemen. The concept of paternalism addresses the majority of these arguments. By developing an image of the happy, docile slave who was well-treated within the safe confines of his plantation, away from the evil injustices rife in the outside world, the proslavery campaigners countered any issues raised by the abolitionist movement. It is evident that historians commonly view paternalism as a propagandist ideal, a far stretch from the cruel and punishing reality that was master-slave relations.

This manipulated image, and implication that blacks are naturally at the will of the white man further supports the notion that the concept of paternalism is one which was designed to alleviate stresses of the slaveholder and ultimately justify slavery. Historians, such as James M. Baird, have suggested that as well as proslavery propaganda, the concept of paternalism was created in order to justify and rationalise enforced labour. Baird argues that the concept of paternalism was ‘born of a desire to distance masters from the reality of the exploitation that they otherwise encouraged and in which they were complicit.’[7] However, Baird also states that ordinarily slaveholders managed ‘their bondsmen through other men’, and as such, in reality, they had little contact with their slaves. This suggests that there exists no way in which masters could represent father figures to their slaves, since they were absent. Further, Baird argues that even if one was to suggest that it was the overseers that represented paternalism within the plantation, in reality, these men were provided with a financial incentive to produce the greatest yield in the crop and had ‘little reason to employ paternalistic authority’.[8]


Kenneth M. Stampp offers a thoughtful discussion of paternalism in his The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. Whilst his thoughts on paternalism in many ways reflect those aforementioned, Stampp projects a somewhat unique perspective on the concept of paternalism. Firstly, Stampp suggests that nostalgia clouds memory of the ‘the good they think they see in some misty past’ and that any person who looks upon the past seeing generous masters and mollycoddled slaves is wholly misguided in memory.[9] Stampp outlines that the institution of slavery was ‘not so much a patriarchal institution as a practical labor system…slaveholders were more often ambitious entrepreneurs than selfless philanthropists’.[10] However, unlike many of the works cited earlier in this study, Stampp does not deny what he refers to as the ‘kernel of fact’ from which the proslavery paternalism agenda was borne.[11] In reverse of the assumed, it is the slaves themselves that Stampp suggests held ‘paternalistic impulses’; it was not uncommon to find a ‘mammy’ who was devoted to her master’s children or a house servant that loved to feed and care for the family within the ‘Big House’.[12] There do exist examples of such love and devotion within the source material available, as well as examples of masters demonstrating, at the very least, gratitude. Perhaps, there is some morsel of accuracy in referring to master-slave relations as paternal, if the term is used with care.

Ex-slaves, such as Clara Davis, have recorded their memories of their time on the plantation with fondness. Dated July 1937, the testimony of ‘Aunt Clara Davis’ describes her old home on the plantation as a ‘mighty pretty place’.[13] Davis’ fond recount of days gone by includes the phrase ‘when I tell you ‘bout it you gwine to wish you was dar too’.[14] She speaks fondly of her old master, stating that he was ‘de bes’ white man in de lan’’ and that he provided ‘eve’ything dat we could hope to eat’.[15] The way in which Clara Davis recalls her plantation days mimic traditional fond memories of childhood such as a longing to be ‘back dar wid my ole folks’, and ‘playin’ wid de chilluns down by de creek.’[16] The evident care and paternal love with which Master Mosley maintained his slaves suggest that he was certainly a father figure within the plantation, and undoubtedly in cases similar to this it is accurate to refer to master-slave relations as paternal. Similarly, an ex-slave named Mary Edwards recalled in 1937 that her master ‘had lots o’ slaves and he give ‘em good quarters and plenty to eat.’[17] Additionally, in December of the same year, Mom Ryer Emmanuel provided an extensive account of her time on the plantation. Though she was only young during her enslavement, Emmanuel provides useful details regarding childhood on the plantation. She states that her master, Anthony Ross, had many slaves that were well looked after and well fed; ‘my white folks never did let dey colored people suffer no time’[18] Furthermore, Emmanuel very deliberately identifies her master’s stringent policy on child labour – ‘dey had to be over 16 year old fore old Massa would allow dem to work’.[19] These accounts of slavery, coming from the minds and hearts of ex-slaves, suggest that there were many cases across the antebellum South where master-slaves relations were best described as paternal.

Referring back to Kenneth M. Stampp’s debate regarding misplaced nostalgia, it would be pertinent to analyse the perspective from which Davis, Edwards and Emmanuel were writing. Firstly, it must be highlighted that these women were recording their experiences many years after the abolition of slavery, and they would have only been young when it was in practice. Emmanuel states herself that she knows ‘nothin bout slavery’ because she ‘was just a little yearling child den’.[20] Furthermore, Stampp states that ‘the evil that confounds men in the present often causes them to look nostalgically’ at the past.[21] This means that if these women, who were recording their experiences, were at a point in their lives where they considered themselves to be worse off than they were in slavery, their accounts would tell of an inaccurate level of happiness and security of their past.

Though it has not been possible to uncover any more about these women’s personal lives post-abolition, it is possible to speculate. Historian Michael Naragon states that ‘begrudging acceptance of emancipation by former slaveholders and other whites’ under no circumstances ensured that African Americans would see any shift in their ‘legal subordination’.[22] African Americans were, in fact, to suffer over a hundred years of prejudice and continued subjugation. Ex-slaves, following emancipation, were thrust into an unkind world without legal documentation, such as birth certificates, without any sense of identity and with very little by way of personal property or financial support.[23] Newly free African Americans were destined to suffer an economic situation which was defined by destitution and immobility and would cripple the black population for generations.[24] The accounts of slaves who experienced financial security and stability in their younger years, but were later torn from this ‘sanctuary’ with no education and no support, are unsurprisingly nostalgic for bygone times. It is highly possible that, in light of their experience of freedom, these women longed for the paternal bosom of their masters, and as such retold their stories with favourable accounts of masters Ross and Mosley. This does not mean, however, that it is accurate to describe these masters as paternal, but that in some way the confines of servitude represented a familiar and safe father figure for these women.

Turning to the specific relationship of masters with their slaves, and their masters’ ultimate motives, despite some keeping up of appearances, slaveholders were almost without exception eager capitalists, as opposed to well-meaning humanitarians. Ryer Emmanuel’s master was spoken of kindly, however, there appear to be subtle ulterior motives in her master’s philanthropy. Master Anthony Ross held to an inflexible child labour policy; whilst Emmanuel clarifies that this was ‘’cause he never want to see his niggers stunt up while dey was havin de growin pains’, it is possible that this suggests evidence of keen business prowess within the plantation environment.[25] Young slaves were particularly valuable, especially when viewed as an investment. Anthony Ross, who appears to be the slaveholder of a very large plantation, appears to acknowledge this fact, protecting and nurturing young slaves in order to increase their yield later in life. Emmanuel’s account of her master, taken at face value, appears paternalistic, however, it is highly likely that his care stemmed from an ambition to yield the greatest profit from his investment.

Contrasting to the accounts of Davis, Edwards and Emmanuel, Sallie Crane tells a more familiar story in her account of her time in slavery. She states that her master forced her to wear a ‘buck and gag’ for three days whilst withholding food and water and that she was ‘whipped from sunup till sundown; it is also recorded that Crane ‘pulled open her waist and showed scars where the maggots had eaten in’.[26] Similarly, William Colbert of Georgia, discusses his master, stating that he ‘wasn’t good to none of us niggers’ and that everybody hated him.[27] Colbert describes in detail a particular event, when his master whipped a slave, but was infuriated because ‘he couldn’t make January holla’; in this instance, it is evident that the master was neither paternal nor intent on securing profit, he plainly wished to inflict pain.[28] Clearly, master-slave relations in the antebellum South are most accurately described as varied.

To conclude, the reality of master-slave relationships in the antebellum South, the memory of those relationships and the scholarship surrounding this area of contention are a rich and fascinating point in African American history. Historians, such as Kolchin, Stampp and Fox-Genovese, all offer interesting and thoughtful interpretations of paternalism, ranging from stating that paternalism was a created propagandist ideal to accepting its ‘kernel of fact’.[29] However, delving into the wealth of first-hand testimonial evidence available from the period, enlightens us to the reality of paternalism from the slaves’ perspectives. Certainly, there existed cruel masters or those who were firmly and solely interested in the profitable investment that was slave ownership, it is interesting to note that some ex-slaves looked back on their time on the plantation with a sense of nostalgia. Whilst these examples of slave memories evidently assign a notion of fatherhood to their masters, it is yet not accurate to describe these master-slave relations as paternal for several reasons; this being that, primarily, emotion in slave memory was commonly wrongly placed due to their circumstances post-abolition. Instead, we should understand that whilst masters cared for their slaves, it is the motivation behind this care that is key to separating paternalism from capitalist sensibilities.

[1] H. McGary, ‘Paternalism and Slavery’, in Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery, eds. H. McGary and B. E. Lawson, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp.16-17.

[2] P. Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), pp.3-4.

[3] R. M. Miller and J. D. Smith, Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1997), p.559.

[4] Ibid.

[5] E. Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black & White Women of the American Old South, (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp.291-293.

[6] Ibid.

[7] J. M. Baird, ‘Paternalism and Profits: Planters and Overseers in Piedmont Virginia, 1750-1825’, in Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America, eds. R. Olwell and A. Tully, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), pp.147-168.

[8] Ibid.

[9] K. M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 322-323.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] ‘Aunt Clara Davis is homesick for old scenes’, interview recorded by John Morgan Smith and Francois Ledgere Diard for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (July 1937), American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 <,+Clara))> [accessed 14th December 2015]

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ‘Stories from Ex-Slaves’, interview recorded by Elmer Turnage for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (June 1937), American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <> [accessed 15th December 2015]

[18] ‘Mom Ryer Emmanuel’, interview recorded by Annie Ruth Davis for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (December 1937), American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <> [accessed 15th December 2015]

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, p. 322.

[22] M. Naragon, ‘From Chattel to Citizen: The Transition from Slavery to Freedom in Richmond, Virginia’, in After Slavery: Emancipation and its Discontents, ed. H. Temperley, (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000), pp.93-94.

[23] W. A. Dunaway, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp.223-224.

[24] Ibid.

[25] ‘Mom Ryer Emmanuel’, interview recorded by Annie Ruth Davis for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, (December 1937)

[26] ‘Whipped from Sunup to Sundown’, interview recorded by Samuel S. Taylor for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <> [accessed 15th December 2015]

[27] ‘My Master was a Mean Man’, interview recorded by John Morgan Smith for the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, American Memory, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, <> [accessed 16th December 2015]

[28] Ibid.

[29] Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, p. 322.


Autobiographies under Jim Crow

What are the strengths and weaknesses of autobiographies as evidence on the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow? Answer with detailed reference to TWO key studies.


The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia describes the Jim Crow system of segregation as a ‘racial caste system’ in operation largely in southern states that not only developed anti-black laws, but also promoted social and cultural white supremacy as well as economic and political dominance.[1] With such a suppressive system in place to subjugate blacks and draw a particularly distinct colour line, it is important that in order to gain an understanding of the period, one appreciates black-white attitudes and relationships under the Jim Crow system. However, the study of history has progressively become more all-encompassing in terms of both genre and materials enabling the historian to explore an enormous wealth of sources in attempting to gauge historical truths.

Whilst traditionally the subject of history was studied by privileged white male academics, for an audience of the same concerning primarily the cultural and political ‘elite’, more recent trends within the field display a developing desire for social history. Described by S. Fielding as ‘new’ political history, there is a pressing desire by academics to study the ‘importance of popular experience and…oppressed groups’ struggles against the ruling elite’.[2] It is within this branch of social and ‘new’ political history that we begin to understand the significance of monographs on ‘self’ and personal testimonies of individual experiences. In such works, one is exposed to a multitude of emotions, attitudes and reactions that may never have come to light in a source produced for and about an external entity because often the autobiography is a work produced as much for the author’s benefit as the reader’s.

It is of the utmost importance that the Historian should comprehend both the strengths and weaknesses of autobiographies as historical evidence, specifically in the study of oppressed and less vocalised groups of society, such as coloured peoples, women and children. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is a particularly interesting example, which follows the events of the early years of Angelou’s life as a young girl. With the initial publication in 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first in a series of seven chronological autobiographical accounts of Angelou’s life which each detail a different period of her life in an unusual pseudo-fictional style. Owing to its unique style and personality, the text offers some fascinating insights into the perceptions of race relations that are held by a black child.

Angelou skilfully addresses many themes within the book, including the sexual abuse of children and self-identity, however, her recollection of events concerning racial prejudice ensure the utility of the text in social history studies. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings explores both her experiences with general public attitudes concerning black-white relationships as well as more intimate encounters with both black and white peoples. In as early as the opening few pages, it is obvious that young Maya Angelou thought of black and white people in completely separate spheres by her use of categorising terms such as ‘black’ and ‘colored’ in reference to herself and others.[3] Angelou is very clear about marking herself as a ‘Black girl’; this also marks the beginning of her use of subtle, racially-fuelled imagery such as describing her own head as a watermelon.[4] Over the course of the book, it is evident that the town of Stamps is rife with prejudice and discrimination in many forms; Angelou goes as far as to assert that ‘the whites in [Stamps] were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream’.[5]

Though examples such as these grand assertions of public prejudice are useful in terms of analysing black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow segregation, the specific encounters of racism that Angelou recalls from intimate situations are paramount to understanding the way in which black and white people perceived each other along with any preconceived stereotypes expected to arise and how race relations were taught. A prime example, which will be discussed further in this essay, is Angelou’s memory of her time providing maid services to a white woman, Mrs Cullinan. Viola Cullinan is often derogatory of Angelou, refusing to call her by her name and renaming her ‘Mary’ for ‘her convenience’ as well as referring to her with generalising terms such as ‘that…nigger’ in fits of anger.[6] Such a decaying of the concept of ‘self’ was a distressing and largely insulting act from the point of view of Angelou. She notes that it was well known that a Negro should not be ‘called out of his name’ since identity held great importance for African Americans.[7]

James Weldon Johnson opens his book with a similar sentiment regarding race relations. Johnson points out that ‘writers, in nearly every instance, have treated the colored American as a whole’ and that it is this inability to understand the individuality and identity of each black person as a single being and outside of the racist grouping ‘nigger’ that is hindering.[8] By analysing Johnson’s autobiography it is possible to more fully understand black-white relationships under Jim Crow. This is because where Angelou promotes black identity at the forefront of her writing, Johnson emphasises the fact that in order to completely disrobe oneself of the blinkers of expected characteristics, stereotypes and vices of viewing blacks as a group and release oneself from a racist ‘us versus them’ mindset, it is essential to comprehend the complexity of relations within the black community in addition to relations with communities outside that of the African American.

James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, offers a valuable insight into the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships. In contrast to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings telling the story of Angelou’s childhood, Johnson has written the fictional ‘coming of age story’ of a school boy who discovers his race in his journey to adulthood. The author originally published the work anonymously in an attempt to trick his audience into believing the nonfictional style, however, its success only become visible upon the revealing of Johnson’s already successful name. Events that Johnson describes, for instance, when the protagonist discusses the prospect of him teaching piano lessons, are valuable in terms of evaluating the nature of black-white relationships under Jim Crow. A distinct example of race lines affecting such race relations is in the fact that it is clear that for his companion ‘the thought of [his] teaching white pupils did not even remotely enter her head’.[9]

Despite being a work of fiction, some publishers of the book, such as Dover Publications, advertise it as demonstrating ‘parallels [to] Johnson’s own remarkable life’.[10] Perhaps this may suggest that a large part of the book will prove useful as evidence of the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships; this is because some incidents within the book are clearly demonstrative of actual events, even if details are fictionalised. Linda Anderson, whose work on autobiographies will be discussed further, argues that it is the intent of the author that determines the reliability of the message, and, for Johnson, his intent was to educate about the African American experience.[11]

Using Autobiographical Evidence in History

Autobiographies have been discussed at length within historical literature alongside an array of personal writings including song lyrics, poetry and oral testimonies. These types of sources are similar in that they all have a tendency to be emotionally provocative and dramatically written. Their place in academia, therefore, may appear questionable. However, it is noted by historian John Murphy that this style of history is not new; ancient history is awash with history by memory, with its most notable sources being compiled hundreds of years after the events such as Herodotus’ Histories. [12] In holding autobiographies in the same light as oral tradition, indeed they should be tried against the same criticisms. Taking the example of historical poetry, Jan Vansina disparages this type of source due to the purpose of its creation; often historical poetry would be created ‘for propaganda purposes’ meaning that it may hold a distorted or weighted version of the truth.[13] Furthermore, Vansina argues that embellishments and illusions found in this type of work ensure that the sources are not fit for analysis.[14] However, Murphy argues that the characteristics of memory, language and interpretation held by both autobiographies and oral traditions make them powerful historical sources because they are able to ‘throw light on historiographical problems in general’.[15]

Perhaps, it is more appropriate to compare autobiographies to oral tradition, to poetry and song than it is to compare it to academic writing due to the intentions of the material. Unlike Murphy, for Vladimir Nabokov, the true purpose of autobiography is to seek artistic patterns in ‘the limits of life and the nature of the world’ through an analysis of self and history.[16] Being mindful of Nabokov’s argument, it should be noted that the learning of history is not the intention of any autobiography and if any history is learned in reading an autobiographical work it would only be by chance. Therefore, the utility of autobiographies as an historic source is lessened, if not eradicated entirely. Leland De La Durantaye suggests that this perspective may offer a greater understanding of general issues though, which is more similar to Murphy’s account.

Conversely, Robert F. Sayre rejects the relationship between autobiography and artistic literature, noting that such an association belittles its significance in historical writing.[17] Furthermore, he continues, it is inappropriate to dismiss such a source due to any distortion of the truth within autobiographical writing since it is not out of line with historical writing to be ignorant of the truth or to present purposeful misrepresentation. However, more significantly, autobiography was traditionally largely didactic, as was history itself.[18] With forerunners in the genre including Benjamin Franklin and Henry Adams, Sayre asserts that the intention of autobiographies was often in the interest of progressing historical literature; it is only following the scientific revolution that academia has favoured scientific observations, leading to a neglect of moralistic and personal accounts of the past.[19] It is evident that the place of autobiographical works within history has been highly contested amongst historians. Whilst the genre can offer recollections of relationships and facts that may be inaccessible otherwise, one should be cautious of such accounts due to their reputation for embellishment and artistic licence.

Additionally, the utility of personal testimonies is stressed by Kidada E. Williams, who argues that neglecting to explore such records can leave many questions unanswered about the impact and aftermath of historical events.[20] Williams boldly asserts that there exists an ‘historical amnesia’ concerning racial violence and black history meaning that one of the best ways to extract historical truth from such periods is to analyse victim and witness testimonies.[21] Using autobiographies in this way can allow historians to gain a fuller account of black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow segregation because it will reveal the way that these African American authors thought and felt about the period as well as shedding light on any elements that Williams terms ‘silences’.[22] Corresponding with Williams’ book, these testimonies, through the medium of autobiography, have the ability to retell African American history by focussing on the voices of the oppressed men, women and children.[23] In this respect, autobiographies prove to be an invaluable historical source.

In They Left Great Marks on Me, Williams successfully combines different types of historical sources, such as poetry and newspaper articles, in order to create a fully comprehensive and more factually sound argument. Whilst it is decidedly clear that autobiographical evidence can hold a place as a valued historical source, it is useful to use an array of sources in order to gain a more complete picture. Though autobiographies are well placed to describe in great detail the attitudes and opinions of the authors, that alone is insufficient. This is especially the case when analysing the black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow since there exists an expansive wealth of legal documentation, signage and photographic evidence that clearly depict a significant divisive colour line.

The Significance of Autobiographies in the Analysis of Black-White Relationships

It is significant that when analysing the utility of autobiographies, one should compare the work of both men and women, since the different sexes recall their past differently. Paul Thompson outlines the differing focusses of male and female memories in his work on oral histories, arguing that men ‘more readily talk about work, women about family life, and…feelings’.[24] Thompson quotes the observations of Isabelle Bertaux-Wiame, when he asserts that female memory is more powerful in terms of analysing relationships because they, unlike men, are more likely to consider their story part of a group narrative.[25] This theory is confirmed when comparing the works of Angelou and Johnson. Angelou frequently discusses family life and her relationships with her brother, grandmother and her mother’s partner; even in discussing her work as a maid for a white family, she focusses her memory on her attitudes towards Mrs Cullinan and Miss Glory. Johnson, on the other hand, more eagerly discusses his own personal achievements and aspirations such as his talents as a linguist and a musician developing his path, with little mention of the characters who aid his journey. Therefore, perhaps it is pertinent to be considerate of this when trying to determine the state of black-white relationships under Jim Crow.

One of the key strengths of using autobiographies in history is the ability to highlight the roles of individuals over events. Reiterating Fielding’s explanation of new political history, there is a growing focus on and desire to study social history in order to understand the relationships between peoples and contemporary attitudes.[26] As previously mentioned, Angelou’s book is significant in the way in which she addresses her relationships with others frequently and shamelessly. Angelou’s most stimulating accounts of her relationships with people of both black and white descent appear in the earlier parts of her book, as she is still learning her race and her own person. Jennifer Ritterhouse illuminates the way in which race and the knowledge of a hierarchy are taught within the home, through social interactions.[27] An acceptance of racial hierarchy and customs are, therefore, cross-generational as they are passed through teachings of racial etiquette. Angelou’s upbringing as a child of the South did not stray from this hypothesis. Her education with regards to the appropriate way in which to speak to her white superiors came largely from her grandmother in Stamps, since these were the ‘safe’ methods of interracial communications.[28] ‘Momma’ did not believe that ‘whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one’s life’ and taught that ‘they couldn’t be spoken to insolently…even in their absence’.[29]

In this case, Angelou’s autobiography proves to be of great value in terms of assessing black-white relationships since it provides an intimate event which can act as evidence for some theories of race. In addition to proving Ritterhouse’s theory for learning racial etiquette, one may also be directed to Stetson Kennedy’s 1990 account of the expectations of interracial etiquette. Angelou confirms academic expectations concerning the peculiar etiquette between the black and white races under Jim Crow. Kennedy outlines the way in which there were separate customs for ‘dealing with persons of another race’ and that ‘what you have been taught is proper behaviour in human relations…is altogether taboo in interracial relations.’[30] It was to risk your own life, to be an African American acting above their granted societal position; such was the advice of Angelou’s grandmother some fifty years prior to Kennedy’s writing.[31]

                Though autobiographies can prove useful in both providing such evidence and highlighting the place of individuals and relationships within history, it is pertinent to be wary of their weaknesses. For instance, it is not implausible that within a piece that discusses one’s life from one’s own perspective, there may exist bias and evidence of self-promotion. Trevor Lummis argues that whilst it is important that the historian does not neglect the significance of personal accounts of history, it is necessary to compile first-hand sources with all other available evidence in order to detect bias.[32] He continues, self-motivation, self-justification and self-promotion are largely limiting factors in these types of works, though this should by no means lessen their import.[33] Johnson’s autobiography is almost overwhelmingly dedicated to self-praise; most events throughout the book are attributed to his ‘talent for languages as well as for music’; the protagonist frequently refers to his ‘talent’ with more appreciation of it than of his relationship with others.[34] It is the responsibility of the analyst to ensure cross-referencing reduces the effect of such favouritisms, and enables them to utilise only details of historical significance. Equally, an historian should allow for any distortion of truth due to memory fault, as well as purposeful misrepresentation, taking into account the distance of time between the event and the writing.

Nevertheless, writing from memory offers the opportunity to explore an area of history that may have otherwise been forgotten by presenting a new angle for analysis. Despite any self-glorification that may appear to consume the novel, Johnson’s representation of the path of a black man and his relations with peoples of both black and white descent during an era of Jim Crow segregation was a pioneering work that offers insights into African American attitudes from the period. His pseudo-nonfictional work explores the experiences of a white man with a black mother and therefore, enables us to compare his being both accepted and rejected by both races at different points. Through this unusual narration, Johnson is able to more fully discuss what he terms the ‘Negro question’ and the black-white relationships under Jim Crow. The protagonist is able to easily discuss with a fellow African American the future progression of the race into a status of possible equality, but also, a short while later, receive the sentiments of a white Texan gentleman as he condemns people of colour into an eternal state of inferiority and subjugation.[35] In this sense, Johnson’s novel is a very powerful source as evidence on the nature of black-white attitudes under Jim Crow.

One of the greatest criticisms of modern autobiographies that significantly applies to Johnson’s work is that this type of literature may be written for commercial purposes and as such may generate scandalous content in order to generate sales. Lummis explains the issue of commerciality by asserting that in order for a publisher to deem the text valuable enough to invest in, it must provoke interest in the general public; this may incite a desire in the author to exaggerate and distort the truth.[36] Whilst posing as nonfictional, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is, at least in part, undoubtedly falsified. Whilst current publishers, such as Dover Publications, claim that the novel is based on Johnson’s own experiences, it is impossible to ascertain the extent to which the book was fabricated.[37] Furthermore, whilst it is significant that this genre places emphasis on the role of emotions and attitudes, it is important that one is wary of the effect of emotive language on an audience. Emotive language used as a literary device to dramatise a described event, particularly in an attempt to generate sales, may or may not reduce the utility of the source in gauging attitudes and relationships between the races. Michael Clark presents the argument that whilst scientific language promotes proven facts as ‘truth’, emotive language proffers ‘truth’ as something that is both morally correct and necessary.[38] Any poetic language and artistic licence used in creating Johnson’s ‘autobiography’ therefore only aids in helping the historian understand black-white attitudes and, subsequently, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a valuable historical source.


Over the course of this essay, it has become clear that there are many strengths and weaknesses to consider when using autobiographies as evidence on the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow.  Firstly, one should appreciate the ability of human memory to shed light on facts and events that documentation has been blind to, especially in terms of intimate events such as those in Angelou’s childhood. Willams’ description of ‘historical amnesia’ extends further than her own work on racial violence, and can easily be applied to any instance where existing theoretical histories would benefit from personal experience – Angelou’s autobiography is particularly powerful when taken in conjunction with Jennifer Ritterhouse’s writings on the how race is taught.[39]

Furthermore, it is important to be mindful of that in using autobiographies to analyse interracial relationships within the Jim Crow system, they ought to be studied as part of a collection alongside existing texts on race theory, demographic documentation, cultural relics, such as segregation signage, and other oral testimonies. This is because it is only by providing an analysis of a complete set of historical sources that one can begin to gain a more complete comprehension of the period. In particular, it is pertinent to be wary of any fault in memory or purposeful misrepresentations of the truth in histories of the self. This is because it is not uncommon that one might improve the commerciality of the text by generating scandalous content, or indeed, to distort the factuality of the narrative in an act of self-promotion or self-justification. Nevertheless, the genre of autobiography acts as powerful historical evidence in terms of offering a voice to the oppressed, this is especially significant in studying black attitudes towards their relationships with whites under the Jim Crow culture.

Lastly, one of the most significant debates regarding the utility of autobiographies as an historical source is whether or not they should be considered a wholly artistic source. Some historians, such as Sayre, suggest that this is a perspective which should be avoided in order to not detract from the use of autobiographies as an academic source.[40] However, as noted by Clark, artistic sources and those that exhibit the author’s true attitudes towards the event can be a very useful angle, particularly for a social historian.[41] John Murphy concurs, adding that memory and interpretation are powerful tools that can allow historians to access a subject from a whole new perspective.[42]

To conclude, in this modern culture of exacerbating racial violence, Loic Wacquant asserts that, as opposed to progressing from the periods of enslavement and Jim Crow segregation, we have simply entered a new stage in which a disproportionate mass incarceration of black males presents an entirely new social issue.[43] There exists a continuing issue in black-white relationships, and, according to Wacquant, this is still under the influence of Jim Crow.  It would be beneficial to the future of African American studies for contemporary victims, such as the friends and relatives of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, to record their personal experiences regarding racial prejudices and the new Jim Crow. James Weldon Johnson, despite possible criticisms regarding the truth behind his novel, enables historians to more completely understand the experience of a man hindered by his own race and Maya Angelou explains the reality of black-white attitudes and relationships behind the theoretical literature provided by academic historians. It is within the dissimilarities of the sources that historians can best discover new material that will allow them to more completely immerse themselves in the past. Such is the strength of autobiographies as historical evidence.

[1] D. Pilgrim, ‘What was Jim Crow?’, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, (2000) <; [accessed 9th January 2015]

[2] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 7th January 2015]

[3] M. Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (London: Virago Press, 2007), pp. 1-6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Angelou, Caged Bird, p.53.

[6] Angelou, Caged Bird, pp.118-120.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), p.vii.

[9] Johnson, The Autobiography, p.32.

[10] P. Smith, in J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), outside rear cover.

[11] L. Anderson, Autobiography, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), pp.2-3.

  1. Smith, in J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), p.iii.

[12] J. Murphy, ‘The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory’, Historical Studies, 22.87 (1986), p.157.

[13] J. Vansina, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009), pp.148-149.

[14] Ibid.

[15] J. Murphy, ‘The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory’, Historical Studies, 22.87 (1986), p.157.

[16] L. De La Durantaye, ‘The True Purpose of Autobiography, or the Fate of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory’, in M. DiBattista and E. Wittman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.167-168.

[17] R. F. Sayre, ‘American Autobiography and History’, in M. DiBattista and E. Wittman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.102-114.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] K. E. Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, (New York: New York University Press, 2012), pp.3-5.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Williams, They Left Great Marks, p.7.

[24] P. Thompson, Voice of the Past: Oral History, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.173-183.

[25] Ibid.

[26] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 7th January 2015]

[27] J. Ritterhouse, Growing up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), pp.55-56.

[28] Angelou, Caged Bird, p.51.

[29] Ibid.

[30] S. Kennedy, Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A.: The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens, (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990), pp.203-204.

[31] Ibid.

[32] T. Lummis, Listening to History: The Authenticity of Oral Evidence, (New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998), pp.83-84.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Johnson, The Autobiography, p.33.

[35] Johnson, The Autobiography, pp.70-81.

[36] Lummis, Listening to History, pp.83-84.

[37] P. Smith, in J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), outside rear cover.

[38] M. Clark, ‘The Genealogy of Coherence and the Rhetoric of History in American New Criticism’, in R. Fleming and M. Payne (eds), Criticism, History, and Intertextuality, (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1988), pp.37-38.

[39] Williams, They Left Great Marks, pp.3-5.

[40] R. F. Sayre, ‘American Autobiography and History’, in M. DiBattista and E. Wittman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.102-114.

[41] M. Clark, ‘The Genealogy of Coherence and the Rhetoric of History in American New Criticism’, in R. Fleming and M. Payne (eds), Criticism, History, and Intertextuality, (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1988), pp.37-38.

[42] J. Murphy, ‘The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory’, Historical Studies, 22.87 (1986), p.157.

[43] Loic Wacquant, ‘From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US’, New Left Review, 13 (Jan-Feb 2002), pp.41-42.

Analytical Biography of Solomon Northup

Northup, Solomon: born: Minerva, New York, 1808; died: unknown.

Now the focus of a major narrative on the silver screen, the life of Solomon Northup has intrigued and appalled viewers. Provoking tears and sorrow in millions, there possibly exists no single slave who holds greater fame. Ironically, perhaps, it was the desire for fame or simply wealth that began his tragic journey as a slave. Born a free man, the life of Solomon Northup and his capture into slavery is pertinent to modern slavery studies and the question of the significance of race over status. Whilst there exist a number of slave narratives coming from a range of backgrounds, that of Solomon Northup holds significance due to his unique perspective; ‘it comes from the perspective of a person who grew up free and therefore had the assumptions and values of a free society before he entered slavery.’[1] This biography will highlight key events in Northup’s life that illuminate the experience of the slave across antebellum United States.

Northup was born of slaves on the paternal side, from which he derived the name Northup.[2] It was common for slaves to maintain the surnames of their masters after emancipation if they had had little conflict with those masters, as a symbol of rejection of present or future masters, or for purposes of protection if those masters had been important people.[3] Northup’s father, Mintus, worked in agriculture, gaining the modest respect of those who knew him; as such Solomon was happy to follow in his footsteps.[4] Throughout his life, Northup had spent time reading and playing the violin in his leisure time and gained further work as a raftsman on the waterways of New York. He eventually married a mulatto woman named Anne, with whom he fathered three children, and it was at this point that his previously comfortable existence was set upon by the tornado that was the slave movement, ripping his family and life from underneath him.

The circumstances in which Northup was brought into slavery enable the historian to further comprehend how people outside of Africa were brought into slavery. Earning his notoriety as a fiddle-player, his talents soon proved the catalyst of his downfall. Having been offered substantial wages to join a travelling musical show in 1841, Solomon Northup quickly lost his freedom as he was drugged and sold into slavery. Historian Carol Wilson stated that it was an ‘all-too-common occurrence’ that free blacks would be sold as slaves, though it is little analysed by historians who are often too focussed on the lives of enslaved blacks in this period.[5] This, which Wilson refers to as an ‘ever-present danger’, proved a grave threat to the free blacks of nineteenth century America, and is the terrifying phenomena which Northup’s capture into slavery can enlighten us to.[6] It is especially Northup’s autobiography that provides a most useful source because it illuminates the emotions that run through the mind of a victim of kidnapping. Northup explains that whilst confused at first, believing that there must have been some sort of mistake, eventually a desolate sense of betrayal overcame him as he realised that he was being deliberately oppressed.[7] Northup’s capture allows historians a valuable emotional insight into the experiences of a kidnapped ‘free black’.

Northup’s experience also brings into question the issue of whether race or social class more greatly affected how Africans were viewed and treated in nineteenth century America. Regardless of region, slave status, lineage, wealth or career, blacks in America were affected by a common disadvantage; that being that they were ‘constrained by a lack of economic and educational opportunity, the absence of legal protection, overbearing legal restrictions, and the contempt of whites’.[8] As a result of this, Ira Berlin referred to free blacks as ‘slaves without masters’.[9] Whilst travelling with Brown and Hamilton, Northup demonstrates how restricted African Americans were whilst moving around the country. Northup has to go to great lengths to gain papers which prove his freedom, and have white colleagues provide testimony regarding his freedom.[10] Requiring such proof of identity is a restriction that is not forced upon Northup’s white companions – notably of the same travelling profession – in the same way, proving that Northup’s race is the most significant part of his character. This is illustrative of how blacks were treated across the country.

During Northup’s enslavement, he was held under the ownership of a number of masters, frequently changing hands. The way in which he was treated by these ‘owners’ offers some insight into the world of slaveholder brutality. Northup’s autobiography is one of many slave narratives that provide examples of brutal punishments and examples of plantation justice, enacted at the hand of the slaveholder. It has been argued by historians such as Dickson D. Bruce Jr. that such cruel violence ‘often slipped over into sadism: ingenious, gratuitous, even inflicted for pleasure’, as the ‘slaveholder seized upon the most trivial shortcomings as pretexts for “punishment.”’[11] One such example of this punishment is that inflicted upon Northup’s friend and fellow slave, Patsey. The scene played out with Master Epps ‘furious and savage as ever’, his mistress looking on ‘with an air of heartless satisfaction’ and Solomon’s ‘heart revolted at the inhuman scene’ as Patsey was mercilessly beaten to the point of unconsciousness.[12] Conflicting with some elements of plantation theory, it may not have been the case that masters held a patriarchal and paternal role amongst the slaves, protecting and leading them.

In studying the philosophy of economics, Margaret Schabas states that ‘plantation owners also recognized that slavery was most productive if their slaves were well-fed and clothed’, claiming that slaveholders were economically astute and recognised the investment value of slaves.[13] Reminiscent of, and quoting, Fogel and Engerman in her quantitative analysis of slavery, it is easy to rebut Schabas assertions about such topics, using slave narratives such as Twelve Years a Slave. The recorded lives and testimonies concerning the lives of slaves in particular enable the historian to quash false application of theses and misreading of events, through carefully chosen and powerfully emotive speech that tells the story of the slave. In this, Solomon Northup enlightens the historian to an almost incomprehensible truth – that human beings, when allowed control are capable of unthinkable and unpredictable acts of brutality that supersede intelligent theory. There is no conscious humanity or organised economic plan behind Epps’ merciless beating of Patsey as he ‘literally flayed’ the girl, simply hatred.[14] This level of brutality and inhumanity was possibly repeated in hundreds of plantations across the Americas; Northup’s account simply offers a unique look at the trauma of a master-slave relationship in microstudy.

In terms of reliability on the part of the slave narratives, it is difficult to ascertain whether there will ever be a source which is free from bias or misinformation. Accounts of this pre-Civil War era, especially drawing so close as Northup’s 1853 publication, are especially liable to influence by the abolitionist agenda. Many men were drawn to tell their stories through slave narratives and the structural and thematic sameness of the accounts is telling of their agenda; conventions of abolitionist pieces include the introductory material ‘customarily written by white abolitionist supporters, a short summary of the writer’s birth and parentage, followed by descriptions of education, auctions, and labours, all of which we can see in Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave.[15] Sterling Lecater Bland Jr. notes that narratives such as these were so formulaic in detail that they did little to reveal the ‘personal thoughts and desires of the narrator’ but instead highlighted a constructed plot that was useful to the abolitionist agenda.[16] Therefore, it is possible that Northup’s life offers the historian little of any reliability to study. Nevertheless, historians consistently work with ‘biased’ sources and this does not mean that they are of no use. Utility in these sources, even if written with an abolitionist agenda, can be found in analysing their purpose and what these constructed events in Northup’s life can tell us about the aims and nature of the abolitionist agenda – primarily, that it wished to portray the institute of slavery as cruel and inhuman.

To conclude, though it is not possible to critically analyse all the events of such a fascinating man’s life in such a short biography, the events that this study has highlighted demonstrate his importance in the study of slave history. Solomon Northup’s life and the accounts of it offer much in terms of enlightening the historian to the experience of slavery in the Americas. It is possible to study the emotional betrayal and prevalence of the kidnapping of free blacks, through Northup’s life. Northup also instructs academics about the inhuman world of slaveholder brutality, in the events witnessed and experienced by him.  Furthermore, even if one insists on questioning the authenticity and reliability of such an account, it is impossible not to appreciate Northup’s constructed life as a piece of evidence to illustrate the agenda of the abolitionist movement and how the movement attempted to rally support.

[1] D. Fiske, et al., Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, (California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013), p.4.

[2] S. Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, (London: William Collins, 2014), p.2.

[3] O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp.39-44.

[4] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, pp.2-3.

[5] C. Wilson, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009), p.1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.17.

[8] Wilson, Freedom at Risk, p.1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.12.

[11] D. D. Bruce, Jr., ‘Politics in the slave narrative’, in., The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, ed. A. Fisch, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp.38-40.

[12] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, pp.182-183.

[13] M. Schabas, ‘Parmenides and the Cliometricians’, in., On the Reliability of Economic Models: Essays in the Philosophy of Economics, (Norwell: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995), pp.189-191.

[14] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.183.

[15] S. Lecater Bland, Jr., African American Slave Narratives: An Anthology, vol.1, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001), pp.15-17.

[16] Ibid.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress

By far one of my favourite speeches of all time. I give you Mr Frederick Douglass, speaking in New York, 1857.

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

You can read the full speech here

And yet the people of the free states have no guilt in slavery!

Slowly beginning work on my dissertation on racial violence and I found this article from 1834, Boston, Massachusetts. I think it really is fascinating but I can’t use it because of its location, so I thought I’d share it with you guys. It is from an online archive called Accessible Archives and is followed by words along the lines of – And yet the people of the free states have no guilt in slavery!

Taken from the Liberator, April 12, 1834.

Attempt at Rescue .— We learn that a scene of considerable violence was acted on Saturday in front of the county court house. A gentleman from Maryland had claimed a runaway slave, and Judge Randall, after hearing testimony, allowed the claim. The officer in whose possession the slave was, hand-cuffed his prisoner, and to prevent the crowd of colored persons from rescuing him, he fastened his own arm to that of the slave. On coming out of the door, they were at once surrounded by a mob of blacks , who attempted a rescue, but as the constable was fastened to the slave, this was difficult. The prisoner was forced into a carriage after the officers had suffered much injury, and inflicted some blows— the driver was severely wounded with a brickbat thrown by a black man. Several of the assailants were arrested, and will be tried.

PS Sorry the colour is from my search results and I can’t work out how to change it!

The Modern Day Slave Ship

Might be a little behind on the times with this one, since it was an issue from mid-September 2014, however, I thought it was worth a little note.

A Pennsylvania newspaper, the Lancaster New Era, ran a cartoon comparing the appalling conditions that African men and women were exposed to.

The International Slavery Museum explains it better than me:

Slave ships spent several months travelling to different parts of the coast, buying their cargo. The captives were often in poor health from the physical and mental abuse they had suffered.

The slaves would be both physically and mentally abused in order to keep costs as low as possible whilst transporting them as well as for petty entertainment for the white superiors above deck. The image below shows Africans being forced to dance aboard a slave ship.

The Museum goes on to say that:

They were taken on board, stripped naked and examined from head to toe by the captain or surgeon.

Conditions on board ship during the Middle Passage were appalling. The men were packed together below deck and were secured by leg irons. The space was so cramped they were forced to crouch or lie down. Women and children were kept in separate quarters, sometimes on deck, allowing them limited freedom of movement, but this also exposed them to violence and sexual abuse from the crew.

The air in the hold was foul and putrid. Seasickness was common and the heat was oppressive. The lack of sanitation and suffocating conditions meant there was a constant threat of disease. Epidemics of fever, dysentery (the ‘flux’) and smallpox were frequent. Captives endured these conditions for about two months, sometimes longer.

In good weather the captives were brought on deck in midmorning and forced to exercise. They were fed twice a day and those refusing to eat were force-fed. Those who died were thrown overboard.

The combination of disease, inadequate food, rebellion and punishment took a heavy toll on captives and crew alike. Surviving records suggest that until the 1750s one in five Africans on board ship died.

This is the cartoon that was published by the Lancaster New Era.

Slavery-CartoonAt this point I am going to inform you (in case you don’t know) that the newspaper very swiftly ran an apology after a storm of complaints.

My personal opinion? Yes, it was tasteless. Yes, it was inappropriate. However, I do not think the paper intended any offence. I simply think they were a little thoughtless.

I would love to hear what you think about this, so comment below!

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

James Weldon Johnson’s novel describing a young boy’s discovery that he is black on his path to adulthood is truly moving.

I have just begun reading this 100-page marvel and am already fascinated by the journey that this anonymous narrator will take. In a fascinating and unexpected turn for someone with no prior knowledge of the book, we watch as a boy of eleven makes a sudden discovery that he is black. Despite his beautiful ‘ivory white’ skin and the proud heritage of his father, he is regarded as one of the black boys.

Having made it a little over a decade without questioning his heritage (and not knowing his father), he finally asks ‘am I a nigger?’ Upon his mother’s answer (combining both no you are not a nigger with but you’re not white), he begins a journey where he will grow to understand both himself and the world around him.

This is a very cheap book available online if you fancy reading it – definitely recommended. You can read it online for free, listen to an audiotape online for free or buy a hard copy. I think mine cost about £1.50. You could always follow suit and combine all three like I’m doing! That way I don’t have to stop reading/listening while I make a brew haha!

In 1,000 words, write a comparative essay discussing how two history books written by different authors can fit within historiographical categories. Define these categories, discuss any overlaps and uncertainties and reflect on what we can learn from locating books in their historiographical context.

This is a draft version of a recent essay. I have no idea where the completed one is… Probably lost in the university computer system. This is an unedited version, therefore, and may be a little waffley or mistake-ridden.

History is a vast subject, spanning thousands of years of wars and conflicts, the lives of billions of citizens and rulers and hundreds of countries and colonies. Therefore, there exist many different ways in which History can be studied ranging from the study of history by statistics to the analysis of changing gender roles and the evolution of religious histories. The subject is so diverse and all-encompassing that by taking two authors discussing similar time periods in similar geographical areas, we can uncover two entirely different historical truths. To understand the method of the historian, it is essential that one comprehends and identifies which historiographical categories an author defines their work by and, in doing this, one can begin to appreciate historical truth.

Through the lens of a more traditional frame of historical study, From Colony to Superpower describes and analyses the path that the United States followed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the eyes of the presidents, governments and foreign powers of the time. In a comprehensive account of America’s rise to world superpower, George Herring documents economic and military statistics and legislation that drove the United States’ foreign policy and diplomacy. This type of political and military history account is well suited to the empirical and quantitative history style made use of by Herring. Contrastingly, Kidada Williams’ book, They Left Great Marks on Me, follows the history of African Americans post-slavery, focussing on print culture and oral testimonies to uncover the legacy of racial violence. Whilst covering a very similar period to Herring, William’s account of race studies offers a very different perspective on the history of the United States allowing the reader a greater insight into popular imagination and collective thought.

With chapters entitled ‘Depression Isolationism and War 1931 – 1941’ and ‘The United States in World Affairs’ it is evident that, along with elements of military and international history, Herring’s account of the United States is largely an ambitious account of traditional politics.[1] J.R. Seeley best describes the concept of traditional political history when he proposed in 1883 that any divorce between History and Politics was simply unnatural since the greatest use of History is that it can and should be used to establish and understanding of the present and to form predictions of the future.[2] Traditional political history, therefore, developed primarily as a means to educate and advise the future rulers of nations and empires, such as described by Steven Fielding.[3] Consequently, this style of history often focusses on sweeping histories of military tactics, government legislation and foreign policy in the manner of empiricist and quantitative histories; this is evidenced in Herring’s work.

Holding origins in the ‘scientific revolution’ beginning in the sixteenth century, empiricism in historical approach encourages methodical archival exploration and heavy reliance on facts to uncover historical truth.[4] Herring frequently uses data and statistics to emphasise and substantiate his arguments, such as demonstrating the development of entangling alliances between the United States and Britain at the precipice of the First World War by offering that the United States’ government extended over $80,000,000 credit to the Allies within a period of six months. This is typical of empirical histories and, also, quantitative histories. In an extension of empirical methodology, quantitative history is a study focussed and reliant upon numerical data.[5] This style of historical research encourages the historian to explore a vast array of data through primary sources, which may be presented as providing a more historically accurate version of the ‘truth’. However, such methods can be criticised for unreliability and inaccuracy in the records or an attempt to, intentionally or not, misrepresent statistical data.[6]

They Left Great Marks on Me is written in a very different manner. Whilst Williams’ book features elements of political history, it holds more closely to what Fielding explains should be referred to as ‘new’ political history; this being the development of the field of social history which ‘stressed the importance of popular experience and highlighted the oppressed groups’ struggles against the ruling elite’.[7] In this case, oppressed sufferers of racially-motivated violence, African Americans, are given the opportunity to form a personal and social account of the history of the United States. This is a clear step away from the traditional political history promoted by Seeley, demonstrating a transformation and development within the discipline.

Featuring many narratives of individual occurrences of racial violence, such as an account of the Barnwell Massacre of December 1889, Williams’ work, unlike that of many other race studies scholars, inherently avoids concentration on leaders of the Civil Rights Movement or those holding high positions in government.[8] This enables her to focus on the average black citizen, a valuable attribute of a piece that puts oral testimonies at its heart; testimonies from civilians are often rare, however, they are significantly valuable to studies since these are more likely to be delivered lacking political bias or any form of agenda. They will also enable us to discover the ‘truth’ in terms of popular imagination and collective memory. This methodology is common in social histories. Commonly known as ‘history from below’, Donnelly and Norton, illuminate the fact that this type of history developed as a response to the criticism of traditional histories that the source base was too narrow and often excluded the social context of historical development.[9]

It is certainly of great utility for readers of history to be able to place books within their historical context. Westhoff asserts that ‘we cannot fully articulate research questions or contextualise primary sources without referring to our historiographical knowledge’.[10] Westhoff continues, arguing that without knowledge of where a work fits within a ‘map’ of existing scholarship, it is impossible to fully comprehend its complexity or importance within that history.[11] Additionally, Michael Bentley purports that the ability to place works into their historiographical context has ‘produced instances of deep structural enquiry’ whereby by History has been able to progress and develop by consistently questioning and refining itself.[12] In doing this, we not only can gain a greater understanding of a topic and its historiography, but we also gain the ability to perform critical analysis and provide a new perspective on old works.

To conclude, in order to fully comprehend history, it is essential that one must first understand historiography. By gaining the ability to locate books in their historiographical context, we are able to understand how and why authors come to different conclusions and we learn how to progress and develop these conclusions. Despite both reporting the history of the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Williams and Herring offer two entirely different yet equally useful perspectives on the past. Herring offers a traditional political history of the United States’ presidents and foreign policy in an empirical and quantitative style, which proves greatly useful in terms of providing an ambitious sweeping account of the United States’ relationships with great powers in this period illustrated through the use of statistical data. On the other hand, Williams provides a fascinating ‘people’s history’ of African Americans in the same period, which valuably emphasises oral testimonies as sources to enable her account of the period to emphasise the social context of historical development.

[1] G. C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.337.

Ibid. p.484.

[2] J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp.166-168.

[3] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 1st December 2014].

[4] A. Green and K. Troup, The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), pp.1-3.

[5] Ibid, pp.141-148.

[6] Ibid.

[7] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 1st December 2014].

[8] K. E. Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, (New York: New York University Press, 2012), pp. 101-103.

[9] M. Donnelly and C. Norton, Doing History, (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), pp.40-41.

[10] L. M. Westhoff, ‘Historiographic Mapping: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the Methods Course’, Journal or American History, 98.4 (2012), pp.1114-1126.

[11] Ibid.

[12] M. Bentley, Modern Historiography: An Introduction, (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp.v-vii.

Loic Wacquant’s article ‘From Slavery to Mass Incarceration’

For a seminar this morning, I have been reading a number of articles and chapters on the topic of mass incarceration in the United States. One in piqued my interest, however. Loic Wacquant’s article, published in the New Left Review in early 2002, offers a fascinating theorem on the continuing confinement of African Americans.

Entitled ‘From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US’, the piece explains Wacquant’s belief that there exist four distinct, yet entwined, periods of confinement beginning with the slavery of the plantation economy up until the Civil War. Each successive period (including the Jim Crow period and the formation of the Ghetto with the Great Migration) has been used as a means of social ostracization and labour extraction.

Wacquant theorises that we are currently in the fourth stage of this developing historical trajectory, mass incarceration. In order to understand this current period, you must look at all four of the stages of US racial discrimination.

A fascinating article, I highly recommend this – especially if you are interested in race studies. It is very accessible as well, so do not be afraid to read something from an academic journal because you have no background in the topic.

Loic Wacquant, ‘From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US’, New Left Review, 13 (Jan-Feb 2002), pp.41-60.

Select ONE image/document. Comment on and contextualise your chosen image with reference to relevant readings.


As African Americans offered a new avenue of ideas for entertainment such as dramatic, dance and music performances as well as within popular literature, their inclusion in the arts and media brought a further exaggeration of negative white racist stereotypes.[1] Any black characters were often quickly put into categories, including happy subservience to the white master race, savagery or hypersexualization.[2] These stereotypes extended into everyday life and culture becoming popular images within brand advertising, cartoon imagery and illustrations on works such as sheet music publications. The piano sheet music for ‘When you sang “Hush-a-bye Baby” to me’, first published in 1918 and written by lyricist Jesse G. M. Glick, comes attached with a colourful cover page depicting the image of a sleeping white child in the arms of his black nanny.[3]

It has been noted by commentator on Americana Ellen Schroy that the cover art on sheet music follows ‘social, political and historical trends’; this enables sheet music cover art, such as this source, to be a valuable marker in analysing the popular imagination for any period in which piano playing remained popular – this period largely coming to an end in the 1950s.[4] Further, as explained by Cohen and Kruschwitz in their analysis of the use of popular sheet music in understanding the elderly in America, sheet music presents us with two forms of depiction and insight into the popular imagination: ‘the iconographic and pictorial presentation, represented by the cover art, and the lyrics reflecting current popular sentiments’.[5] Sheet music with illustrations of black people from post-Reconstruction era United States was often overwhelmed with images of either inferior, comically unsophisticated black stereotypes such as the ‘Coon’ caricature or, by great contrast, idyllic and highly domesticized images of the ‘Mammy’ or ‘Uncle’ caricatures; the latter proving reminiscent of a better time when African Americans would exist thankfully subservient of their white superiors in the Plantation era South.[6]

In terms of image content, this source clearly illustrates the concept of the black stereotype ‘Mammy’ as it would have existed in the popular imagination of the period. The portrait, where a white child rests easy in his contented black nanny’s arms, is typical of the many images of Mammy that circulated America during this period. Adorning many different food and culinary brands, the stereotype of Mammy was one that often frequented the minds of all Americans offering a remembrance of the happier period of the antebellum South. Alexander and Rucker offer that the popularisation of these stereotypes at this time occurred in part as a political message; this message being that ‘blacks can be upstanding, dignified, and loyal’, however, this transformation from their ‘otherwise wild and unruly temperaments’ only occurs when they are domesticated by the white household.[7] The use of this message in the early twentieth century suggests that the source is dealing with post-Reconstruction era issues of loss – the loss of a better political, economic and social system that existed with the ruling of slave-worked plantations. It is clear that the cover image of ‘When you sang “Hush-a-bye Baby” to me’ conforms to this model since the black Mammy is depicted as fully contented in experiencing a peaceful, blissful moment with her master’s child.

This source is historically significant because, although it is just one piece amongst many similar illustrations of the Mammy stereotype, it enables us to form a fuller understanding of the extent to which these images and judgements about African Americans and their role in society filtered into everyday life, especially considering the date of this piece. When taken in conjunction with earlier pieces such as, ‘Old Uncle Ned’, it becomes clear that these beliefs endured a great time span, whilst similar issues such as women’s rights gained huge momentum for change, even passing the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution by 1920. ‘Old Uncle Ned’ is a piece that offers similar messages of a time when blacks were happy and there existed a strong relationship between master and servant which was almost indistinguishable from familial love. Stephen C. Foster’s 1848 variation of this folk song is illustrative of this as it holds the lyric ‘When Old Ned die Massa take it mighty hard, De tears run down like de rain’.[8] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese proposed that one key factor in the creation of Mammy was the ability of the character to assert the dedication of black women to white families, in which they would rear ‘the children of others as if they were their own.’[9] This proposes an almost identical familial tie to the relationship between ‘Massa’ and Uncle Ned which is implied by the master’s inconsolable mourning upon his servant’s death. Clearly, these visual sources, alongside their lyrical accompaniments, are historically significant as pieces of evidence to explore post-Reconstruction era sentiments towards the plantation regime and towards relationships between whites and blacks within the plantation setting.

Popular music has long served as a vehicle for social protest, alongside its more traditional romantic subjects. The use of music as a propagandist tool is discussed by Cull, Holbrook Culbert and Welch in their encyclopaedic book on the history of propaganda.[10] The ability of popular music to cross geographical and class barriers enables it to act as a particularly effective vehicle for social messages. In addition, the way in which music can lend itself to an emotional response from its audience furthers its effectiveness.[11] The cover art for piano sheet music may have acted as an additional platform by which the lyricists, musicians and illustrators of the time could convey subtle political messages.

To conclude, whilst piano sheet music was widely produced as entertainment in the period of the early twentieth century, it is evident that the cover art for the piece ‘When you sang “Hush-a-bye Baby” to me’ comes bearing a significant political message. Up to and exceeding the date of production, 1918, there existed at least one social grouping that believed there was a happier time in the relationships between black and white people a better period found within the Plantation era. Furthermore, when taken in conjunction with other similar pieces, it is possible to place such beliefs within realistic time constraints. In this sense, the source proves to be a significant piece of historical evidence. However, as an individual piece, it can offer us no in depth analysis of the extent to which these thoughts were shared across the United States or the actions, if any, which provided strength to such sentiments. Therefore, this source holds a great deal of utility as a piece of historical evidence but only to a certain extent.

[1] S. Greco Larson, Media & Minorities: The Politics of Race in News and Entertainment, (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), p26.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘When you sang “Hush-a-bye Baby” to me; Companion song to Missouri waltz song (Hush-a-bye ma baby)’, 1918, Duke University Libraries, <; [accessed 18th November 2014].

[4] E. Schroy, Warman’s Americana & Collectibles, 11th Ed. (Iola: KP Books, 2004), p.424.

[5] E. S. Cohen and A. L. Kruschwitz, ‘Old Age in America Represented in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Popular Sheet Music’, The Gerontologist, 30.3 (1990), pp.345-354.

[6] L. M. Alexander and W. C. Rucker, Encyclopedia of African American History Volume 1, (California: ABC-CLIO, 2010), pp.163.164.

[7] Ibid.

[8] ‘Old Uncle Ned’, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture Multi-media Archive, <; [accessed 20 November 2014].

[9] E. Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp.291-292.

[10] N. J. Cull, D. Holbrook Culbert and D. Welch, Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present, (California: ABC-CLIO, 2003), pp.254-255.

[11] Ibid.